Even today, the labour protests that mark May Day reflect the mismatch between old-world expectations of workers' rights and the new-world reality of global competition. From welfarist Greece and Spain - where confrontational workers refuse to accept cuts to living standards achieved under profligate governments - to even laissez-faire Hong Kong, labour militancy has disrupted everyday life but without changing the irresistible fact that jobs and wages cannot be protected from the workings of a single global market in which companies will go wherever costs and other operating conditions are the most attractive.
Singapore, an early globaliser and keen believer in economic realism, has been spared the labour disconnect that afflicts many other countries. Tripartism, under which the state keeps a watchful eye on relations between the market and labour, makes it possible for workers to understand that their bargaining power consists, not in adversarial relations with management, but in sustaining a dynamic and globally competitive city that justifies the premium which foreign investors place on it. Higher wages have been earned by working together to make the economy grow, and through restructuring and higher productivity, not by using the political power of organised labour to extract concessions from management. At the very least, the Singapore Way is not represented by the illegal strike by some foreign bus drivers last November, which sent shock waves through a system long accustomed to industrial harmony.
Lately, attention has focused on low-income and older workers in particular, vulnerable segments of the workforce whose interests do deserve special care. But to be able to do so, resources will need to be generated by growing the economy, rather than relying overly on government handouts or protection. The inescapable truth is that Singapore must earn its keep because no one owes it a living. Will this continue to be upheld in the coming decades as Singaporeans become more educated and move up the skills ladder? By 2030, managers and executives will form two-thirds of the workforce. Labour expectations may change, but the imperatives of a city-state hooked to the global network will not.
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