What Singapore is doing about jobs, jobs, jobs

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed many Singaporeans' top concern in his May Day Rally yesterday - jobs. As companies restructure, some workers will be displaced. The unemployment rate, which has crept up to 2.3 per cent, is likely to rise further, but workers will get help to find replacement jobs and upgrade their skills, he said. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong said that the Government is creating new jobs by bringing in new businesses and investments, and expanding existing businesses. It is also finding replacement jobs for those who have lost their jobs or are out of work. And it is trainin
Mr Lee Hsien Loong said that the Government is creating new jobs by bringing in new businesses and investments, and expanding existing businesses. It is also finding replacement jobs for those who have lost their jobs or are out of work. And it is training students and training workers to grow in their jobs. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Today, I would like to explain some of what we are doing to continue to prosper.

It comes down to three things - jobs, jobs and jobs. Three different ways of thinking about jobs. One, creating new jobs by bringing in new businesses and investments, and expanding existing businesses. Two, finding replacement jobs for workers who have lost their jobs or are out of work, and need work. Thirdly, jobs for future workers. Training students and training workers to grow in their jobs. To do something different, bigger, and more productive in the future.

First of all, we are helping businesses to create new jobs, new companies, new investments; upgrading and expansion of existing companies. That has been our winning formula for 50 years because if we do not have the new companies, if we do not have a business-friendly environment where people want to come, there will be no new jobs. The Economic Development Board has been working hard to get multinational corporations to invest in Singapore. Let me give you a sample of projects we have opened recently.

In electronics, Micron invested $5.4 billion and expanded its fabrication plant at North Coast Drive - 500 jobs.

In IT, Google opened a new campus in Mapletree Business City: 1,000 Googlers there. Google is also training 1,000 small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) business leaders on how SMEs can go digital, so helping to transform the economy.

In chemicals, it is a mixed picture. Some plants consolidating but others expanding, investing and we are still getting new projects. Evonik broke ground for their second plant on Jurong Island to provide methionine, an amino acid for animal feed - an $800 million investment, 150 jobs.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong said that the Government is creating new jobs by bringing in new businesses and investments, and expanding existing businesses. It is also finding replacement jobs for those who have lost their jobs or are out of work. And it is training students and training workers to grow in their jobs. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

At the same time, we are helping SMEs upgrade themselves, go overseas, expand, and build new capabilities; not just the high-tech companies, but also traditional companies. At one National Day Rally, I talked about bak kwa in Ginza. Today, let me tell you about a Singaporean company called Grandluxe.

It was started 75 years ago - in 1942 - as a bookbinding workshop along Mohamed Sultan Road. People used to send reports and papers to such workshops to be bound into volumes, with hard covers or even leather bound. Workers would do this by hand. Grandluxe expanded into the printing business, set up a factory in Jurong, printing stationery, notebooks; but now with the Internet, reports are published online. Nobody binds old reports anymore. And with smartphones, people buy fewer diaries and notebooks. The old business was shrinking. The company decided to change their business model. They turned bookbinding into a premium craft and started a new company called Bynd Artisan - no longer a printing and binding factory but a retail experience.

A customer goes to the shop, picks his materials, and skilled bookbinders will personalise a beautiful leather-bound notebook for you. You can watch them working, and admire their skills. Bynd Artisan is now doing well, selling to the world. This has given long-time employees like Ms Tan Buay Heng a new lease of life. Forty years ago, she started as a production operator, manually binding books. Today, she is a craftsman, personalising leather notebooks for customers, conducting workshops and training younger craftsmen. And she is now also managing a retail branch!

What Bynd Artisan has accomplished, Spring Singapore and IE Singapore are helping other SMEs to do, to reinvent themselves and find new niches where they can grow. Ms Tan Buay Heng's story - from production operator to retail branch manager - can become the story of other workers.


