May Day Rally 2014

Having missed last year’s event because I made like many other Singaporeans and downed tools for the long weekend, I was invited to my first May Day Rally on Thursday, and came away impressed with the candour of the labour leaders, and slightly disappointed with the lack of awareness of the same.

With Cheaper, Better, Faster having earned its place in ridiculed slogan folklore, what could the union leaders have come up with that would better that? What new initiatives would be launched and trumpeted?

I spoke with several other people at the rally and they intimated that the labour movement was going to move away from the hard sell of the Progressive Wage Model of the past two years, and towards a recognition of the employer, the worker, and the buyer (customer) for this year’s rally.

The venue for this year’s event was also significant. Honouring NTUC’s first Secretary-General (and lest we forget, the country’s third Head of State), the new Employment & Employability Institute (e2i) is named the Devan Nair Institute, and was officially opened at the start of the rally by the Prime Minister.

When the seminar hall was filled to capacity and the rest of the attendees packed into spillover rooms with live video feeds, the event started proper with a song and dance item (“Happy” and the very popular “Ayam Titanium”), and rousing speeches by leaders of several unions.

Then came this Singaporean Of The Day inspired video featuring rank and file workers:

  • Mohamed Ishak Bin Mohamed Noor, SMRT Assistant Engineer
  • Lim Chee Kiang, PSA Container Equipment Specialist (Quay Crane)
  • T. Manimaran, SembWaste Senior Driver
  • Raymond Ong, ComfortDelGro Taxi Driver
  • Ang Boon Ho, Seiko Instruments Singapore Assistant Supervisor

The workers featured in the video were seated front row (not centre – that’s for the Ministers) and were introduced to loud cheers from their colleagues and fellow union members. For me, that was what I thought the event was about. Honouring union members, honouring workers.

The Prime Minister’s address followed this path, but at the same time sounded a warning for complacency and for those who still think that the sole problem lies in letting in cheap foreign labour – your jobs will get “stolen” by people who don’t even have to move here to do it.

And there’s the second focus of the rally – the employer. I think that many Singapore companies are caught in what a friend of mine calls the “Stuck Tarzan Mode” – having caught the next vine to move forward but not wanting to let go of the one he’s just swung from.

Our economy will face competition from people who can not only do things cheaper, they’ll do it faster, and they might do it better. Sound familiar? The Prime Minister mentioned our private transport industry being challenged by technology companies who smartly skirt the obstacles of the transport business by making apps – like Uber (use my code “ubermiyagi” and get $10 off your first ride, hehe) – and with the leaps and bounds being made by 3D printing – soon, who’s going to need you to build and ship things to the customer abroad any more?

It is with these challenges that makes it more alarming that many SME’s do not innovate or don’t know how to. For example: Why are auditors still insisting on paper receipts that would anyway fade and be illegible? Why are banks (or the MAS) not working on solutions for third party accounting software to connect to customer data when it is much easier to forge a cheque than it is to obfuscate an electronic trail?

We cannot afford to fall behind, and I will smack the next government agency officer that asks me to fax some letter when they can jolly well read an email attachment. Yes, I can e-slap you. I have an app.

Before I froth at the mouth at these annoyances, let me get back to the PM’s address. I am encouraged that there are serious measures to ensure the re-employability of older workers. I’m quite sure that at this very mention, there’ll be conspiracy theorists banging their drums about how this gahmen simply doesn’t want us to collect our CPF.

But the reality is this – ask any aged 30-something couple raising a young family and having to look after their parents and you’ll discover that the CPF wasn’t initially calculated to look after an aging population with an increasing life expectancy. The older folk need to work and the important thing is that we enable them to.

The other thing that struck me was the current NTUC Secretary-General’s candour. I don’t care what people say, I really like this man and his life-long passion for making workers’ lives better.

In his opening address (which involved a few miscues with the event’s run-down), he said something about Singapore ‘not being zero-defect’, but that we’d be judged on how we reacted to the mistakes and fixed them.

Mr Lim Swee Say has been tireless ever since he was appointed Secretary-General (SG) of NTUC. The number of financial grants and rebates available to the backbone of the economy – the SMEs – are a result of his harassing and haranguing the various ministries and agencies over the decades.

But he has not been above admitting when things aren’t going as smoothly. I recall a talk last year where he talked about how heading the labour movement was a constant task of moving bottlenecks around the workforce when he realised cheap labour was becoming an undesirable opiate of construction companies.

There are others like the SG in the movement – the head of the e2i himself, of as a friend calls him, The Other Gilbert, constantly tweaking and improving schemes to help the rank and file workers.

Therein lies the rub. There are still things that can be done better.

I believe the labour movement can be more inclusive, get everyone involved, not just the converted, because you can still continue get them excited about the rally by giving out polo shirts in four different but bright colours, you can still make them sing the NTUC theme song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of The Republic, and give out energy bands with the word “Better” printed on them because this year it’s about Better Employers, Better Workers and Better Customers.

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