I attended the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) May Day rally this morning at the 5,000-seat Star Theatre at Star Vista. The outgoing labour chief, Lim Swee Say and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong both spoke at the rally.
Lim started the rally address by thanking a slew of ordinary workers for their extraordinary contributions in propelling Singapore to where we are now in our 50 years of nation-building since independence. He went on to introduce the new tripartite team taking over, including the incoming labour chief, Chan Chun Sing and Dr Robert Yap who recently succeeded Stephen Lee as president of the Singapore National Employers Federation.
In Lee’s speech, he paid tribute to the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions to the progress of the trade unions in Singapore and went on to emphasise on the importance of leadership renewal at the NTUC as well as the People’s Action Party (PAP) for the next general election.
This is the first year I am attending the annual NTUC May Day Rally and it was quite an eye-opener for me. Thousands of union members decked in colourful NTUC polo tees flocked the venue from 8am. Everything proceeded in an orderly fashion and people were all very friendly. I am not a morning person and was half-awake when I arrived, but I found myself chatting with random strangers over breakfast as they went around greeting everyone “Happy May Day”. One of the guys I chatted to was Vikram Nair, a lawyer and Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC. He was seated together with ordinary guests like myself and mingled freely. We struck up a friendly conversation when he happened to stand next to me. Vickram was there as an adviser to Metal Industries Workers’ Union.
Every year on May Day, NTUC will make a video to thank the lesser known workers around Singapore. Learn more about their jobs and their contribution to Singapore here.
Here are some interesting observations I made at the May Day Party:
1. NTUC union has a theme song!
Solidarity Forever! It’s a rather cute song and I find it endearing to see that the Prime Minister, labour chief, union leaders and the ordinary workers all lock hands and sing the song together at the end of the rally:
2. Informal dress code
Everyone donned one of the colourful NTUC Union polo tees which was issued to attendees. Everyone right from the Prime Minister, the labour chief to the ordinary workers and guests like myself. Otherwise, there’s no other dress code. I saw people with shorts and sandals, even slippers. I like it this way as it keeps the event informal and breaks social divides.
3. Members address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’
When Lim Swee Say was on stage, he addressed each and every of the union members he mentioned as brothers and sisters. When he referred to Chan Chun Sing for instance, he will say “Brother Chan Chun Sing” and the same when he addressed any other ordinary workers. Again, I believe this is to break down social hierarchy and have shades of socialism.
4. All eyes are on Chan Chun Sing
Lim mentioned that Chan is one of the ‘core member of the next generation leaders’ in the cabinet and is highly regarded among the ministers. Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance of leadership renewal and how this is the most critical issue for the next general election. The trade unions are an important component of the tripartite relationship between the government, the unions and the workers that keep Singapore going. By sending Chan in, there are definitely high hopes and expectations for him to excel and perform.
5. Lee Hsien Loong got the all-clear for prostate cancer
Lee shared during his speech that he has been given the all-clear for prostate cancer after undergoing surgery in February to remove his cancerous prostate gland. At a follow-up blood test two weeks ago, doctors had told him his survival rate for prostate cancer is 98 per cent after 15 years.
6. Lim Swee Say is best remembered for his funny catchphrases
The Prime Minister mentioned Lim’s catchphrases, “Cheaper, Better, Faster”, “Upturn the Downtown” and “Better, Betterer, Betterest”, with the last drawing loud cheers and laughter. They may sound cute, maybe even silly at first, but on deeper reflection, there are important underlying messages which Lim seeks to bring across to the Singapore workforce to ensure our competitive edge and keep up employment rates.
7. Lee Kuan Yew was actively involved with the unions in his youth
His early involvement as an unionist in his younger days tend to be overlooked at times, but is just as important when we discuss his achievements and contributions to Singapore’s nation-building. Upon returning from his overseas studies, he joined law firm, Laycock & Ong. A supporter of the downtrodden and the underclassed, Lee took on many cases for unions and workers, sometimes at nominal fees. From the beginning of his career, Lee understood the importance and power of the unions. This year, the NTUC union paid tribute to the late founding prime minister and his contributions.
8. The tripartite relationship between the government, unions and workers, is unique to Singapore
There are no other unions in a tripartite relationship like in Singapore. Lee Hsien Loong shared that some foreign governments had came to studied our system and tried to replicate it, but without success. The tripartite system was formed out of necessity during the chaotic formation years of nation-building when the other alternative would be for the communists to infiltrate and politicise the unions.
This is a new national movement to provide opportunities for every citizen to develop ourselves through life. It will promote skills mastery in every job and for all Singaporeans:
The scheme was mentioned several times during the speeches as one of then new measures to bring Singaporean workers to the next level.
10. May Day is celebrated with Migrant Workers too
In the evening, the Migrant Workers’ Centre celebrated May Day with some 15,000 migrant workers across four different locations – Penjuru Recreation Centre (Main Event), Soon Lee Recreation Centre, Kaki Bukit Recreation Centre and Woodlands Recreation Centre. Migrant workers play an important role in the Singapore workforce, taking on jobs which are shunned by Singaporeans. It is only appropriate that they are recognised for their efforts and celebrate labour day together with us.
That’s about it. Happy May Day! 🙂