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PM Lee to new generation: Open a new chapter, create new possibilities for Singapore

[SINGAPORE] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spelt out what the responsibility of a new generation of Singaporeans is, calling on them to renew Singapore while holding on to the values that have made the country successful.

Speaking at the annual May Day rally on Tuesday, he said the Pioneer Generation had built the nation from scratch, while succeeding generations have weathered many crises to bring Singapore to First World status.

"What is the responsibility of this generation of Singapore? It is to renew Singapore - open a new chapter, create new possibilities and frontiers for our country," he said, addressing a 1,600-strong audience including unionists, workers, employers and Cabinet ministers.

Even as they do this, Singaporeans must hold fast to the values that have made the country successful: the instinct to plan ahead; the drive to do better; the sense of mission; and the duty of stewardship, said Mr Lee.

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"This shared responsibility for the future is our strength."

"It is how we will show others - and ourselves too - that Singapore still has what it takes to succeed," he added.

In a speech in which he spoke about technological disruption and how Singapore is responding, Mr Lee also urged workers and businesses to continue with upgrading and transforming, to sustain the momentum of economic restructuring.

The productivity boost had helped the economy grow a better-than-expected 3.6 per cent last year, and there is a good chance it will grow by more than 2.5 per cent this year if this momentum is sustained, said Mr Lee.

Growth this year is forecast to be between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

But whether it hits its target will also depend on the external environment, said Mr Lee.

Although the major economies of the United States, Europe and China are doing well, weaknesses may show up and there are already tensions brewing which cloud the external outlook, he added.

The trade tensions between the US and China has sparked fears of a trade war, and already affected businesses in Singapore.

The US has imposed tariffs on solar panels, and on steel and aluminium imports, and is putting tariffs on US$50 billion worth of Chinese products unilaterally without going through the established channel of the World Trade Organisation, said Mr Lee.

While China has said politely but firmly that they did not want a fight, there is no doubt China would engage the US in the trade war to the bitter end if things escalate, he added, noting that China has already responded with matching tariffs on US products.

"Singapore will suffer collateral damage even though we are not involved in the fight," warned the prime minister.

For example, the US duties on solar panels, steel and aluminium and China tariffs on synthetic rubber will apply to Singapore exports too.

Unilateral tariffs also undermine the open, multi-lateral trading system that imposes rules on countries both big and small, which ensure free, fair and orderly world trade, he said.

"In a world where rules are not followed, all countries will suffer, but small countries like us will be worst hit," he added.

The trade tensions between the US and China could also easily lead to a more serious quarrel that forces other countries to take sides and will affect the stability and security of the world, said Mr Lee, warning that what is at stake is not just trade, but war and peace.

But though these dark clouds are on the horizon, it will take a while for these trends to materialise, and Singapore's economy will be alright this year, he added, striking a tone of cautious optimism.

"Regardless of what happens outside Singapore, we know what we have to do domestically: we must strengthen our economy," he added.

This means the Government, working with businesses and the labour movement, must continue to help companies transform and adapt, and also retrain workers to take on jobs of the future.

Citing the examples of transport, banking and retail and logistics, Mr Lee sketched out how disruption was already affecting these industries and what the Government is doing to help businesses and workers adapt.

In the transport industry, for instance, ride-sharing apps like Grab and Uber have radically transformed the taxi industry, pushing taxi companies to adapt by partnering the new players or adopting dynamic pricing, he said.

Changes have also disrupted the retail industry, with more people buying things on the Internet, said Mr Lee, revealing that he too shops online once in a while.

"If you already know what you want to buy, e-commerce can save you a lot of time and money. My children do it a lot, and once in a while I do it too, with some help from them!" he said with a laugh.

Even as companies upgrade to meet changing customer demands and remain competitive, workers have to embrace change by picking up new skills that are needed by the companies.

The labour movement, has, through its training initiatives, nurtured in workers the mindset of lifelong learning, said Mr Lee.

So when the NTUC Central Committee asked for someone to help coordinate the implementation of the industry transformation maps - which lay out the future direction for various industries - he decided to send Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, he said, to applause from the audience.

On Tuesday, leadership changes from a Cabinet reshuffle announced last week took effect.

Labour chief Chan Chin Sing takes over as Minister for Trade and Industry, while Mr Ng Chee Meng addressed his first May Day rally as deputy secretary-general, alongside Dr Koh.

Mr Lee credited Mr Chan, who will leave the labour movement, for changes he has led the last three years, and expressed confidence in Mr Ng.

"I am confident that he will build on Chun Sing's good work and lead NTUC well."

He added that these changes are part of the leadership transition that Singapore is going through.

"The fourth generation political leadership is learning on the job, taking on more responsibilities, and preparing for succession," he said.

At the same time, a younger generation of union leaders is being groomed to take over the reins, he added.

"As younger leaders take over on both sides, they must renew the trust between the Government and the NTUC, and our commitment to the tripartite relationship. Tripartism is fundamental to Singapore's survival and success."