What can we do to continue celebrating May Day?

may day singapore

Most Singaporeans know that upcoming May Day is on a Wednesday – that means with just 2 days of leave from work, you can plan for a short 5-day getaway! Wooohoooo…. but wait a minute, while you’re happily enjoying your mini holiday, ask yourself: what exactly is May Day and why are we celebrating it? I bet many of you don’t know the answer because May Day is probably the least understood public holiday among the rest, so read on to find out what May Day is all about…

May Day or Labour Day in other countries did not come about as a much joyous occasion. Dated as far back to 1 May 1886, hundreds of thousands of industrial workers in the United States went on a strike to protest against their long working hours which could range between 10 to 16 hours. They were fighting for an 8-hour workday and they persisted their fight for several days. Bombs and guns were involved, and needless to say, many strikers were wounded and killed by the authorities in the process. But their fight was worth it when their workers’ rights were finally met after the sacrifices were made by their comrades. In commemoration of those who stood their ground to improve the lives of the working class, May Day was then established.

So what does May Day entail for Singaporeans? Instead of a day where workers protested on the streets for better wages, welfare and work prospects, May Day was pronounced as a public holiday in 1960 as a way to honour Singaporeans and their contributions to nation building. This is especially crucial to a small country like Singapore where we have no resources other than manpower itself. Setting aside a day to specially thank the efforts of the people who are helping to boost the economic growth of the country helps the citizens feel appreciated.

Over the years, Singapore has seen changes in her labour market. A Singaporean worker earned more than thrice of what they used to from 1964 to 1989 despite national and global economic challenges and changes.

The GDP per Capita in Singapore for 2017 was USD 55,235 which is equivalent to 437 percent of the world’s average and placed Singapore in the 11th place on the global map. It is miraculous that a small city state can achieve such status and this was made possible with Singapore’s ability to attract foreign investment by promoting industrial peace.

Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 was soon followed by the British decision to withdraw their bases from Singapore. Faced with high unemployment, labour legislation was redrafted in 1968 to attract investors.

The Employment Act was passed in 1968 to promote industrial peace and discipline among the workforce. Subsequently, Section 18(2) of the Industrial Relations Act was introduced to prohibit trade unions to raise any bargaining demands on the promotion, internal transfer, recruitment, retrenchment, dismissal or reinstatement of an employee including the assignment or allocation of duties or specific tasks to him/her. The result was that these personnel matters not only could not form part of collective bargaining but they could not form the basis of a trade dispute.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) also called for a “Modernisation Seminar” in November 1969, collective bargaining then became collaborative and not confrontational. Help was given to workers to achieve a better quality of life through better education and training. The cornerstone of the constructive industrial relations that followed lay in the tripartism efforts of unions, employers and Government to share a common purpose for nation building. This has enabled Singapore to transform itself from a third world country to a first in less than 50 years.

How will we progress as a nation for the next 50 years? Can we continue to attract investment and grow our economy for better wages, better welfare and job prospects by maintaining industrial peace?

Can NTUC duplicate the success of the Modernisation Seminar in 1969 and mobilise their network of unions and companies to plan and implement training programmes to help our workers and businesses transform to secure better work prospects?

These are questions we should be asking ourselves during the upcoming May Day.

Happy May Day!


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