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Unions remain vital in Singapore’s growth and success, PM Lee

In his last May Day Rally speech as Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong urged Singaporeans to uphold the country’s stability and unity.
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By Ian Tan Hanhonn 01 May 2024
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In a future fraught with geopolitical and economic uncertainty, unions will play an even more crucial role towards Singapore’s growth, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.


He was addressing some 1,700 participants at NTUC’s May Day Rally, held on 1 May 2024 at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre.


Mr Lee said that the Labour Movement has evolved to represent beyond blue-collar workers to include graduates, professionals and self-employed workers; planned and executed training and upgrading programmes together with employer through Company Training Committees (CTC); reached out to youths through its nEbO (nobody Enjoys being Ordinary) initiative; and pushed for stronger support for families, caregiving and gender equality.


“I am glad the unions are transforming yourselves to remain relevant,” Mr Lee said.


He added that despite the uncertainties ahead, there are many opportunities to be had. And in a deglobalising and distrustful world, Singapore’s stability and predictability will be its advantage.


“We have built a strong foundation for our future generations. Adequate reserves to tide over extreme difficulties, international respect that gives us a seat at the table, a cohesive society that hangs together in the darkest hours, [and] a vibrant and inclusive economy that creates opportunities and hope for all Singaporeans.


“Make the most of these advantages. Do not take them for granted or toss them away. Stay united, think long term, and maintain our political stability. That is the way forward for Singapore,” said Mr Lee.


40 years of politics


This year marks Mr Lee’s 20th year as Prime Minister, and his 40th year in politics.


It will also be his last major speech as Prime Minister before he hands over the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on 15 May 2024.


Mr Lee gave thanks to the Labour Movement, adding that much of what Singapore has achieved was a direct result of the contributions by unions and workers.


He shared how unions worked with employers during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis to cut costs and save jobs, and how the unions more recently helped to look out for workers and protect their livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic.


“The tripartite partnership between the Labour Movement, Employers, and the Government, underpinned by the symbiotic partnership between the NTUC and the PAP, has been absolutely crucial to Singapore’s success. It has enabled us to grow our economy, weather economic storms, and improve the lives of workers, including in these last 20 years,” he said.


He added that if Singapore wants to continue this success, it needs to focus on nation building and leverage its strengths.


Staying relevant in the years ahead


Mr Lee highlighted three things Singapore needs to address to remain relevant – social cohesion, long term planning, and political stability and trust.


Social cohesion


He shared that race, language, and religion have been the traditional fault lines in Singapore.


Although Singapore made huge efforts to build a shared Singaporean identity, it will always be subject to external forces that will try to pull different segments of the population apart.


“We cannot disavow our diverse ethnic roots and religious affinities … These can be vulnerabilities, yet we do not want to lose these rich cultural and historical heritages,” he said.


He added that racial and religious harmony will always be a work in progress for Singapore.


“We will always have fault lines to watch and mind. Never forget that whatever our differences, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost. Only thus can we survive and thrive in a contested and fractured world,” he said.


Long term planning


Mr Lee shared that long term planning is a challenge for many governments globally.


He said that many are consumed by immediate problems or political crises, and that they either lack the support or bandwidth to plan too far ahead.


However, he said the PAP Government has always planned and acted for the long term – both deliberately and systematically.


After giving a glimpse into several major projects in the pipeline like the new megaport at Tuas and the redevelopment of Paya Lebar, Mr Lee said he had no doubts that the next leadership team will “conceive more creative and ambitious projects” which will bring Singapore to the next level.


He said: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew memorably said, shortly after independence, ‘Over 100 years ago, this was a mudflat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear’.


“This must forever be our mindset. Thinking long term, working towards it with patience and determination, and building lasting strengths for Singapore, beyond our own generation, for the next 50, 100 years.”


Political stability and trust


This brought Mr Lee to his next point of political stability and trust.


Noting that Singapore’s system of government is anchored on a strong base with its people, long term planning will not be possible if the country’s politics is fractured.


He said: “Getting our politics right is absolutely critical … Our system does not have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble. Even if we just become ordinary, average, we will already be in serious trouble.”


He added: “Therefore, it is crucial that all of us uphold this ethos of exceptionalism and excellence; crucial that we maintain political stability.


“Our system will evolve with time. But it has to evolve in a way that continues to serve Singapore’s interests. That gives us the best shot at building a brighter future for Singapore.”


The next chapter


As Mr Lee prepares to hand over the leadership reins, he noted that leading a country is not a one-man job, but the concerted effort of a national team.


He urged all Singaporeans to rally behind the 4G leadership, and work together to make Singapore succeed.


He said: “I am deeply grateful to the Ministers, MPs, and grassroots and union leaders, who stood with me throughout. To our outstanding Public Service, committed to improving Singaporeans’ lives, to the Labour Movement, working tirelessly to improve the everyday lives of workers and their families.


“Most of all, I am humbled by and grateful for Singaporeans’ trust, confidence, and support. To you all, I say a big thank you!”