Friday 3 May 2024

May Day Rally 2024

‘We have built a strong foundation for future generations’: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
In his last major speech at the May Day Rally, he asks Singaporeans to rally behind leadership team, to make the nation succeed
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he has prepared a leadership team to succeed him that deserves Singaporeans’ confidence and support, and asked that all Singaporeans rally behind it to make the nation succeed.

Despite dark clouds on the horizon, the Republic has built a strong foundation for its future generations to continue to write new chapters of the Singapore story, PM Lee said at the May Day Rally on May 1.

In a valedictory speech at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, he said he felt “a sense of satisfaction and completeness” as he prepared to hand over Singapore in good order to his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, on May 15.

“I have done my duty, and I am very happy I chose this path of public service all those many years ago,” said PM Lee to a standing ovation from the 1,400 unionists, business leaders and government officials who were present.

However, leading a country is never a one-man job but that of a national team, he said as he thanked MPs and union leaders, as well as Singaporeans for their trust and support.

“I have strived to lead you and to govern Singapore in the way you deserve, to mobilise Singaporeans to show what we can do together,” he said. “I have also prepared a leadership team to succeed me that deserves your confidence and support.”

‘We have improved everyone’s lives’

PM Lee, who had spoken at almost every May Day Rally since he became prime minister in 2004, said he had sought in his tenure to build on Singapore’s strengths under past leaders such as founding PM Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team overcame tremendous odds to forge an improbable nation with multiculturalism as its creed, and made home ownership, education and healthcare available to all.

Mr Goh showed it was possible to take Singapore forward with a different style for a different era, and under his leadership, Singapore matured and became more vibrant, resilient and cohesive, PM Lee said.

Of his 20 years since he took over in 2004, PM Lee said Singapore has become better off.

Investments in promising sectors such as biotech, information technology and financial services have paid off, while the economic base has diversified as the country climbed the value chain, from factories to research and development in pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology.

Singaporeans’ quality of life has also improved across the board, including for those with lower incomes, he added.

New Housing Board towns with green spaces and amenities have been built, such as Punggol, which has turned from an ulu (Malay for “remote”) place to an attractive town full of young families.

Meanwhile, older towns have been kept up to date with the many upgrading programmes that made them fit for a more elderly population.

“This is why, unlike public housing projects elsewhere in the world, our HDB estates never turn into slums or ghettos,” he said.

Public transport has likewise improved, going from just the red (North-South) and green (East-West) lines to a much more colourful map today with the addition of the purple (North East), yellow (Circle), blue (Downtown) and brown (Thomson-East Coast) lines.

In time to come, there will also be a light green Cross Island Line and light blue Jurong Region Line, PM Lee added.

Singapore has also invested heavily in a first-class healthcare system to make it accessible and affordable to all, and poured more resources into pre-schools and infant care while transforming the broader education system to have more diverse pathways.

“In Singapore, unlike in some other countries, your postal code does not determine your destiny,” he said.

The Government has also made every effort to leave no one behind as the country progressed, PM Lee added, alluding to the promise he made in his 2004 swearing-in speech to forge an inclusive society.

One of his earliest moves as PM was to create ComCare, which brought together existing social programmes and enhanced them to channel more resources towards the needy.

Workfare was then launched to supplement the incomes of lower-wage workers, and the Progressive Wage Model to raise wages and skills in a sustainable way.

Today, children from disadvantaged backgrounds also get an extra boost through KidStart, while ComLink+ works with vulnerable families to put them on the path of home ownership.

Other components of Singapore’s social safety net were also strengthened, PM Lee added.

MediShield Life and CareShield Life help deal with large medical bills and long-term care costs; CPF Life and Silver Support are for retirement adequacy; and the Pioneer, Merdeka and Majulah packages take care of older Singaporeans.

PM Lee said he was also proud of the Singaporean pride and work ethic that has evolved, which the trade unions had helped to foster.

Whether they are teachers who spend their own time to help weaker students, uniformed personnel who become first responders even when off duty, or healthcare professionals who go the extra mile for their patients, Singaporeans take their responsibilities seriously even though not everyone can be at the top of the totem pole, he said.

“Ours is a society that takes pride in whatever we do and makes a point of doing it well,” he added.

