A boost in biomedical output helped lift the manufacturing sector in February, according to data out yesterday.
Production rose 0.7 per cent across the industry compared with the same month last year - a modest increase but one that easily beat the 0.4 per cent dip tipped by analysts in a Bloomberg poll.
Output would have fallen 1.6 per cent if biomedical manufacturing was excluded.
Economists said February's growth might be fleeting and they expect the industry to stay in a low gear.
HSBC economist Jingyang Chen said: "Leading indicators such as worldwide semiconductor billings and business expectations for the Singapore manufacturing sector point to sustained industrial production weakness over the short-term.
"That said, the recent stabilisation in commodity prices should provide some support for oil-related sectors such as the petrochemical industry, and good news from US-China trade negotiations may reduce additional trade risks."
Maybank Kim Eng economists Lee Ju Ye and Chua Hak Bin agreed: "Manufacturing recovered in February on the back of pharmaceuticals, but the bounce is unconvincing as electronics and precision engineering continued to contract.
"We expect the manufacturing downturn to persist in the first half.
"A recovery in the second half will hinge on a successful US-China trade deal, which is expected to be finalised only in May or June. We cannot rule out a protracted manufacturing recession if no trade deal is reached."
The numbers from the Economic Development Board (EDB) yesterday also sharply revised January's estimate of a 3.1 per cent decline to a mild 0.4 per cent dip.
Biomedical manufacturing stood out in February with output up 13.3 per cent compared with the same period last year. The pharmaceuticals segment within the sector was up 17.9 per cent on account of a different mix of active ingredients being produced compared with a year ago, the EDB noted.
Transport engineering recorded growth of 4.2 per cent.
Within this sector, land transport output shot up 16.8 per cent while aerospace expanded 12.3 per cent, thanks to "more repair and maintenance activities from commercial airlines", said the EDB.
The marine and offshore engineering segment fell 7.7 per cent due to a lower volume of projects and shipbuilding and repairing activities.
The chemicals industry grew 2 per cent, with one of its segments expanding 30.9 per cent due to higher fragrance production.
However, the petroleum segment contracted by 4.5 per cent and petrochemicals fell 8.7 per cent, declines largely due to maintenance shutdowns in some plants.
UOB economist Barnabas Gan said his view of Singapore's manufacturing remains "cautiously optimistic", adding: "The small but positive growth production pace in semi-conductors (at 1.1 per cent), coupled with the upward revision in January's electronic growth, is a consolation to Singapore's overall economic growth momentum even in the midst of a sustained manufacturing and trade slowdown in most Asian economies."