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Unemployment could rise further, Swee Say warns

His May Day message offers sombre but realistic view that this economic transformation will be tougher to ride out

The Singapore economy is in transition, and the challenges ahead are "no less daunting" than those the country faced in the downturns of the last 20 years, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Friday.


THE Singapore economy is in transition, and the challenges ahead are "no less daunting" than those the country faced in the downturns of the last 20 years, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Friday.

His annual May Day Message painted a sobering but realistic picture, as he noted that the transition this time is less cyclical but more structural in nature.

"Some sectors are still under stress and unemployment could rise further. Unlike previous recoveries, more time and effort are needed to get through this transition completely," he said.

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He noted that economic growth has slowed to about 2 per cent in the past two years, down from an average of 4.5 per cent previously; the number of retrenchments is going up, and the resident unemployment rate rose to 3 per cent last year, after having held steady at around 2.8 per cent since 2012.

Mr Lim said the situation now is quite different from the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the dotcom bust in 2001, the Sars outbreak in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2009. "Our economy is still growing, not shrinking. The rise in unemployment is more gradual and remains below the previous peaks of more than 5 per cent during Sars and more than 4 per cent during the global financial crisis."

To emerge with a future economy and a workforce that is different and leaner, Singapore must strive for a faster adoption of technology, a greater pace of innovation and higher productivity. Doing so will enable the country to compete globally for good investments and markets, and good jobs and careers too, he said.

He made the point that enterprises that can transform faster will grow stronger in the future economy. Workers young and old who are able to cope with disruption in the workplace and pick up new skills and work with new technologies will be able to seize the opportunities that come their way at home and abroad.

"It is never easy for any country to transform its economy and workforce. But here at home, we have succeeded time and again to emerge stronger every time. This time, we can and will succeed again."

The minister said his confidence stems from the fact that the tripartite partnership (among the government, unions and businesses) is healthy and strong. "We are fully committed to keep doing our best to help our businesses transform pervasively as one innovative economy, and help our workers move forward together as one inclusive workforce.

"In partnership, we can turn technology to our advantage, threats into opportunities, and short-term pains into long-term gains for all."

In his May Day Message, Singapore National Employers Federation president Robert Yap urged employers and the unions to work at raising productivity. Doing this, he said, would require mutual trust, being nimble to growth opportunities, the drive to tackle challenges together and open communication with one another.

He affirmed his federation's commitment to be "by the side" of employers and the labour movement to strengthen this productivity partnership.

NTUC president Mary Liew and secretary-general Chan Chun Sing, in their joint May Day message, noted that cyclical and structural forces would continue to hit the different sectors unevenly.

Technological disruptions will continue, creating fresh business and employment models and new products and services, which will call for new skills as older business models are displaced.

They said: "To stay ahead, our working people must continually deep-skill, re-skill and up-skill. Similarly, the labour movement must continuously evolve to stay relevant to anticipate the new economy's needs and working people's aspirations."

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