Our model of trade unionism and tripartism has been criticised, especially in the West. But we have no reason to be defensive because the verdict of history is clear, PM Lee said in his 2021 May Day Message.
In most western societies, trade union membership has steadily declined. Labour movements in the West are now a pale shadow of what they were in the 1960s. By contrast, union membership has risen consistently in Singapore ‘by dint of deliberate policy and unremitting effort’ and the labour movement in Singapore has grown from strength to strength, PM Lee said.
Singapore has weathered many crises in our journey from Third World to First World.
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.
Fighting the communists together during the early tumultous years helped forge 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,” PM Lee said.
Crises and our trade unionism and tripartism
The first crisis Singapore faced as a young nation was the withdrawal of British forces. This was followed by the 1973 oil crisis, our first major recession in 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and the Global Financial Crisis.
Our tripartite model has seen us through each of these crises, PM Lee said.
- 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.
- 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.
Trade unionism and Tripartism in this COVID-19 pandemic
Through this COVID-19 crisis, the Labour Movement has 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,” said PM Lee.
“The guiding principle of tripartism has always been to stay united and progress together.”
Compared to a year ago, our outlook has brightened considerably, PM Lee said. The global recession is turning out to be less protracted than 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,” PM Lee said. “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.”
New opportunities opening up
The pandemic has accelerated trends like digitalisation, automation, and sustainability, across all sectors. New opportunities are opening up beyond this year, PM Lee said. To seize these opportunities, we need to transform our economy for a different, post-COVID-19 world, he added.
Staying relevant as NTUC celebrates its 60th anniversary
The Emerging Stronger Taskforce is busy working on this transformation. PM Lee is happy to note that the Labour Movement is actively involved.
“Freelancers, entrepreneurs, mature workers and fresh graduates all face different employment challenges. Each group needs customised policies and solutions. 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,” said PM Lee.
As NTUC celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, it is still making itself relevant through the CTCs and finding new solutions to secure better jobs for workers,” said PM Lee.