SINGAPORE: The bond between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) must be sustained and strengthened, as Singapore navigates the uncharted waters of global uncertainties, a new phase for its economy and technological disruptions, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Oct 15).
This “symbiotic relationship” is a key foundation that can prevent the forces of angst and social division, which have been seen in other parts of the world, from happening here in Singapore.
In a keynote speech delivered at the NTUC Delegates’ Conference, Mr Lee reaffirmed the Government’s promise to keep workers at the centre of the country’s economic and social development efforts.
UNIQUE TRIPARTITE PARTNERSHIP
This year’s conference held at the Orchid Country Club is a “special” one, said the prime minister, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Modernisation Seminar.
That was a “pivotal moment” for both the PAP and the NTUC that Mr Lee recounted at length in his speech, as he retraced the history of the relationship between the ruling party and the labour movement.
“NTUC was no longer just an institution for collective bargaining. It saw itself as a partner in Singapore’s economic and social transformation,” he said of the 1969 Modernisation Seminar.
“This led to the unique tripartite partnership, which has underpinned half a century of harmonious industrial relations.”
This harmonious industrial relations catalysed investments and jobs, while Singapore’s industrialisation drive succeeded allowing the country to leapfrog the region and link up with the world.
As the economy took off, wages of workers and standards of living rose quickly, Mr Lee recounted.
The PAP and NTUC worked as partners throughout this period of high growth, although this tripartite relation was also “severely tested” during “frightening” economic downturns in 1985, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis.
The Government had to take “difficult and painful decisions” during these downturns, such as cutting Central Provident Fund (CPF) rates and ministers had to convince union leaders that these steps were unavoidable.
“And hardest of all, PAP and union leaders then had to persuade Singaporeans and workers to accept the bitter medicine,” added Mr Lee.
“But each time, we tackled the problem together, pulled through, and emerged stronger and more united.”
Moving forward, Mr Lee said the bond between the PAP and NTUC leadership has "to be sustained and strengthened”.
“Once again, we are sailing into uncharted waters,” he continued.
“The world is filled with uncertainties. Our economy is entering a new phase. Technology is transforming many industries. Emerging businesses are disrupting established players.”
Amid these, workers have to be ready for change, said Mr Lee, while assuring that help will be at hand to help them train for new roles, cope with the rapid changes in their industries and to remain employable.
“Hold their hands and give them confidence that we can make it together,” he said.
"It won't be easy but we will walk with you every step of the way."
This is unique to Singapore. In other countries, workers are left alone to fend for themselves when they lose their jobs, added Mr Lee.
Many more who still have jobs feel left behind, while the masses are angry that the elites in their society are “disconnected” and they feel looked down upon.
“The social compact, that trust (and) that mutual reliance has been fractured,” said the prime minister. “People are angry and they just to want to tear the system down, because it is no longer working for them (but) what comes after that, don’t know.”
This is why populist movements are growing in many countries, such as the United States, Britain, and France.
Closer to home, ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong showed deep and widespread unhappiness, with the most vocal complaints being political such as how the “One Country, Two Systems” is working out.
“But underlying this is also the sense that serious economic and social concerns have not been addressed,” Mr Lee continued, pointing to concerns about expensive housing and how the younger generation in Hong Kong is losing optimism about their future.
Singapore’s situation is quite different from Hong Kong’s, but it still warrants close attention, he said.
“We should study closely what’s happening in all these other places, including Hong Kong, and ask ourselves: Can this deep social angst happen here? Can this social division befall us? And my answer is yes it can if we are not careful.”
He added that Singapore, being a small and open country, is not immune to these underlying forces that are tearing at other countries.
“If it happens to us, like what’s happening elsewhere, we will suffer the same consequences as the other countries, only worse because we are that much more vulnerable.
“It will become impossible to govern Singapore, to make and carry out difficult decisions, or to plan for the long term good of the nation,” said Mr Lee.
“Confidence in Singapore will be destroyed. Singapore will be finished.”
The “symbiotic relationship” between the PAP and the NTUC is a key foundation that can help to avoid such a “dire outcome”, he pointed out.
“The PAP will always remain close to its roots in the labour movement.”
With its fundamental objective being to advance the well-being and future of our workers, the PAP government has set out to build affordable homes, deliver high-quality healthcare for all ages, ensuring the availability of good preschools and schools, as well as a reliable and efficient public transport system.
It also creates jobs and opportunities for workers so as to “enable every citizen to improve their own lives through their own efforts”.
“This is far better than having a populist government that gives vent to the frustrations of the population or panders to short term passions at the expense of our long term interest,” said Mr Lee.
On its part, the labour movement has also participated as an equal and constructive partner to create prosperity and growth.
It is also continuing to re-think its role by keeping itself up to date and relevant to the changing needs of workers, added the prime minister.
Earlier, NTUC president Mary Liew noted how the make-up of the Singaporean workforce is changing, with the inclusion of more professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), as well as those involved in the gig economy.
The workforce is also one that’s ageing, with changing needs that involve caregiving duties for elderly parents and young children.
“We must be nimble. We must be adaptable and we must continue to represent and protect all our workers,” she said in her welcome address.
Ms Liew also stressed the need for the labour movement to leverage technology to better serve its members in the areas of training and protection.
Said Mr Lee: “As you make your way forward in an uncertain world, a strong NTUC will help you, guide you and walk with you. This is how we can stay united and progress together.”
Concluding his speech, the prime minister said the promise that pioneer leaders had made to keep workers at the centre of the country’s economic and social development efforts, “remains as central and as relevant today as it was 50 years ago”.
“So today, the PAP Government renews our commitment to you,” he said.
“We will always stand with workers (and) ensure your well-being. We will always do our best to help you and your children progress with Singapore and have a better life.
“And we will ensure that no Singaporean, regardless of family background or life circumstances, will ever be shut out from opportunities, or left behind," said Mr Lee.