In Singapore, the dictum “no free lunch” is well engrained in every citizen by the government. In 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong modified this to “we have to guard our lunch” from being stolen by others. Now, during a May Day discussion with union leaders, Mr Lee says Singaporeans “must make sure you steal somebody else’s lunch.”
Mr Lee’s remarks have, perhaps unsurprisingly, attracted criticism online, with some saying it is unbecoming of a national leader to encourage theft, no matter the context.
But the prime minister was making a serious point – that in a world where industries are constantly being disrupted, it is vital that Singaporeans upped their competitive advantages through retraining and acquiring new skills, increasing their productivity, and be able to compete in the global market.
Mr Lee’s comments came during the discussion on the situation in the port sector.
Jessie Yeo, executive secretary of the Metal Industries Workers’ Union and Singapore Port Workers Union, had elaborated on how the industry had consolidated its staff members during the economic slowdown.
“We transferred 520 staff to all the other terminals, away from the city terminals. So we consolidated. Now we are doing better. Hopefully we will be at the end of the tunnel by the end of the year.
“So the workers are a lot happier now. It is a different set of problems now – it is a happy problem now,” she said. “They are worried about being so busy; (whether) fatigue (would) set in later on.”
Nonetheless, Mr Lee noted that the port industry must remain vigilant and be alert to competition from nearby Port of Tanjung Pelepas and Port Klang in Malaysia, and that it must find ways to up its productivity in order to stay one step ahead.
“You must make sure you steal somebody else’s lunch,” Mr Lee said.
He explained: “You must always want to do better but you cannot always want to hope for the sky, and that is the challenge. Because if you are not hungry, you would not try, but if you are unrealistic, you would be disappointed. I think we have to work hard and with NTUC’s help and the tripartite partners, we can do that.”
In his May Day rally at Tampines Hub, NTUC Chief, Chan Chun Sing, said workers here must be prepared to take up more than two jobs during the span of their careers.
“What we are used to in the past, one or two jobs for our entire career, now may become a series of different jobs, where career transitions become part of the norm,” Mr Chan said.
The NTUC Chief also said the union will help those who have been out of work between 3 to 6 months, and will look into how it can help workers with financial planning for retirement, especially if they are going to be changing jobs more frequently.
Mr Chan noted that disruptive technology and business models will likely bring uncertainties to the Singapore economy, in addition to short-term cyclical forces which continue to affect industries.
These brings challenges to training workers.
Mr Chan said, “Typically it takes three to six months to figure out market demand … another three to six months to curate the syllabus … another few months for us to mobilise the workers to go for training. The entire cycle can take us more than one year. This is just not good enough for the new economy.”
He suggested that there could be “bite-sized, just-in-time” training modules to help workers learn amid their busy schedules.
Mr Lee, who was also at the May Day event, urged workers to be “open-minded and flexible” in trying new things and acquiring new skills. He also gave a shout-out for older workers and urged employers to give these a “second chance.”
“If the tripartite partners pull together, we will transform together, adapt together and grow together,” the PM said.
In short, the government’s message is: there is no free lunch in the world and yes, Singaporeans have to guard their lunches. At the same time, because of how the world is constantly changing, they also have to improve themselves – to “steal someone else’s lunch” – so that they can stay ahead of the intense global competition.
As Mr Chan said, referring to the challenges facing Singapore, “Whichever country can get this right will help its people the most. Those who cannot solve these challenges will have a lot of problems, from socio-economic to others … The challenge is disrupt ourselves before others disrupt us.”