Two months ago, I was in Geneva to attend the annual International Labour Conference. This was not my first time, but there was something different this year. Besides exchanging notes with union leaders from the US, Europe and Asia, the Singapore delegation was also invited by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to share how Singapore coped with the downturn last year and is riding the upturn this year.
Our presentation, which was hosted by the ILO at a fringe event of the Conference, was well received by the tripartite representatives of other countries.
They were impressed by our strategy of “cutting costs to save jobs” against “cutting jobs to save costs” adopted by many other countries.
They were impressed by the “V-shaped recovery” of the Singapore economy, up from -9.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 to +15.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2010, one of the strongest rebounds for any economy.
They were even more impressed by our ability to regain full employment so quickly, with our unemployment rate dropping from 3.3 per cent in the third quarter of 2009 to 2.2 per cent by the first quarter of 2010, one of the lowest in the world.
They wondered whether our government needed to borrow money to fund the Jobs Credit Scheme. We said, ‘No, it came from our reserves’.
They wondered whether we will ever be able to replenish the $4.5 billion drawn from our reserves since many countries are running into growing budget deficits and huge government debts. We said, ‘Yes, perhaps over two to three years. Because we make sure that every dollar is put to good use and every extra dollar is put back into our reserves’.
They wondered how we were able to convince our workers to accept wage freezes and even wage cuts without protests or strikes. We shared with them our flexible wage system, and how our national leaders and corporate management led by example by taking deeper wage cuts first.
They wondered how we managed to keep the trust and preserve unity during a downturn as severe as this. We told them that to wait until there is a downturn to build trust is too late. We believe in building trust during good times so that we can stay united during bad times.
They wondered if we will continue with the Jobs Credit Scheme in 2010 and beyond. We said, ‘No, because our businesses have to stay competitive without government subsidies. We also need to save our surpluses and get ready for the next global downturn’.
They wondered if our workers are rewarded in the upturn. We said, ‘Yes, otherwise, trust will be broken and we will not be able to mobilise our workers to tighten their belts in future downturns’.
Last but not least, they wondered how tripartism could be so uniquely effective in Singapore at a time when it is either breaking down or not functioning in many other countries. We explained that when times are good, we work hard together to build up two types of capital – financial capital, by being one of the most pro-business economies in the world; and social capital, by being one of the most pro-worker nations in the world. So, by the time we are hit by a global downturn, we already have in place the necessary resources and a high level of trust among labour, management and government to rally us to respond in unity.
Singapore’s approach to tripartism is good for our workers. We avoided massive retrenchments and prevented a rapid rise in unemployment. It is also good for our businesses. We preserved our economic capacity and upgraded our economic capability to grow again in a global recovery.
Looking ahead, the tripartite partners strive to do even better as we ride the global recovery in 2010 and beyond.
We strive to sustain our economic growth by becoming a “Cheaper Better Faster” economy, and helping our workers to become more productive, capable and adaptable. This is so that our businesses can be profitable and our workers can earn better wages over the next ten years.
We will also strive for inclusive growth to create job opportunities for everyone. This is so that everyone who is willing to learn and willing to work will be able to take on a meaningful job.
Together, let us live our dreams as One Singapore, lift our productivity as One Workforce, and fly our flag as One People.