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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Rally Speech on 1 May 2016

 

Sister Mary Liew, President of the NTUC, Brother Chan Chun Sing, Secretary-General, brothers and sisters, a very happy May Day to all of you. 

 

Brother Chun Sing has not invited me to join the union yet but he has done the next best thing - invited me to speak at the May Day Rally. So here I am and we celebrate together.  But this year we are celebrating in a slightly cautious mood because, when you look around us, the global economy is still slow. All the big economies, America, Europe, Japan, all have different economic problems, even China has slowed down and around the world workers are feeling anxious and worried. Which is why if you look at other countries’ May Days, it is not May Day celebrations, it is May Day demonstrations, very different. In Singapore, we are anxious but our situation is different. 

 

Recently I met some union leaders for lunch to hear their views and they spoke frankly. Industries like PSA, marine, oil and gas, electronics, these have been affected and haveslowed down. Sister Jessie Yeo at Singapore Port Workers Union (SPWU) - I asked her how things were. She has been there, many ups and downs in the union, and she said, well, it is scary because there was one day withthree shifts, and two shifts with no ships. They brought the workers down from the quay cranes and took them from Tanjong Pagar Terminal all the way to Pasir Panjang to do learning journey and do something productive while waiting for the ships to come. It is worrying for the port workers.  

 

In some sectors, there is retrenchment and among those who are retrenched, many find jobs back again but some find it difficult to get new jobs because of a mismatch of skills and expectations. We are particularly concerned for the older workers looking for new jobs, not just rank and file older workers but also the Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) as well. 

 

In Singapore too, we have anxieties but it is not all doom and gloom in our economy. In the other sectors, union leaders were more optimistic -Information and Communications Technology (ICT), finance, insurance, healthcare. Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE), they are still seeing new investments and job creation.  I think overall our growth will be slower this year but we are not going negative. We should still get positive growth and it is quite unlike other countries where they have a shortage of jobs.  Here, we have a shortage of workers. Our unemployment rate is low. Our residents, when you look at the retrenchments, many of the retrenched workers are not Singaporeans. Singaporeans actually are at least risk of being retrenched. 

 

Overall there are bright spots in our economies. The National Wages Council (NWC) is currently deliberating. I think some of the NWC members are here today. I am sure NWC will take this overall picture into account in their deliberations and recommendations. I would say, yes, whether you are a company, whether you are a worker, whether you are the government, you have to take a long term view of things, not one year by one year but look at it several years ahead in terms of a long-term partnership. There was one union leader who shared with me what one of his companies was doing and the members told him. The company had had a bad year, so the members were expecting no bonuses this year and did not push for a bonus but the workers were pleasantly surprised when the company nevertheless gave everybody a one month bonus. Times are tough but we appreciate you, this is just to remember you, we hang together. It builds mutual trust and understanding and if we can do that, then I think we can ride the changes in the world together. I hope that many employers and workers will share this attitude, work together. Do not just push hard. When business is good, workers push hard, when business is bad, employers push hard but push together and work together. 

 

We must realise that we are facing deep and structural changes in our economy. It is driven by globalization and technology. It is affecting many countries, not just Singapore.

 

Our challenge is how do we keep Singapore growing so that our economy can continue to generate good jobs for Singaporeans? The only way to do that, we have been saying this over and over again, but it is true. The only way to do that is to transform the economy, create new opportunities and opportunities not just to earn a pay, but to upgrade ourselves so that we can do more challenging jobs. That means restructuring our industries and reshaping our jobs. The Government will do our part to help companies and workers but at the same time, employers and workers have to approach this in the right spirit. Work together and be adaptable. 

 

Today, I want to speak about how we deal with the changes in three areas and what each of us must do about it. These are in our industries, in our jobs and in our workforce. 

 

First of all, let me talk about industries. They are changing fast. There are new business models, new companies operating in different ways, disrupting existing ones. I give you a few examples. 

 

I think you will have heard of Taobao. Many Singaporeans buy things from Taobao. Who owns Taobao? Alibaba. Alibaba is the world’s most valuable retailer and yet although it is a retailer, it has no shops and no stock. It just sells things, it’s a platform. You have heard of Airbnb and I think when you travel and you go on holiday, I am sure some of you have used it. Book on Airbnb, rent homes for your vacation, and stay in somebody’s home, all online. You rate him, he rates you. Airbnb now books more rooms every year than Hilton or the Marriot chains. It is big. It is the world’s largest accommodation provider and it does not own one single property, maybe the office where they put their computers.

