May the (work)force be with you

There’s quite a few firsts this May: On the first of May, newly-appointed Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered his first May Day Rally speech on his first day of work. Jin Satki!

If you have yet to read the speech already, here’s a quick SparkNotes summary:



Did you know that the Labour Movement existed way back, even before the formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP)? It was also once a hotbed for communists, who used it as a platform to stir anti-colonial sentiments.

Back then, we had the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), formed in 1951. However, because of political in-fighting, several pro-communist members left the PAP in 1961 to form Barisan Sosialis. This inevitably led to the STUC break-up.

Unions that supported the PAP formed the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), while unions that supported Barisan Sosialis formed the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). SATU had the greater piece of the union pie as compared to NTUC, i.e. 82:27.

Over the years, SATU organized several strikes while NTUC focused on negotiating collective agreements. Eventually, SATU’s membership declined as more workers witnessed that SATU’s strikes did not improve their lives – instead, it cost them their livelihoods. Unions than began to turn to NTUC.




The 1969 Modernisation Seminar was a key turning point that pretty much altered the course of our nation. At the Seminar, unionists agreed that trade unions had to go beyond confrontation and collective bargaining. To improve the lives of fellow workers, unions should instead work together with the Government and employers.

NTUC began to set up cooperatives to serve important social missions – the most familiar one to all would probably be FairPrice. This was set up to help workers cope with the cost of living by providing affordable options for essential goods and services. These cooperatives also gave union leaders insights on running businesses. Our fellow Malay brothers and sisters have this saying, “tak kenal maka tak cinta”, (you do not love what you do not know) – with this newfound perspective, union leaders shifted from an adversarial stance to one based on cooperation and mutual benefit.

The Seminar paved the way for tripartism, where unions, employers and the Government would work things out together-gether.



In his speech, Heng Swee Keat listed down three challenges and the Government’s responses:


Challenge 1: Speed of technological advancement makes jobs and skills redundant

It is quite scary to think that whatever you have learnt in school may not stay relevant for long.

The Government knows this too. Hence, to date, 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) have been launched, covering 80 per cent of our economy. These ITMs are like roadmaps, guiding industries on steps they should take to ride the wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These includes strategies on driving innovation, promoting internationalism and raising the productivity and skills of our workforce.


In addition to this, the Labour Movement is also promoting skills development through the setting up of 1,000 Company Training Committees (CTCs). What this basically means is that the Labour Movement, will go down to the ground, embedding itself in companies to help workers. You could imagine it has having one-to-one tuition as compared to a mass lecture. This one-to-one tuition is expected to benefit 330,000 workers! Imagine that.


Challenge 2: Globalisation leads to sharper competition and a widening income gap

Free trade as we know it has not worked out for everyone – many workers feel that they have been left behind.

It is the Labour Movement’s mission to help workers secure better wages, better work prospects and better welfare – it is in their mandate. Know that workers are in good hands, though the waters may get choppy along the way. 

One of the policies that have worked well include the Progressive Wage Model, i.e. workers earn more as they become more skilled. Kind of like how your rate of earning points increases as you level up.



That aside, the Government wants to support our seniors to continue working, for as long as they are able and want to do so. Which is why the Government is strengthening support for seniors to earn more, save more and have greater peace of mind when retiring.


Challenge 3: Changing profile of our workers may lead to skills and digital divide

There is great concern that those who are well-educated and digital savvy would go on to build more skills and do even better, while those who start with less will continue to lagging behind, further and further. 

The Labour Movement recognises that they cannot project jobs that would be made redundant – but they can and will protect every working man and woman through lifelong learning. It is not so much about having technology replacing workers, but ensuring that technological advancement help workers do their jobs better.

What’s key in this part of Heng Swee Keat’s speech is how he pointed out that the Labour Movement should also start thinking about how our workers can develop skills for jobs that do not yet exist. It is not proper planning if there is no forward planning!


And so he ended his speech by concluding that the 4G leaders was ready to take the baton and carry forth the mission. (You say one ah! We will bear this in mind!)

From all of us potating potatoes, may the (work)force be with you.