Tuesday, 2 May 2023

May Day Rally 2023

‘We will always have your back’: 4G team will look after workers in these dark times, says DPM Lawrence Wong
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2023

Amid global economic uncertainty and geopolitical tensions, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said that he and his 4G team are fully committed to looking after workers and helping them earn a better living.

They will do so by working closely with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the labour movement, to ensure sustained growth and good jobs for all, he said.

“In these dark times, this is my promise to you,” said Mr Wong at the May Day Rally on Monday where he was the main speaker.

Come what may, we will always be there with you, for you, and we will always have your back,” he said, addressing about 1,400 labour movement leaders, workers and tripartite partners at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre.

In his speech, Mr Wong elaborated on points made in April by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the multiple global storms ahead. He also spoke on how the nationwide engagement Forward Singapore exercise will help workers.

“As we grow the economy, we will also fight the ills of inequality,” he said.

“Singapore must never succumb to the kind of harsh inequality we see in so many other countries. However treacherous the terrain ahead, so long as Singapore continues to progress, all Singaporeans must continue to progress – no one must be left behind.”

This is why the Government is undertaking the Forward Singapore exercise, he said. The exercise, launched in June 2022, will culminate in a report in the second half of 2023.

Mr Wong said that in its Forward Singapore review, the Government is studying how it can invest more in every worker – to help them take ownership of their own careers, continuously reskill and upskill, and take up better jobs and opportunities throughout their working lives.

One way is by shifting SkillsFuture to a “higher gear”, he said, and making skills training and lifelong learning a key pillar of the refreshed social compact with every worker.

Another is by paying special attention to those in vocational and technical roles, as well as Institute of Technical Education and polytechnic graduates.

“We will help them deepen their skills through different pathways, so they can secure better salaries and career paths in the professions they have trained for and have the aptitude for,” said Mr Wong.

He added that professionals, managers and executives will also have to reskill and upskill themselves – given the rapid technological advancements such as in artificial intelligence, which suggest that more human tasks could be taken over by machines.

Noting that it can be hard to juggle work and family responsibilities while studying, Mr Wong said the Government will reduce costs and lower barriers to training.

The Government is also looking at how to further uplift lower-wage workers and professionalise skilled trades, provide more support for those who lose their jobs and enable all workers to meet their retirement needs. It is working closely with the NTUC on the possible solutions, he said.

Acknowledging that workers are concerned about other things apart from jobs, such as the cost of living, Mr Wong said he had implemented comprehensive support measures, including those in Budget 2023.

“We have done everything we can to lessen the stresses and strains that people feel on the ground, and we will continue to do so,” he said.

Another concern is public housing, where the Government has been ramping up the supply of Build-to-Order flats, but there are still worries about affordability.

Mr Wong asked Singaporeans not to look just at the headline price of a Build-To-Order flat, but to also consider how prices relate to income and the proportion of income needed to service the housing loan.

For example, a four-room BTO flat in a new town cost about $40,000 in 1980. Median household income then was around $900, and a typical household would use about a quarter of its income to service the loan.

Today, the price of a four-room BTO flat in a non-mature estate like Bukit Batok costs about $350,000, said Mr Wong.

While the price of the flat has risen nearly 10 times, so has median household income from $900 to $9,000, he added.

In addition, there are housing grants of up to $80,000 for first-timers, said Mr Wong.

“Affordable and accessible public housing – like access to first-rate education and healthcare – will always be a key part of our social compact in Singapore,” he said.

“As long as the PAP (People’s Action Party) remains in charge, we will ensure quality public housing that is affordable and accessible for our children and future generations.”

In his speech, Mr Wong also noted the global storms ahead that PM Lee had warned of – the Russia-Ukraine war, US-China tensions, and increasing protectionism undermining the multilateral global trade system.

These developments will make it harder for Singapore to compete, grow its economy, create jobs and earn a living. But what it must have enough of are “ingenuity and innovation; guts and gumption”, he said.