 

You may have heard of Uber. You can get an application and hire a private car, just like a taxi. Uber is the world’s biggest taxi firm but it hardly owns any cars. What do they do? They use the data, they analyse demand patterns, and they understand consumers and markets well. They organize, getting the riders, the drivers and the cars together and they provide a good service. It is very challenging for existing taxi operators.  

 

All these new ways of doing business have disrupted our old models and processes and our existing companies. Singapore retail stores are competing with online platforms like Taobao or Amazon and ComfortDelGro. They are competing for passengers with Uber and Grab. What do we do? 

 

I do not think we can stop this phenomenon and I do not think we should try to stop it. Can we put up a great Singapore firewall, block Amazon and Taobao? Can we ban ride-sharing and taxi booking apps like some other cities have done? Maybe you could try. You probably would not succeed and certainly you will end up hurting ourselves because these are new businesses. We are all consumers and we are all commuters. We are all using these businesses, services, improving our lives because they make things more convenient, they give us more options, better deals and also they put pressure on existing businesses to do better. Now with Uber and Grab, we have more user friendly taxi booking apps. The booking apps improve and I think the service will improve also. 

 

So what we can do, when we have industries changing, is to make sure that the new business compete on fair terms with the existing ones. With Uber and Grab, we reviewed our rules and through a more level playing field with traditional operators, make sure there is proper regulation, not too much but just what is needed, drivers to be properly qualified, have clean records, and protect commuters. 

 

Beyond that most fundamentally, I think we can help our industries and companies to compete better, support them in transforming, and help them to change. Do not help them to resist change. So that is why this year's Budget, Brother Swee Keat was very generous and put aside $4.5 billion over five years for an industry transformation programme. What does it do? Industry transformation, help industries use Research and Development (R&D), use technology in order to adapt, in order to be able to prosper and be competitive. If they are creative, if they are bold, even help them to find new models, new processes, outcompete others and be the disruptor. Do not just sit there and let other people disrupt you. And if we can do this industry transformation, then it is not just the businesses and the consumers who will benefit but the workers in those businesses which will benefit, which means union members, labour movement members. It will create more jobs and better jobs. The first we are doing is helping with the transformation of industries. 

 

Secondly, as the world changes, the jobs that our people have will also change. So that is why you can see as we create new jobs in new industries, we are losing old jobs which are getting displaced by software, displaced by robots, displaced by offshoring, jobs moving elsewhere to countries where the costs are lower, which is why this year when the economy is growing, when the job market is still tight and expanding, we are still seeing companies retrenching people and some workers getting retrenched and the numbers going up. So when I had lunch, Brother Effendy, from the Chemical Industries’ Employees Union (CIEU), told me that his own company had announced that they were going to shut down their manufacturing plant in a year’s time in Singapore, which means that not just the rank and file workers but the supervisory and management jobs will also go. So brother Effendy is working hard, helping his members to find new jobs in new companies. And because the Economic Development Board (EDB) has been able to attract companies and encourage companies here to expand, there are jobs available. Within one year, Effendy says we will manage, we will find the jobs. 

 

EDB has been working very hard, so we have a steady flow of good investments coming into Singapore. I give you just one example. It is a solar energy company, REC. They opened up a first plant in Tuas back in 2010. Actually, I went for the opening ceremony, it is a very ambitious project. They had some tough times but they pulled through and they have expanded considerably and Singapore has become their operating Headquarters. They started with 1,500 employees. Today they have 2,000 working at one of the most highly automated solar manufacturing plants in the world and they are still expanding. They just announced a $250 million investment plan and they are going to hire another 400 workers so that by next year they will have 2,400 workers at all levels. 

 

So we have new jobs. The problem is not that there are not enough jobs, problem is to match the jobs, workers, skills, and expectations with what jobs are available with what skills are in demand and make sure they can do the jobs. And we get them to marry up. That means we have to prepare our workers for the jobs which are available. 

 

Students - we are doing quite well, equipping students with skills, including soft skills like working in different cultures, taking initiative, being resourceful, having emotional quotient (EQ). So the graduates from the polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and universities, they have jobs waiting for them. They have good starting salaries and unlike nearly any other country, we do not have a problem of youth unemployment. Our young people graduate, they find jobs. In fact sometimes they go on holiday for a few months before they start looking for a job because they are so confident that the jobs will wait for them, they do not have to wait for the job. But is not just the young ones, the students whom we have to think about. 