Second, we are helping workers who lose their jobs find alternative jobs, especially professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

Because businesses have to restructure to survive, and because technology is disrupting everything, we have redundancies even as our economy grows. We are particularly concerned about sectors which are not doing so well. We have expanded several schemes under Adapt and Grow - professional conversion programme (PCP), career support programme for our PMETs, and enhanced work trial support for the rank and file. An alphabet soup of programmes. Brother (Lim) Swee Say is trying all sorts of things.

Let me illustrate what we are doing with actual examples, told to me by union leaders and U Associates.

Brother Mah Cheong Fatt (executive secretary of Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union) is from the offshore and marine industry. The industry is experiencing tough times now.

For the last two years, no new orders. From the last peak, offshore and marine have lost about 30,000 jobs. Foreign workers were the first to be let go, so our own workers did not bear the brunt of the redundancies. But some local workers have also been affected; last year, about 1,000; this year, we are looking at another few hundred.

Foreign workers who lose jobs can go back to their home countries. For local workers, this is home. What do we do for our brothers and sisters? Our first priority is to help them find another job. With the offshore and marine industry as it is, it is difficult to find replacement jobs in the same sector, but other sectors like transport and aviation are growing, and need workers with similar skills. They can take the engineers from offshore and marine, with some retraining.

So sister Sylvia Choo, who is the executive secretary of Singapore Industrial and Services Employees' Union, and brother Edwin Khew, who is the president of the Institute of Engineers Singapore, are working with brother Cheong Fatt to organise job fairs to help offshore and marine workers find new jobs in aerospace and transport engineering. It is a bold move for workers to switch to a new industry but some are willing to try and have succeeded. This is not just about schemes and programmes, but walking with workers every step of the way.

We organise job fairs, set up stalls, and give out pamphlets. But we also go beyond that. Brother Desmond Choo told me about a recent job fair he organised at Our Tampines Hub - very successful, 750 showed up. At the fair, he noticed one person walking around the stalls for some time, seemingly lost. He went three rounds, but didn't talk to anyone. So Desmond went up to him and asked: what is the matter? You have not stopped anywhere. The man said he was lost and did not know what job will fit him. So Desmond counselled him, found out he was a shipyard material handler and matched him with a laundry operator. What Desmond did, is what we want to do for every displaced worker. Each one is an individual, our brother or sister, not a statistic.

And this is what the labour movement is about - why brother (Chan) Chun Sing calls NTUC an "unusual labour movement". NTUC takes care of those who have jobs, and helps them keep their jobs. For those who have lost their jobs, NTUC helps them get replacement jobs. For those who are still in school, NTUC works with the Government and business to keep this economy going so they will have jobs when they graduate.

Unions elsewhere don't think about the jobless, and especially the young who have yet to enter the job market. In many countries, youth unemployment rose after the financial crisis, and has stayed stubbornly high. And among those who are working, many are underemployed. Even in South Korea and Taiwan, with economies similar to ours, many young people have either given up looking for jobs or taken on part-time work. Yet, in Singapore our youth unemployment rate remains low. Once you graduate, whether from Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics or universities, you can find a job quite easily. That did not happen by accident. It is because we make sure our schools prepare our young properly for the job market.

ITE, polytechnics and universities emphasise on-the-job training, and work with employers to tailor the curriculum and internship programmes. NTUC is also engaging new graduates to set them on the right path. It has set up the NTUC Youth Career Network which mentors youth by offering career guidance and prepares them for job applications. In fact, we have a NTUC-PA Youth Career Network Skills Marketplace here, which I hope you will visit after the rally.

The network has attracted many passionate volunteers. Sister Zuhaina is one of them. She has been coaching mentees, polishing up their CVs, preparing them for interviews, giving them confidence to pursue their interests. I thank volunteers like Zuhaina - she embodies the spirit of helping each other succeed.

Similarly, we are creating many opportunities for all our workers, young and not-so-young, so do not stop looking and trying! But please - be open-minded and flexible. Be willing to try something new - not just new jobs with new employers, but also new careers in different industries. Take up courses, reskill. If you receive a job offer, please consider it. It will not be an easy process but we are walking this journey with you.

