“To all of you, I say a very big thank you,” says PM Lee in his last May Day speech

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong bows at the May Day Rally 2024
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong bows at the May Day Rally 2024. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong got a standing ovation at his last May Day speech, as he deeply bowed to the audience after saying, “To all of you, I say a very big thank you.”

On the cusp of handing over the reins of national leadership to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, the outgoing premier addressed a large gathering of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre.

PM Lee began with warm greetings to his audience: “A very good morning and a very happy May Day to every one of you. I have spoken at almost every May Day Rally since I became PM in 2004. This will be my last major speech as PM, before I hand over to DPM Lawrence Wong on 15 May. I am very happy to be addressing you, my brothers and sisters in the NTUC.”

Looking back at the eventful decades since Singapore gained independence in 1965, the prime minister outlined all the hard work that has gone into the making of modern Singapore.

He spoke of the principle of inclusivity that drives the nation. “Even as the country progressed, we made every effort to leave no one behind. When I was sworn in as PM, I promised to build a more inclusive Singapore: one where it is not every man for himself, but everyone working together to make things better for all of us,” said PM Lee.

PM Lee at the Purple Parade in October 2022
PM Lee celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Purple Parade in October 2022. This is a movement meant to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

Further into his speech, he again emphasised on how each person in Singapore made a contribution to the nation. “We are Singaporeans together. So often when talking to teachers, healthcare workers, public transport crew, Home Team and SAF personnel, private sector staff, employees, managers — I am struck by their pride and motivation to excel,” he said.

World wants to emulate Singapore

Singapore’s goal of excellence and its achievements have given it an unparalleled reputation across the world. In his May Day speech, PM Lee spoke of his experience of how people overseas perceived Singapore.

He said, “Our track record of keeping our own house in order has been key to building up our standing in the world. Wherever I go, whether to a big or small country, whether to an advanced country in the West, or a developing state in Africa or Latin America, people have a high regard for Singapore.

“They may not know a lot about us, but they have heard enough to be impressed, and to want to emulate us. It is always humbling when I meet other leaders at international conferences who ask me: ‘Where are you from?’ and after I introduce myself, they say: ‘I wish my country could be like Singapore.’”

PM Lee at Sengkang General Hospital
PM Lee visiting the Outpatient Rehabilitation Centre at Sengkang General Hospital in March 2019. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

It was extremely important to keep up the good work, indicated the prime minister, stating, “But we must never let this [praise] get to our heads. On the contrary, we must zealously uphold our reputation, and work hard to build it up, through active, creative, and principled diplomacy.”

Three imperatives for Singapore

Touching upon geopolitical conflicts that were currently impacting the world, especially the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war, PM Lee said that he foresaw “a very challenging period ahead”.

On a note of caution, he said, “If you were not worried, I will be worried. Because as a small and open country, we will inevitably be caught up by powerful external forces and geopolitical currents. Our diverse society makes us especially vulnerable to what happens around us, outside Singapore.”

Despite the turmoil, “we have to continue to focus on nation building, and to make the most of our strengths”, he added.

PM Lee at Gali Batu MRT depot
PM Lee visiting Gali Batu MRT depot on the first day of Chinese New Year in February 2018. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

For the country to stay strong, PM Lee elaborated on “some hard truths” that would always be relevant to Singapore, even as it needed “updated creative responses” for worldwide changes.

PM Lee spoke of three imperatives — social cohesion; long-term planning; and political stability and trust — that Singapore must never lose sight of.

Tidal force of diverse ethnic roots

The diversity of Singapore society has also meant a fine balancing act between preserving cultures while promoting equality and harmony.

“Race, language, and religion — these are the traditional fault lines in our society. We have made huge efforts to build a shared Singaporean identity, to live and work together harmoniously as a multi-racial and multi-religious society based on meritocracy and equal opportunity. We have made great progress in this,” said PM Lee.

“But,” he added, “we will always be subject to external forces that pull different segments of our population in different directions. We cannot disavow our diverse ethnic roots and religious affinities, we want to keep them….”

Inter-Religious Organisation’s 70th anniversary gala dinner in Singapore
Religious leaders praying together at the Inter-Religious Organisation’s 70th anniversary gala dinner in August 2019. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

The prime minister stated that the “real, emotional, historical, cultural, deep ties” that Singaporeans have with the countries of their origin, “can be vulnerabilities”; and yet, “we do not want to lose these rich cultural and historical heritages”.

Stressing upon how culture and history connected the generations of ethnic communities living in Singapore, PM Lee said, “Therefore for us, racial and religious harmony will always be a continuing work in progress. Never think that we have ‘solved the problem’ and that we have left it behind. It will always be with us.”

Vision and sense of stewardship

As tiny Singapore continues to grow economically and fortifies its global reputation, PM Lee’s speech outlined all the work needed in the areas of planning and politics.

About long-term planning, he said, “It is the responsibility of every government in every country. Not just to deal with pressing, immediate problems, but also to have the vision and the sense of stewardship to peer beyond the horizon and plan far ahead.”

On political stability and trust, he said, “The whole Singapore system is anchored on a strong base of trust between the people and their government.”

PM Lee with youth representatives in the Young NTUC committee
PM Lee with youth representatives in the Young NTUC committee at the 2023 NTUC National Delegates Conference. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

Referring to the record 15-time mandate won by the People’s Action Party (PAP), the prime minister said, “Very few other countries work like this. You name me one. We were fortunate to start off on the right footing. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong and their teams established the fundamentals of good government. They were unshakeably committed to meritocracy and incorruptibility. They worked hard to build a system that would endure beyond their own terms as PM. My team and I have done our best to steward Singapore, and safeguard its future. Our successors must do the same.”

This is the path forward

After detailing the role that labour unions would play in the progress of Singapore, PM Lee said in the concluding part of his May Day speech, “As I prepare to hand over Singapore in good order to my successor, I feel a sense of satisfaction and completeness. I have done my duty, and I am very happy I chose this path of public service all those many years ago.”

PM Lee at the NTUC May Day Rally 2023
PM Lee at the NTUC May Day Rally 2023. Photo courtesy: PMO Singapore

Once again, PM Lee urged the public to “rally behind” the incoming prime minister — as he had done when the date of succession was announced recently.

He said, “I have every confidence in Lawrence and his team. The 4G [team] will have their hands full dealing with issues which will arise, and realising their Forward SG agenda. I ask all Singaporeans to rally behind them, and work together to make Singapore succeed, for your sake.

“That is our path forward: for each generation to steward Singapore to the best of its ability; so that the next generation can take on a better Singapore, and in turn lead our nation onwards and upwards. Thank you very much!

“Majulah Singapura!”