 

We also have to think about the older workers who are at risk of losing their jobs. We have to help them make the transition, re-skilling them and upskilling them. This is actually harder to do than preparing students to enter the job market but we have to do it. So what are we doing? We are supporting people who move from one job to another, or from one sector to another.

 

Brother Swee Say went over to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year after May Day and he has been busy. One of the things he has done is to make the Career Support Program (CSP). The CSP is a Career Support Program, which means if you are a PMET retrenched mid-career and you are looking for a new job and a new employer may or may not be so confident that you can fit in or you can contribute, we provide the employer with wage support for one year, defray the cost of hiring you, encourage them to try you out and if it works out, hopefully employ you for the long run. It is a new scheme, it has only been five months but it is quite promising. So far we have reached out to 200 mature PMETs and half of them have been searching for jobs. Now we are extending the Careers Support Program to more workers, especially those who have been retrenched as Brother Swee Say announced last month. 

 

We are not only providing you support to go into a new job, which is the CSP, but we also have the PCP, the Professional Conversion Program, and the Place and Train Program to help you go for a course and learn new skills before fitting a new job. Because going for a course is also very hard, not just having to study hard but you have to be supporting your family. You need the fees, you need the living expenses and with some support for fees and living expenses, it can be very helpful. So we have the PCP and the Place and Train Program and in eight years, we have supported 7,000 workers like this, working with different sectors to provide their training and also the jobs after the training.  Because if I train you and after you graduate and you do not get a job using that skill, I think within a few months you will have forgotten half.  Next year you need to go for retraining again. 

 

So I give you the ICT sector. It is expanding - Google, Facebook, Apple, all have big operations here, all growing. They need programmers, they need coders and they need people who know about cybersecurity. They need people who design the user experience, they need staff and they are creating lots of new jobs, maybe 30,000 over the next five years. So we set up the Tech Skills Accelerator. What is that? Train Singaporeans even without the right backgrounds to match the jobs which are being created. The labour movement is taking the lead in order to do all these things. 

 

Brother Chun Sing gave you a hint just now of one of the things he is doing. We had discussed this and he suggested that the labour movement wants to raise $50 million, work with universities, support midcareer workers, including PMETs to learn new skills. It is an extension of what NTUC has been doing with the polytechnics and the ITEs. So you have programs with the ITEs, with the polytechnics. Now NTUC wants to do programs with the universities and support midcareer workers. He asked the government for support and he said NTUC is going to raise money - they want to raise $50 million, can the government support them? I said yes, this is a good cause and we will support you. Every one dollar you raise, the government will match you with $3, up to $50 million. So if you can raise $50 million, I will write a cheque for $150 million. And when we collect $200 million altogether, it goes into the NTUC Education and Training Fund. What will you do with it? You will do programs with universities.

 

The first programme will be partnering the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), so you will have an NTU-NTUC program. You will see it is all about you. Why does it make sense? Because NTUC knows what the workers need and how to get the workers moving and involved in this. On the university side, NTU has the expertise in continuous education, that means training older people in what they call Technology Enabled Learning (TEL), putting the materials online, using videos, using interactive means, reaching out to people who are not physically in the university. So you work together, they will start with short courses to help working people keep up with technology and they will expand and add more courses over time and hope to reach 30,000 people a year.  It starts with NTU but there are other universities in Singapore and NTUC will work with the other universities over time as well. So this is a good first project. I wish it every success and I hope that professionals and others, PMETs, who are likely to change jobs or who want to prepare themselves for the future will be able to take advantage of it and benefit from it.  

 

But that’s not all because SkillsFuture includes many more schemes and Brother Swee Say is expanding the number of schemes and MOM is expanding the number of alphabets in MOM and acronyms, and if I were to tell you all of them, we would be here all day.  But all you need to know is we are going all out to help all of the workers to upgrade, uplift yourselves, get new and better jobs. The unions are going all out and the government is working hard. What is necessary is the third leg - individuals, workers, you. Please help yourself because we have all these schemes, we have all these investments. Make full advantage of it. 

