4 Key Takeaways from Economics Lah! Podcast on Labour Unions, featuring NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Chee Hong Tat

By May 23, 2022Current, Work
Mr Lee Kuan Yew represented the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in its salary negotiations with the colonial government

TL;DR – Everything you need to know about labour unions, and how they advocate for workers’ interests in Singapore.

What better way to spend another long weekend than to pick up some knowledge from podcasts?

With May Day being just over, we thought it would be interesting to find out what exactly the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) does besides rolling out the annual $0.50 coffee and tea promotion.

So, we listened to this 40-min podcast on Economics Lah! so you didn’t have to. Here are 4 key takeaways from the podcast.

1. Trust is key to upkeeping peace

We don’t often hear about major disputes between employers and their workers, and sometimes we wonder why. Well, the key reason is that oftentimes, disputes have been resolved behind closed-door negotiations that NTUC, on behalf of the workers, have with the company management.

In a worst-case scenario when disputes get escalated to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), negotiations conclude successfully as employers trust MOM to be fair and even-handed and trust NTUC to be fair in its requests. As such, disagreements are resolved in a constructive and forward-looking manner.

This, is also what the tripartite relationship between NTUC, employers, and MOM is all about.

2. Industrial action (going on strike) is like taking the nuclear option

In the podcast, NTUC deputy secretary-general Chee Hong Tat explained that NTUC wants to retain its capabilities to do so, but is leaving it as a last resort.

The best way to avoid a conflict is to let people know that we are battle-ready. Just think about how negotiations work in the larger world. Not naming any countries here, but it seems like it is always the knowledge of a nuclear threat that makes others think twice about launching a full-blown attack.

3. Minimum Wage is good, but Progressive Wage Model is better

The Progressive Wage Model (PWM) ensures that wage increases remain sustainable by mandating productivity improvement and skills upgrading. The PWM works as a wage ladder that not only enables lower-wage workers to have a higher income but also provides them with a sense of aspiration. Workers can aspire to higher wages and ambitions by improving their skills. Now, this is something that we cannot put a price tag to.

On the other hand, the minimum wage does look easier to administer as it is a ‘blanket’ wage that will apply across all sectors. However, it overlooks the very fact that every sector is different – the blanket wage may be too low for some sectors, and too high for others. In the latter, vulnerable low-wage workers may lose their job when employers decide that the wages are too high for the work that they do.

4. The NTUC of today will not be the NTUC of tomorrow

NTUC’s strength comes literally from its numbers.

The reason why NTUC has been able to pull its weight in front of employers and the government is because of its sheer number of workers who subscribe to it.

With the rise of gig workers, new industries, and younger workers with different values, many unions around the world are starting to lose relevance and face declining memberships.

The good news is that NTUC is aware that the workforce is changing. NTUC is aware that it needs to remain relevant. In fact, in recent years, the has been set up to address and meet the needs of freelancers and self-employed persons.

During the podcast, Chee Hong Tat also acknowledged the challenge of a changing workforce and echoed that the union will have to think out of the box, on how it can protect workers differently.

For those of you who prefer reading over listening, here’s the full transcript of the podcast which we painstakingly transcribed:

Could you tell us a little bit more, what is the role of NTUC?

NTUC has been around for quite some time. We were formed on the 6th of September 1961. This year we are celebrating our 61st birthday. Throughout NTUC’s history, we’ve been through quite a lot of ups and downs. But there were some very critical moments in our history, that maybe I can share with all our listeners. 

Like many other labour movements around the world, the main purpose of labour unions is to protect our workers, to champion and advocate for our workers. But the difference is how we do it, and what is it that we want to achieve through the advocacy, through our efforts to help workers. NTUC went through a big change in the late 1960s when we had what we called the modernization seminar.

In those days, our forefathers, Dr Goh Keng Swee, our first secretary-general Mr Devan Nair, they came together and they said we cannot continue this business as usual. We have to innovate the union business model. Because if we continue to take the traditional union approach, which was what we experienced in the early part of NTUC’s formation – confrontation, going on strikes – it is going to scare away investors. 

