Singapore must focus on preparing for the long term to remain ahead of the competition, even as the economy is set to slow, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday, as he visited workers on duty on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
While the Government, businesses and workers need to ride out the ups and downs in the short term, their long-term focus "has to be on upgrading - on productivity, on training, on SkillsFuture", he said.
Singapore's economy grew by 2.1 per cent last year, the weakest rate of growth since 2009, and growth this year is expected to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent.
PM Lee said slower growth is an opportunity for companies to make an effort to step up productivity, innovation and training.
"When business is up and you talk about training, nobody has the time to train. When business is down, or a bit slower, while we have a bit of slack capacity, we can do more," he told reporters.
He also said it will take time for the national SkillsFuture movement, which aims to encourage Singaporean workers to deepen their skills and expertise through lifelong learning, to bear fruit as it is a long-term endeavour. Last month, all adult citizens aged 25 and above were given $500 credit for training courses. Mr Lee said the grant is "a symbolic gesture to get people to start thinking about upgrading and re-skilling themselves".
Mr Lee, his wife and union leaders visited Changi Airport early on Monday morning as part of an annual tradition to thank workers in key services for keeping Singapore running during the festive season.
He chatted with workers, from cab drivers to check-in counter staff and cleaners, and gave them $10 hongbao and goodie bags with mandarin oranges and cookies.
Also on the visit with Mr Lee were National Trades Union Congress president Mary Liew, secretary-general Chan Chun Sing and unionists.
Mr Lee noted that Changi Airport is preparing well in advance to meet future needs. The new Terminal 4 will be operational next year, while Jewel, a retail and lifestyle complex in front of Terminal 1, will be ready by 2019. The airport's fifth terminal will be ready around 2025.
"We have to look ahead many years to make sure we stay in this good position," he said.
Asked what workers can expect from the Budget, which will be delivered by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on March 24, Mr Lee said it is still a bit early to talk about it.
"I don't think our attitude should be what goodies do we have. Our attitude should be what can we do in this Budget which will help give our efforts a further push on upgrading, transforming our companies to be competitive in this world and to be able to operate even beyond Singapore, in the region," he said. "There are still opportunities at home as well as in the region, and we should be looking for them all the time."
Mr Lee also had a wish for the Year of the Monkey: more babies. Last year, 33,800 Singaporean babies were born - the highest in 13 years. "We are happy and satisfied with the number of babies born last year but, of course, we have to keep working on it," he said.
The airport had also planned a surprise: After the festive yusheng had been tossed, airport staff wheeled out a birthday cake and sang a song for Mr Lee, who turns 64 today.
It was the first time Mr Lee was marking Chinese New Year without his father, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 last year. "We mourn his passing," PM Lee told reporters. "But at the same time, we are twice as resolved to carry on to make Singapore succeed in a way which he would have been proud of."