“A society that is egalitarian and meritocratic in its ethos, where those who have done well feel a sense of duty to give back to the society that nurtured them.”

Next chapter of the Singapore story

The next chapter of the Singapore story is off to a strong start, though there are many uncertainties in the world, PM Lee said.

These include rising tensions and rivalry between big powers, deglobalisation and protectionism, technological advances and climate change, and questions of war and peace.

“The world has changed, and we must come up with updated creative responses, but some hard truths have not changed,” he said. “These imperatives will stay relevant in the years ahead.”

First, social cohesion is important, and race, language and religion are traditional fault lines that will never go away for Singapore.

While huge efforts have been made to build a shared Singaporean identity, the nation will always be subject to external forces that pull different segments of its population in different directions.

Singaporeans cannot disavow their diverse ethnic roots and religious affinities – Chinese Singaporeans with China, Indian Singaporeans with their various ancestral homes in India, Malay Singaporeans with the rest of the region, and with the global Muslim ummah (Arabic for community), he said.

While these can be vulnerabilities, Singapore does not want to lose these rich cultural and historical heritages.

“Therefore, for us, racial and religious harmony will always be a continuing work in progress,” PM Lee said. “Never think that we have ‘solved the problem’ and that we have left it behind.”

There are also other potential divisions, he noted, between the haves and the have-nots; Singaporean-born and naturalised citizens; conservatives and liberals; and the current and future generations.

“All these differences can be exploited politically, to pit Singaporeans one against another, and divide and weaken us,” he said. “Hence, we have got to continue to work hard to overcome social stresses and tensions, to enlarge our common space, and to strengthen our shared Singaporean identity.”

This is why the Government moved to allow Muslim nurses in Singapore’s public healthcare sector to wear the tudung, and repealed Section 377A of the Penal Code. These were controversial and difficult issues, but they were tackled instead of being left to fester, PM Lee said.

“So we prepared the ground carefully, worked out practical compromises and moved to a more sustainable, long-term position, while fostering mutual understanding and acceptance.”

Second, the PAP Government has always planned and acted for the long term. While having a vision and sense of stewardship beyond immediate problems and crises is important for every country, most find it very hard, he said.

Pointing to the rally venue, he recounted the long journey to turn Marina Bay into today’s reality.

The Government started thinking about reclaiming land there in the 1960s, and the reclamation project began in 1971. When he took over as PM, the Government started talking about integrated resorts (IRs).

“This was one of my first major decisions as prime minister – whether or not to allow IRs in Singapore, which would introduce casino gambling to Singapore,” he said. “After a full public debate, we decided to proceed, but with suitable safeguards in place.”

The IRs opened in 2010, just in time to catch the recovery from the global financial crisis, and they took off, he said. Today, besides the IRs, Singapore also has Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Barrage, Marina Reservoir and an iconic skyline around the bay.

There are more plans for Singapore in the decades ahead, he said. They include a new megaport in Tuas, a new Terminal 5 at Changi Airport, a redeveloped Paya Lebar after the airbase there is relocated, and a Greater Southern Waterfront for future generations to live, work and play.

Singapore will also reclaim a Long Island along the east coast, to protect itself from rising sea levels, and create more land and another freshwater reservoir, he added.

“I have no doubt that the next team and their successors will conceive more creative and ambitious projects, which will challenge us, inspire us and take our country to the next level,” he said.

Stability key to Singapore’s exceptionalism

The third fundamental principle is political stability and trust, PM Lee said.

Singapore’s whole system is anchored on a strong base of trust between the people and their Government: The people elect a PAP Government, and in turn the PAP Government works hard to maintain their trust and support.

“It shows, through words and through deeds, that it has the nation’s best interests at heart and is improving your lives,” he said.

At each election – 15 times in a row – the PAP has won a renewed mandate, fair and square, and continued to deliver results for Singaporeans, he added.

“Getting our politics right is absolutely crucial,” he said. “Please understand: We have succeeded, and Singapore has made exceptional economic and social gains, because our system is exceptional.”

The system does not have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble – as a 700 sq km island without a hinterland or natural resources, just being average means that the Republic will be worse off than other countries, he stressed.

