If there is one area that gets Singaporeans worried about long-term prospects, it's the economy. For good reason: The nation is forced to play in a global league which is unforgiving and tough. Against the odds, the tiny red dot has distinguished itself remarkably over the past 50 years. From Third World to First wasn't just the title of its founding prime minister's memoirs, it was the Singapore story.
But four years of low growth have led to doubt. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had some reassuring words when he spoke at a labour movement dialogue last week. The economy isn't in a crisis, he said, as it was in 2008. Hence the Government isn't planning any short-term emergency measures but is focusing on its longer-range restructuring strategy to upgrade the economy. These are challenging times for companies and displaced workers who will need help to cope, find new jobs and learn fresh skills. Retraining takes time. So, alongside talking about immediate vacancies, one must also flag jobs that will be available years down the road.
Though economists have warned for some time that growth will ease as the economy matures, a prolonged period of slow growth is worrisome. That's because Singapore, unlike its large neighbours, is a city state and cities are expected to have dynamic economies. If not, they could spiral downwards when the talented and the young are no longer attracted there because businesses are not growing. That exacerbates the problem, and the cycle continues. Singapore must avoid this decline, which was what afflicted the Japanese economy for almost two decades.
How can the nation get back on the growth track? It's a tricky problem because there are both cyclical and structural reasons for the slowdown. The global economy has been sluggish for many years now, with China, Japan and Europe facing their own problems. Singapore's open economy makes it vulnerable to these external headwinds. But more difficult are the internal challenges - how to make small and medium-sized enterprises world class, improve their productivity, and train workers for the new jobs that will be created. There are no quick fixes. The Government is right to take a long view and work sector by sector to make the adjustments. It is important to stay focused on this, while easing the invariable pains felt by businesses and workers affected by restructuring. In times of transition, the onus is on top management and middle managers to rise to the challenge. They must find ways to sharpen processes, innovate and seek new opportunities. The Government can improve operating conditions and develop the necessary infrastructure. But it cannot, on its own, make the economy more vibrant. For this, Singaporeans have to rediscover the enterprising spirit of their forefathers.