If you recall, in late 1960s, the British announced that they were going to withdraw from Singapore. So everyone was so worried about job losses, and then what are we going to do to absorb all these workers who are going to be affected when the British withdraw? The labour union then decided that the better approach is to grow the economic pie, so that employers will want to invest in Singapore. We have stable labour management relations, we create a conducive environment to attract investments, and then generate growth, create new jobs. And that in turn will allow our workers to share the gains of economic growth. That was quite a pivotal moment, because it required a change in mindset. From confrontation to collaboration.

You shared a lot about the goal and the approach of being collaborative. The entire purpose of labour unions, NTUC, is to protect workers. Can we find out a bit more, what sort of tangible actions has NTUC taken to further workers’ interest in the recent years?

As you know NTUC, we are a congress, we have affiliated unions and also associations. Each of these unions represent different groups of workers in different sectors. We have those in manufacturing, education, healthcare, hotels, F&B. It is quite a wide range, covering different segments of economy, representing different groups of workers.

What is important and common is that our trade unions will always be on the lookout for what we can do to improve the lives of our workers. Because you can see from my backdrop – Every Worker Matters, we believe that every worker can make a difference.

But when circumstances change, there will be an impact on our workers – retrenchments. These are not completely avoidable. Because some companies don’t do well, some companies will close down. We don’t think we can help to protect every job, but we must help every worker. The workers who are affected, how do we help them to transit to a new job?

One specific example I can share with you – we had a big retrenchment exercise in one of our unionised companies called Panasonic. They are still having quite a big presence in Singapore but one part of their operations which deals with production, they couldn’t compete with the factories in China, Malaysia. Because our cost of production, labour cost, land costs, electricity costs are higher compared to these other countries. 

So we lost our competitive advantage there then?

For the lower-end manufacturing. Because the lower end manufacturing, they can make an equally good product in China and Malaysia. We don’t quite have a competitive advantage on that front. Because we are more expensive, we want to pay our workers higher wages, our labour costs are higher. As a result, they actually closed down their manufacturing facilities here, and have released their workers in 2 batches, almost 700 workers are affected. First batch already went through the retrenchment. Another batch coming up later this year. 

So what we then do is that we went in to talk to management, together with the government agencies in this case, EDB, and make sure that first, the retrenchment terms and conditions are fair to the workers. So they are given a proper package depending on their years of service. We make sure that they are adequately and fairly compensated for the retrenchment. 

Second and importantly, it is also to help those who want to continue working to be able to find a new job. This may require some training as well. You can’t assume that when they move from their current job to the new job, it would be a perfect fit. 

That’s true, we learn about frictional unemployment.

Exactly, that’s when we have to come in to identify what are the new skills that they need, how do we help them to do the transition.

So I understand that NTUC has this NTUC LearningHub which kind of fulfills role of educator, help workers to upskill- 

Training provider. We have a few entities. So besides our trade unions, which will be at the frontlines, we also have supporting entities within the NTUC family. 

You mentioned NTUC LearningHub, they provide training, both online and classroom training. What they do is that they have some in-house trainers but a larger group of trainers are people from outside. They contract these professional trainers or work with Institutes of Higher Learning to run a series of courses, based on what we think workers will need to be job ready. 

There’s another entity within NTUC that takes an impt role here which is e2i. 

e2i does job matching. They will look for where are the job vacancies, they will look at who are the people looking for a job, they will do career counseling and coaching. They will identify how do I match the job seeker to the jobs. This sounds very simple in theory but in practice, it can be quite challenging. Because there are always mismatches in expectations, in skills. But we try our best.  

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You’ve shared a lot of how labour unions come into play when workers get retrenched, how to protect workers rights and help them find new jobs. But we also understand that Labour unions have a large role to play in bargaining for wages with the companies themselves. Can you share more about how NTUC does this?

We have collective bargaining for some of the workers. Not all, because you have to be what they call within scope – in other words, If you go to a unionised company, some of the workers, typically those who are more junior in rank will come under collective agreement or collective bargaining. What we do is that we represent them collectively and our unions, together with colleagues in NTUC, will enter into a collective agreement with management on what are the salary, what are the terms and conditions. the leave, benefits, what is the increment, bonus, so on and so forth.

