Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Rally speech on 1 May 2015
Sister Diana Chia, Brother Swee Say, brothers and sisters, a very happy May Day to all of you!
This is a special May Day Rally and not just because we are holding it in a different place. Because it’s a May Day rally for SG50 and also because it’s a first May Day Rally that we’re celebrating without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister. We rejoice but it’s a bitter sweet occasion. Mr Lee Kuan Yew devoted his entire life to fighting for workers and improving their lives. He started his political career in the unions, fought for the postal workers back in 1952 and then led them in a successful strike. He won their confidence and became the legal adviser to more than 100 trade unions and associations of all kinds. He formed the PAP and on that mass base of workers and unions, contested the 1959 general elections, and won and formed the government. Right from the very beginning there was a very close link between the PAP and the unions.
After the PAP took office and formed the government, Mr Lee fulfilled his election pledge and he made May Day a public holiday. The first public holiday, May Day was 1960, the first May Day Rally was 1960, Jalan Besar Stadium. At that May Day Rally Mr Lee said May Day 1960 will always be a notable occasion in the history of the trade union movement in Singapore. For this is the first time that May Day is celebrated in Singapore when there’s a government which is openly on the workers’ side and the government since then has constantly been on the workers’ side. That’s why every year without fail, now 55 years, in fact this is the 56th year, we hold the May Day Rally and we renew the government’s promise to workers.
The government and unions walk together as we journeyed from Third World to First, and no other country in the world has such a strong relationship between the government and the unions and nowhere else has such a bond lasted for so long. Yes, there are governments that champion workers’ interests. They promise to protect workers from competition, from evil businesses but often they pursue policies which end up frightening investors, damaging the economy. Workers lose their jobs, they get tired of sweet words, they kick the government out. Then there are governments which see unions not as partners, but as problems. They try to weaken the unions and the unions respond in kind and the conflict results in gridlock, in lose-lose outcomes. In Singapore we are different. Through enormous effort, we’ve created an exceptional system and that system is tripartism.
The government, the workers, the employers work constructively together on growing and upgrading our economy. We may not agree all of the time but there’s give and take because we trust one another and we can rely on one another to take a longer term view of our enlightened collective interests. This is a system which has delivered results, not just over one or two terms of government but for 50 years, half a century. Our unions are equal partners with employers and with the government. You are professional, you induct talent, you have made trade unionism a profession which we can be proud of. You set up a labour research unit so that you are equipped to meet employers on equal terms. You established the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute to train unionists and IROs. You worked with the government to put union leaders on key statutory boards and most crucially on the National Wages Council to represent workers, to understand the problems to help us solve problems together. You’ve set up successful co-ops like Income and FairPrice and recruited new members to keep your base strong. Today this hall, 5,000 people, we fill it, no problem.
No trade union congress anywhere else in the world has been as effective as the NTUC in improving workers’ lives. And that’s why every year I speak about tripartism on May Day because it’s a precious legacy that we must protect. Other countries admire us. They want to emulate us. They come to study us. They go back, they try to do something similar but it’s not so easy because their societies are different, their histories are different. They don’t have the long tradition of the government delivering the goods for workers and building trust with the union leaders. They can replicate the structures, they can have the same committees, the same arrangements but that trust, that magic cannot be created overnight. When they come to us and look at us and the visitors say our unions want to be like Singapore unions, then our government should become like the Singapore government first. Not so easy and what we have is precious and therefore when I sometimes hear opposition politicians say tripartism is obsolete, unions must fight against the government and employers, I’m aghast. Either they really don’t understand that without tripartism we wouldn’t be here today, or maybe they understand but they are interested in workers’ welfare and they’re just trying to foment trouble, to exploit workers for their own political ends but our workers not so ignorant. Workers know that tripartism has made a difference to their lives and that the government is on your side.