“That’s the only way we can and will prevail, even when the odds are stacked against us.”

He said that tripartism is one of Singapore’s greatest and most sustainable competitive advantages.

Noting how other First World countries have seen industrial relations break down, Mr Wong said Singapore must not allow that to happen.

“Businesses and governments will push back, further fuelling deep divisions in society. Then it becomes a vicious cycle, because once trust is lost, it’s very hard to recover,” he said.

“Fortunately, Singapore is on the right track. We have a lot going for us, and our tripartite approach ensures that Team Singapore has the best chance of overcoming challenges and seizing new opportunities.”

Mr Wong said this was not the first time Singapore has had to respond to grave challenges.

“Each time we were pushed to the limit, we did not fold and crumble. Instead, we gritted our teeth, worked even harder to defy the odds, and bounced back stronger. That’s how we built today’s Singapore, and that’s how we will keep on making it better.”

Amid grim economic landscape, Singapore must have ‘something special’ to show: DPM Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2023

Singapore will find it harder to grow its economy and create jobs in an increasingly dangerous and troubled world, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday.

He noted that trade rules are changing, geopolitics is shifting investment flows and advanced economies are rolling out massive subsidies to boost their strategic industries, which means competition to attract investments will be much tougher.

But with ingenuity and innovation, as well as “guts and gumption”, the country will prevail even when the odds are stacked against it, he added in his speech at the May Day Rally.

Mr Wong said Singapore has overcome grave challenges in the past – developing Newater when there was not enough water, becoming an energy hub when Singapore has no natural resources, and reclaiming land when there was a land crunch – and it will continue to do so.

“Each time we were pushed to the limit, we did not fold and crumble. Instead, we gritted our teeth, worked even harder to defy the odds, bounced back stronger,” said Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister.

“That’s how we built today’s Singapore, and that’s how we will keep on making it better.”

Painting a grim economic landscape as he addressed unionists and workers at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre, Mr Wong said it has become harder for Singaporeans to earn a living.

First, countries no longer work towards win-win cooperation in trade. Some are wary of becoming over-reliant on others and some see trade as a battleground, he said.

With trade making up more than three times of Singapore’s gross domestic product, the Republic will be hurt if more countries become protectionist and flout trade rules, he added.

Second, geopolitics has shifted investment flows.

Singapore has built its economy around the flow of foreign direct investments, but countries are moving towards “near-shoring” or “friend-shoring” – putting their factories and critical supplies closer to home, or in friendly countries they trust, said Mr Wong.

As a result, global investment flows will slow down and become more concentrated among countries that are geopolitically aligned, he added.

Third, advanced economies are rolling out large subsidies to build up domestic production capabilities in strategic industries like semiconductors and clean energy.

This is ironic, given that the same countries were complaining not so long ago about governments around the world undercutting one another with generous tax incentives, said Mr Wong.

He noted that these countries had pushed for the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) global agreement to stop harmful tax competition. But before it could be implemented, the United States, European Union and China, among other major economies, were already rolling out huge subsidies for key projects and investments, he added.

“If you think about this, tax incentives and subsidies are all public funds. So it’s highly inconsistent to say ‘tax incentives cannot do’, but subsidies ‘yes, let’s do more’,” Mr Wong said.

“Unfortunately, we are now in a world where rules are shaped not by logic or principles, but by geopolitics and security imperatives. And Singapore is already feeling the impact.”

Mr Wong said multinational corporations here are already asking what Singapore can offer to keep them when effective corporate tax rates are raised to 15 per cent globally under BEPS.

The country cannot afford to outbid the “big boys” like the Europeans, Americans, Chinese and Japanese for investments, he said, citing how Germany is negotiating with Intel to establish a large semiconductor plant in eastern Germany, in a deal that involves $10 billion in financing support.

