Singapore's economy is running slow, but the country is not in a crisis, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday night.
And what is needed now is not an emergency package, but a longer-term strategy for growth, he told 300 labour movement leaders in a closed-door dialogue held in the NTUC Centre in Marina Boulevard.
He said that the 2009 financial crisis called for a big rescue package to cut business costs and protect jobs, but this time around, the problem is structural: "It's not an infection that can be cured with one course of antibiotics, but something that we have to work at over the long term."
He likened this to taking vitamins every day and following a rigorous exercise programme to gradually build up strength and new capabilities; to continue growing and creating good jobs, he said, Singapore must upgrade and restructure its economy.
He said the slowdown, which has also hit other countries, is due partly to slower global trade and lower oil prices, which have hit the oil and gas and offshore and marine industries hard.
Slower growth is also a new normal, now that Singapore is a more developed economy.
He expressed confidence that when global demand recovers, Singapore can aim for 2 to 3 per cent growth on average - faster than similar developed economies.
Bright spots remain even now in information and communications technology (ICT), education, health and social services, he said - and Singapore is still drawing investments and creating jobs. The investors include Glaxosmithkline in biomedical sciences, Kuehne+Nagel in logistics, Evonik in energy and chemicals, Google in ICT and Applied Materials in precision engineering.
Mr Lee said the government is helping businesses to transform and find opportunities overseas. It is drawing up 23 individual Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), which cover 80 per cent of the economy. These will help entire industries, including individual small and medium-sized enterprises, to upgrade and restructure.
Three ITMs - for the precision engineering, food services and retail sectors - are in place. The ITM for precision engineering is nudging businesses in that sector to go digital in manufacturing, so as to be able to offer tailor-made solutions, open up new markets and compete globally.
Mr Lee noted that the government has helped local companies to expand overseas; the list of homegrown food enterprises which have received support from International Enterprise Singapore, the trade-promotion agency, includes Bee Cheng Hiang, Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice, Mr Bean, Ya Kun Kaya Toast and Janice Wong Desserts.
Mr Lee said the government is also helping current workers to upgrade through the SkillsFuture programme, which offers subsidised training in areas where there are jobs and growth prospects. He said the government will spend more than S$1 billion a year on SkillsFuture and related initiatives by 2020.
Meanwhile, the government, along with NTUC, will help displaced workers by ensuring they are treated fairly by employers; they will also be helped with training, job search and financial aid during the transition.
The government is also preparing future workers by equipping them with workplace-ready skills, and by growing the economy to create new jobs, said Mr Lee.
The government will have a comprehensive strategy in place, and scale up its programmes and schemes to do more.
"We will increase funding up to 50 per cent for some programmes in the next two years. Our strategies will work. If any country can succeed, Singapore can. Because we have the resources, we have the wherewithal and we work together."
He called on the labour movement leaders to back the government in these efforts: "Your support is the secret to our success."
This article was first published on Nov 2, 2016.
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