SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined plans for a hat-trick of improvements to take the country forward, pledging initiatives for better workers, better jobs and better lives.
Only by constantly upgrading can Singapore maintain its advantage in the face of relentless competition from not only workers of other countries, but also robots which threaten to replace humans, he said in his annual May Day Rally speech.
Standing still, he said yesterday, was not an option. While the Singapore workforce remains ahead of others, "no lead is permanent", he warned.
"We can't tell our competition to go away. They want to eat our lunch... We can't stop them from wanting, but we can make sure that we can hold our own and we can eat our own lunch," he added, drawing applause from the 1,100-strong audience of unionists, employers and guests.
He cited port operations as an example. Singapore Port Workers Union's Mr Arasu Duraisamy had told him PSA found it hard to hire Singaporeans to operate cranes because of shift work.
But this is not the case in Hong Kong, where port workers pay for their own training on their own time to stay ahead of the millions of mainland Chinese workers eager to take their jobs. Like the iPhone applications that are constantly being updated, workers too need to constantly upgrade their skills, he said.
Taking up the labour movement's push for "cheaper, better, faster" operations to gain a competitive edge, he said: "We can also say better, better, better." In other words, better workers, better jobs and better lives, he said.
The Government will do its utmost to make sure better workers will have better jobs, he said in his hour-long speech. It will continue to invest heavily in education at all levels, while also giving adult education a big push, he said as he launched the new Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong.
It will also keep up its efforts to grow the economy, expand exports and draw foreign investments, so that workers will have better jobs, which would bring better lives, he explained.
"We are still a small country, but our ambitions don't have to be small," he said, citing the example of American media production outfit Lucasfilm's decision to locate in Singapore.
Singapore, he said, is at a turning point, with the economy and society undergoing major transitions. By any international measure, the country is doing well, although changes have brought new strains, including heightened competition, widening gaps in society, and worries over the cost of living.
He acknowledged that keeping Singapore open brings the stress of competition for jobs from foreigners. The Government is slowing down the inflow of foreign workers, "but we must not send the wrong signal that Singapore doesn't welcome investments or we are turning away talent", he cautioned.
Apart from creating jobs, the Prime Minister said firms need to raise productivity by tapping government schemes. "Take advantage of these programmes, make the effort to upgrade," he urged. Fong Shen Mould and Precision Engineering, a small and medium-sized enterprise that used subsidies to automate its production, was singled out for praise.
Unions play a key role in these changes, he pointed out. He disclosed that union membership has hit a new high of 800,000, of whom one in three are professionals and one in 10 are students who have not entered the labour force.
Mr Lee paid tribute to the pioneer generation of unionists and urged union leaders and firms to continue to uphold the three-way partnership with the Government. "We are small in size but strong in unity. We are not perfect but we are doing our best. As we celebrate May Day, let us count our blessings and show our appreciation to one another."
This article was published on May 2 in The Straits Times.
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