SINGAPORE - Unions in Singapore must stay relevant in a changing landscape, be responsive to fresh challenges and be representative of the changing workforce, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Saturday (July 23).
Noting the sometimes fraught state of labour relations elsewhere, Mr Wong said the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) will have to evolve or even reinvent itself in tandem with the times, even as its fundamental role of being the voice and champion of workers remains unchanged.
"If the NTUC remains strong, then we can take heart that we are moving in the right direction, and Singapore will continue to be successful," he said.
The minister was speaking at the Suntec Singapore Convention Centre during a Young NTUC event called LIT DISCOvery 2022, which is aimed at helping youth learn how to harness technology where they work, live and play.
During the event, NTUC launched a task force to better understand the work-life aspirations of youth and support them in their careers.
There will be a year-long engagement, after which the task force, chaired by NTUC assistant secretary-general Desmond Choo and led by Young NTUC executive secretary Wendy Tan, will share insights and recommendations on how to better support youth.
Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, said the conversations and insights from the engagement will feed into the broader Forward Singapore exercise, helping to ensure that the concerns and aspirations of a new generation of workers are heard and reflected in Singapore's policies and programmes.
Forward Singapore is a national exercise launched by Mr Wong last month. It is aimed at refreshing and strengthening the country's social compact for the next bound of development, with the Republic at a crossroads post-Covid-19.
In his speech, Mr Wong also said the state of labour relations gives a clue to the overall health of any society and acts as a litmus test of how strong the society and its social compact are.
"Unfortunately, across most developed countries, labour relations have come down and trade union membership has declined considerably," Mr Wong noted.
"Some of it is partly because of very aggressive and confrontational tactics pursued by many trade unions in Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s. They took a strident, aggressive approach and, as a result, they lost the support of the broad middle of their societies."
This, in turn, led to the defeat of social democratic parties in these countries, and the rise of pro-market conservative parties in the 1980s.
Mr Wong cited former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as examples of "transformative figures" who were supported by their populations to counter the excesses of those on the political left, including unions.
But the decline of unions in these countries was not without cost.
Mr Wong noted that, without strong unions and collective bargaining, the wages of rank-and-file workers across Europe and the United States became depressed, which contributed to stagnant wages for many and a greater divide between the haves and the have-nots.
"When the working class becomes a permanent underclass, with very little prospects for advancement, they lose faith in the system and trust breaks down. This is what you see happening in many developed countries," the minister said.
He noted the recent resurgence of unionisation efforts such as the formation of unions among Starbucks and Amazon workers in the US.
Mr Wong said such efforts are an uphill battle as many powerful corporations still see unions as harmful to their growth and profits, and try to clamp down on unions.
He added that this leads to trust between employers and workers breaking down further, and that trust can be lost quickly and is hard to restore once eroded.
"It is no wonder that many of these societies have become fraught with tension. There is no consensus on how to move forward to implement important issues and progress becomes ever more elusive."
The lesson for Singapore, and its younger unionists, workers and students in particular, is not to take for granted the Republic's harmonious tripartite relations as they are neither a given nor a natural state of affairs, Mr Wong said.
He added: "We should also not assume that somehow in Singapore, we have some special immunity against the stresses and fissures that have torn through other societies... and we must not assume that we have arrived at the promised land, that we have reached nirvana and have no more room for progress.
"Instead, let us consider how we can build upon the foundation that we have today - this strong foundation of trust to further strengthen the labour movement - and do our utmost to not just preserve what we have inherited, but to make it better.
"To do that, the NTUC must continue to be forward-looking and progressive, especially as we refresh our social compact."