That subsidy for one project is almost double what the Ministry of Trade and Industry will spend in 2023 to grow Singapore’s entire economy, he said.

He urged union leaders to explain this to workers, adding: “Some politicians go around telling Singaporeans, ‘Don’t worry, raise corporate tax rates to 15 per cent (and) you will have lots of revenue, and anyway we also have lots of reserves, so we can merrily spend more.’

“Unfortunately, they don’t understand the magnitude of the challenges we face.”

Mr Wong noted, however, that the Covid-19 pandemic has further enhanced Singapore’s international reputation as a reliable and trusted hub for business. It must seize this window of opportunity to make itself more competitive and relevant to the world, he said.

One strategy is to continue investing in connectivity infrastructure, such as the Changi Terminal 5 and Tuas Port projects, which will boost Singapore’s status as a business and logistics hub, he added.

Such moves have prompted multinational corporations such as VF Corporation, the global apparel and footwear company behind The North Face and Timberland, and global logistics firm UPS to boost their presence and investments here, he said.

Another strategy is to deepen Singapore’s capabilities for innovation, which is why the Government is continuing to invest heavily in research and development.

It has worked with leading global companies such as Procter & Gamble to grow the company’s innovation centre into one of Singapore’s largest corporate research facilities, and United Microelectronics Company to build a new fabrication plant here, he said.

This is happening across all sectors of the economy, added Mr Wong.

As long as Singapore continues to focus on its strengths and capabilities, and find ways to provide value to the world, the country will be able to earn a good living, prosper and thrive, he said.

“And that’s why, despite the dark clouds around us, I say: Never fear, and never lose heart. Singapore may be small, but this little red dot is shining brighter than ever,” he added.

“But we must continue to be able to work harder and work smarter than others. We must always have that something special that convinces the world we are a better bet than most, and Singapore can always be relied upon to deliver.”

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the future remains clouded with rising geopolitical tensions and shifts in global trade patterns.

“Singapore must remain competitive and relevant to the world,” he said, adding that tripartite partners will ensure job security and work productivity by training workers to seize opportunities in emerging areas.

“By strengthening our strong tripartite relationship, we are confident that we can weather the storm together, just like how we have done so in the past generations.”

DPM Wong’s speech shows leadership renewal under way, importance of tripartism: Observers
By Natasha Ann Zachariah, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2023

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s speech on Monday, while signalling that political leadership renewal is under way, is also a timely reminder to Singaporeans to prepare for a rocky road ahead, said observers and labour MPs.

It is the first time that Mr Wong gave the main May Day Rally speech to about 1,400 union leaders, workers and tripartite partners. The event was held at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered the speech last year.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan, who teaches law at Singapore Management University, said Mr Wong’s speech made it clear that the People’s Action Party (PAP) political leadership renewal is at an “advanced stage”.

He added that the May Day Rally platform bolsters Mr Wong’s prior work with the labour movement, such as with the Union of Power and Gas Employees.

“The speech by the prime minister-in-waiting – should the ruling party be returned to power in the next general election – serves to underline the ruling party’s pro-worker stance at a time of economic uncertainty and job insecurity,” said Prof Tan.

“It also highlighted the PAP Government’s track record in leading Singapore, especially in challenging times.”

Long-term issues and need for tripartism

CIMB economist Song Seng Wun said that while Mr Wong’s references to geopolitics and the grim economic climate were not new, it was a useful reminder to Singaporean workers to look beyond domestic affairs.

Long-term issues – such as beefing up a small local workforce, and ensuring that Singaporeans are adaptable to global risks – are necessary conversations to have, said Mr Song.

“Singaporeans are worried about the cost of living and coping with daily issues. But there are long-term matters affecting future generations that need to be dealt with today.”

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah said Mr Wong’s emphasis on some countries’ protectionist trade measures, as well as technological competition, was notable.

Mr Seah elaborated that Singapore’s survival is dependent on the global order, one that faced upheaval when the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, and was further strained by US-China tensions.