During the national week of mourning at the NTUC’s tribute event, I was moved by the heart-felt words from the tripartite partners and from unionists, young and old. At Mr Lee’s funeral service, among all those who spoke, his former comrades in arms, his younger colleagues, grassroots leaders, young Singaporeans, one eulogy which made feel proud even though I didn’t understand a word which was said because it was spoke in Tamil was Brother Kumar’s eulogy. Why, because of what he said, because of the way he said it and because of who it was who was saying this. Kumar represented where Mr Lee started in politics, what he fought for all his life, the kind of society he sought to build and did build. At the state funeral of our founding Prime Minister, to have a daily rated employee union leader stand up, stand tall, equal with all the others, presidents, former ministers, leaders and speak about how Mr Lee changed his life and share Mr Lee’s experiences with him, personal stories with pride, it reflects the sort of man Mr Lee was, the kind of society he built and the equality and respect which he fostered among the citizens, working together to improve lives for all. That’s why I made an English translation of Kumar’s speech and I put it on my web page and it had 10,000 likes. That’s why today just as we have done for the last 55 May Day rallies, we recommit ourselves to this promise, that the government, we’re always on your side, on the side of the workers.
One thing which struck Singaporeans watching the old footage of Mr Lee as a young man was how vigorous and with it he was, how engaged and passionate the fight for workers and for their livelihoods was. This is not a gentle father figure. This is a fierce fighting man, fighting on your side and the rallies were intense events, hot sweaty, stadiums packed, workers’ standing, jostling, shoulder to shoulder, fist clenched, speakers’ fiery, shouts interrupting every slogan, everyone felt excited because they sensed that momentous events were happening and that they were part of it. They were creating history. Nobody was more passionate and engaged than Mr Lee himself. If you watch his speeches you won’t find a gentle elderly uncle. You will find a fierce and powerful mobiliser. You don’t want to be the target of his speech. Nobody make speeches like that anymore. There’s one video which you probably would have seen of him addressing a mass meeting of the Singapore Harbour Board, of the workers and this was in 1963, shortly before we went into Malaysia. No script, he spoke in simple colloquial Malay from the heart with a strong message. Work with the government, don’t be seduced by the communist unions to go on strike for their political motives. You work with me, you will be alright. You go on strike, I take the perpetrators to task. He spoke directly, you had no doubt what he meant and he carried the day and the workers supported him because they believed in, they had trust in him. And because of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, today we are in a better place and today we can attend May Day Rally in this very comfortable air conditioned theatre. It’s a completely different world.
Yes, we still worry about things. A lot of people worry about the cost of living but we are not poor, not hungry. We own our HDB flats, we enjoy good healthcare, our children are in good schools, we all have good jobs. On so May Day in Singapore there are no angry speeches, no shouts, no demonstrations unlike in many other cities. We are not in a revolution, tearing down, destroying, starting from scratch. We are in a stable and constructive state, building, building on what we have achieved. It’s good that we have changed gears because if we are in revolution all the time, you have turmoil, you have upheaval, in the end you get nowhere. We’ve changed gears, we are building but to build we also need that passion and that energy because even though we are now building on a strong foundation, our job today is not easier than the job 50 years ago. The most difficult part of this job is to keep Singapore exceptional, special. Brother Swee Say showed you workers making exceptional contributions, ordinary people doing exceptional things. We as a country we have to be ordinary people creating an exceptional nation because we are a small country in this part of the world and to survive you have to be exceptional. If you are in Europe, you might say if I’m something like my neighbours, that’s good enough. In Singapore, in Southeast Asia, if we say let’s just be something like our neighbours, you’ll be pushed around, shoved about, trampled upon, that’s the end of Singapore and the end of us.
Sometimes we forget how unique our position is today. Maybe we are small, five million people, 700 odd square kilometres but other countries take us seriously and they believe we can make a contribution and we have something to add beyond this little island. The PRC, 13,000 million people, they publish statistics and according to China’s statistics, Singapore is China’s largest foreign investor. You may take it with a grain of salt but it means that we are not small doing business with China. Last week I was in Indonesia. I met President Jokowi. He asked me to ask Singapore companies to invest more in Indonesia. They need infrastructure. They have projects, they want Singapore companies to come in. We are already Indonesia’s biggest foreign investor. They are 50 times bigger than us, 250 million people. From time to time they remind us of that but to make investments, to help with their economy, they think this little guy, he can make a contribution, he can help us. That’s not bad.
