NDR 2004: PM Lee announces 5-day work week for civil service


In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s first National Day Rally in 2004, he spoke widely, slaying several sacred cows along the way. He also introduced the 5-day work week to the civil service, laying the foundation of the 5-day work week culture for all employees in Singapore. Here’s an excerpt of PM Lee’s speech here.

Finally, I think we need a better work life balance.  Apart from high expectations being the reason why young people don’t get married, another reason is they are simply too busy.  They are working.  If they are lawyers, they may finish at eleven o’clock at night.  If they are civil servants working at MTI, maybe ten o’clock at night.  No time to go out, socialise, make friends.

Married couples also need good work life balance.  I think we are working longer hours.  I am not sure why, but hours have become longer, the pace is more intense.  Maybe it’s the Internet, maybe it’s email, maybe it’s globalisation, but whatever it is, you wake up at six o’clock in the morning, you check your email.  

Eleven o’clock at night, before you go to sleep, you check it again and next morning, you come back, somebody replied at 2.00 am. How to have children? 

The Government has a solution for everything.  So, because of this, we have a Family Life Officer in every ministry. So, one ministry had a Family Life Officer who sent out a notice to the whole ministry, circular, email, cc all, saying you must maintain good balanced family life, stay at home, paid holiday, quality life, so forth and she sent it out at 11.00 pm from her office PC.  

I don’t know whether she’s been sacked yet, but I think we have to keep a balance.  

There has to be on-time and off-time.  The US has got a good practice, five-day week.  They work like mad, Mondays to Fridays.  Breakfast meeting, 7.00 am, dinner, post-dinner meeting, 10.00 pm, 11.00 pm.  Friday night, work late; Saturday, Sunday sacrosanct, absolute no-no.  Never mind who you are, no business.

They will save the time for their family, for their community, they do social work.  Totally different personality.  They coach a basketball team.  They work hard, five-day week. Other countries are different.  Five-day week, by Thursday afternoon, your weekend is getting close.

We have always resisted a five-day week.  I have made this argument many times. When I went into Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), they put up a paper, I said, “No”.  Last year, they were about to put up a paper. Before they could put it up, I had already answered somebody else “no” in the newspapers.  So, they withdrew their proposal.  

But, in fact, it is one of the most important things for our young people and when we talk to employees coming in or staff coming in and ask them, “What is it which you are looking for?”, the first thing they ask us is, “Do you work on Saturdays?” because they want that time.  

Two days of a weekend is different from one-and-a-half days of a weekend.  

So, after having said, “No” for a very long time, I think it is time to turn this stone over also.  So, the Civil Service will go to a five-day week.  I didn’t know you were all civil servants!  It will apply also to schools and army camps, but we will not reduce the official working hours.  

So, whatever it is, 44 hours, you have to do, you cover that during the week.  And if the public counter is open on Saturdays, has to be open on Saturdays, we will keep it open on Saturdays.  So, five-day week doesn’t mean everybody is off on Saturday.  Some people may be off on Monday or some other day of the week.

Now, I wanted to say that I was going to go to work on Saturday, but the civil servants told me, please don’t say that, but I can tell you I would be checking my email on Saturday and I’m sure for the ministers and for the people who are in the political leadership, the weekends will be time for them to spend in the community with the grassroots and keeping in touch with the residents. 

So, let me recap.  Lim Hng Kiang will announce all the details on Wednesday.  You can ask him as well as his committee, which includes several ladies — I think Amy Khor is on the committee and Lim Hwee Hua – all the tough questions.  My job is just to make the speech.  

This package by itself isn’t going to solve the problem, but if it changes Singaporean mindsets towards marriage, family and children and causes people to think again and reorder their priorities in life, then I think it will contribute to turning the situation around.

I haven’t been able to cover every segment of society in detail tonight.  I read today’s Sunday Times – “What I would like to hear in the National Day Rally?”  Everybody had a wish list and I think everybody has a right to wish for something – the disabled, the disadvantaged, the old, the young, the married couples, newly-married and so on.  And when I talked about an inclusive society, I include all of them, but if I cover all of them tonight, you will not go home till midnight.  

But at the right occasion at the right events over the next few months and years, we will talk about them, we will address them and we will see to their needs because an inclusive society has to embrace all and everybody must have the chance to have a good life and to be part of this Singapore Story.

Cover image credit: Prime Minister’s Office Youtube.