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Good prospects for economy this year, but trade tensions a cause for concern: PM Lee

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[SINGAPORE] Singapore's economy grew 3.6 per cent last year, and it can look forward to healthy economic growth this year, too, if this momentum is maintained, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (April 30).

Productivity growth last year reached its highest in seven years, and more jobs were created, including higher-paying ones, he noted in his annual May Day message to workers.

How things shape up this year will depend on the external environment, said PM Lee, noting that prospects for the global economy have been clouded by recent trade tensions between the United States and China.

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"We are watching developments with concern because trade is our lifeblood. A trade war would damage the international trading system that has sustained global economic growth for decades," he said.

In his message, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to stay united and work together, regardless of domestic or international developments, so that the country is ready for any opportunities or shocks that may come its way.

His message comes after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said last Friday that while unemployment rates have declined from a year ago, further improvement will be harder to achieve.

The resident unemployment rate has dropped to 2.8 per cent in the first quarter of the year, a two-year low, while the seasonally adjusted overall unemployment rate also dipped, from 2.1 per cent in the preceding quarter to 2 per cent for the first quarter of this year.

Economists also expressed concern about a contraction in total employment - excluding that of foreign workers - and echoed the MOM's call to address potential job-skill mismatches as the economy presses on with restructuring efforts.

On this front, Singapore is making progress when it comes to making its industries and sectors more productive and efficient, said PM Lee.

The 23 Industry Transformation Maps - blueprints that map out growth plans for 23 specific sectors covering more than 80 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product- have been launched, he noted.

"The tripartite partners are working hard to turn these plans into actions and programmes that make a meaningful difference to companies and workers."

The Government also provides support and incentives for employers and workers to improve their skills and transform, he said, naming programmes such as the SkillsFuture series of courses and job-matching schemes such as the Professional Conversion Programmes and the Place-and-Train Programme.

"Employers and workers must do their part too," PM Lee said, adding that the labour movement has grown in strength and extended its outreach to freelancers, the self-employed, migrant workers and professionals under the leadership of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Chan Chun Sing.

After three years in the NTUC, Mr Chan was asked by PM Lee to return to Government. He will assume his new portfolio as Minister of Trade and Industry on Tuesday, while outgoing Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, who was named NTUC deputy secretary-general last week, will serve full time in NTUC from May.

"The labour movement will be a pillar of strength as we brave the challenges and storms, working together to build a dynamic and prosperous Singapore," said PM Lee, wishing all a happy May Day.

PM Lee will deliver his annual May Day Rally speech on Tuesday.