So why is it that we don’t do it for every worker? It’s because for the more senior workers – actually they will not want to have collective bargaining. They will sometimes prefer to have a more individual package, customised to their own needs, personal to holder. That’s why we don’t do this for the more senior people. We do this more for what we call the rank and file workers, the more junior PMETs. We do cover this under our collective agreements.

Of course, we hope that over time, we are able to increase the scope of coverage, so that we can cover more workers. I think this is relevant, because our workforce is changing, profile is changing. We used to have many many rank and file workers in Singapore. But as you know young people like yourselves, your generation, actually most of them start off as PMETS. So we do need to make sure that we are able to move in tandem with the times. 

Now I want to talk about comparing Singapore’s labour union to the ones overseas. We studied in school that sometimes labour unions can be harmful for economic growth when they are a bit too strong and they bargain for wage growth with any growth in productivity. So can I ask you to what extent do labour unions that are doing such practices – how do they contribute to structural rigidity and the whole economy that might slow growth?

Thanks for bringing up this very important point. Because you’re right, whether it is a positive force or negative force, whether it is constructive or destructive, actually depends not so much on whether the trade unions are strong or not strong but more importantly, how they see their role and what they want to achieve.

In our case, we believe that NTUC’s strength is an asset to our tripartite partnership. Because when we are strong, when we are able to represent the workforce adequately, we are better able to reflect workers’ concerns, we’re better able to mobilise workers to support productivity improvement, skills upgrading, business and workforce transformations. These are important to the employers too. It is win-win, for both the employers, and for workers, if we do it well. 

The key is not so much whether we are strong or not strong. The key is what we do with our strength. Do we use our strength, our representation in a positive manner, in a constructive manner to achieve growth? To achieve gain sharing? Or do we use it to block progress? I don’t want to name which countries, but you can find enough examples on the internet of labour movements around the world. Some are modeled more closely to what we want to do, going for collective growth, going for gain sharing, enlarging the pie, win-win. 

But there are also many that unfortunately go the opposite direction, they block free trade, they stop companies from overseas from coming in, they do not allow companies to bring in foreign workers. Because they want to protect local workers against foreign competition.

Of course we do need some protection for our companies, our workers, to ensure a level playing field. But if you are blocking free trade, blocking investments, blocking entry of foreign workers, you become inward looking. For a small economy like Singapore, we are doing ourselves harm. If we are disconnected from the global trading system, if no one wants to invest here, if you are unable to attract talents, actually a lot of jobs will flow elsewhere, and our people, our workers, will ultimately lose out. 

This is why I feel our labour movement needs to be progressive, needs to be forward looking. And very importantly, to use our strength to help the country to progress. Help our tripartite partners, government and employers to have win-win. That is very important and in the process of doing that, we build trust with our tripartite partners, we also build trust with our workers. At the end, it is not just what we say, it is what we deliver.

You shared a lot about trust here, trust between the unions and employers. I understand in a global context, industrial action, or synonym for strikes, is done quite frequently, why is that approach not really taken in singapore? I understand strikes are a bit disruptive, but they can also be a show of strength to show that unions are serious about raising wages of workers. 

We have done one strike in Singapore before. Organised by NTUC, when Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the Secretary-General. This was in the 1980s, it was an American company. But you know I see Industrial Action or strikes as like a nuclear option. 

For the unions, this is a power that we want to retain, we want to keep, in case we really need to deal with very difficult situations. We still want to retain this power to be able to organize strikes, however, because it is as I said nuclear option, we don’t want to use it too freely. Really, It’s a last resort, it’s like bo bian then you do this. If you can avoid this, actually a better way is to resolve differences and disagreements through negotiations. You know why? Because we need to work together. This is not a one-off transaction. You don’t want to win the battle, lose the war. If you carry out strikes, yes, you may end up teaching the employer a lesson, sabotage his operations, you may feel very shiok for a short while. But when the employer then decides to pull out of Singapore, the jobs will be gone. We need to think long term, don’t, as I said, win the battle and lose the war.