Most dramatically you ask yourself, why did so many foreign leaders come for Mr Lee’s funeral service? ASEAN leaders, of course not so surprising, but Heads of State or Heads of Governments, Presidents, Governors-Generals, Prime Ministers from Australia, from Canada, from India, from Japan, Korea, Russia, Israel, New Zealand. The US sent a former president, Bill Clinton and a former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was Mr Lee’s old and very good friend. The Chinese sent their Vice President, Li Yuanchao. Australia and New Zealand not only sent leaders here but held special sessions in their parliaments in Canberra and Wellington and moved motions to pay tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the government, the backbenchers spoke, the opposition spoke for a leader of a small country far away. In India and New Zealand, they flew flags at half mast on the day of our funeral, all over India, all over New Zealand. Would they have done that if Singapore had been an ordinary country? Would they have done that if Mr Lee had been an ordinary leader? But because we are exceptional, because we had an extraordinary leader, people have regard for us. Therefore we have friends in other countries, therefore we have a voice when events affect us, we can speak up, people listen to us. Therefore we have freedom of action to set our national directions to advance our interests. Investors see potential here, our businesses find doors open for them overseas, our workers enjoy more opportunities to advance.
It’s very, very important you don’t lose that magic and to stay exceptional, we need a successful economy, we need hardworking and skilful workers, we need outstanding leadership. Of course every country wants to do this, every country faces more or less similar challenges in today’s globalised world. Economies need to restructure to become more productive, workers need to be reassured because they feel insecure about their jobs with global competition and technology. Wages don’t go up as fast as we would like, as they should, and people get restless and we have to tackle these problems and every country knows what these solutions are. Good education for the young, skills upgrading for workers throughout their working lives, adapting to change instead of resisting progress, but every few countries can do this. But here in Singapore we can do this, we can deliver results for our workers.
You take education, we have one of the best education systems in the world, schools, ITEs, polytechnics, universities. Students have to work hard, a lot of homework, too much tuition but they learn, they learn useful skills, they do well in math and science and language and they get jobs. Last week in Jakarta, I met a South Korean minister, he was minister for education, he knows Heng Swee Keat. We compared notes, we had a very good discussion and I told him in Singapore, we try to train people for the jobs which they can fill. When our students graduate they find jobs straight away. He was very envious because in South Korea, they have a very serious youth unemployment problem. Too many graduates, not enough jobs for graduates, 80 percent of their students get degrees and he told me Korea has more institutions which are teaching German literature than there are institutions teaching German literature in Germany. How many German teachers do you need in Korea? It will become all kinds of unskilled jobs after graduating with such degrees and same problem of youth unemployment in many other countries, Hongkong, Taiwan, in Europe. In southern European countries if you go to Italy or Spain, Greece even worse, 50 percent of their young people have no jobs. In Singapore you graduate from any of our institutions, whether it’s ITE, poly or university, the job is waiting for you, the young man says let me go and take a sabbatical first. Come back, the job still there.
We’re not doing badly in education but take worker training. We’ve set up the WDA, we’ve invested in CET, continuous education and training. We’ve established a Devan Nair institute. Last year we held our May Day Rally there. We’ve opened the lifelong learning institute and now we are launching SkillsFuture to upgrade our whole workforce step by step year by year. SkillsFuture is a big challenge for us. It’s about changing mindsets so that workers learn and improve while on the job all their lives. It’s about creating a national movement, bringing together our educational institutions, our employers, our workers, our tripartite partners to create many pathways for our workers to grow. It’s about transforming our society and culture so that we value one another for our skills and contributions and constantly seek to improve ourselves and help each other to improve. If we fail in education and training our workers’ future will be bleak. But if we succeed, then Singapore can continue to be exceptional and our children can live in a country which will be even better than the one we live in today.