“Graver still, if our system malfunctions – becomes beset by populism, tribalism, nativism, or obsessed by short-term gains, like some other countries – then we will certainly be sunk,” he said, on why it is crucial that Singaporeans uphold an ethos of excellence and to maintain political stability.

Concluding, he urged the people to make the most of the advantages that Singapore has accrued – adequate reserves, international respect, a cohesive society, and a vibrant and inclusive economy – without taking them for granted or tossing them away.

PM Lee, who was also marking his 40th year in politics, said that having done his best to lead a team that has stewarded Singapore and safeguarded its future, his successors must do the same.

“That is our path forward: For each generation to steward Singapore to the best of its ability, so that the next generation can take on a better Singapore, and, in turn, lead our nation onwards and upwards.”

Lawrence Wong has labour movement’s fullest support, says NTUC chief Ng Chee Meng
By Claire Huang, Senior Business Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

Singapore’s next prime minister Lawrence Wong has the “fullest support” of the labour movement, said NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who also paid tribute to outgoing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the annual May Day Rally.

Describing Deputy Prime Minister Wong as “a consistent and strong advocate for workers”, Mr Ng on May 1 said the labour movement looks forward to continuing its strong partnership with him to benefit Singapore workers and for the prosperity of the nation.

In his half-hour opening address, Mr Ng said DPM Wong had touched the hearts of many union leaders when he said the National Trades Union Congress is the most important partner of the Government at the closing event of the #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations in 2023.

“This sent a very strong message that our uniquely Singapore tripartite partnership will continue for many years to come under your leadership, and we look forward to it,” said Mr Ng.

The labour chief said DPM Wong has always had a heart for the lower-income and vulnerable workers.

He said this is reflected in the Progressive Wage Credit Scheme that was introduced in Budget 2022 so that lower-wage workers can have higher pay, and the enhancement of the Workfare Income Supplement scheme that has been extended to younger workers.

It was also seen in the key decisions made during the Covid-19 crisis to protect workers and their livelihoods through measures such as the Jobs Growth Incentive scheme.

Of particular significance was the $100 million that was set aside by DPM Wong to scale up NTUC’s company training committee initiative to help workers and companies transform for the future, said Mr Ng.

The remarks followed a tribute and a standing ovation for PM Lee, where Mr Ng called him a “steadfast partner” who advanced the interest of workers to get better wages, welfare and work prospects.

And PM Lee did so with utmost skill, carefully managing the dynamic balance between forging a strong economy for businesses and ensuring workers have a fair share in wages, he said.

“Having the Government be on the side of workers and on the side of employers at the same time is really the secret sauce of our tripartism. Many countries around the world, regardless of how desirable it is to do so, are simply not able to do so.

“Yet under your leadership, tripartite partners have forged together win-win-win outcomes for economic growth, better lives and livelihoods, and, most critically, to build Singapore into the First World country that we are today,” Mr Ng said.

Mr Ng expressed gratitude to PM Lee for his contributions to the labour movement, adding that NTUC will continue to deepen its relationship with the PAP and work with the Government and employers to build a better Singapore for all workers.

Posting on Facebook and LinkedIn after the rally, DPM Wong said that the tripartite partnership is a critical factor that makes Singapore special.

He wrote: “A critical success factor is our tripartite partnership, where we join hands between the unions, employers and Government, to ensure that everyone benefits from the nation’s progress.

“Our forefathers had laid the foundations of a symbiotic partnership between the People’s Action Party and NTUC Singapore. Under PM Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, this partnership has grown and strengthened over the years.

“My team and I will continue to strengthen this partnership, and equip and empower every Singaporean – so everyone can pursue their dreams and realise their fullest potential.”

Unions to play an even more crucial role in the future: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Sue-Ann Tan, Business Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew started his political journey by representing the postal workers’ union in a postmen’s strike in 1952, around the time Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was born.

“And so, when my father visited my mother and me in KKH (KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital)... instead of admiring his new baby, he was telling my mother all about the postmen’s union and his plans,” PM Lee said.

PM Lee told this story on May 1 during his May Day Rally speech, as he recounted how unions played a key role in his life and in Singapore’s success.

“As a young boy, I met many union activists. They would visit our home... for meetings, especially during election campaigns,” he said. “I knew that my father was the legal adviser to many trade unions. I wasn’t quite sure what being a legal adviser meant, but I took great pride in this.”