So how do we protect workers even if we don’t go on strike? Actually, between the nuclear option of going on strike and doing nothing – there are many many intermediate steps that we can take before you reach that last resort. 

For a start, if we have a dispute/grievances that our workers surface to us, e.g. they were not fairly treated, they felt that the company has been not sharing gains with them fairly, we can raise it with the company. Because we have a relationship with the management, and with support of MOM, we are better able to represent the workers collectively, to reflect their voice in a more effective manner. We have a conversation with management and very often, when we step in, management will also escalate to the more senior levels. When both sides come together, most of the time, we can find some compromise, we can find a win-win, way forward for both parties. Most of the time it’s like that. You don’t have to resort to industrial action to resolve disputes.

But if you can’t resolve, and there are cases where they disagree, we disagree, we don’t want to compromise, for a while we may be going back and forth. Rather than let it get stuck, a stalemate, we can refer this to MOM. MOM can then step in through arbitration to be able to help resolve the matter.

Again, in our case, because there is trust. Employers do trust MOM to be fair, to be even handed, employers also trust unions to be fair and reasonable. We, of course, trust the government and trust employers also to be fair. Because of that trust, amongst the tripartite partners, we can resolve many many disagreements, disputes in a constructive and forward looking manner. We still need to work together, even after you resolve the confrontation and dispute, you still want to remain partners and friends. Because we still need to work together. Don’t tear face, if we can help it.

But as I said, this doesn’t mean that we are soft or we are afraid of a fight. It’s like SAF, we are ready to defend Singapore but it doesn’t mean that we like to pick a fight unnecessarily. Sometimes you do need to make sure your capabilities are there, you do need to make sure that you are battle-ready. The best way to avoid it is that people know you are battle-ready.

You explained the reason why we take such a cooperative tripartite approach is because of how our economy works, we are dependent on overseas businesses and it is very open. We need to always maintain that friendship, that relationship with businesses to make sure that the jobs still stay here.

If I may elaborate a little bit, at the end of day, we ask ourselves. What would be in the best interest of our workers? If we believe that every worker matters and we want to improve their lives, then we have got to ask ourselves: is it rhetoric, is it chanting of slogans that will help, or is it actually giving them positive outcomes – better jobs, higher wages, better welfare, better work prospects. What is it that will really benefit them?

And our view is that actions speak louder than words. We should focus on outcomes, we should focus on what we can do for our workers. That is more important. It may not necessarily be the conventional approach that other unions take. They may have a different approach from us. But that’s okay, at the end of the day, the test is what we deliver through our workers – whether we improve their lives, whether we offer them protection and whether we uplift our lower-wage workers, their skills, productivity, earnings. That is what really matters.

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I know tripartism had its hand in many different organisations, wage-related topics in Singapore. Can you talk about PWM or National Wage Council. How does NTUC play a role in these organisations?

Maybe I’ll start with PWM, or Progressive Wage Model. This is an innovation from NTUC. We recognised some years ago that it is not sustainable, not tenable if there is wide disparity in earnings between lower-wage workers and those who are median wage earners, and high wage earners. Because while from an economic point of view, you may argue that this is how the economy will allocate resources for optimal outcomes. 

But from a social point of view, it undermines cohesion, and we will not be able to be united as one. And that is important. We are not just operating an economy, we are operating a country, we are operating society, we are a community. There are more things in life than economics. 

We do need to make sure that in order to create the right conditions for economic growth, we also need to pay attention to social unity, cohesion, and making sure that people can progress as one, leaving no one behind. 

So how do we do that? This is where I remember something that my economics professor taught me. He said that in economics, we must always judge the effectiveness of a measure or policy by incentives and the outcomes. And not by the motivations or intent of its proponents. And you think about it, another way to say this is that good intentions can actually lead to bad outcomes. Having a good intention is necessary but insufficient.