 

From time to time when people ask me how about unemployment insurance or when Members of Parliament (MPs) ask how about unemployment insurance, because when they are looking for a subject to speak about, this is an evergreen one.  The answer is - actually we have something even better than unemployment insurance because unemployment insurance, the worker has to  pay out of his salary, maybe one per cent of their salary for the insurance. And when he gets unemployed, you subsidise him, helping him to stay unemployed while he looks for a job. Ours is different. The scheme is not paid by the workers or the employers. It is paid by the government and the scheme is not to help you stay unemployed but to help you get employed. Get a job, upgrade yourself, and make yourself more valuable. So support this, make the effort and we will be there with you. 

 

It is May Day but I have a message for the employers as well and I ask the employers please be open-minded. You are looking for workers but there are not enough workers. So many towkays tell me, I have the business, I cannot find the workers, please give me more workers but actually there are some more workers out there. What you need are the skills and the fit. The government is helping to train those workers to have the skills and to make the fit for the jobs which the companies have. So the message to the companies, please give a chance to these workers, especially those who are changing jobs. Their knowledge may not be specific to the industry or to the company but they have developed other useful skills. They have some grey hair, but grey hair is not bad because you are more mature, you are more stable, you can mentor the younger ones, guide them when people have emotional problems, family problems, they can help and they are serious minded. They have families to take care of. They would not just be off for $50 more a month to somebody else. Help them, give them a chance, help your workers to upgrade and then your business will do even better.  

 

The third thing we must do, other than transforming industries and transforming jobs, is to transform our workforce and keep up with the workforce change.  We are already seeing the changes in the workforce. We have more and more PMETs. Today PMETs make up more than half the workforce already, 54 per cent and the number will keep on growing. By 2030, 15 years’ time, two-thirds of the workforce will be PMETs. Traditionally, the labour movement does not look after the PMETs. If you are PMET by definition, you can look after yourself. The labour movement looks after the bargainables, the rank and file, and the blue collar workers. Now with more and more PMETs, I think many of the PMETs will benefit from help from the labour movement and the labour movement also needs to reinvent itself to work with the PMETs, help to look after them, represent them, and meet their needs in order to stay relevant. Otherwise your base will shrink, fewer and fewer and fewer rank and file blue collar workers, the unions will be representing less and less and less people and become marginalized. But if you are going to represent PMETs, it is not just collective bargaining because collective bargaining they often have their own contracts, you do not need a collective agreement. But they need other services, career counselling, networking, and skills upgrading. I am glad you are doing that and that is the reason why although many countries see union membership going down, in Singapore our labour movement's membership is growing and you need to strengthen the movement even more to fight for workers more effectively. So what have you done and what can I see? I am glad to see many interesting things. 

 

First of all, I see a new generation of union leaders. You have leadership renewal, turnover at 62 and at every level, we have younger union leaders, newly elected but mentored by the older ones and I have met quite a number of them. New faces but in touch with the ground, in touch with the industry, trusted by the union members, able to deal with current issues and with the management and give me good suggestions on what the government should do. With turnover, with renewal, the unions stay in touch. 

 

Secondly, you are expanding new associates, so now you have more partners, 31 partners and the partners are more involved in your activities. Even on May Day, we have flags representing the U Associates and they are represented here, attending. These professional bodies are partnering the labour movement, using the services. When I had lunch, some of them came for lunch as well this year, for the first time. I think this must be one of the services which Chun Sing is quietly providing me - networking. I had a conversation with them, they shared how they are already actively helping their members with career counselling, linking them up, dealing with employers, helping workers to find new jobs if they lose their existing jobs. So unions reaching out to partners is a second important thing. 

 

The third important thing is that the unions must make progress representing more PMETs, more workers. We amended the Industrial Relations Act last year to allow more workers to be eligible to be represented by unions and the unions are negotiating new collective agreements (CAs) to include PMETs but it takes time and I think some employers are still a bit cautious. They are not sure, but I encourage employers to take courage, be bolder. Do not believe that if you do not have the labour movement involved with the PMETs, you can deal with the PMETs one by one and you will have no problem. Because the PMET numbers are large, there are bound to be issues which will arise from time to time and if the labour movement is not working with you to help tackle these issues and the PMETs feel isolated, bereft, adrift or not well represented and they organize other movements in a chaotic way, I think you are going to have a much more difficult position. So better work with the labour movement, build up a partnership, develop a constructive and productive relationship like we have with the rank and file workers. Work with us, work with the union movement so that over time in Singapore, we will have a different government, a different labour movement. 