He added: “In future, the unions will play an even more crucial role, as we deal with geopolitical and economic uncertainty.”

PM Lee noted that “it is not only during crises that tripartism proves its worth. Singapore’s dramatic progress would have been impossible without tripartism”, referring to the three-way relationship between employers, unions and the Government.

He added that the PAP has worked hard, creating prosperity and progress, and ensuring every Singaporean benefits from the fruits of growth.

“Through the symbiotic relationship with the PAP, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has done right by workers, and helped them and their families to enjoy a better life,” he said.

The cooperative relationship came about in 1969 during NTUC’s modernisation seminar. “(That) was when we replaced the old adversarial approach – unions versus employers – with a cooperative, tripartite strategy based on trust and confidence,” he said.

The partners formed the National Wages Council to establish a constructive process for tripartite annual wage negotiations, and assured workers of their fair share of economic growth.

PM Lee also observed how tripartism helped in times of crisis, such as the recession of 1985 when Singapore had to reduce business costs by cutting employer Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions.

“I remember this vividly, because I chaired the Economic Committee which made this recommendation,” he said, adding that he was grateful to have the full support of Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was then the NTUC secretary-general, and union leaders.

“Together, we persuaded the workers that the CPF cut was unavoidable, and that it would help secure their jobs,” he said, noting that the economy revived within the year.

“No other country could have implemented such a draconian policy, gotten unions and workers to accept it, and made it work. But Singapore workers knew we had their backs.

“And we still do – we will always have your backs.”

This partnership continued to carry Singapore through other crises, such as the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

“But by now the tripartite partners knew what to do, and each time we pulled through, with our workers safe, and our partnership strengthened,” PM Lee said.

He added that the unions are also transforming to remain relevant, reaching beyond blue-collar workers to look after graduates, professionals, platform workers and the self-employed.

Company training committees have also been formed in hundreds of companies to plan and execute training and upgrading programmes together with employers.

The National Trades Union Congress is also reaching out to young workers even while they are still in post-secondary institutions, through organisations like Young NTUC.

“You pushed for stronger support for families and caregiving, and greater gender equality... you elected three female NTUC presidents, and nurtured the first female president of Singapore,” PM Lee said.

He added that before each May Day Rally, he also met union leaders to hear their concerns. This year, the topics were getting workers to understand the fierce competition from other countries and what must be done to stay in the game.

The conversations also included how older workers worry about keeping up with technological progress, while younger ones want work-life balance, as well as the future of the tripartite partnership and how it must carry on with the next generation of leaders.

“Today, in the 70th year of the PAP’s founding, and after 20 years as your PM, I can tell you, in all good conscience, that both the NTUC and the PAP have delivered on our promises to Singaporeans,” he said.

NTUC membership grew by over 30% in last few years to hit 1.3 million
By Claire Huang, Senior Business Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has grown its membership by more than 30 per cent in the last three years to 1.3 million, said NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng on May 1.

Giving the latest update on NTUC’s membership expansion at the annual May Day Rally, Mr Ng said about 45 per cent of union members are professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), which is similar to the national ratio.

NTUC has set a goal of reaching 1.5 million members by 2030.

“Today, PMEs constitute more of our workforce, and in time to come, PMEs will form the majority of the Singapore workforce, given our evolving education landscape,” Mr Ng said, pledging to do more for this group.

Besides the Compass (Complementarity Assessment) framework to level the playing field for Singaporeans in the job market, and upcoming legislation to promote workplace fairness and safeguard workers against discrimination, the labour movement is also moving to improve human resources practices here, Mr Ng said.

Compass is a points-based framework that the Ministry of Manpower uses to evaluate the attributes of individual Employment Pass applicants and their prospective employer, in deciding to issue the pass.

In another example, the labour chief said ST Engineering Staff Union and ST Engineering set up a company training committee (CTC) in July 2021 that helped workers, of whom 40 per cent are PMEs, acquire new skills.

Beyond ST Engineering, Mr Ng said that across the 150 companies that have accessed the CTC grant, more than 3,000 workers will receive an average wage increase of 5 per cent on top of their annual increment or will benefit from enhanced career development plans.

He noted that NTUC’s career centres are now serving a wider range of PME profiles, including equity advisers and cyber-security managers.