In this case, we all want to uplift the wages of our lower-wage workers. But the question is how, how do we do it? This is where we deviate in our approach from some other proponents of measures like minimum wage. They feel that minimum wage is the more effective, more direct, quicker way of doing so. Simpler, yes, to some extent that is true because you just have the minimum wage rather than this rather complex wage ladder, skills ladder but maybe I explain a little bit why we feel that Progressive Wage Model is a better way than minimum wage. It is more complex, but it is more effective, and it gives you better outcomes. The biggest danger of minimum wage is the risk of unemployment, or what we call disemployment.

If you set the wage too low, it is not meaningful. If you set the wage too high, the workers could end up losing their jobs. Employers may say in that case, I don’t hire the worker because the wage set is too high. So this is the danger of a minimum wage. I am not saying the people who proposed minimum wage are trying to make the workers lose their jobs. Certainly not. They are also thinking of how to help the workers. But as I said, good intentions need not necessarily lead to good outcomes.

What about the right level then? 

That is actually very subjective. You have so many different sectors, so many different companies, so many different groups of workers. When you set the minimum wage, in many other countries, it is basically just one number. The danger of that is it could be too low for some, it could be too high for others. If it is too low, it doesn’t make any impact. When it is too high, you could cause some workers, especially the lower-wage workers, the more vulnerable workers, to lose their jobs.

This is where our approach is a bit different from minimum wage, which is what most countries do. We come in and say, I think we need to pay attention to two very critical elements, that would go beyond minimum wage. First, wage increases need to go hand in hand with productivity improvements, and skills upgrading. That’s why we tie the wage ladder, which shows how the workers can earn higher wages over time, contingent on them achieving also higher skills and better productivity. And this would require collective tripartite effort to achieve.

In other words, it is not just the employers’ responsibility to pay more. It’s also the unions’ responsibility to mobilise the workers to go for training, to support enterprise transformation and productivity improvement projects. It’s also the Government’s responsibility to come in and to help companies to transform through various grants that the Government provides, through a conducive regulatory environment.

The second important element is that we don’t think we should put all the cost burden on the shoulders of employers alone. Because then that will really deter them from hiring lower-wage workers. But what we do is instead, we say okay, part of it comes from the employer, but coupled with productivity improvements and skills upgrading. Another part of it comes from Work Income Supplement, which is a Government redistribution scheme. So what the Government will do is, the Government will collect taxes, and using some of these taxes, reallocated part of it to help lower-wage workers by topping up their salaries. Think of it like a negative income tax. When you are a lower-wage worker and you work, instead of taxing you, I actually top up your wages. Give you additional wages, give you additional CPF, so that your total earnings, part of it will come from Progressive Wage Model from the employer, part from Government through Workfare Income Supplement. 

This is a more complex scheme, compared to just a pure minimum wage, but we feel this can help us to achieve better outcomes because you first, reduce the risk of disemployment, and second, you give the workers the sense of progression, that is not just one wage, over time they can aspire to even higher wages by improving their skills and by improving their productivity.

You mentioned how the PWM is perhaps the ideal model/best model we had so far, because it attaches wage growth to the tripartite effort to raise productivity even though that might come at some higher administrative costs, would you say?

More complexity and also, when we first started, not every sector has adopted the PWM. So, the coverage is not quite enough. But in the latest move under the triapartite workgroup on lower-wage workers, we have significantly expanded the coverage. Through a combination of PWM to cover more sectors including the F&B, retail, and also occupational progressive wages covering the drivers, administrative executives, and then the local qualifying salary, which is what the MOM has put in place to protect the wages of local workers in companies that hire foreign workers. They have to pay our local workers at least the local qualifying salary.

You mentioned some government policies and i think NTUC must have had a role to play in negotiating the levels of income-

As part of that tripartite workgroup. This is important, you mentioned the National Wage Council. Similar to the National Wage Council, Progressive Wage Model, these are all what we call negotiated outcomes. That is also why we are confident that employers will support, because they are part of discussion and proposal. It’s not something that the unions propose in isolation or that the government does behind closed-doors. We formed this tripartite setup with the SNEF, which is the Singapore National Employers Federation, and with Government – MOM, and of course, the NTUC representing the unions and workers. So three parties coming together and agreeing on what’s the way forward, what are the levels we want to set, how we want to pace ourselves, how we want to build in the necessary safeguards. So when we implement, the outcomes will be better as the buy-in is there.

