Fifty years after the labour movement changed its course and took on a more collaborative approach to working with the Government and employers, labour chief Ng Chee Meng yesterday pledged that unions will keep up the pace in their efforts to improve the lot of workers.
Just as the 4G Government will partner Singaporeans to improve policies and programmes, the labour movement will also engage workers to identify and crowdsource the best solutions amid the rapid changes in society and the world, Mr Ng said.
"This will steer us well forward for the next 50 years and beyond."
He was speaking at the opening of the ReUnion exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of NTUC's Modernisation Seminar that set the stage for tripartite efforts between the unions, employers and the Government.
When unions took that approach, the situation was dire and it was "modernise or die", said Mr Ng, who is secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress.
Now new challenges loom, brought on by technological disruption, he said. Some workers would be displaced, but many would benefit - if they can adapt. The labour movement is setting up company training committees to help reskill at least 330,000 workers to seize the new opportunities, said Mr Ng.
Striking a similar note, President Halimah Yacob, who opened the exhibition, said the seminar 50 years back was momentous for unionists.
"It required them to rethink their role, redefine what workers' protection means in a more holistic manner beyond just collective bargaining and to take a stake in the future of Singapore," she said.
While the context today is different, the challenges are equally daunting, she said. The tripartite partners need to work even more closely together now, as global uncertainties weigh on Singapore's economic performance, and rapid technological advancements and the ageing population reshape jobs.
Initiatives like the industry transformation maps and Adapt and Grow programmes - which help Singaporeans affected by restructuring - are helping to prepare for those challenges, she noted.
Madam Halimah, who spent 33 years in NTUC, said the way the labour movement here operates is "unique and special". Pushing for productivity improvements, for example, is not always well received among unions in other countries due to fears of job losses.
She said that in Singapore, the tripartite relationship helped, for instance, in the 2008 financial crisis, when thousands of workers faced retrenchment. The Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience was quickly introduced, and employers worked with unions to send their excess manpower for training subsidised by the Government, instead of retrenching them.
"Many have tried to copy our model, but they have not been successful. While they can duplicate our systems and processes... it is the intangibles that are important - trust and confidence, and the commitment to treat each other with respect and to ensure that the benefits of industrial peace are shared," she said.
Mr Ng also said workers' lives have improved over the past 50 years.
But the labour movement must continue to stay relevant and representative, he said.
"If you see the things that are happening around us, in our neighbourhood, in Hong Kong... and in Europe today, you will see that if we do not continue on a collaborative approach in labour management relations, what can happen," he said.
Madam Halimah added: "There is a real need for our younger generation especially to understand where we started, how we started, why did we take those steps, why it was important to us then, and why it continues to be equally important today."