In Pictures – Six decades of Labour Movement in Singapore 


The 60s was a time of social and political upheaval in Singapore. Hard-won independence from the British and a short-lived merger with Malaya had left Singapore vulnerable. Its only resource was its people, many of whom were blue-collared workers who were exploited and toiled under miserable conditions. To build a stronger and more prosperous nation, Singapore would have to improve working conditions for its workers and engage them in nation-building. And that was exactly what it did.  

As we celebrate Labour Day this year, let us look back at the labour movement in Singapore over the years.  

1960: Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew delivering his inaugural May Day Rally at Jalan Besar Stadium. It was a momentous occasion. “For this is the first time that May Day is celebrated in Singapore when there is a government which is openly on the worker’s side,” declared Mr Lee.  

1962: National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) leader Devan Nair (third from left) speaking to reporters at the NTUC First Annual Delegates Conference. Following the demise of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), the NTUC became the central trade union, representing up to 65 per cent of Singapore’s workforce at its peak.  

1963: Mr Lee Kuan Yew meeting with nurses on strike at the Singapore General Hospital. Before the days of tripartism, picketing was the modus operandi to demand better wages and working conditions.   

1965: Over 5,000 youths clashed with police when extremist trade unions tried to stage mass May Day demonstrations in various parts of Singapore. The bygone era was a time of powerful and antagonistic trade unions which must be stopped before they become a security threat to the fledgling nation.  

1969: Then-Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, speaking at the NTUC’s Trade Union Seminar. By then, amendments to the law had made strikes unlawful and limited the power of trade unions. It smoothed the way towards a tripartite approach between government, employers and employees (unions). Slowly, collaboration replaced confrontation. 

1973: One hundred workers from A&W staged a walkout over claims that management had refused to implement recommendations from the National Wages Council (NWC). Established in 1972, the NWC was formed as an advisory body to formulate wage guidelines to ensure workers enjoy fair and sustained wage growth. Its work continues today.  

1975: Female factory workers became a common sight in the 1970s as Singapore underwent rapid industrialisation. It was part of the PAP’s commitment to expand opportunities for women while tapping into an underutilised human resource. By 2020, female participation in the labour force reached 61.2%, a far cry from the 21.6% in 1957.  

1986: Retrenched workers undergoing training at the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA). Singapore’s first post-independence recession in 1985 had led to many job losses. To support workers, the government and the NTUC, in what could be seen as a precursor to the SkillsFuture initiative, embarked on programmes to retrain and equip workers with new skills.  

1999: Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong speaking at the May Day Rally. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis has made the past two years a difficult one for workers. On the upside, it strengthened the government’s resolve to future-proof its workers. “We will have to…continually retrain our workforce and encourage every individual to learn all the time as a matter of necessity,” said Mr Goh.  

2004: Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong delivering his maiden National Day Rally speech. For workers, it was a landmark moment which saw Mr Lee introduce the 5-day work week in the civil service, which has since become the norm in our working culture.  

2016: Then-Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at a SkillsFuture Credit Roadshow. Launched a year prior, the scheme is part of a movement to promote a culture of lifelong learning and prepare workers for the future economy. Today, the initiative is still going strong, providing workers with an expanding repertoire of courses to reskill and retrain.  

2021: PM Lee at a hybrid National Day Rally as COVID-19 rages on. It was another milestone for workers when he announced, “We will enshrine the TAFEP guidelines in law. This will give them more teeth and expand the range of actions we can take.” Set up in 2006, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices or TAFEP has been responsible for promoting fair and progressive employment practices. 

2021: Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad speaking to workers who have benefited from the Progressive Wage Model (PWM). Introduced in 2012 to uplift the stagnated wages of those in the cleaning sector, the PWM has since been expanded to include more sectors. A move that will ensure that the majority of lower-wage workers can enjoy sustained wage growth over the next decade.  

2022: Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary join Labour MP Yeo Wan Ling for a chat with platform workers. As an occupation borne out of technology, the government has stepped up, engaging with tripartite partners to strengthen its policies to protect the needs and rights of platform workers. 

2022: Minister Indranee Rajah and Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang with SMEs to discuss how Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) can work. After years of tireless advocacy by Labour MPs, new tripartite guidelines on requests for FWA will kick in December 2024. With this change, all employers are required to consider employees’ requests for FWA. 

2023: Labour MPs Patrick Tay and Seah Kian Peng at the launch of the NTUC Workers Compact. Continuing the tradition of engaging workers, the document proposes 10 recommendations to help youths, seniors, caregivers, mid-career and vulnerable workers thrive in the workplace.  

2023: Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong speaking at the May Day Rally. In his speech, he reassured Singaporeans that the government will continue to improve workers’ lives, providing dignity and respect in all jobs.  

Going back to the promise our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, made over 60 years ago, ensuring that all Singaporean workers have good prospects and welfare continues to form the ethos of our policies. As Mr Lee once said, “A PAP Government is a Government on the side of the workers.” And that is a vow that still rings resoundingly true today.  

Photo Source: PMO/ National Archives/ NTUC/ Lee Hsien Loong /Yeo Wan Ling/ Zaqy Mohamad/ Patrick Tay via Facebook/ The Strait Stimes© Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.