PM Lee Hsien Loong: Unions remain vital to Singapore’s success

Mr Lee believes the Labour Movement needs to also reinvent itself to keep its relevance with workers.
By Ian Tan Hanhonn 22 Nov 2023
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Unions are still relevant to workers today more than ever, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was speaking on 22 November 2023 at the NTUC National Delegate’s Conference (NDC).


Some 1,500 union delegates, NTUC Central Committee members, cabinet ministers and tripartite partners attended the event. NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng also gave a report on the efforts and results of the Labour Movement over the last four years.


While many countries believe that unions ought to play a smaller role in the future of work to allow for more flexibility, Mr Lee said the PAP Government rejects this view, adding that Singapore’s success is heavily dependent on the country having strong unions.


However, while the traditional roles of the Labour Movement will still be relevant, it needs to reinvent itself, said Mr Lee.


He said: “We need to reinvent and reimagine the Labour Movement as one that guides workers to keep up with a changing economy and job market through upgrading and reskilling; helps workers to stay employable – though not always in the same job; reassures workers that they are not alone, that the Labour Movement is there for them, that the PAP and NTUC will have their backs; and works with the Government to provide all Singaporeans a fair chance at success.”


Future-ready unions and workforce


Mr Lee cautioned that the Labour Movement will need to face new challenges in the global arena.


“The world is facing all kinds of challenges – great power rivalry, regional conflicts, deglobalisation, climate change, and technological advances. There will be new opportunities, but we will also experience new social and economic pressures,” he said.


As the world progresses, the nature of jobs will change, and it will be a change that affects workers of all collars. While growth and productivity will increase, the transformation workers will experience will be profound.


And beyond fostering transformation and upgrading, Mr Lee encouraged the Labour Movement to broaden its representation.


He hopes that the Labour Movement will continue to care for all the different worker segments and work with the Government and tripartite partners to support workers in more fragmented sectors. That it will move beyond representation, and instead focus more on training and advocating for lifelong employability.


He added that NTUC Enterprises needs to refresh their offerings to remain relevant for workers, sharing that this will “help to maintain the trust and harmony that we have built up over all these years, keep us all together, and build a more inclusive and united society.”


Pillar of strength


Mr Lee shared that the Labour Movement is a pillar of strength for workers and businesses.


He said: “It continues to look out for workers’ welfare; it ensures that they share in Singapore’s economic growth and have a stake in our continued progress.”


He noted that NTUC’s success continues to depend on the quality of its leadership, and he urged delegates to vote wisely when they elect their new central committee members, during the election during the NDC.


He concluded: “Let us continue to strengthen our unique model of tripartism as Singapore’s lasting competitive advantage in an uncertain world. Together, we can create a better future for our workers and for Singapore.”


Tripartism – An enormous and enduring advantage


The PAP and the NTUC are two sides of the same national movement, said Mr Lee.


He added that it is a movement devoted to improving the lives of all Singaporeans, focused on keeping everyone together, and dedicated to ensuring that everyone has a right to dignity.


Mr Lee added that the Modernization Seminar helped establish Singapore’s unique model of tripartism, saying it “it completely changed the tone of labour relations”.


He said: “Through collaboration and compromise, we fostered industrial peace. Even as the unions continued to fight for workers, they kept the bigger picture in mind and were careful not to upset the applecart by disrupting Singapore’s economic growth.


“This enabled us to industrialise, develop our economy, and take off.”


Mr Lee also described how unions were important in securing fair deals for workers through collective bargaining.


He said: “A key tripartite mechanism we developed for this was the National Wages Council (NWC) … The NWC would form a consensus view of the state of the economy, and make recommendations for wage adjustments. These NWC recommendations provided a national framework which enabled much smoother bargaining at the company level.”


Mr Lee shared that the NWC has since gone beyond recommending wage adjustments to deal with structural issues like implementing flexible wages, providing support for lower-wage workers, and advocating for worker retraining.


“Tripartism has been an enormous and enduring advantage as we restructured and grew our economy,” he said.


He added that tripartism was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, where tripartite partners had to quickly unite to help workers and companies pull through the crisis.


Mr Lee said: “The NTUC, supported by SNEF [Singapore National Employers Federation] and MOM [Ministry of Manpower], quickly set up the Job Security Council [JSC]. The council helped to redeploy 70,000 workers from pandemic-hit sectors like aviation, to sectors that urgently needed manpower like healthcare.


“It helped many workers and their families to tide through the pandemic, and made all the difference.”


Mr Lee took the opportunity to thank NTUC for helping to administer the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) during the pandemic, as well as the NTUC Training Fund (Self-Employed Persons) which helped over 200,000 self-employed workers.


“I would like to thank everyone at NTUC for pitching in during the crisis, and helping Singapore to emerge stronger and more united,” he said.


Pro-growth, Pro-worker


Mr Lee added that tripartism in Singapore works because the PAP government is “pro-growth” and “pro-worker”.


He said that at the national level, the PAP Government has two priorities – growing the economy and enabling workers to leverage this growth.


With the Government taking this lead, it made it much easier for the tripartite partners to work together to achieve this growth and to share the fruits of this progress.


“We have created a Singapore premium. Companies and investors are prepared to pay more to be here, to take advantage of our harmonious industrial relations and business-friendly environment,”, he shared.


He noted that Singaporeans too reap the benefits of this premium, sharing that because of Singapore’s political stability and companies reliability, workers here are able to earn significantly more for the same job.


PAP-NTUC symbiotic relationship must persist


And to help build a more inclusive and united society, Mr Lee shared that the Government and NTUC must continue to work hand in hand.


He said: “That has been our approach since the very beginning, during Mr Lee’s [Lee Kuan Yew] time. The PAP worked closely with the unions to understand workers’ needs, champion their interests, and pursue policies that improved their lives and livelihoods. On their part, the workers gave PAP a strong political base and popular support.


“That was how the PAP Government won the people’s mandate in successive elections to implement policies that benefitted Singapore.”


He added that the PAP is committed to sustaining and strengthening this political partnership for many years to come, and is confident that NTUC will continue to do the same.


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