You mentioned the tripartite approach with representatives from NTUC, SNEF, and MOM. But I think with such a small group of representatives, it’s only effective if it can really encapsulate everyone’s interest. I know NTUC, amidst the global environment, where say in the USA, there are less than 10% of unionised workers, NTUC currently has over a million, and is still growing. How does NTUC try to include as many workers as possible and how it remains representative of all these workers?

I want to be quite upfront and say that the pressures facing labour unions overseas in terms of declining relevance and declining membership, we are not immune to that. Because we have to be very clear of this. These are trends which can also affect Singapore, and can also affect NTUC. If it happens, it will undermine tripartism, which is an important pillar in our society. So how do we avoid that? I think there are two interrelated priorities for NTUC.

One is of course we have got to make sure that we remain relevant, we have got to move in tandem with time. Don’t forget what our core mission is, but we have got to evolve based on the changing needs of employers, of workers, younger workers, newer groups of workers, newer types of companies. If we stay static and we fight yesterday’s war, I don’t think we are going to benefit our workers very much and therefore, we will lose relevance. We are going to lose relevance also with our tripartite partners, because increasingly you are not really adding value.

We have to be very, very clear-headed about that, to never assume our role and relevance will always be there. We got to spur ourselves to transform our thinking, our business model, just as what our forefathers have done. I shared with you two examples – the modernization seminar was an innovation, a change of perspective.

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Progressive Wage Model is also another shift in the way we innovate based on the existing idea of minimum wage, how to make it better. These are all different, different ways in which we demonstrate how labour unions, how NTUC, can stay relevant and add value. We must continue to look for these areas. Is it to help tripartite partners, employers, and the government with economic transformation? Is it one of the priorities for us now? Is it to help workers with skills upgrading to do it better? Skills upgrading is not just going for training, but also about going for training in what areas? What do you train in, that will give you better employability and better protection against future changes. We believe lifelong learning is important – but lifelong learning – learn what? This is not so simple. You have to understand from the employers’ point of view, what are the new jobs they are creating, what are the new skills they require, how do we get our workers, in some instances, to move out of comfort zone, to try something that they have not been taking on previously, but are important for them to stay relevant and stay employable in future. 

So, I will say that is one big priority for NTUC. How to safeguard our value-add, our relevance to our key stakeholders, especially our workers. Linked to that, is then how do we grow our membership? Because there’s no point if let’s say, our membership base keeps shrinking, the people with us now retire, and new ones don’t join, or people who are with us now quit, and we can’t recruit new ones to join us. Over time, your base gets smaller and smaller, and up to a certain point, you become also not very relevant and not influential, because you don’t represent a significant proportion of workers. I think we need to pay attention to that too. We need to be better able to sell what are the benefits of joining NTUC or union membership – the protection, is it the skills upgrading that we provide in terms of support or is it really also, in addition to that, all the social benefits that we provide through our social enterprises?

Let me give you just a few examples. Every year, if you join as an ntuc member, as a full member. You pay $117 per year in terms of your membership fee. That may sound like a lot. The question is not whether it is expensive or cheap. It is what you get in return. If you pay $117, and if you get more back in value in return then it is worth it. But if you pay $117, and you get nothing in return, then it’s not worth it. $117 is not so expensive but people are thinking in terms of what do I get?

I will give you an example. If you shop at FairPrice and you’re an NTUC member, you get a 4% rebate on top of all the discounts that FairPrice is offering. If you spend, say $300 per month on groceries, every year you spend $3,600. Let’s make it $3,000 per year. 4% of $3,000 is $120, that would already be more than $117. That’s only one of the benefits.

If you go to Kopitiam to eat breakfast, if you go to NTUC income to buy insurance and you are an NTUC member, if you go to wild wild wet, bring your family, go with your friends. We have many more. We have a whole long list of different benefits. If you add it all up, actually the $117 is worth it. But we need to find a way to communicate this more clearly. We need to find a way to sell the benefits of union membership, both in terms of protection at work, skills upgrading, training and lifelong learning, and I think the social benefits. All these different schemes that I mentioned.

