Speech by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security and Chairman of the UWEEI Council of Advisors, Teo Chee Hean, at the UWEEI Anniversary Dinner 2022 on 15 October 2022.
Staying at the Leading Edge As A World-Class Electronics Hub
Secretary General of NTUC, Brother Ng Chee Meng,
Members of the NTUC Central Committee,
President of UWEEI, Brother Fahmi Abu Bakar,
General Secretary of UWEEI, Brother Richard Tan,
Executive Secretary of UWEEI, Brother Patrick Tay,
UWEEI Council of Advisors,
Executive Council of UWEEI,
Former UWEEI Exco Members,
The past two years have been really very difficult years. Not only did we face COVID-19, we are now facing also a very stiff challenge between the US and China in the technology arena and there is also the Russia-Ukraine conflict. These have led to supply disruptions, rising food and energy prices, and many economic challenges – this is particularly challenging for a small country like Singapore with an such an open economy where trade is two-and-a-half to three times of our GDP.
While these challenges have tested our ability and resolve, we have not been daunted. We have pressed on. They have shown us how our solidarity, our resilience, and most importantly our firm resolve to improve our workers’ lives and employers’ competitiveness will help us overcome any shocks and see us through. As I have said, ‘to improve the lives of our workers and our employers’ competitiveness’ because all along, our unions in Singapore have always worked hand-in-hand with our employers. It is a very strange phenomenon - as an Advisor to the Union Council, I have met quite a few employers some of whom are here tonight. These meetings are organised by the Union, and we sit down with the employers and with government partners like the EDB to see how we can work together to improve our workers’ skills to give them a better life. We also discuss how to help our employers improve their competitiveness, so that they can in turn look after our workers well. As we navigate the challenges ahead, the Government, our employers and UWEEI have to continue to work together in this close way. There are three key areas to keep us at the leading edge of being a world-class electronics sector:
Deepening our skills;
Supporting our workers; and
Strengthening our unity.
First, deepening our skills. COVID-19 and the uncertainties have had a negative impact on the global economy. Here in Singapore, our manufacturing industry has also been affected by these developments. The electronics industry has been doing better, maybe because COVID-19 itself forced people to use electronics more. Many of us were using Zoom and ordering things online which we never used to do before. We are keeping in touch with friends through Zoom and using various other kinds of electronic transactions, so orders for electronics have gone up. But I am concerned that the turbulence, especially in the technology tensions between the US and China, may well have an impact on manufacturing and supply chains. The products that you have produced in your companies have actually helped us to get through the pandemic together. Thank you to all of you for keeping us in touch with each other, connected together and keeping businesses going.
We are fortunate that the pipeline of investments into Singapore is still strong in the electronics sector. UWEEI has to continue to take the lead in deepening the skills of our workers to make sure that we can seize these opportunities and keep Singapore at the leading edge as a world-class electronics hub. We all know that this is an industry where a high degree of adaptability and skills are needed, driven by innovation and the continuous creation of new products. Even in the best of times, I know that companies are restructuring and even retrenching people and of course, it happens a little more often during difficult times. UWEEI, our employers and the government have been working hard to always make sure that our workers continue to have the deeper skills that we need to remain employable for the future.
I am glad that since 2019, UWEEI has been actively engaging our companies to form company training committees (CTCs) to identify the skills and training that our workers need and to provide the training to them. I am glad that UWEEI has been making steady progress with CTCs - forming 60s CTCs with companies across the electronics, semiconductor and medical technology industries, and this represents around 50% of UWEEI’s branches. We are about 50 percent of the way there, and 50 percent more to go. 50 percent is not bad but let us try and do better.
In recognition of the importance of workers’ re-skilling and upskilling, the government has also set aside S$100 million to scale up the labour movement’s efforts to support firms that have set up CTCs to implement the transformation.
Second, supporting our workers. UWEEI plays an important role in ensuring that workers are treated fairly at the workplace, such as protecting our workers’ rights and negotiating for fair wage increases in line with the recommendations of the National Wage Council. I was asking (UWEEI General Secretary) Richard earlier that with a tighter labour market and wages going up, are we seeing job hopping? He said no. So, it means that our employers are responding by looking after our workers well, and our workers are also responding to employers who look after them well by staying loyal. I think it is very important to continue to have that strong bond. We try to help the companies to keep on operating efficiently and upgrading the workers even as they transform. But if retrenchments cannot be avoided, UWEEI represents our members to secure fair retrenchment benefits, assists in job placements, and helps our members to tide through this difficult period and find new jobs. It is very dislocating for workers to suddenly find that they are out of a job. The impact on the worker is great. The unions have been doing really great work together with the training establishments to cushion the impact on workers who get retrenched.
UWEEI works closely with NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to do training, match affected workers to suitable companies, as well as with EDB to provide job placement assistance to affected employees. UWEEI also works with brother and sister unions that may have vacancies in the same or adjacent sectors to conduct job fairs. I am glad that UWEEI has also recently revised its Hardship Grant Scheme and Education Awards to benefit more members who need more support financially.
The Government will continue to do our part. To uplift our low-wage workers, we will enhance the Progressive Wage Model Credit Scheme. This is a scheme where the Government co-funds the wage increases of lower-wage workers under progressive wage measures. The Progressive Wage Model is a wage ladder that sets out the minimum monthly salary for local low-wage workers, based on their skills and training. To encourage employers to continue to hire and pay our low-wage workers higher wages, better wages, the Government will take on a larger proportion of the wage increases. This enhancement will help to reduce the cost impact to our employers when they hire and when they pay low-wage workers higher salaries.
