DPM Teo, labour leaders thank workers who keep Singapore humming on long CNY weekend

SINGAPORE - As much of the country shut down on Thursday, the first day of Chinese New Year, Singapore's port continued to buzz with activity, as employees there worked through the public holiday to keep it ticking.

Singapore has one of the world's busiest ports, with a ship arriving or departing every few minutes, and about 1,000 ships docked at any one time.

Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean dropped in on about 100 workers in the maritime and port industry on Thursday to thank them for their dedication, handing out mandarin oranges and hongbao when he visited PSA Marine and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). He also joined them as they tossed yu sheng to usher in the Year of the Goat.

"Many of our workers continue to work during festive seasons to keep Singapore humming, and also to keep us safe and secure. So it's very important to come and appreciate the work that they're doing," said Mr Teo, who is Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister.

"I myself have worked on a number of public holidays. We always appreciate the small gestures that Singaporeans show to us."

Traditionally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visits those who work in essential services on the first day of Chinese New Year. But this year, Mr Lee is recovering from surgery to remove his prostate gland, so Mr Teo made the trip instead.

Mr Lee was diagnosed with prostate cancer last month and underwent successful surgery in the Singapore General Hospital on Monday. He was discharged on Wednesday, the eve of Chinese New Year, but is on medical leave.

Asked about Mr Lee's recovery, Mr Teo told reporters: "We've all been in touch with him and he's doing well. We all wish him well, and we hope that he can get plenty of rest and recover fully before he returns to his schedule."

As for his two-hour visit, Mr Teo said he saw great strides made in productivity in the port and maritime sector.

At PSA Marine, he visited the Mission Command Centre and boarded a new tugboat to take a look at its technological advancements. Now, two people are needed to operate a tugboat, whereas nine were needed in the past.

He also commended the upgraded Vessel Traffic Information System - which provides ships plying Singapore waters with navigational information - at the MPA Port Operations Control Centre.

Mr Teo, a retired rear-admiral, described it as a vast improvement over the system he was familiar with in the late 80s and early 90s.

He told reporters: "We have higher productivity, better career opportunities for the officers, as well as enhanced safety and operational effectiveness of the systems and our port."

Productivity will continue to be a key focus in Singapore's economic growth for the years to come, he added.

One reason is that productivity improvements help provide people with better jobs, as the value of the work done is improved. This, he explained, would mean better pay.

A second reason was the limited pool of Singaporean workers.

Mr Teo said: "Higher productivity means we can do more with the workers that we have, and we need to depend less on lower-skilled foreign workers who come to Singapore."

Although he spoke about the country's continued drive for higher productivity, he was tight-lipped about the Budget, which will be presented by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Monday.

Said Mr Teo: "It will be announced on Monday. We have all been working very hard on the Budget, so I will leave it to Monday…"

Economic growth last year was muted, with the economy expanding just 2.9 per cent - just a shade higher than an earlier estimate of 2.8 per cent. This paled in comparison to the 4.4 per cent recorded in 2013.

Equally sluggish growth is expected this year as companies continue to face tight labour markets and rising costs.

Mr Teo was accompanied by his wife and leaders of the labour movement, including National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) president Diana Chia, secretary-general Lim Swee Say, and deputy secretary-general Chan Chun Sing.

Mr Chan, who is Minister for Social and Family Development, joined the labour movement last month and was appointed deputy secretary-general of NTUC. He will serve the labour movement full-time from April 1.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Chan visited more than 400 SBS Transit and SMRT staff. He was accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo and executive committee members of the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU).

Among the workers that Mr Teo met on Thursday was 56 year-old senior tug master Han Yow Kwong.

Besides his duties in manoeuvring the tug and helping in the berthing and unberthing of vessels, he is also mentor to junior workers.

Mr Han, who has worked at PSA Marine for 35 years, is unruffled at having to work on public holidays, and manages to juggle his family and his work commitments.

On the eve of Chinese New Year, he has reunion dinner with his family, and usually keeps the first day of the festive period free of plans. Family gatherings will take place from the second day onwards, he told The Straits Times.

He added: "My wife is a homemaker. She takes good care of the household and my children, so I can focus on work."

asyiqins@sph.com.sg