Now, in the month of May, if you are an NTUC member and you drink kopi or teh at Kopitiam, it’s $0.50. I don’t think there’s any other outlet that can offer such a good deal.

Thank you so much Mr Chee, you mentioned so many benefits you get with NTUC membership. I think many of us, we are just students, below the working age, so I think that’s something we will consider when we grow up, and joining, perhaps NTUC. As we come to a close for this podcast, can I invite you, Mr Chee, to share how the labour union, NTUC, can help Singapore chart its way forward in the next 10-20 years, and stay competitive as an economy?

Maybe I can share one quote from Mr Lee Kuan Yew when he spoke about labour unions and workers. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew said this: 

“It is in the interest of the workers and their unions that we must strive for growth and development. In other words, growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers.”

Now why did Mr Lee say this? Because I think Mr Lee is very clear. Growth is not an end in itself, but it’s a means to achieving better lives for our workers, for our people. So I think this must still remain the priority and the focus for our tripartite partners going forward.

Even though in the near term we can see some dark clouds in the global economy, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with inflation rising, the covid situation in China causing disruptions to supply chain and livelihoods. So definitely there are some challenging dark clouds, things that we do need to watch out for. 

However, if we look at the medium to longer term, I still feel that Singapore’s growth prospects is a rosy and optimistic one. So for young people like yourselves, don’t feel that we have reached the limit of our growth. Don’t feel that this is Singapore’s limit. Actually, our growth potential, we still have quite a lot of room for us to innovate, to push the boundaries, and to be able to go further, together with the region.

I say this because, in Asia there will be ups and down, but if you look at the middle to longer term, Asia still has good growth potential, provided we maintain regional stability, we maintain openness to trade, investments, the flow of ideas and talent, and make Singapore that part of the region, make Singapore that nerve centre and the launchpad where talent and ideas and capital can come to, to make things happen. So we have, of course, many of our fellow Singaporeans who will benefit from this process because when we have a flurry of activities, investment activities, startups, companies that invest, this could be high-tech companies like what we see, the Facebook, Google, Amazons of this world. Or it could also be manufacturing companies like Dyson. All the interesting activities that are happening in Singapore will create more good jobs for our people. But we need to make sure that our workers are ready, we need to make sure that they are adequately skilled and they are ready to take on these interesting jobs.

So that’s why the unions come in.

That’s right. So part of that must be then, what is the role for the unions. As I said earlier our job is then, while we want to achieve all these, is to do two things.

One, to partner with the government and employers to grow the pie. Then we can achieve the upside, we can achieve the growth, the jobs, the increase in wages and standards of living. That’s one thing which unions want to participate in, to help to be part of the growth story.

Second, and this is where what Mr Lee Kuan Yew said is relevant. We cannot assume that growth is enough. Growth is not an end in itself. Growth is a means to improving lives. We need to make sure that when there’s growth, there is fair gain sharing for our workers. So that we are able to move forward together as one united people, and we leave no one behind. 

The unions can play this role, through our care and share programmes, uplifting efforts, through our advocacy and championing for our workers. Also, looking out for new sectors. For example we have gig economies, we have new types of companies coming in – how do we innovate the way we protect workers in these sectors? It may not be the exact same union model we used to have for manufacturing, and for hotels. We may have to think out of the box, how do we protect workers in a different way. If you don’t move forward, you move back.

That’s very similar to businesses. I did not know unions have to be like that too. Today some of my main takeaways are that I used to see unions as this entity advocating solely for higher wages. Now I see that in Singapore, unions have a bigger purpose to play, not just protecting workers, but protecting the entire equitable income distribution and the cohesion of society. I think that’s a very important role, and I’m glad that NTUC is here in Singapore to be that connector for us.

Yes, to build a better tomorrow for you and me.

Okay, we’ll end off on that tagline. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you in our next episode.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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