News that Singapore narrowly avoided a technical recession – or two straight quarters of quarter-on-quarter contraction – demonstrates how precarious the economic times are. The news comes against the backdrop of continuing trade tensions between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies whose relations impinge on the fortunes of other nations, not least Singapore, whose economy is deeply globalised. Although Sino-US talks are said to be making progress and both sides are working towards a partial trade deal, there is no knowing how long the momentum of progress will last. At another level of economic insecurity, technology is transforming many industries and established players are being disrupted. The advent of artificial intelligence as a key economic actor threatens livelihoods even as it opens up vast economic vistas that will benefit those in the knowledge and skills vanguard.
In times such as these, there is a danger that the social compact between governments and workers will splinter, creating convenient space for nativist and populist forces that call for economic protectionism and political isolationism. The rise of such forces in many advanced economies provides a salutary warning to countries such as Singapore, where the concept of good governance is tied intrinsically to the day-to-day well-being of workers. The notion of tripartism that has guided state-market-labour relations here for five decades now could come under stress if workers feel that they are being left by the wayside of change even as Singapore as a whole benefits from globalisation. Tripartism, in which unions adopt a collaborative and not adversarial attitude to management in a system that is overseen impartially by the Government, has brought Singapore to where it is today. It must help the country to cross the hurdles that have cropped up and that are still challenging established norms of social conduct elsewhere today.