This is a Q&A interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. Any extracts should be attributed to the Minister. 22 May 2023.
NTUC has conferred the Medal of Honour on Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the May Day Awards 2023. He speaks to us on the importance of collaborative tripartism and its place in the future of Singapore.
How does it feel to receive the highest honour for this year’s May Day?
I didn’t expect this at all. So I was pleasantly surprised.
I thank the NTUC Central Committee for this recognition and honour.
I appreciate the close working relationship with NTUC and our unions, and also the many personal ties and friendships built up over the years.
Throughout my years in public service, and especially over the last three years of COVID-19, I’ve seen firsthand the commitment and dedication of our union leaders and tripartite partners in serving the interests of our fellow workers and Singaporeans.
So the award to me affirms the importance of our tripartite partnership and the key role of the Labour Movement in taking our country forward.
When and what was your first experience with the Labour Movement?
My formative years were in the 70s and early 80s, when we no longer had confrontational industrial relations. I remembered how my mother, who was a teacher, valued greatly her union membership benefits whenever she did her grocery shopping at NTUC FairPrice. At 83 now, she still goes to the FairPrice near her home every week!
It’s easy to take all of these things for granted growing up in Singapore. When I went to the US for my university studies, I saw labour strikes and demonstrations happening around me, and realised how different things are in other countries.
When I started working and served as Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, I also saw how committed he was in building close relationships with the unions, and engaging union leaders. I realised then why tripartism in Singapore works.
It’s because of the strong relationships built up over many decades, with the example set from the the top leadership across Government, employers and unions.
That collective experience of coming together as a team – dealing with issues, overcoming challenges and tackling crises together – has helped to build a tremendous reservoir of trust.
That’s something special and unique, which we must continue to build and nurture.
What are some memorable stories you can share in your interactions with the unions and workers?
I had more firsthand experience engaging the unions myself when I became CEO of Energy Market Authority (EMA) in 2008.
I remember in my first meeting with Union of Power and Gas Employees (UPAGE), the union expressed concerns about the move to introduce Smart Meters, and how this would impact the jobs of meter readers in Singapore Power.
I realised then there was a need for EMA to build closer links with UPAGE, to engage union leaders on technological trends in the industry, and to better support workers in reskilling and upskilling.
So I started having more sessions with UPAGE, and developed friendships with many of our brothers and sisters serving in UPAGE.
After I left EMA, I was invited to continue serving as Advisor to UPAGE, and I got to know the late Brother Nachi [Nachiappan RK Sinniah, former UPAGE General Secretary] better.
It was always inspiring to talk to him, and to see how much he cared for workers, and fought for their well-being.
After I entered politics, we continued to keep in touch and he would send me messages to encourage me, or to give me feedback about issues that were of concern to workers.
I’m glad to be able to continue this same close relationship with the present union leaders of UPAGE, including Brothers Samad and Seng Chye, and also to see more younger union leaders stepping up to serve.
I recently also accepted the invitation from Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees’ Union to serve as their advisor, and look forward to engaging the union leaders there too!
What does the Labour Movement mean to you?
The Labour Movement has always emphasised that jobs are the best form of welfare, and I could not agree more.
For the People’s Action Party (PAP) and NTUC as symbiotic partners, this is a key priority we share.
The reality is that jobs will change. Some will become obsolete because of innovation and technological advancements. But new jobs will also be created, and these will usually be more productive and pay better wages. So we must do more to help every worker reskill and upskill, so they can be assured of good jobs throughout their careers.
We must do this in partnership with employers, to ensure that the competencies and skillsets of our workers are fully aligned with the business and industry requirements.
This is why the work being done by NTUC on the Company Training Committees (CTCs) is important, and I was happy to set aside funds in our national Budget to support NTUC on this.
Beyond the CTCs, we are also looking at major changes to strengthen SkillsFuture. We want to make Singapore a full-fledged Lifelong Learning nation, where learning is continuous and we upskill throughout our lives.
With these efforts, I am confident our workers will become ever more resilient and well-equipped to face the future.
As Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation, how important is the organisation’s role in providing support to workers?
The Singapore Labour Foundation (SLF) is the financial steward of the Labour Movement.
Through good financial governance and stewardship, we ensure that the funds under our charge are well-managed, and thus provide a steady stream of donations and grants to support the work of the Labour Movement.
In many ways, the work is linked to what I do in the Ministry of Finance.
So when my colleague Gan Kim Yong approached me to take over from him as Chair in 2018, I was happy to do my part and further contribute to the Labour Movement.
We have a small but committed team of officers in SLF, and we will do our best to support the Labour Movement in its initiatives to push for better wages, welfare and work prospects for workers, and more.
At this year’s Budget Debate, you said that #EveryWorkerMatters is not just a slogan but a fundamental tenet undergirding our entire approach to nation-building. Can you tell us how every worker has made and will make a difference in Singapore’s journey towards the future?
I believe Singapore can only be a strong and successful society when everyone shares in the fruits of our nation’s progress, and every worker is accorded self-respect and dignity. That’s why Every Worker Matters.
We have made tremendous progress over the past decades. But more still needs to be done, especially as we enter a more dangerous and troubled world.
That’s why I launched the Forward Singapore exercise, to refresh our social compact and chart our new way forward together.
The Labour Movement is a key pillar in this compact. Your role is so important that I decided to launch the Forward Singapore exercise at the NTUC tripartite dialogue last year!
I’m glad that the NTUC has also organised its #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations to hear from workers about their concerns, priorities and aspirations. All of your insights will contribute to our next chapter of nation-building.
Together, we can strive towards a society where everyone is valued for the work they do, and all are treated with dignity and respect.
What do you want people to know you for when we mention Lawrence Wong?
In the end, people will form their own impressions and judgments of me based on what I say and do.
My hope is that through my words and deeds, I will be able to demonstrate my convictions to serve – to always give of my best for Singapore and for our workers.
Here is the list of all 172 individuals and organisations receiving the May Day Awards 2023.