SINGAPORE: The Singapore economy as a whole is on a steady path and at a stable level, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Fri (Jan 20) at a forum jointly organised by the EDB Society and The Straits Times.
Responding to questions on Singapore’s rate of GDP growth in recent years, Mr Lee said the Government was not too anxious or concerned about the situation but would watch the economy closely and carefully to see which way it goes.
“1.8 per cent last year was less than what we hoped for, but more than what we expected,” he said. “This year, we hope the momentum will improve. There’s some chance of that. In the fourth quarter last year, things sped up and if it continues this year, it will be a good thing.”
“If we can make two to three per cent every year over the next 10 years, we will be doing well,” said Mr Lee. “That’s over the longer term. It means steady improvement in standard of living, income, and what the economy can provide for our people.”
“But in the shorter term, we also want to make sure the ups and downs are controlled and the downs are not too down, and if we need to stimulate the economy we can do so. If we need to give it an extra boost, we will.”
Mr Lee was also asked if the unemployment situation was a cause for worry. “My growth rate is constrained by how many people I have,” he noted. “And if I have more workers, more students coming out who are well-trained, well-educated, I can grow faster. That is the constraint rather than ‘I have so many people coming out, where are the jobs to be found’.”
“If you look at foreign worker numbers in Singapore, there are still substantial numbers. Growth has slowed… but jobs are available and quite often employers can’t find suitable Singaporeans so that’s why they bring in foreigners,” added Mr Lee. “But if we can produce Singaporeans with skills, jobs will be there and we will be able to employ them.”
MAINTAINING SINGAPORE’S COMPETITIVENESS
Mr Lee also said that Singaporeans were competitive when it was pointed out that wage levels here were two to three times that of Malaysians, Vietnamese or Thai workers.
“We are more expensive than our neighbours, but overall people find it worthwhile to be in Singapore,” he said. “It’s partly the quality of the individual… but also the quality of the overall business environment in Singapore.”
Singapore’s clean, efficient business environment is not so easy to replicate, Mr Lee said. “That’s an advantage we enjoy over many other quite vibrant economic centres but operating in a different way from Singapore.”
“To keep on upgrading and keep on earning more that means you must keep on either improving the business environment; infrastructure or improve the skill and quality of people and I think we do all three.”
He also described China’s investment in neighbouring Malaysia as a “plus” rather than a threat. “When people invest in Singapore, we don’t see this as being a threat to our neighbours - we tell them it’s good for them if Singapore prospers and we can serve you better. And if Malaysia prospers, we can do more business with them.”
“We are already competing with Malaysia in terms of ports and it boils down to who can run a port better and more efficiently,” he acknowledged. “But if there is an opportunity to not just compete but cooperate with each other, we should do that.”
“Even between Singapore and Port Klang for example, it’s not entirely a win-lose because when business comes into the region, there are opportunities for Singapore too.”
CHINA, US INTEREST IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Mr Lee also reiterated the Government’s stance on welcoming China’s growing influence in the region. “There are ticklish issues to manage like the South China Sea, where Singapore is chairing the ASEAN-China engagement and we are working towards a code of conduct,” he said. “We don’t see eye to eye but neither are we opposed to each other.”
“These are things we have to deal with from time to time and which we have to take in our stride,” Mr Lee added. “Cooperation is win-win. If it happens, good for both sides. If it doesn’t, that’s a pity.”
“But in relations between countries you must always expect difference of views, otherwise it’s unnatural, and we must be able to manage them without affecting the overall relationship.”
On American commitment to this part of the world, he said time should be given to the new Administration to settle down.
“We know who the key officers are… These are serious people who are not unfamiliar with the region,” said Mr Lee.
“We have to see what their priorities are and how they express their policies. But in terms of stakes, the stakes are here,” he said. “As Kirk Wagar, the previous US ambassador to Singapore, said: ‘You have so many investments here, you have so many projects here, and you have so many friends and interests here’.”
“That’s something any American Administration will have to pay attention to in Asia.”
Asked about talk of Singapore being “too friendly” with the US, against Chinese wishes, Mr Lee said: “We are friendly with both China and America. We have more security cooperation with America than China and there are good reasons for that. We have explained this to the Chinese too and they understand that we have worked with America for a long time.”
“They supply a lot of equipment for the Singapore Armed Forces and they are important for our security in Southeast Asia and therefore we have to maintain that. But it doesn’t mean we are against China.”