The nation's leader urged everyone to seize new opportunities, namely, digitalisation, automation, sustainability; as well as promised agile and decisive response to the growing community cases.

With 2020's May Day Rally taking place virtually in Singapore amidst the Circuit Breaker, this year the situation was different as the event was marked in-person. PM Lee Hsien Loong remarked: "This year, our COVID-19 situation is better. We can gather together, although in smaller numbers than usual and safe management and in different coloured tags."

He went on to share that this year's Rally is special owing to NTUC's 60th birthday, and shared the story of how the national labour movement has worked hard over the year to remain relevant and effective. The pivotal moment, he shared, came in 1969, when NTUC held its Modernisation Seminar, to not only arrest the decline of union membership, but to also chart out NTUC's role in an industrialising new economy, Singapore.

"NTUC’s refreshed mission ushered in a new era of industrial relations, based not on confrontation but on collaboration. As part of its new mission, NTUC launched social enterprises. It set up cooperatives like NTUC Income and FairPrice. As well as childcare centres, at a time when there was no market these services. It was doing national service, but also meeting its members’ needs."

PM Lee went on to cite how Singapore's unique tripartite model has supported decades of sustained, rapid economic growth for Singapore - overcoming major recessions and crisis at least once every decade. "Now with COVID-19, we are going through the crisis not of a decade, but of a generation. But when we look back at our record of how we have overcome past crises, COVID-19 does not look quite so daunting," he said.

Looking ahead, he noted the economic outlook for Singapore has brightened considerably. He charted out the following areas of priority:

Agile and decisive response to growing community cases

On the growth rate anticipated for the nation, PM Lee: "Barring a setback to the global economy and provided our domestic COVID-19 situation remains stable, there is a very good chance we can achieve 6% or better this year." However, he cautioned that some sectors, like aviation and tourism, will not recover soon.

On the new strains of COVID-19 emerging, he added: "We are watching our own situation, and it can easily and quickly turn bad again. After a long period when we had few community cases, in the last few days, several new community clusters have emerged. Some are quite big and worrying.

"The government is doing everything we can to prevent these clusters from spreading further into the community. We will have to be agile and decisive with our response, and tighten measures promptly where it is necessary, to clamp down on the spread and avoid going into a second Circuit Breaker."

PM Lee shared a message for the public: "I hope Singaporeans work with us, and not let down our guard. It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon. Let us keep jogging and keep ourselves safe. Do not make the mistakes other countries have done – celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down, and cause another wave to come; very often worse than the first. And more nasty, drastic measures become necessary.

"If we have to do another lockdown like last year’s Circuit Breaker, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery. Let us not make it happen."

Workforce support for affected sectors

PM Lee took the opportunity to thank the "unremitting efforts and sacrifices of our workers," noting that healthcare workers have been going beyond the call of duty to keep everyone safe. "Thank you for your dedication and courage." He also called out the efforts of affected aviation workers, who have joined the fight against COVID-19, in roles such as patient care ambassadors, contact tracers and Safe Distancing Ambassadors. 

Ensuring the wellbeing of construction workers was another priority he identified. "Our construction workers have experienced COVID-19 at ground zero. We must continue to ensure their wellbeing, health and safety, whether on worksites, in the migrant worker dormitories, or travelling to and from work. Some are Singaporeans, some are migrant workers. All of them are our brothers are sisters, and we look after all of them."

However, he noted that the mandatory safe management measures have burdened this industry. The manpower crunch, because some of the migrant workers have gone home, has added to its problems. Projects have been delayed. Costs have gone up. The recent ban on travellers from India has worsened the situation for the construction industry.

PM Lee said: "We are working on emergency legislation to address this severe disruption and share the burden more fairly between the different parties – contractors, developers, and buyers. And I hope we will introduce the legislation in the next sitting of Parliament."

