Singapore needs "a greater and broader sense of urgency" in its productivity drive, labour chief and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Swee Say said on Tuesday.
"There are healthy signs that the economy is shifting to a new track. However, we are not full steam ahead yet," said Mr Lim, the first minister to speak in this year's Budget debate.
He noted that productivity growth fell two per cent in 2012 and was flat last year, despite media reports of firms which made leaps in productivity and innovation.
This, he explained, was because average labour productivity can be pulled down if less productive sectors hire more workers - as is indeed happening.
"There are many sectors in Singapore today that are growing and they are below our national average."
These include cleaning, construction, security, retail and so on, he said. To stop such sectors from continuing to pull down the average, they must be transformed to improve skills and productivity, while sectors with high productivity should be encouraged to grow.
Mr Lim gave examples of what businesses, unions and workers - supported by government agencies - are doing, from using remote-controlled grass-cutting machines to a machine that cooks perfect soft-boiled eggs at 64 degrees Celsius.
"If Members feel these illustrations are just 'common sense', actually I agree with you," said Mr Lim.
"Unfortunately, after years of high growth in manpower and unskilled labour, common sense is not so common on the ground anymore."
And though he was glad that some firms are changing, he was also sad that some still resist change, choosing to go out of business or leave Singapore rather than upgrade their operations here.
"It is their choice. But workers are the ones who have to suffer the pain most," he said, adding that in a fast-changing world, firms need a greater sense of urgency and a willingness to take the risk and responsibility of changing.
In his speech, Mr Lim - like many others in the House who spoke earlier - praised the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package. It is only for those who are 65 or older this year, and became citizens before 1987.
But he also alluded to the possibility of similar moves for other generations.
One union leader was disappointed that he could not qualify for the package once he turned 65, and said there was "no hope", Mr Lim recounted. The minister's rejoinder was that "there is always hope."
In future, if Singapore still does well with a clean, responsible and caring Government and a healthy budget, "maybe, the generation after us may also decide to honour our generation as well," said Mr Lim.