May Day Rally: Singapore has to work hard to tackle rising unemployment, says PM Lee

May Day Rally: Singapore has to work hard to tackle rising unemployment, says PM Lee

Unemployment is expected to creep up further this year, as Singapore’s workforce ages and older workers who lose their jobs take longer to find new ones, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (May 1).

SINGAPORE: Unemployment is expected to creep up further this year, as Singapore’s workforce ages and older workers who lose their jobs take longer to find new ones, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (May 1).

Even as he is “cautiously optimistic” about Singapore’s economy, and sees growth likely to pick up from last year, Mr Lee said he expects a “steady trickle” of redundancies. As companies restructure, some workers will be displaced, he told unionists gathered at Our Tampines Hub for the annual May Day Rally.

Singapore’s economy expanded by 2 per cent last year, up slightly from 2015's 1.9 per cent, which was the country’s weakest annual growth rate since 2009. The unemployment rate climbed to 2.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Still, Singapore’s unemployment rate is low in comparison to other developed countries, where they are typically much higher – at least 5 per cent, and sometimes, 10 per cent, Mr Lee said.

“We have to understand this trend, but at the same time we have to work hard to resist it, and to keep our workers in jobs,” he said.

He gave an example of PSA, which retained its workers when the port shifted to Pasir Panjang and used better technology. The workers were retrained, and quite a few took on new roles, he said.

PSA Singapore
PSA's Tanjong Pagar Terminal. (File photo: MCI)


In order to create new jobs, the Government will bring in new businesses and investments, and upgrade existing companies, a “winning formula for 50 years”, Mr Lee said.

“If we don’t have the new companies, if we don’t have a business-friendly environment where people want to come, there will be no new jobs,” he said, adding that the Economic Development Board has been working hard to get MNCs to invest in Singapore.

He gave examples of projects last year – electronics company Micron invested S$5.4 billion, expanded its facility at North Coast Drive and created 500 jobs; Search engine giant Google employed 1,000 people at its new campus in Mapletree Business City; chemical company Evonik broke ground for their second plant on Jurong Island, investing S$800 million and creating 150 jobs.


Google office
Google's office in Singapore at Mapletree Business City II. (Photo: MCI)

At the same time, the Government is helping local small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), both traditional and high-tech, to upgrade themselves, go overseas, expand and build new capabilities, Mr Lee said.

He highlighted Grandluxe, a Singaporean company set up 75 years ago as a book-binding workshop along Mohamad Sultan Road. It expanded into the printing business, setting up a factory in Jurong, printing stationery and notebooks.

But with the old business shrinking, the company decided to change their business model. They turned bookbinding into a premium craft, and started a new company called Bynd Artisan, where customers get to go to their retail shop, and pick materials. Now, at Bynd Artisan, which is selling to the world, skilled bookbinders will personalise leather books and goods. 

One of these skilled bookbinders is Ms Tan Buay Heng, who started 40 years ago as a production operator, manually binding books. Ms Tan’s story, from production operator to retail branch manager, can become the story of other workers, Mr Lee said.

Bynd Artisan Tan Buay Heng
Bynd Artisan employee Tan Buay Heng rose from a production operator to retail branch manager. (Photo: MCI)

“What Bynd Artisan did, Spring and IE Singapore are helping many other SMEs to do. Not every SME can become a retail boutique book binder, but many can reinvent themselves and find new niches in which they can grow,” he added.


The Government is also helping those who have lost their jobs to find alternative jobs, especially professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), Mr Lee said, adding that he is particularly concerned about sectors which are not doing well.

One such sector is the offshore and marine industry. From its last peak, the industry has lost about 30,000 jobs. While foreign workers were the first to be let go, about 1,000 local workers were let go last year, with another few hundred to lose their jobs this year, he said.

In order to improve the situation, the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union, Institute of Engineers in Singapore and the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union are working together to organise job fairs to help offshore and marine workers find new jobs in aerospace and transport engineering. 

“It is a bold move for workers to go and do that. You have to go outside your comfort zone, but if you make the effort, you train, you can do it. Some have already done it,” he said.

Inclusive job fair
Jobseekers at the Inclusive Job Fair organised by NTUC. (Photo: NTUC)

Mr Lee urged Singaporeans not to give up, to be open-minded and flexible, and to take up new courses and re-skill. He also encouraged employers not to just recruit new graduates and to give mature workers a second chance, adding that the public sector is leading by example.

Government agencies like the Land Transport Authority, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Heath have been hiring mid-career PMETs, including mature workers, he said, adding that they have launched several conversion programmes to convert mid-career workers in order to hire them.

But workers must continue to put in effort to continue upgrading themselves, Mr Lee said. Workers in other countries are constantly upgrading, he said, giving the example of factory workers in Chengdu, China, who live in dormitories and take on e-learning at night.

“Unless we are as hungry as them, and as determined as them to upgrade ourselves, and willing to put in as great an effort, I think our cheese will be stolen. We have to make that effort, we have to strive, and we have to keep our position,” he said.

He said that Singapore has a headstart with SkillsFuture, which the International Monetary Fund calls “one of the most comprehensive skills development programmes” it has seen.

Members of the public at a SkillsFuture roadshow in One Raffles Place Atrium on Feb 22, 2016. (File photo: TODAY)


At the centre of efforts to transform the economy and create jobs are Industry Transformation Maps, a recommendation from the Committee on the Future Economy, Mr Lee said.

For example, prospects are bright in the logistics industry – which, together with the transport industry, employs nearly 250,000 workers – because of technology, robotics and data analytics. The Government hopes there will be another 2,000 PMET jobs in logistics in the next five years, he said.

But to do that, everyone will have to play his part, Mr Lee said. Employers must invest in technology, train up workers, unions must work with employers, identify where the new jobs will be, and help workers get new skills, while the Government will support companies to adopt new technology and workers to get training. This is tripartism in action, he said.


Mr Lee also said that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will take over from Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as chair of tripartite council, the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity. It will be renamed the Future Economy Council.

Mr Heng will work with ministers such as Mr S Iswaran, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Ong Ye Kung and Mr Lawrence Wong, to implement the strategies of the Committee of the Future Economy (CFE) which maps out a blueprint for Singapore's next phase of growth.

“It is an opportunity for the younger ministers to work closely together as a team, strengthen their bonds with employers and unions and with each other, and show Singaporeans what they can do. It is their generation of leadership who will have to work with you to take this country to new heights,” Mr Lee said, adding that a unique tripartite partnership is the secret to why Singapore has been able to transform its economy over and over again.

In concluding the rally, he said: “I have no doubt we will face further challenges ahead, even serious ones. But if we strengthen the tripartite system, and remain united, if the labour movement remains strong, takes care of our workers, and makes them co-owners of our system, and if all segments of society – workers as well as employers, managers and professionals as well as foremen and the rank-and-file – sacrifice equally when sacrifice is called for, and share in the fruits of success when things go well, I am confident we will overcome the challenges and emerge stronger.”  

Source: CNA/cy