Carrying forward a vital partnership for Singapore's workforce

In his first May Day Rally speech, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat pledged to build on the PAP-NTUC partnership that will remain key to workers' welfare and Singapore's success in transforming its economy. Here are edited excerpts from his keynote address yesterday at Downtown East.


It was a landmark event in the history of not only NTUC but also of Singapore.

If the labour movement had not transformed itself in the 1970s, it would have become irrelevant in post-independence Singapore. Its membership would have declined, and we would not have tripartism.

At the seminar, unionists agreed trade unions had to go beyond collective bargaining. To improve the lives of workers, unions had to become the co-drivers of our social and economic development, together with the Government and employers. And unions had to shift from confrontation to collaboration.

NTUC set up cooperatives to serve important social missions - among them, to help workers cope with the cost of living by providing affordable options for essential goods and services. Many of these cooperatives have since become household names, such as FairPrice and Income.

NTUC representatives sat on all the major statutory boards, including the EDB and CPF boards. And they continue to do so.

The experience of running cooperatives gave union leaders valuable insights into the problems of running businesses. It helped to shift them from an adversarial stance towards management, to one based on cooperation and mutual benefit.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in a group photo with members of the labour movement at yesterday's May Day Rally. In his speech, Mr Heng gave the assurance that the "close symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC, which underpins our unique and precious brand of tripartism, will continue into the 4G and beyond". ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

The modernisation seminar thus paved the way for tripartism, and ushered in constructive and harmonious relations between unions, employers and the Government.

NTUC's brand of progressive trade unionism has been critical in enabling our workers to stay ahead of changes.

For instance, in 1982, to get our workforce ready for computerisation, NTUC set up a computer training centre to teach basic IT skills to workers. The training centre has evolved into today's NTUC LearningHub, one of the largest training providers in Singapore.

Our tripartite model has also helped us to overcome one crisis after another.

When the 1985 recession hit, union leaders supported the Government's proposals for a two-year wage restraint and a 15 per cent cut in the CPF contribution rates for employers. It was a bitter pill to swallow. But the unionists understood why we had to do this - to save jobs - and convinced their members. Thanks to the support of workers, we managed to turn the economy around.

We continued to uphold tripartism in subsequent economic crises, such as when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997.

Later, during the global financial crisis in 2008, the tripartite partners rallied together to "upturn the downturn". With the backing of employers and unions, the Government introduced the Resilience Package totalling $20.5 billion to keep workers employed and help viable companies stay afloat.

All along, we stayed deeply committed to tripartism. This has enabled us to stick together, step up to the challenges facing us, and see Singapore through crisis after crisis.


Today, we face a rapidly changing global landscape, which can reshape all aspects of our lives. Our tripartite partners will have to respond to these changes.

The first is the speed of technological advancements. Automation and digitalisation will transform businesses and social models, create high-quality jobs, and improve the lives of people. But they will also make many jobs and skills redundant. What we learnt in school may not stay relevant for long.

Second, globalisation creates bigger markets and opportunities, but also sharper competition.


Globalisation has enabled competitive companies to scale across many markets, and make large profits. Companies compete to pay for and hire the best. The best get even more than the rest, leading to tensions between the haves and have-nots.

So support for globalisation is falling, especially in advanced economies. Many workers feel that they have been left behind, and free trade has not worked for them. We must make sure that the fruits of growth are felt by all, or society can fracture.

Third, the changing profile of our workforce.

We have a range of workers - from low-wage workers and self-employed individuals to managers and professionals. If we are not careful, there will be a skills and digital divide. Those who are well-educated and digitally savvy can go on to build more skills and do even better. Those who start with less may risk falling behind.

Our workforce in Singapore is also ageing. These trends are changing the future of jobs and of businesses - throughout the world, not only in Singapore. Can Singapore chart our own way forward, just as we did 50 years ago?

Yes, we can.


Just as NTUC embarked on modernisation 50 years ago, we must embark on another significant transformation. Let me suggest three strategies as we transform for the future.

  • Strategy 1: Transforming our economy

To build better lives for our workers, we will have to transform our economy. Our tripartism is a key asset in this effort.

Since 2016, we have launched 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), covering about 80 per cent of Singapore's economy. The ITMs set out clear strategies to drive innovation, promote internationalisation, raise productivity and the skills of our workers in each industry.

I am confident that we will succeed because of the strong tripartite partnerships in all the industries covered by the ITMs. The unions in particular play a critical role. NTUC has organised itself to be an active agent of transformation, helping to communicate these changes, win support and rally the workers to come on board.

The labour movement is promoting skills development. I am very happy that (NTUC secretary-general) Ng Chee Meng is taking a major step by setting up the Company Training Committees.

The labour movement will be embedded in companies to help workers and employers alike. This will take training beyond broad-based, national strategies, to the company level. So, why is Chee Meng doing this?

Because all too often, workers and companies might not be clear about their skills training needs. Unions can apply their deep knowledge of the workplace and factory floor to identify the right courses, customise training, and help workers develop relevant skills for particular jobs.

The relationship between companies and workers is a mutually reinforcing one - more competitive companies provide better jobs and higher pay for workers; and highly-skilled workers make companies stronger, more productive, and more competitive. Unions are well positioned to strengthen both.

  • Strategy 2: Preparing our workers for jobs of the future through lifelong learning.

NTUC recognises that there will be new industries and new jobs in the future. So it is embarking on preparing our workforce for these jobs.

