Thu. Jul 18th, 2024
Nurses strike, organised by the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees, 1963 <a href=""><em>(National Archives of Singapore)</em></a>

TL;DR – You know what they say on HWZ, yes, No Picture No Talk (NPNT)!

I came across this article on Vulcan Post, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Singapore’s Labour Movement yesterday. It was super long, but just like what the title said, I did not know half the things on the list.

I did know union members call one another brothers and sisters though.

They’re brothers, hehe! (via)


Anyway, I swear Facebook must be stalking me. Everytime I talk to my friends about something, it will appear as ads on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. It happened again!

Told you I was reading that long article, ya? Then Facebook started “pushing” me PM Lee’s May Day Message 2021 that was released on Friday (30th April 2021)!

Yes, I caved in. I clicked and I read it. Truth be told, I found it interesting! It read almost like the history of Singapore and NTUC all rolled into one! So now, I’m going to share PM Lee’s entire May Day Message, but I will value-add by giving you super-cool photos from the past.

You know what they say on HWZ, yes, No Picture No Talk (NPNT)!


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s May Day Message 2021

This year, NTUC celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Your founding story is closely intertwined with Singapore’s. In the 1950s, trade unions made common cause with the PAP to press the colonial government for better conditions for workers, and to fight for self-determination and independence.

In 1961, when the communists broke away from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis, the trade union movement also split. The NTUC was established, and stood with the PAP against the pro- communist groups.

Union members from the Singapore Traction Company Employees Union, 1961 (NTUC Archives)

Those early years were tumultuous.

Fighting the communists together forged deep bonds of trust and comradeship between PAP and NTUC leaders. These bonds endured through the wrenching events of 1965, and saw us through our journey from separation to nationhood.

All our founding leaders initially believed Singapore couldn’t survive without a hinterland (IPS Commons)

Barely two years after independence, the British announced their intention to withdraw their forces from Singapore.

This was another hammer blow.

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The sudden pull-out of British forces presented serious problems to Singapore’s defence and economic security (SPH via NTUC)

To survive we had to create replacement jobs for our people, which meant making ourselves attractive to foreign investments.

The PAP government passed stringent laws to reduce industrial strife while protecting the basic rights of workers. Employers’ powers to hire and fire were restored, while the unions’ scope for collective bargaining – though not their right to organise – was curtailed.

Strikes were the modus operandi for unions in the 1960s. Seen here, workers from The Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) on strike against Fitzpatricks Supermarket on 16 Dec 1965 (Perjuangan N.T.U.C photo)

The unions were understandably unhappy. However, working through the NTUC, the PAP convinced workers to support the changes as the right way forward.

In 1969, the NTUC held its seminal “Modernization Seminar”. This ushered in a new era of tripartite relations, based on collaboration rather than confrontation. It created the basis for decades of sustained, rapid growth.

Union membership declined from 120,000 in 1965 to 90,000 in 1969 as many workers felt that trade unions were no longer relevant with the new labour legislations. This led the NTUC to organise a ground-breaking ‘Modernization Seminar’ in 1969 to reinvigorate the Labour Movement (NTUC)

Our model of trade unionism and tripartism has been criticised, especially in the West. We have no reason to be defensive.

Trade union membership has steadily declined in most western societies. By contrast, union membership has risen consistently in Singapore, by dint of deliberate policy and unremitting effort. Labour movements in the West are now a pale shadow of what they were in the 1960s, while the labour movement in Singapore has grown from strength to strength.

The verdict of history is clear: tripartism and cooperation have been far more effective in securing workers’ welfare and livelihoods than militancy and conflict.

The NTUC marching contingent in the 1970s (NTUC)

Our journey from Third World to First was not all smooth sailing.

The withdrawal of British forces was only the first of many storms. There followed the 1973 oil crisis, our first major recession in 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and the Global Financial Crisis.

Each time, our tripartite model saw us through.

A large number of workers were retrenched during the 1985 recession (SPH via NTUC)

Workers tightened belts, made sacrifices, and accepted pay cuts.