Domestically, the Republic also faces an immediate challenge with its ageing population.

It was therefore imperative, he said, that Mr Wong highlighted the need for an agile workforce and strong ties between the Government, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and workers.

Mr Seah said: “If Singapore becomes fragmented, foreign investors will not want to invest and there will be fewer job opportunities. A strong social compact between the Government and Singaporeans will be essential to ensuring political stability.”

Labour MPs who attended the rally said it was good that Mr Wong gave an unvarnished view of where Singapore stands in these turbulent times.

NTUC assistant secretary-general Desmond Choo said he was reassured that Mr Wong would continue to uphold tripartism as a cornerstone of his government should the PAP win the next election.

“He clearly understood where our strengths are. As long as we’re united, as a tripartite group of partners, we can continue to find new jobs, and innovate social policies to support workers when the chips are down,” said Mr Choo, who is also MP for Tampines GRC.

NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said Mr Wong’s speech serves as a rallying call to Singaporeans to stay ahead of the curve.

Tripartism has been the “secret sauce to outbid other countries and attract investments”, he said.

As such, added Mr Tay, who is also MP for Pioneer, it is necessary for the Government, even with its impending leadership changes, to work together with NTUC and the unions.

NTUC must ‘do more and do better’ for PMEs and youth: Ng Chee Meng
By Tay Hong Yi, The Straits Times, 1 May 2023

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) must “do more and do better” for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), as well as for youth, while building on current efforts to improve workers’ wages and welfare.

These are two segments the labour movement has underserved, even as it makes inroads with championing vulnerable workers and moderating the cost of living, labour chief Ng Chee Meng said in his May Day Rally speech on Monday.

The push to get 12,000 human resources practitioners certified to comply with fair employment practices is one part of such efforts to close the gap for PMEs, Mr Ng said at the rally held at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre.

“However, in the youth segment, NTUC recognises that we can do more to serve our youth better,” said Mr Ng.

To this end, the labour movement launched a youth task force a year ago, which has engaged 10,000 young people to find out their key concerns.

Feedback from youth on their desire for quality internships and mentorships led NTUC to develop the Career Starter Lab with employers, he noted.

This is a pilot scheme to let young people try out a job after school and national service, while also helping employers attract and retain young talent. The scheme was announced last Friday and is slated for launch in the second half of 2023.

The moves to court youth and PMEs are part of a wider revamp of the labour movement’s business, membership and training models over the last four years to keep up with changes in worker demographics and the economy.

Meanwhile, changes to its business model include working with freelancers, launching a new partnership model with small and medium-sized enterprises, and introducing an associate membership programme for migrant workers, said Mr Ng.

As for training, the labour movement has set up a training and transformation group. It has also adopted an integrated approach, tying together its continuing education and training provider arm NTUC LearningHub, the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute and the Employment and Employability Institute, he said.

Mr Ng said NTUC’s successful foray into digital banking via Trust Bank, set up in partnership with Standard Chartered, is an example of innovation in its social enterprises, with more than 500,000 customers coming on board within seven months.

The changes have paid dividends in NTUC’s membership, which has grown from 980,000 in 2019 to 1.12 million currently, noted Mr Ng.

Driving this growth were new membership benefits catering to members’ needs and aspirations across life stages, as well as a revamped digital presence through its website, chatbots and the MyNTUC app, he said.

“Our 1.5 million goal by 2030 is not so distant a number any more,” he said, referring to a membership target the labour movement set for itself in 2019.

Mr Ng said NTUC champions the interests of lower-wage, platform and mature workers, yet maintains industrial peace and adds value for its employer partners. This is in contrast to other parts of the world, where unions and workers go on strike to show their unhappiness.

“(Such a) combative, confrontational approach leads to lose-lose outcomes, even if the intent was a good one,” he said.

