By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 6 Dec 2011
Singapore will have to count on the trust among the government, trade unions and employers - the tripartite partners - to overcome the odds amid greater uncertainties in the world economy.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this as employers, unionists and government officials gathered at the National Delegates' Conference of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) on Tuesday.
Addressing the conference, Mr Lee said that Singapore's economy is on track to grow by about 5 per cent this year but its people must brace for slower growth next year.
He said he already sees the economy losing momentum. He noted that there are signs that more companies are going for shorter work weeks and temporary layoffs.
Mr Lee said the unionised sector expects retrenchments this year to be at least 20 per cent higher than last year.
He said: "In this tough environment, we have got to do our best to create jobs to raise incomes, not just this year or next year but on a sustained basis for the next five, 10, 15 years."
To achieve this, Mr Lee said Singapore has to support a pro-trade and pro-investment stance.
"Externally, (we have to) push for free trade with other countries, push for investments to flow between countries and from the developed countries to Singapore. These are the conditions where Singapore can make a living and thrive. This is what we have been working for," he said.
Mr Lee said the outlook for 2012 is even more uncertain and that's one reason why the government expects growth to hover between one and three per cent for next year.
However, he had some good news for workers. Real median incomes grew by three per cent between June 2010 and June 2011, after adjusting for inflation, he said.
Mr Lee urged Singaporeans to do their best to keep this up.
"The best way to push up the real incomes is to improve our productivity, especially by upgrading the quality of our workers and the quality of our jobs," he said.
"Our target is productivity growth of two to three per cent sustained over the next 10 years. It will add up to a significant amount and it will translate into a significant increase in wages for workers," he added.
"And I am confident that we can do that if we put our full effort into it," Mr Lee said.
Prime Minister Lee said tripartism is even more important in the new phase of Singapore's economic development because workers will face choppier and less predictable economic conditions.
He said Singaporeans will have to make more difficult decisions and trade-offs, and must work together and build on the trust cultivated over years of shared sacrifice.
"Ultimately, what holds this together is not just working together but also trust that has been built up over many years of shared sacrifice and toil. This trust has enabled us to overcome many problems like the 2008 global financial crisis," he said.
He added: "We have to preserve this trust at all costs. It is an intangible national treasure. We built it up through our young history. It is one of the most valuable things we can pass on to our future generations. It is not just the competitive advantage but really a core value that holds us together.
"And once it is broken, it is like a Ming vase; it is smashed; you can't put it together again and all Singaporeans and our children will suffer for it. Let's uphold tripartism and strengthen it and let it see us through future difficulties and challenges."
Mr Lee cited the recent Australian carrier Qantas' strikes as an example of how trust would have made a difference.
He said: "I happened to be in Perth but I was flying home on Singapore Airlines. I was okay but many passengers, including some of the Commonwealth leaders, were stranded. Many of them asked me 'Can you help me to get a seat out of Perth?' which I was able to do. We have to remind ourselves that we must not let that ever happen to Singapore."