Let me share a story from my trip to Silicon Valley with school leaders when I was Education Minister. We went to study "Ed-Tech" - educational technologies.

After the visits, I asked our education leaders - what do you like, and what do you not like? They told me, we liked the creative use of technology. But we do not like their approach - to use technology to replace the teachers. They do not understand how humans learn.


I agreed with them. So we decided to take a different path. We developed our own Student Learning Space, and used technology to augment what teachers could do, to enable teachers to teach even better!

So in the same way, we must make sure that technological advancements help workers do their jobs better - not replace them.

I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. One of their reports estimated that advanced technologies could result in the loss of 75 million jobs worldwide by 2022. And 2022 is just three years from now.

On the other hand, up to 133 million new jobs - almost double what might be lost - may be created by these same technologies.

What does this mean for us? It means that there are many new opportunities for all of us, and we must be prepared to seize them. Skills development is key. Today, training mainly helps workers take up good jobs in existing growth areas. But we should also start thinking about how our workers can develop skills for jobs that do not yet exist.

The rapid pace of technological advancement means that the jobs of tomorrow will be different from the jobs of today. Unions can help to develop the right attitude among workers towards upskilling and reskilling. We must support workers to prepare for the future, and not be fatalistic about change and economic transformation.

  • Strategy 3: Pursuing inclusive growth

This brings me to my third strategy, ensuring that our economic growth remains inclusive.

Globalisation has come under question. Many people in advanced economies are frustrated. Their wages are stagnating, their political systems are malfunctioning, and their lives are not improving.

We cannot guarantee the same will not happen here. But we can and must try to avoid a similar fate. And the key to that is tripartism and the continued vitality of our unions.

The labour movement has a mandate to help all workers secure the 3 Ws (better wages, better work prospects and better welfare) - from daily-rated workers to those in managerial and professional roles, as well as the self-employed and the part-timers. In addition, we must pay particular attention to the lower-wage workers, seniors and those who have left the workforce early.

Our workforce is getting older. But with age comes wisdom. We therefore want to support our seniors to continue working for as long as they are able and want to do so. This is why the Government is strengthening support for our seniors to earn more, save more, and have greater peace of mind in retirement. This support includes higher Workfare payouts, additional extra interest for older CPF members, and the extension of the Special Employment Credit to end-2020.

The tripartite partners have agreed to raise the retirement and re-employment ages, so that more workers can stay in the workforce if they choose to. We will also review CPF contribution rates. We will implement these proposals step by step.


The NTUC is stronger today than when it embarked on its modernisation journey 50 years ago. But this journey cannot stop, given the challenges ahead.

I am confident that NTUC can renew itself and embark on yet another transformation, just like in 1969. You may ask, why is this important? Would Singapore suffer if the labour movement were to disappear?

As it so happens, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked precisely this question 50 years ago when he opened the modernisation seminar.

He said, and I quote: "There is one school of thought that for rapid industrialisation for an underdeveloped country, it is better not to have trade unions. They cite Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in support of this theory." So why shouldn't Singapore take the same route, Mr Lee asked.


His answer deserves to be quoted in full:

Because "Singapore's objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the country is very important. But equally important is the development of the nature of our society.

"We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions.

"To survive as a nation and distinct community we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we fail. You can neither be proud nor rugged if you have not got self-respect.

"Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers, that protection for a man's right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.

"He may be an unskilled worker, but he is one of us. He must be prepared to fight and die for Singapore. He will neither be able nor willing to do this if he is a cringing coward."

So why are we still committed to the labour movement? Why do we believe that it should expand its scope to encompass the entire workforce - workers at all levels, professionals, SME owners, self-employed individuals and even foreign workers?

Because self-respect is what NTUC has given to every working man and woman in Singapore. The movement has guaranteed a man's right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.


Today is the first time I'm speaking to you as leader of the next generation of PAP leaders. I renew today the pledge that Mr Lee made at your modernisation seminar 50 years ago, and that every prime minister since has renewed. I assure you, the close symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC, which underpins our unique and precious brand of tripartism, will continue into the 4G and beyond.

In Malay, there is the saying: "Bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh!" United we stand, divided we fall. Truly, the PAP and NTUC have gone through thick and thin together over almost 60 years.

NTUC backs the PAP because the PAP is pro-people. It has kept faith with the unions. And the PAP treasures its relationship with the NTUC because the NTUC is pro-worker. It remains committed to the self-respect of every working man and woman, and believes that the purpose of economic development is to improve the lives of all in the workforce.

The labour movement can be assured that the PAP will never abandon the working man and woman.

The 4G leadership grew up witnessing how this close working relationship between the PAP and the unions has benefited Singaporeans. All of us in the 4G team have been personally involved in the labour movement in one way or another.

My colleagues and I recognise the importance of what we are inheriting - this shared sense of responsibility that the PAP and the NTUC owe to Singaporeans and Singapore.

This is the enduring legacy of those who came before us, the pioneers who gathered 50 years ago at the historic modernisation seminar.

My generation of leaders is ready to take up the baton and carry forth the mission to create a brighter future for all Singaporeans. We are confident of achieving our mission.

Building on our partnerships, we will take NTUC, our workers and Singapore to the next level, just like our predecessors did in 1969. There is still so much we can achieve together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2019, with the headline 'Carrying forward a vital partnership for Singapore's workforce'. Subscribe