To make all this work, education, training, SkillsFuture, we need outstanding leadership. That’s one of the ingredients which brought us here and outstanding leadership is necessary to take us forward. The unions need good leaders in each union, in the NTUC Central Committee and as NTUC Sec-Gen. Over the last nearly 50 years NTUC has had a succession of Secretaries-General who have left their marks each in their own way, Brother Devan Nair, Brother Lim Chee Onn, Brother Ong Teng Cheong, Brother Lim Boon Heng and for the last eight years Brother Lim Swee Say. I’m very grateful for Brother Swee Say’s leadership in the NTUC and support for me and my team in the government and we will remember him for many things in NTUC for many years to come. Definitely the U, this U will be the labour movement’s branding and logo for many, many years. I think we will remember his slogans, “upturn the downturn”, “cheaper, better, faster” and best of all, “better, betterer and betterest”. They sound cute but behind these catchy slogans are serious ideas and important policies that you’ve got to get across, that you got to get people to seize, understand, believe in, act upon and that have improved our workers’ lives, policies like skills redevelopment, job recreation, employability, reemployment, the progressive wage model, raising the wages of our low wage workers and most difficult of all, productivity, working more efficiently, delivering results and therefore being able to enjoy the fruits.
Workers support Brother Swee Say not because of his slogans but because he delivered results. Leadership makes all the difference. Brother Swee Say will make a very good Manpower Minister. He has the ideal CV. He’s coming straight from the NTUC so he understands workers and unions. He spent many years in EDB so he understands investors and I think the investors still remember him. He served in the Cabinet as Environment Minister and delivered NeWater, very important to our survival. If I were a headhunter looking for a new minister for manpower and I produced Brother Lim Swee Say, I think I deserve a special bonus. Brother Swee Say has for a very long time been concerned about succession in the union movement. He instituted leadership renewal as a system in the unions, sold the idea, changed the rules, persuaded unions to amend their constitution, implemented it, caused the turnover in leadership. He brought in younger leaders and trained them and today we’ve got an NTUC central committee that has a good mix of old hands and fresh faces and I like to thank the senior leaders like Brother John de Payva and Brother Cyril Tan for supporting the leadership renewal and helping new ones to learn the ropes and establish themselves in their own right. Brother Swee Say planned for his own retirement from day one. He discussed it with me over several years.
When the Central Committee wrote to me in January to ask me for Brother Chan Chun Sing, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. Brother Chun Sing was doing an important job in MSF and doing it well but NTUC is crucial and if we say this government is on the side of the workers, we must put our money where our mouth is and back it up. That’s why I agreed to release Brother Chun Sing to go to NTUC. The central Committee has elected him to be the next Sec-Gen, taking over on Monday and I’m sure Brother Chun Sing will give his heart and soul to NTUC and to the cause of workers. Please give him your support and help him to serve you well.
We also need leadership renewal at the national level. Some people say we don’t have to worry about national leadership anymore. We are advanced, we have arrived. We already have a good system, you just keep it running, auto pilot. The civil servants know what to do. They will write the papers, they will draft the speeches, they will draft the parliamentary question replies, not too hard to be a minister, even PM can. Anyway nowadays we have got lots of talent, so we don’t have to worry about building the best team for Singapore, in fact why don’t we try out a different team, maybe more exciting. I say be very careful. By that logic, because Mercedes has an outstanding F1 car, you don’t need Louis Hamilton to win the F1 championship. The car will drive itself. But national leadership makes all the difference. And I think it is because people realise that when Mr Lee passed away, there was such a strong reaction. Because everyone knew that what we see around us would not be around us today had not Mr Lee and his team made it happen, whether it is HDB, whether it is SAF, whether it is NeWater, Changi airport, SIA, PSA. Without that leadership by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team, there would not be modern Singapore. And I think his passing reminded people that exceptional leadership made a big difference to us and I think it has caused many people to pause and to ask ourselves are we sure we don’t need that kind of leadership any more, that quality of leadership anymore. Of course Mr Lee did not do it alone. Part of his greatness was that he brought together exceptional people to form an outstanding team. So he had Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Eddy Barker, Osman Wok and many others over the years, and including the younger team Goh Chok Tong, Tony Tan and so on. And they worked as a team with Singaporeans to achieve great things for Singapore. And today my job is to build that strong leadership team for Singapore for now and for the future.
