We watched Heng Swee Keat’s 47-minute May Day Rally speech to see if he can rouse unions

Heng quoted Lee Kuan Yew -- and roused the crowd.

Martino Tan | May 5, 04:56 am


Heng Swee Keat delivered his first major speech as deputy prime minister at the May Day Rally on May 1, 2019.

In his speech, Heng reaffirmed the close symbiotic relationship between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), assuring workers that Singapore’s “unique and precious brand of tripartism, will continue into the 4G and beyond”.

Heng used the 50th anniversary of NTUC’s Modernisation Seminar in 1969 as the backdrop to “renew the pledge” that the late Lee Kuan Yew made to workers.

During the landmark event 50 years ago, the unions agreed to shift from an adversarial stance towards management to one based on the collaboration and cooperation between the unions, the employers and the government.

Here’s why we think new DPM Heng Swee Keat is making his maiden DPM speech at May Day Rally

So, how did Heng fare in his delivery as the prime minister-in-waiting, and how well did he do, especially in terms of the substance and style of his speech?


To identify substance would be to compare Heng’s speech with the speeches made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he was DPM.

PM Lee as DPM had previously delivered three May Day Rally addresses (2001, 2002, 2003).

  • 2001 May Day Rally is brief, at 1,249 words, about half the length of his subsequent speeches. DPM Lee celebrated NTUC’s 40th anniversary and urged the workers to prepare for a tough year and to train and retrain their skills.
  • 2002 May Day Rally was DPM Lee’s second May Day speech, which was nearly twice the length of his first at 2,297 words. He spoke about the government considering the Economic Review Committee (ERC) recommendation of increasing the GST rate from 3 percent to 5 percent and its implications.
  • 2003 May Day Rally was DPM Lee’s most impressive speech at 4,837 words, with SARS as the backdrop. It was a call to action speech to rally the workers and the unions to fight SARS, which included complying with rules, taking care of one another, overcoming fear, and adapting to life with SARS. He also delivered the address in Mandarin.

Heng’s 4,595-word speech

In terms of its length, Heng’s speech at 4,595 words, was substantially longer than DPM Lee’s addresses.

In terms of its significance, Heng’s speech was an important one though.

The intent of the speech is to “renew the pledge” between the ruling party and the unions.

And Heng wisely used the right moment — the 50th anniversary of NTUC’s Modernisation Seminar in 1969 — to forge a new compact with the workers.

He began by unequivocally stating that “the Labour Movement has always been the PAP’s most important partner”, even before PAP or NTUC even existed.

He subsequently provided the historical context of this bond, highlighting how LKY began his political career as a lawyer representing the postal workers’ union, and how many other founding members of the PAP were unionists.

He also paid tribute to the labour leaders, past and present, as he gave the audience a lesson in the history of the labour movement, and how its progress was intertwined with Singapore’s successes.


Heng wore a red NTUC polo-tee, which was the same colour worn by PM Lee during the May Day Rally 2018.

Source: PMO Youtube.

But this observation may not be as symbolic, since most political leaders chose to wear red this year.

DPM Heng Swee Keat & Minister Ng Chee Meng bromance on open display at 2019 May Day Rally

What was more important though was how Heng delivered his speech.

Heng was relaxed when he wished his audience a “very happy May Day” with open arms.

Source: CNA YouTube.

Compare his body language with how Heng delivered his first major speech at the 2012 National Day Rally.

Source: PMO YouTube.

Heng in 2012 clearly looked more tentative, with narrower hand gestures when he emphasised a point.

In months to come, Heng’s May Day rally speech is likely to be remembered for his passionate rendition of LKY’s full quote:

“Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the country is very important. But equally important is the development of the nature of our society. We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions. To survive as a nation and distinct community we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we fail. You can neither be proud nor rugged if you have not got self-respect. Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers, that protection for a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen. He may be an unskilled worker, but he is one of us. He must be prepared to fight and die for Singapore. He will neither be able nor willing to do this if he is a cringing coward”.

In the final moments of the quote, Heng worked himself up, giving a “shouting, finger-wagging” speech that raised the enthusiasm in the auditorium.

Source: CNA YouTube.

Together, the crowd surrendered to his delivery, applauding Heng for it.

But this quote also showed how good a political leader LKY was, since his remarks still stood the test of time.

With this quote, LKY knew in his gut what rallied the workers, not just in his head, and he knew the cause that must become his battle cry.

Heng’s best political speech

Having watched his full speech, one can easily say that it was Heng’s best political speech by far.

Interestingly, there were no expectations set for Heng’s first May Day Rally, with Heng only announcing it a week before it took place.

PM Lee also didn’t play it up or raise any expectations by posting a preview on his Facebook page.

And Heng hit the mark, with or without high expectations.

By resharing the dramas, the highs and lows of the labour movement, Heng has attempted to renew the “social compact” between the PAP and NTUC.

The PAP-NTUC bond was forged when the PAP-led unions were the underdogs (27 unions) competing with the opposition Barisan Socialis-led unions (82 unions).

Heng’s task is now to be a large enough man to keep such a movement alive, especially when PAP is no longer seen as an underdog in most people’s eyes.

Source: CNA YouTube.

Top photo from Ng Chee Meng Facebook

About Martino Tan

Martino’s parents named him after an Italian priest, Vatican's 1st ambassador to S’pore. He's inspired by the lives of Robert Kennedy & Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the words of George Orwell & William F. Buckley Jr., & the music of the Beatles.

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