In his address at the rally, Mr Ng, who took over as labour chief in May 2018, recounted a moment when outgoing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong left a deep impression on him.

Mr Ng, who was then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, had suggested that the Government consider having a Downtown South development in Sentosa for workers. He made the suggestion at a Greater Southern Waterfront redevelopment briefing to the Cabinet in 2019.

His proposal was taken up by PM Lee.

“Thank you for Downtown South. This was to date my most productive negotiation – all in 30 seconds,” Mr Ng said.

Later in his May Day Rally speech, PM Lee responded to Mr Ng’s recounting of the anecdote.

“Your sec-gen didn’t brag about his negotiating skills apropos this item, but when he put it up, he also asked for a budget and we also agreed within 30 seconds,” said PM Lee, drawing cheers from the unionists in the audience.

Union leaders present gifts, mementoes to PM Lee Hsien Loong at his last May Day Rally as Prime Minister
By Tay Hong Yi and Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 2 May 2024

After delivering his last major speech as prime minister on May 1, PM Lee Hsien Loong was surrounded by unionists dressed in red polo shirts who gave him gifts and lined up to take photos with him.

PM Lee on May 1 delivered his final major speech at the annual National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) May Day Rally 2024, held at Sands Expo and Convention Centre. The event was attended by some 1,700 unionists, business leaders, government officials and guests.

He is set to pass the baton to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who will be sworn in as the Republic’s fourth prime minister on May 15.

PM Lee received several standing ovations throughout his speech, with some in the audience holding up balloons that spelt out “I LOVE U PM LEE” and blowing whistles.

The group behind the balloons was the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union. The union’s president Julie Cheong said that unionists wanted to express their appreciation to PM Lee, especially after the Government subsidised up to 75 per cent of workers’ wages during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Cheong, 52, recounted meeting PM Lee over lunch at the Istana before several May Day rallies. The meetings were held to give PM Lee a sense of unionists’ and workers’ sentiments on the ground.

“Each time, PM Lee made us feel comfortable. He doesn’t make us feel that we are in any way inferior in the Istana or when we meet him,” said the union leader, who works as a guest relations executive at Four Seasons Hotel.

Another group that waited in line to present PM Lee with a gift was the NTUC Aerospace and Aviation Cluster. The cluster’s union leaders signed a plaque that they presented to PM Lee.

One of the union leaders was ST Engineering Staff Union general secretary Sazali Zainal, who told The Straits Times that during the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Lee met him and other union leaders in the aerospace industry to discuss jobs when air travel was restricted as countries shut their borders.

“He was open to the feedback and the suggestions we gave him, about training, about job redesign, job upskilling, basically just to protect workers from having to leave the industry,” said the 51-year-old aircraft engineer.

Mr Sazali said that PM Lee’s recounting of his 40th year in politics and public service was touching. “He has left behind a legacy that I think he should be proud of. As a Singaporean, I’m also very proud of him,” he added.

Veteran union leader John De Payva, 74, who was NTUC president from 1997 to 2011, was part of a committee tasked to help bring Singapore out of recession in 1985, which PM Lee chaired. Mr De Payva said PM Lee, who was then DPM, made sure the committee formed robust wage reform proposals that were practicable.

“He (encouraged us) to explore ways and means of tackling the rigidity of the wage system,” he said, adding that PM Lee is a “guiding light” for the labour movement.

Mr De Payva recalled how PM Lee sought his views when preparing for his maiden May Day Rally speech as prime minister in 2005. “We have such a humble prime minister,” he said.

Ms Mary Liew, general secretary of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU), said that the growth of the labour movement was made possible by the stability of the country under PM Lee’s stewardship.

Ms Liew, who was NTUC president from 2015 to 2023, said: “I’ll always remember his quote that ‘tripartism is our national treasure’; we must never take it for granted and we must always grow it.”

The SMOU was among several unions that presented gifts to PM Lee. Ms Liew, 61, said the union’s gift was a set of medallion coins depicting a hybrid orchid cultivated in 2016 to mark SMOU’s 65th anniversary.

“We wanted to present this gift that meant a lot to us to PM, to show the appreciation the SMOU has for him.

“The Prime Minister has walked a journey with the labour movement, so he’s part of our family,” said Ms Liew.


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