SINGAPORE: The “close symbiotic relationship” between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) will continue into the fourth generation (4G) of leaders and beyond, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Wednesday (May 1) at this year’s May Day Rally.
Speaking to about 1,600 guests, including union leaders and tripartite partners, Mr Heng noted that the close relationship between the labour movement and the PAP goes back decades. Describing the labour movement as the PAP’s “most important partner”, he detailed how their ties went back to the post-war years.
“The 4G leadership grew up witnessing how this close working relationship between the PAP and the unions has benefitted Singaporeans,” he said. “All of us in the 4G team have been personally involved in the labour movement in one way or another.”
This was Mr Heng’s first speech as Deputy Prime Minister, and also the first time a deputy prime minister has made the keynote address at a May Day Rally since 2003, when current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke in his capacity as DPM.
“Today is the first time I’m speaking to you as leader of the next generation of PAP leaders,” said Mr Heng, who is also Minister for Finance. “I renew today the pledge that Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) made at your Modernisation Seminar 50 years ago, and that every prime minister has since renewed.”
The landmark Modernisation Seminar in 1969 marked the labour movement’s decision to fundamentally shift from confrontation to collaboration.
Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had said then that there is a school of thought that argues it is better not to have trade unions for the rapid industrialisation of an underdeveloped country, but Singapore should not go down that route.
Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation: While the development of the country is very important, the development of the nature of society is equally important, he had said.
“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,” said Mr Heng, quoting Mr Lee. “To survive as a nation and distinct community we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we will fail.
“You can neither be proud nor rugged if you have not got self-respect.”
Reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the labour movement, Mr Heng said that NTUC has given self-respect 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," he said.
Mr Heng added that NTUC backs the PAP because the PAP is pro-people, and has “kept faith” with the unions. At the same time, 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,” he said. “We strive for growth, in order to improve the lives of every Singaporean.
"The labour movement can be assured that the PAP will never abandon the working man and woman."
ANOTHER “SIGNIFICANT TRANSFORMATION” NEEDED FOR THE FUTURE
In his speech, Mr Heng stressed the need to embark on another “significant transformation” 50 years on from NTUC's modernisation. Pointing to the rapidly changing global landscape Singapore faces, Mr Heng suggested three strategies as the country transforms for the future.
The first, he said, is to be an “active agent” in the transformation of Singapore’s economy.
Mr Heng said that union leaders have told him they would like to see more support for unionised workers.
To that end, he announced that unionised companies that apply for the Enterprise Development Grant will receive an additional 10 per cent of funding support from the labour movement, if they form a company training committee and commit to increasing salaries of workers.
This will come into effect from Apr 1 next year.
Last month, NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng had announced that NTUC will work with companies to form training committees, which will plan and implement programmes to help workers keep pace with new technology.
It hopes to form these committees in 1,000 companies over the next three years, and benefit around 330,000 workers.
Describing the scheme as “farsighted” and a “game-changer”, Mr Heng noted that lifelong learning and reskilling will take on “new meaning”.
PREPARING FOR JOBS OF THE FUTURE
Elaborating on the second strategy, Mr Heng said that workers in Singapore need to prepare for jobs of the future through lifelong learning.
“We must make sure that technological advancements help workers do their jobs better – not replace them,” said Mr Heng.
Citing a report from the World Economic Forum in Davos, he noted that advanced technologies could result in the loss of 75 million jobs worldwide by 2022, but the same technologies could also create up to 133 million new jobs, which is almost double what might be lost.
“We can’t protect jobs that will be made redundant,” he said. “But we can and will protect workers – every working man and woman.”
HELPING OLDER & LOWER-WAGE WORKERS
Mr Heng also stressed the importance of ensuring that Singapore’s economic growth remains inclusive. The keys to that third strategy are tripartism and the continued vitality of the unions, he said.
Particular attention, he added, must be paid to lower-wage workers, seniors and those who have left the workforce early. He pointed to the Progressive Wage Model wage ladder, which currently covers all outsourced workers in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, and will soon be expanded to include lift technicians.
Mr Heng noted that the Government is strengthening support for seniors to earn and save more, and have greater peace of mind in retirement.
He added that supporting senior employment is something that is “close to the hearts of the 4G leadership”, noting that the tripartite partners have agreed to raise the retirement and re-employment ages, so more workers can stay in the workforce if they choose to.
On Wednesday, Mr Heng said that the Government will also review Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates, and will implement these proposals step-by-step.
The Government, he added, is also studying how to help those who have left the workforce early, or who have not worked consistently. As a result, he said this group of people has not accumulated much in their CPF savings.
More details will be worked out in the coming months.
“Every worker matters ... Whether you are rich or poor, whether you are a worker or a manager, whether you are an employer or a unionist – each of us owes a duty to care for, support and sustain each other,” he said.
“This is how we keep our country together.”