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BUDGET DEBATE

Grow economy, revenue to balance future budgets: Swee Say

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For Mr Lim recommended boosting labour productivity and innovation as ways to expand the economy's capacity for future growth.

Singapore

INSTEAD of having to balance future budgets by cutting back on spending, labour chief Lim Swee Say recommends growing the economy and revenue.

And whether Singapore is successful in doing this will depend on its ability to progress from one stage of development to the next, he said in parliament on the second day of the budget debate on Wednesday.

He pointed out that, even as the government would always put the welfare of the workers first, the extent to which the state can do this would depend largely on whether businesses are faring well in terms of profitability and growth.

"It is always easier to secure more for workers when there is a growing pie, and it is much tougher when we have to fight over a shrinking pie," he said.

He devoted much of his speech to the need for Singapore to clear the many bottlenecks in its path as the country prepares to deal with challenges in the coming years.

Mr Lim coined a new term, "futurisation", which he defined as the ability of a nation to move faster into the future and remain ahead of the competition.

Among the bottlenecks Singapore has to contend with is acceptance of the importance of boosting labour productivity and innovation as ways to expand capacity for future growth.

"Without additional capacity in our economy, there will be no room for growth.

"We have been expanding our workforce, but the pace has slowed. Our manpower utilisation is near full capacity, and unemployment is low."

Mr Lim, the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), warned of the consequences that could arise if Singapore's productivity does not improve.

Over the course of the debate, MPs have expressed concern about the slow improvements in Singapore's labour productivity, even as the country undergoes economic restructuring; the latest figures show that productivity here has declined in three of the last four years.

Mr Lim told the House: "If productivity growth remains low or even negative, we could end up with low (economic) growth or even stagnation due to this lack of capacity."

While there is "encouraging progress" as more companies get on the productivity bandwagon, the majority of firms have yet to make significant strides.

"We need to widen the outreach and quicken the pace. The transformation is not just company by company, but also sector by sector. We have to make productivity a truly national movement," he said.

The labour chief also spoke about the need to realise the full potential of the Singapore workforce and work towards a stage where "every employer values every worker".

Addressing the concerns faced by many employers of the difficulty in recruiting locals in the tight labour market, Mr Lim said it was not necessary to make every single job attractive to local workers:

"Just two-thirds of the jobs will do. It's not our intention to drive away all foreign workers in Singapore," he said, adding that the remaining one-third of positions would be filled by those from abroad.

Returning to his earlier point about embracing the future, he urged Singaporeans to turn existing challenges into the "opportunities of tomorrow", citing new technologies such as 3D-printing and the use of big data as areas people should get into.

The House applauded him at the end of his 30-minute speech, which was significant also in that it was the final time he was speaking at a budget debate in his capacity as NTUC chief.

With the labour movement set to elect its next Central Committee later this year, he will not be putting his name into the hat for another four-year term.

The NTUC Constitution requires its leaders to step down upon reaching 62, and with his turning 62 in July 2016, he would be unable to serve another four-year term.

A total of 26 members of parliament (MPs) spoke on Wednesday, taking the total to 51 so far. Several more are expected to address the House at the start of Thursday's sitting, which begins at noon.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will address the various issues and concerns in his wrap-up speech later in the day.

Once that is done, parliament will move on to the annual Committee of Supply debate, which is expected to run until next Friday. During this debate, MPs will scrutinise the estimated budgets and spending plans of all 15 ministries and the Prime Minister's Office for the coming financial year.

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