Employers shared in the sacrifices, and did their best to save as many jobs as possible.

At the same time, government help supported businesses and workers through the difficult times.

By working together, practising give-and-take, and focussing on the long term, the tripartite partners found ways forward in difficult circumstances, and strengthened their trust and cooperation in readiness for the next storm. Against this record of crises past, COVID-19 looks not quite so daunting, although it is still a formidable challenge.

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In normal times, unions work quietly in the background to keep industrial relations on an even keel. But in an overwhelming crisis like COVID-19, your mission to protect workers comes to the fore.

The aviation industry contributed about 3 per cent of Singapore’s total GDP and provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for Singaporeans. The industry has been badly hit by the pandemic (FT)

Last year, when job losses became unavoidable, the unions ensured that retrenchments were carried out fairly and responsibly.

The NTUC’s Job Security Council directly helped more than 28,000 workers find new jobs, as well as provided financial support through the NTUC Care Fund (COVID-19).

When Suntec had to retrench 85 staff last year, the strong labour-management relations between union and company has resulted in a fair process. Affected workers received fair retrenchment benefits and the NTUC Job Security Council provided these workers at least two job opportunities pre-matched for them (Facebook)

NTUC also partnered the Government to implement the Self- Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), extending a crucial lifeline to the self-employed.

Through the crisis, the Labour Movement maintained its collaborative stance. It persuaded workers to sacrifice today for the promise of a better tomorrow. Without this spirit of fighting COVID-19 together and never-say-die, we would not have come through our worst downturn since independence so lightly.

Compared to a year ago, our outlook has brightened considerably.

The global recession is turning out to be less protracted than we initially feared. While Europe still struggles with fresh waves of COVID-19, the US expects to make a strong recovery this year, on the back of a large stimulus package and good progress in vaccinating its population. China’s economy is doing well too, with hardly any cases in the country.

These external trends support our own economic recovery, and justify confidence in our prospects.

Global economy on firmer ground, but with divergent recoveries amid high uncertainty (IMF)

Already, our unemployment rate is gradually coming down. MTI had earlier forecast 4-6% GDP growth, but barring a setback to the global economy, growth this year is likely to exceed 6%. This will bring us back to where we were before COVID-19 struck.

Beyond this year, new opportunities are opening up. The pandemic has accelerated trends like digitalisation, automation, and sustainability, across all sectors. To seize them, we need to transform our economy for a different, post-COVID-19 world.

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The Emerging Stronger Taskforce is busy working on this transformation, and I am happy that the Labour Movement is actively involved.

Our workforce is becoming more diverse. Freelancers, entrepreneurs, mature workers and fresh graduates all face different employment challenges. Each group needs customised policies and solutions.

Since forming the PME Taskforce with the Singapore National Employers Federation in October 2020, NTUC has reached out to close to 8,000 PMEs to better address their concerns and needs at the workplace (NTUC)

The NTUC has formed over 600 Company Training Committees (CTCs). These work with firms to identify capability gaps, co-create new jobs, and train workers for them. The CTCs show how NTUC is making itself relevant, and finding new solutions to secure better jobs for workers.

The guiding principle of tripartism has always been to stay united and progress together. This May Day, let us recommit ourselves to strengthening this partnership, and building a brighter future for Singapore for the next 60 years and beyond.

I wish all Singaporeans a healthy and happy May Day.


During the actual delivery of the May Day Message at the May Day Rally today, PM Lee drew our attention to the new COVID-19 clusters and reminded us all not to be complacent. He thanked all the workers for their contribution, particularly the essential workers. While no sectors have been spared from the pandemic, PM highlighted the plights of the healthcare, aviation and construction sectors which have been hit especially hard. He also reminded us of the Government’s commitment to protect everyone working here, Singaporeans and migrant workers alike.

He also reiterated the strong bond between the labour movement and the ruling party. He has sought the continuous support from the Labour Movement as it celebrates its 60th birthday this year, to work alongside the Government in nation building, and to make Singaporeans’ lives better.


(Featured image: Nurses strike, organised by the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees, 1963 via National Archives of Singapore)

By admin