Responding to calls from union leaders and employers on the extension of the JSS, PM Lee noted: "I said we would think carefully about it. But please remember: JSS is artificial life support. It keeps us breathing for a while, but it does not cure us and it does not last forever. We must find a way to fully recover, get back on our feet, and build new muscles, to move Singapore forward again."

Seizing new opportunities: Digitalisation, automation, sustainability

The nation's leader highlighted three areas of opportunity to prepare for life after COVID-19, citing examples of each one:

1. Digitalisation: He cited how the Circuit Breaker forced hawkers to go digital, after years of hesitation around it. "An entrepreneurial second-generation hawker, Melvin Chew, set up a Facebook Group, called “Hawkers United – Dabao 2020” to help hawkers advertise online. The software engineer created Take.sg, a simple order form on WhatsApp, to make it less daunting for older hawkers to take their business online." As such, now more than 1,300 hawkers offer some form of online delivery, as well as more than half of all hawkers have adopted e-payments. 

2. Automation: During the Circuit Breaker, Pet Lovers’ Centre, Singapore's oldest and largest chain of pet supplies stores, had to close all 70 of its retail stores. But online orders surged, because pets still had to be fed and looked after. To cope, the company quickly developed a new system to track inventory, as well as upgraded their warehouse with a new automated storage and retrieval system, with support from Enterprise Singapore. With these automation projects, Pet Lovers Centre’s productivity and warehouse storage capacity have more than doubled. Further, employees have picked up new skills, become more productive and are paid more. 

3. Sustainability: At Sunseap, a clean energy solutions provider, the key task is installing solar panels - a skilled, technical job that pays quite well, but is also hard outdoor work. As such, it is mostly done by foreign workers. Like other companies, Sunseap faced a manpower crunch during COVID-19. PM Lee explained: "But the CEO told me that with a bit of job redesign, and support from NTUC, he was able to train young Singaporeans to take up the jobs, as solar technicians and engineers. It helped that young Singaporeans are enthusiastic about climate change and renewable energy, and they know these fields will become increasingly important."

To ensure Singapore gets ahead of these trends, PM Lee reminded that it is critical for workers to have the right skills. "Every May Day Rally, I lecture again and again about lifelong learning. The Government is investing heavily in SkillsFuture and will spend about $1.4bn over the next few years.

"This year, I would like to remind everybody, please use your SkillsFuture credits! Take a course, learn something useful, and make yourself more employable, more productive and more secure."

Workforce priorities

PM Lee cited the roles of NTUC in helping to transform the workforce, e2i in building up the training ecosystem, and the setting up of 600+ Company Training Committees (CTCs) to help workers gain the skills and capability early ahead of time, so that they can switch into new roles and jobs more easily. 

On the composition of the workforce, he shared the proportion of PMETs has gone up: from slightly over half of our resident workforce a decade ago to about 60% today. The number of gig workers has increased in three years to more than doubled, now to 70,000 gig workers. The population of older workers has also grown significantly. NTUC has been reaching out to these different groups, to understand their specific needs and support each one of them with targeted relevant help.

One of the groups that NTUC is focussing on are lower income workers, to which effect the NTUC Foundation has been launched, starting off with S$250mn. The Foundation will help sustain the many NTUC Care initiatives that support lower-income workers and their families, especially during difficult times like now, when it is tough to raise funds.

Protecting vulnerable groups in our society is another key priority highlighted. The government has been working with tripartite partners to extend the Progressive Wage Model to more sectors, like food services and retail. "This is not just a theoretical exercise, but a practical, effective strategy to improve the lives of more lower wage workers. We plan to more than double the number of workers covered under the Progressive Wage Model over the next few years."

Rounding off his May Day speech, PM Lee urged NTUC to remain steadfast in its mission.

"Whatever storms that come our way, and we can be sure this is not our last one, let us make sure that Singapore will continue to grow and prosper, united and strong, for many years to come."

Photo / PM Lee Hsien Loong's May Day speech

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