For now, we are alright. I have a balanced cabinet, some ministers with more than 20 years’ experience, just the right amount of grey hair, battle-tested, some who joined in the last general elections, long runway ahead of them. They have mastered their portfolios, they have learnt about politics. They have gained the trust of Singaporeans, I think they have come under some fire and they have come through and they have gelled and worked together as a team, not so many soloists but a team. That is very important but we all grow old and we all need successors. I am already 63 years old this year. I just came back from Jakarta, the Asia-Africa summit. It is held every 10 years. It is the commemoration of the Bandung meeting in 1955. So 10 years ago, President SBY held one. This year President Jokowi held one. I went in 2005. This is the second time I am attending. Ten years from now, 2025 they may hold an Asian-African Summit again. I would be 73 years old. I really should not be attending. But you must make sure that whoever is the Prime Minister in 2025 when he goes he will do us proud and advance our interests.
This year my doctors discovered I had prostate cancer. Luckily they discovered it early. I went for an operation in February. It was successful. Now I am back to work. No medical leave on May Day. After the ops doctor told me, you wait for two months to do a blood test, then we will know if you are clear and then we will see. Two weeks ago two months were up, and I went for the follow-up blood tests were good and doctors gave me all clear. But they are very precise. They never say you are completely out of the woods, they say prostate cancer-specific survival rate 15 years – 98 per cent. What that means is 15 years from now, over the next 15 years, my chances of dying because of the prostate cancer is just 2 per cent which is not bad but - you can go to the bookies with that one - but 15 years from now I will be 78 years old. Even if the prostate cancer does not cause me trouble, something else will act up. It is not just me. It is the same with my team. Just because you are a minister, it does not mean that you are a superman, it does not mean you will not get ill, it does not mean you don’t grow old. And from time to time, Ministers get ill. As a courtesy, they usually let me know, so that I can share their worries. If I lose any of them, my team will be weakened. Can I replace them quickly? With people of the same quality and experience? And if the team is weakened can the government deliver on what Singaporeans expect of us.
You look at what we have been doing, the SG50 Budget this year, the PG package last year. Could it have happened without Tharman as Finance Minister, with Kim Yong in MOH, without Josephine and Amy and Sim Ann helping to promote, making videos. Without those ministers could we have done that? SkillsFuture – can we have conceived it, without Heng Swee Keat, Tan Chuan Jin, Indranee, Swee Say and Chun Sing on the union side and on the government side? Conceive it and now make it work. 27,000 HDB flats this year. Would they have been built without Khaw Boon Wan, Yi Shyan, Desmond, Maliki. The whole MND team working with the officials, working with the MND. Nothing happens by itself that is good, only bad things by themselves.
So I need good men and women to come in, to form the next team to take Singapore forward beyond me and my generation of Ministers and leaders. It is very hard to do. I tell you frankly it is very tough to do. First, because suitable people are not many and secondly, because people who are suitable but are not so easy to persuade and when people volunteer you do not know whether to take them or not. That is a real problem. And when I ask them they do not know whether to say yes or not. More than once I have been told, “Thank you very much. You are doing an outstanding job. You have my full support but please count me out. I considered it carefully, I searched my soul honestly. I don’t think I have what it takes to enter politics and take all the flak and anyway my family say no”. I am still trying hard and I think I will get a few people enter and join politics and stand for election in the next GE but you can never have enough. We have never ever have an A team for Singapore which is too strong. So the most critical question for us is how do we form the most outstanding leadership for Singapore? And in the next election, leadership renewal is the most important issue. It is not doing more or spending more as some would like you to think. It is who will lead Singapore into the future and it is our future at stake and our children’s future. Because if this government fails, what is going to happen to you, to all of us to Singapore?