 

I was just in Israel a week ago and I met some of the companies in Israel, particularly the technology companies because in Israel they have a very vibrant technology sector. I met some of the company CEOs, chairmen and the founders, young people all full of ideas and I asked them what was the secret of their success?  They said, well, the environment is one thing but the second thing which was very important to them was they had no unions in the technology sector. I said why? Because to me unions are good. They said no, in Israel, unions are different, there is a history. In the rest of the economy they are a very constricting influence, so if you want to grow, you want to prosper, you do not want unions. Do it by yourself, just go for it. I said that may be the solution for Israel, it is not the solution for Singapore. In Singapore the unions are partners and you work together. If there is a problem, we solve the problem, if there is an opportunity, we go for them together. We need to build that kind of union movement. We have had it, we must make sure that we continue to have it in the new economy, in the new century. 

 

It is in Singapore, only in Singapore, you have a dynamic and constructive labour movement. It not only says it believes in tripartism but it practices tripartism. In many countries, it is not easy. I talked about Israel but Israel is not the only one. In other countries too, to get unions, employers, the government and business leaders sitting in the same room is not so easy. Here we work together, union leaders take a long term view, we have professional and rational mindsets and we understand how business is doing. We know that we cannot just say this year is good, I squeeze the employer, next year is bad, I expect the employer to squeeze me. We are partners together. Unions have to remember this, the government certainly remembers this, employers also I am sure, will remember this. 

 

So when we talk about tripartism, this is what we mean. We are facing a time of change. I told you it is an uncertain year, issues in many countries like Singapore and workers in many countries are anxious. There are demonstrations on May Day elsewhere. Why? Not because they are irrational but because they are worried and anxious. What are they anxious about? Housing costs - how to have homes, how to get homes for the young people, for workers. In almost every city in the world housing is becoming more expensive. Workers are getting priced out. Whether you are in London, Taipei, Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Last year in Israel they had a demonstration, 400,000 people turned up. What was it about? Cost of living. I said I know what is cost of living, we talk about cost of living in Singapore. What was their cost of living problem - how to get a flat in the middle of the city in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They told me this problem cannot be solved. I said Singapore is different. 

 

What else do workers worry about? Health care being affordable. They worry about medical insurance. If you leave your job, you may lose your medical insurance. They worry about retirement. You have pension schemes but where it is funded by your company, where it is funded by the state, many of them are going insolvent, not sure that they can pay. They are pretending to be able to pay. When you grow old, you will find out whether the money is there or not there – it is a problem. People are worried about pay because in many countries the workers’ pay has not really gone up for a very long time. They are worried about their children's future. Their lives are okay but will their children have lives better than them? These are also problems which we have but the one difference which is vital in Singapore is, we have found effective ways to tackle all of them. So housing, when the Israelis told me there is no solution, I said I have a solution – Housing Development Board (HDB). As long as you work, you can afford your own home and you do not even have to pay out of your cash salary, from Central Provident Fund (CPF) is enough. Healthcare, we have three Ms, we have Medishield Life, the Pioneer Generation (PG) package, we have enhanced CHAS Medisave top ups. Retirement, we have CPF, we have CPF Life, we have Silver Support and the first payment is coming up in July this year. Jobs, we have been supplementing and raising the pay of the lower income, Workfare, the progressive wage model.

 

If you look at the statistics, the wages have been going up. We have a good education system. We are preparing our children for the future and our children will have jobs and opportunities waiting for them. It is not whether you have a degree or not but whether or not you are working. You have skills and you can demonstrate your performance. 

 

That is a big difference between other countries and Singapore. The challenges we share, the attitude, the confidence, the assurance that we can tackle these problems. I think in Singapore we do better than others. We have to take these challenges seriously but we can be sure if we work together, we will overcome these problems. The Government is ready, the labour movement is ready, the people also need to be ready and I think the people are ready. You have supported our programs, you have voted for them and you have voted for the team to work with you, especially last year in September at the general elections. Because we have a strong mandate, I and my team have been able to implement the programs vigorously in order to improve people's lives and that was why that General Election (GE) was so important. I am not in Bukit Batok today but I think I should say that is why the Bukit Batok by-election matters because to tackle these challenges, we need your support. We need you to show your support and we need the world to see that we have your support. Then we can walk this journey together. Then we can celebrate May Day in a confident, assured mood for many years to come. So happy May Day to all of you. Thank you.

 

May Day

 

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