The Curious Case of a Public Holiday Named ‘May Day’

The Curious Case of a Public Holiday Named ‘May Day’ - Ng Chee Meng

Mention May Day to most Singaporeans and they’ll know that it’s a yearly public holiday falling on 1st of May and a chance to score that long weekend for a much-needed staycay.

As a young PMET, I’d be quick to admit that I didn’t know the significance behind May Day either.

Luckily, a quick check with my friend quickly cleared that up.

So, what exactly is May Day if not an extra public holiday?

May Day hails its roots all the way back in 1886 when in the United States were protesting long working hours. In other words, they went on strike for being overworked!

In modern-day context and in Singapore however, May Day is a day of rather than a call to strike.

The first May Day Rally in Singapore hails back to 1960, about a year after PAP was elected. During his speech, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew promised that the Government will be on the side of its and safeguard their welfare.

Lee Kuan Yew at a May Day Rally
Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a May Day Rally

With the Government’s promise that it is on the side of workers, May Day has become a day when workers’ rights are acknowledged and celebrated.

Huh, but Singaporeans can’t go on strike even if we wanted to right?

Contrary to popular belief, it is legally possible for Singaporeans to go on strike.

Remember the 1964 racial riots that got really scary and dangerous?

1964 Racial Riots
The 1964 racial riots

It taught us not to take our peaceful state for granted and is a firm reminder of the destruction that can be wrought when violence is used.

Thankfully, most Singaporeans (being the practical and reasonable people that we are), tend not to resort to such means unless other avenues are not possible. We would definitely choose to happily spend our May Day as a long weekend enjoying ourselves rather than going on strike right?

Then, what should I do if I face discriminatory or unfair practices at work?

All that talk about being celebrated is good, but what should Singaporeans who are facing discriminatory or unfair practices at work do?

This is where an oft thought to be outdated party comes into play. Unions.

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Few Singaporeans would understand the meaning or relevance of unions to us now. Nevertheless, unions are still very much present and relevant to us today.

In fact, a household name, NTUC (not the supermarket), is a national confederation of trade unions.

It is an organisation that consists of unions that are in alliance with them.

They aim to help improve wages, welfare and work prospects. They also step in to negotiate when workers face any disputes in the workplace, such as wrongful termination or retrenchment disguised as termination.

Phew! So we don’t need to riot and can enjoy May Day?

The partnership between the Government, NTUC and the unions ensure a win-win situation should tricky work situations arise.

The Government’s stance is to always balance the need to protect workers’ rights with keeping Singapore an attractive place for employers and businesses.

Simply put, without employers and businesses, there will be no jobs for workers. Hence, Singapore ensures that its climate is competitive and attractive for the growth of good companies which will, in turn, provide good jobs for Singaporeans.

So this May Day, kick back, relax and enjoy the public holiday with the knowledge that you are in safe hands.

And now you know what May Day is.

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