Instead, the labour movement helped expand the Progressive Wage Model – a wage ladder tied to skill and productivity improvements – among lower-wage workers, helping to cushion the rising cost of living.

It also pushed for increased protection for platform workers, and higher retirement and re-employment ages for mature workers, among other moves. These were done in collaboration with the Government and employers in a three-way, or tripartite, partnership, he said.

Summing up, Mr Ng said that to keep pace with the evolving needs and aspirations of workers, the labour movement will need to build an innovative culture and decisively implement the new business strategies it develops.

He added: “Should we fail, fail fast, and learn fast, in practice… Then we go out again, try again, and move towards success.”

Slower economic growth expected but Singapore should avoid outright contraction: PM Lee
By Ng Wei Kai, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2023

Slower economic growth is expected this year, but Singapore should avoid an outright contraction, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Inflation remains high, but there is some hope it will moderate in the second half of the year. Meanwhile, unemployment rates have stayed low and retrenchment numbers remain manageable, added PM Lee in his May Day message on Sunday.

“Overall, we can be cautiously optimistic about our immediate economic prospects,” he said.

In a Facebook post on the same day, PM Lee said National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong would be speaking at NTUC’s annual May Day Rally on Monday.

PM Lee noted in his May Day message that as Singapore emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy continues to recover.

Last year, Singapore’s gross domestic product grew 3.6 per cent. Hard-hit sectors are recovering rapidly, he said.

Tourism and hospitality establishments are back in business, and passenger traffic at Changi Airport has reached around 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and will rise further as international connectivity is progressively restored.

Core inflation eased in March after peaking in past months, on the back of lower price increases in services, food, retail and other goods.

Meanwhile, economic growth in the first three months of 2023 was 0.1 per cent year on year, prompting analysts to cut their growth estimates for the Republic amid a global slowdown.

The Government will continue to do its best to support Singaporeans, said PM Lee.

“We have made progress uplifting vulnerable workers via progressive wages. We will do more to professionalise skilled trades to create more pathways to success, and to improve career planning support for Singaporeans.”

He added that the Forward Singapore exercise is discussing these issues, including how to help Singaporeans improve their work prospects and resilience, and transition to new jobs and careers.

All these efforts require strong collaboration among the tripartite partners, said PM Lee, referring to the relationship among the Government, unions and employers.

The labour movement plays a key role, he said, giving the example of how the NTUC worked with employers and employees during the pandemic to implement wage-cutting measures, with management taking the lead in salary adjustments to help sustain businesses and save jobs.

NTUC also set up a Job Security Council to redeploy workers from pandemic-hit sectors, such as aviation, to other sectors needing more manpower like healthcare, he noted.

“Such efforts enabled us to come through Covid-19 united as one, and reinforced trust among the tripartite partners,” PM Lee said.

He also pointed out that worker training and upgrading programmes are progressing well, helping many to upskill and reskill. Employers are providing training opportunities and encouraging their staff to take them up.

“More and more employers are accommodating the changing needs of workers, such as by implementing flexible work arrangements and redesigning jobs for older workers.

“This helps to improve productivity, and also to retain talent.”

PM Lee also warned of a volatile external environment fraught with serious geopolitical tensions.

There is a risk of recession in Western countries, as central banks continue raising interest rates to dampen inflation, he pointed out.

The multilateral trading system is being progressively undermined by growing nationalist and protectionist sentiments, affecting international trade and cooperation.

At the same time, emerging industries, such as in the green and digital domains, and new technologies, like artificial intelligence, will disrupt economies around the world, he said.

“We must respond to these broader trends by adapting to them while doing all we can to buffer those adversely affected,” added PM Lee.

“Singapore’s survival depends on us staying open and doing business with the world. This means continually transforming our industries, enhancing existing capabilities and building new ones as we move into growth markets.

“This will cause disruptions to some existing jobs, but at the same time it will create new jobs with better prospects for the future.”

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