Having a progressive wage model together with wage subsidies when workers work, either through the companies with wage subsidies or through WorkFare directly to lower-wage workers, is a better model than to have the alternative – which is to have a minimum wage coupled with unemployment benefits. If you have a minimum wage, what will happen is that companies will find that it is not worthwhile to employ workers at that minimum wage if you set it at a high level. If you set it at a low level, you are not protecting anyone. If you keep on pushing it up, thinking that it will protect workers, what will happen is that some of them will not be able to find a job at that wage, and the government will have to provide them with unemployment benefits. With a progressive wage model and WorkFare and work subsidies for companies, we let the companies employ workers at a wage which the companies feel is fair, and then we top up either the company or top up the workers’ salaries. In this way, we are paying people when they are employed. We give them money to encourage them to work, and we give money to the companies to encourage the companies to employ workers and we give workers top-ups to encourage them to continue working. I think this is a better system than if we have minimum wage and unemployment benefits.
Even as we keep wage increases sustainable, we realise and recognise that wage increases may not keep up with the higher costs of living faced by many workers in the short term. Inflation is at a higher level than most of us have seen in our lifetime. The Government will do our part to help close this gap and help cushion the impact of higher prices, especially for the lower- and middle-income workers. We have already provided a comprehensive suite of relief measures for such workers as well as for our businesses. Some of the measures we announced earlier are still being rolled out. For example, energy prices have gone up, and prices of electricity have gone up. For a typical family staying in a four-room flat, the utilities rebates this year are four times $150, which is $600. We had added in the Budget, another $100. That is $700 worth of utilities rebates for a family staying in a four-room flat. We hope that this will help to cushion the impact of electricity increases on our families, especially our middle- and lower-income families. Yesterday, DPM Lawrence Wong announced the new $1.5 billion package to support Singaporeans especially our workers and seniors. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and see what else is required.
Third, strengthening our unity. Our unions have played a key role in promoting harmonious industrial relations, and this has contributed to our economic progress and created good jobs for our workers over the years. We must continue to strengthen our social cohesion and our unity, and build upon this strong tripartite relationship.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a real test of our social reserves. Singaporeans stood together to overcome the pandemic. Our scientists, our doctors, our nurses, and our public officers are very good. I cannot say that our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and our public officers are better than those say in the US or Europe. But we were able to manage COVID-19 better than many countries. The difference was in the unity and mutual trust among our people. We worked together, rather than against each other. We used our united strength to fight the virus and did not waste our energy fighting each another. By staying united, we saved lives and kept fatalities low. Unfortunately, we lost about 1,500 Singaporeans so that is about 250 to 300 fatalities per million Singaporeans. In Europe and America, they have 2,500 fatalities per million of their population which is a ten times difference. So, our unity and our solidarity saved lives and saved tragedies for many families.
The Pew Research Centre surveyed 19 countries including Singapore, the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and asked a number of interesting questions regarding COVID-19. Two questions which I found most interesting and most revealing were these – the first one was “Was your country more united or more divided after COVID-19?”. Singapore came out top. About three-quarters of Singaporeans said that our country was more united after COVID-19. There were three or four other countries who said that their country was more united after COVID-19, and there were a whole range of countries below that who said they were more divided. This shows something – unity makes a difference. If we had unity before the crisis, we worked together against a tough opponent like COVID-19, and we knocked it out. At the end of it all, we feel better and even more united. But if we were divided to start off with, and when we face a tough enemy and we get knocked out, we end up pointing fingers at each other and become less united and more divided. This is one of the lessons we have learnt from COVID-19.
The other question which they asked was, “Is it important to get vaccinated to be a good member of society?” Singapore came out right on top again of these 19 countries which were surveyed. 72 percent of Singaporeans said that it was very important to be vaccinated to be a good member of society, not just to protect themselves but to protect their family, their friends, their neighbours, their co-workers, their community, our society and country. That again was very revealing and shows the power of unity, cohesion and solidarity. This is something which we have been able to achieve in Singapore. In the union sector and every sector in Singapore, the trust levels are high among the workers, the employers and the government. This is a very good and precious commodity which we have invested a lot of time in, to build a sense of belonging and community.
We are now at a critical point of leadership transition, although it is not the first time in Singapore. We are moving from the 3G leadership to the 4G leadership. Each generation of leaders has to work very hard to continue to win the trust of Singaporeans and continue to build upon it. Trust is a very precious commodity that we have, which takes us through crises such as COVID-19 and helps us to do well and to survive in times of crises. The 4G team has chosen DPM Lawrence Wong to be first among equals to lead the team. The 4G has worked closely together through the past two years through a very difficult time due to COVID-19. One of the most difficult things to do during that period was how to communicate with the public. It was very difficult as we do not have all the facts ourselves and you have to make decisions in times of uncertainty. People are fearful, they do not know what to do, they are looking for guidance and direction. Sometimes, what you say has to be changed because it turns out the medical science says something different. So we have to be able to make the right decisions and communicate to the public and win the trust of Singaporeans. The 4G team has done really well over the last two to two-and-a-half years. I know that they want to continue to work with Singaporeans, to find new ways to meet your aspirations and give you a better life. They also hope to build that trust and support of Singaporeans, so that we can retain that unity for the future.
Brothers and Sisters, I am confident that with the solidarity and strength of UWEEI and the support of our employers, our electronics sector will be able to continue to grow and meet the challenges ahead. The Government will support you every step of the way. Together, we can seize new opportunities, adapt and transform, and not be afraid of changes because we have the capability to learn new things and press on. In this way, we can maintain Singapore’s leading edge as a world class electronics hub and continue to create good jobs for our workers into the future.
I wish UWEEI and our labour movement continued strength, solidarity and success. Just like the theme of the dinner tonight, let us work together because every worker matters and every effort matters. You, We, Together! Thank you very much.
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