This place could not have been built and cannot be kept going without exceptional leadership so that people can perform their jobs and do exceptional things. All the brothers and sisters we saw on the video just now that Swee Say told you about, for them to work, for them to contribute for them to fit in and be productive and enjoy the results of what they are doing and not be arguing with one another, clashing with one another, running into cross purposes and gridlock. We need good leadership to set the direction, to guide, to work, to inspire and to deliver results and we have to bring in enough new people committed to Singapore with the ability, with the character, with the dedication and gumption, so that we can keep this country special and so I need your help. Give me and my team your support so that after the next election, and well before the election after that, a younger team will be ready to lead us forward.
We have a very precious legacy here. We have built an exceptional system led by able leaders in all sectors, not just ministers or the PM, but across the board in the union movement, in businesses, in universities, in schools throughout our society because it’s a system based on meritocracy, encouraging each individual to give off his best. And we have in our Singaporeans the people who work hard, the people who continually seek to do better, the people who support one another because we know that in Singapore, doesn’t matter who you are, or where you may come from, you will get a fair deal. You work, you show results, you will be rewarded and, therefore, together as one people, our nation progressed and transformed ourselves over the last 50 years, improving our people’s lives, each generation better than the last one.
The Singapore Story is not just about your country going from Third World to First in one generation. The Singapore Story is a story of ordinary workers, starting from the bottom, working hard and rising, making good for themselves and their children doing better than them. And that’s why at the NTUC tribute event, I was moved by the wide-range of tribute speakers. Each one with a story to tell. And one story was that of Brother Rahman Mahboub. I know Brother Rahman, in fact last year after the May Day speech I had a chat with him and he told me some of the things which he said in the tribute. He started off as a clerk in PUB in 1958, paid $155 a month. He lived through racial riots and strikes. He worked hard, upgraded himself, now he is retired, enjoying the fruits of life-long work, He owns his four-room flat, fully paid up. He said he disobeyed Mr Lee Kuan Yew only once in his life. He had four sons and three daughters and he was unrepentant and told them to have as many children as possible. So now he has 29 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. And his children are doing well. The youngest son was a Youth Entrepreneur of the Year a few years ago. His daughters are managers. His granddaughter won gold in the shooting team event at the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Now, how is it possible an ordinary person like Brother Rahman who started out with nothing can have his children do well, his granddaughter excel on the world stage, bring honour to Singapore. It’s their hard work and talent but also it’s the Singapore system that enables them to develop to their full potential. But the Singapore Story did not end with Brother Rahman’s generation.
Another much younger tribute speak, Brother Seah Keng Tia shared how as a young person, he himself personally benefitted from Mr Lee’s work. His parents owned a small hardware shop. He went to poly, he was a bit too playful, nearly failed. Almost dropped out but he learnt his lesson, recovered in time, picked himself up, took supplementary papers, eventually graduated with a diploma and today he works in the petrochemical industry and he is planning to upgrade himself at the OTC Institute. And he joined the unions to give back to society so that he can help others. Now ask yourself, how is it possible for a young person like Brother Keng Tia to enjoy opportunities in a thriving oil and gas industry in a country which produces no oil, no gas? But good jobs in oil and gas. It’s not magic. It’s hard work, good team work, good leadership. It’s his determination and drive but also the system, the government’s policies, the industries we grew, the opportunities we created which made all the difference. Brother Keng Tia story like that of many young people is still being written. Perhaps one day one May Day, maybe SG90 or so, he will tell his story and say he has got seven children and 29 grandchildren. But the future is before them and the future is bright and the world is their oyster.
Together their stories make up the exceptional story of our nation, our Singapore, our SG50. Ordinary people leading extraordinary lives, well-led, well-organized, well-performing. It’s a bold and audacious story of an exceptional nation and who’s to say that the next 50 years will not be even better? We may be a small country but we must have big dreams, otherwise we perish. So let’s continue joining hands to achieve better lives for all Singaporeans. Happy Labour Day!!
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