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Speech at Ong Teng Cheong Institute Graduation Ceremony

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower and Senior Minister of State for National Development, Orchid Country Club

My colleagues Mr Tharman Shamugaratnam, Mr Lim Swee Say and Mr Heng Chee How,

OTCI Board of Governors,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you and congratulations to all of you graduating this year. 

2.    As Thiaga mentioned earlier, all of you have shown tremendous commitment and discipline over the many months, through night classes and residential programmes, all while trying to balance work and family commitments. It is important to find that balance, which will vary from individual to individual. This builds discipline as we all have to manage certain objectives and goals, even when we are stretched. In learning to do that, we can also help our colleagues with their own balance. 

3.    I understand Mdm Santha Raman, the top student in this year’s OTCI-UniSIM Diploma in Employment Relations class, took over two years of evening classes, assignments and exams to attain this diploma. In addition to her job as a special education teacher at MINDS, she is also serving as an active union leader and exco member of SMMWU. She said she took up the diploma to be more effective in representing her fellow union members.

4.    This is the kind of spirit that we want to see – the drive to keep learning, growing one’s skills and the passion to give back to society. In big way and small ways, all of us play a part. Today is an important milestone, and I’m sure not the last milestone, in your lifelong learning journey, and we are all tremendously proud of all of you. This is what Continuing Education and Training, or CET is all about. It’s about helping our people to be well-trained and it is an important responsibility as it enables individuals to fulfil their potential and to be good at what they do. It instils professional pride in being able to do your job well and builds self-worth, and helps build a better-skilled workforce, which in turn provides better outcomes for companies and the economy as a whole, and in turn this would benefit our workers.

5.    This is all the more important during uncertain economic times. We continue to see a global economy weighed down by the slow recovery in the US while Eurozone businesses saw their worst month since June 2009, according to their purchasing managers’ indexes or PMIs. So can we weather any storm that might come? I believe we can and I am optimistic we will. It is our actions during crises that define us as a nation, and in times of difficulty we have always been able to pull through, businesses, workers, the community and economy together. Just over this decade or so, we have seen the dotcom bust, September 11, SARS, and more recently, the financial crisis, which many countries are still recovering from. We were able to stay agile, remained competitive, managed the volatility and our economy became stronger and more vibrant. Where we are today is a product of all our efforts, and it augurs well. The world is becoming more unpredictable, but the fundamentals that have stood us in good stead remain strong and I am confident they will serve us well going forward. 

6.    However, in today’s fast-changing environment, what brought us here may not be what brings us forward. The labour landscape is going through a series of major changes. Singapore will see an increasing proportion of older workers as we age as a nation and PMEs in the workforce as education level rises and social mobility improves in real ways. To ensure that there continues to be good job opportunities for our people, we are striving for sustainable and inclusive growth. We want to ensure workers at all levels, including lower-wage workers, benefit and we are working with the tripartite partners to achieve this. We have to do this in part through reducing our reliance on foreign manpower. The Government has tightened our foreign manpower policies and invested heavily in a national productivity drive, where CET is a major pillar. 

7.    We’ve said this often. Our secret weapon over the years, and up till today, remains our strong tripartism. But actually it’s not so secret – many other countries are becoming aware of it. Unlike other countries, where the labour-management and even tripartite relationship is adversarial, resulting in a race to the bottom, what NTUC and union leaders have built with the employers and the government is truly mutually beneficial and has been good for Singapore as a whole. My message is that, going forward, this tripartite relationship is only going to become more important. The level of trust among us will have to increase, because in today’s environment we face multiple pressures from our stakeholders. We will have different perspectives, but the key is that we are working towards a common goal – to improve the lot of workers and the economy in a sustainable and inclusive way. 

8.    This spirit of tripartite collaboration, with the labour movement, employers and the Government working closely together with common goals in mind, has enabled us to meet our challenges head-on. For example, this year, the re-employment legislation, which obliges employers to re-employ older workers up to the age of 65, was smoothly implemented after five years of intensive tripartite consultations and partnership. We are heartened to note that 97% of the 11,500 local employees who were retiring in the year ending June 2011 were offered employment beyond 62 years of age. The national productivity drive has also been well supported by the tripartite partners, especially by NTUC through its Inclusive Growth Programme – to uplift low wage workers. Progress has been good, and long may this continue. We could not have gone this far without our tripartite partners. 

9.    We must take in views from the employers and workers and weigh trade-offs and decide on the compromises to make, focused on overall national interests. Employers must commit to responsible employment practices and sharing gains fairly, while NTUC continues giving voice to the needs of workers and promoting continuous education and training as a means for them to enhance their employability and better contribute to their companies. 

10.    The ongoing Employment Act review is a good example of how tripartism is working on the ground. Since April this year when we announced the review, we have been getting feedback, including from the tripartite partners. Yesterday, NTUC announced a “wishlist” and we have seen many of these issues highlighted in tripartite discussions by union leaders. We have also heard the employers’ side – they have their concerns and are asking for flexibility. They are feeling the strain as the manpower landscape tightens; the unions also see this. On our part, we will take all these into account and determine what the best way to put this together is as we go forward. As part of this exercise, the Ministry will be putting out a public consultation paper towards the end of the month. 

11.    Union leaders play an important role in explaining the details of the ongoing Employment Act review to your members. Today a lot of us just read headlines. It is important for the details to be understood so that proper discussions can take place and informed decisions can be made. To achieve our common goal for Singapore, it is crucial that the unions and employers work closely together and understand each other, so that when certain views are made public, the other party understands the reasons behind that and everyone can come back to the table to come up with a balanced outcome with benefits for both parties. 

12.    I would also like to encourage employers to see the big picture: in Singapore, it is in their interest to have a strong labour movement who will partner them and the Government as part of the tripartite relationship so that we can strive together for sustainable and inclusive growth. 

13.    Once again, congratulations to each and every one of you today!

Thank you.