We also need employers to come on board - do not just recruit new graduates, give mature workers a second chance. Older workers bring with them maturity and experience.

The public sector is leading by example. We are expanding our Adapt and Grow scheme. Many government agencies - Land Transport Authority, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health - have been hiring mid-career PMETs, including mature workers. We have launched several PCPs to convert mid-career workers and we will do more, especially for the mature ones. So I urge employers: work with us. Unions are doing their part; so must you.

The Ministry of Manpower can develop PCPs for both entry-level and mid-level jobs, and support employers with reskilling programmes. The Government will pay a good portion of the wages of the workers you take on during the conversion period.

If the tripartite partners pull together, we will transform together, adapt together and grow together.


Third, we are supporting all our workers to grow in their jobs, that is, upgrading them. We must take worker upgrading very seriously. Workers in other countries know they need to keep on learning to keep their rice bowls; they are hungry. Brothers Hock Poh and Arasu, and sister Jessie recently discovered how hungry they are when they went to Chengdu to visit smart factories.

These were highly automated plants, not sweatshops, no shop floors full of workers operating machines. Now, one worker oversees 20 machines, troubleshooting when necessary. However, it was not the machines, but the workers who left a deeper impression on them. The Chinese workers work hard and train hard; they live in dorms, and at night in their spare time, they log on to their accounts and do e-learning.

So workers in other countries are constantly upgrading. We had better put in as great an effort or more. If we think that we do not have to push ourselves further, that we do not have to work hard, we are kidding ourselves.

That is why we have been working so hard on SkillsFuture. The good news is we have a good head start. The International Monetary Fund considers SkillsFuture one of the most comprehensive skills development programmes it has seen.

Last year, I had a dialogue with Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) students, and met several mature students who have been upgrading. One of them was Adelene Teck. She worked as an occupational therapist for 20 years and decided to upgrade herself at SIT. As a mature student, she told me her classmates are like her children!

I asked SIT how she is doing. They tell me Adelene is about to finish her one-year programme, and looking forward to going back to work to apply her new skills. That is what all of us need to do - we are never too old to learn!

These are our plans to transform our economy and grow our jobs. At the centre of this effort are our Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). They were a major Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) recommendation. We are going industry by industry, focusing on specific things we can do in each industry, coming up with well-thought-out plans to upgrade and improve. Through ITMs, businesses can stay viable and thrive - and keep the jobs they have and create new ones.

For example, the logistics industry. It is a big contributor to our economy; together with transport, it employs nearly 250,000 workers. The prospects are bright because of technology, robotics and data analytics. NTUC is in this too, through FairPrice. FairPrice's new distribution centre is equipped with an Automated Storage and Caddy Pick System, the first such system in the Asia-Pacific.

Many other logistics companies are expanding. We intend to create another 2,000 PMET jobs in logistics in the next five years! But to do that, everyone will have to play his part. Employers must invest in technology, train up workers, unions must work with employers, identify where the new jobs will be, and help workers get new skills. And the Government will support companies to adopt new technology and workers to get training. This is tripartism in action.

And it is not just logistics which will have an ITM. We are doing this for many different sectors, 23 in all, covering a large part of our economy, 80 per cent!

We are going to take this one step further. Last year we set up a tripartite council, the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity. The council was chaired by brother Tharman (Shanmugaratnam), who was leading the SkillsFuture effort. Since then the CFE, led by brothers (Heng) Swee Keat and (S.) Iswaran, has completed its report. It is a comprehensive plan to take our economy the next step forward. Now we need to implement the CFE's recommendations, including the ITMs, to make the transformation happen. I have asked brother Swee Keat to take over from Deputy Prime Minister Tharman as chair of council. We will rename it the Future Economy Council.

Swee Keat will work with brothers Iswaran, Chun Sing, (Ong) Ye Kung, Lawrence (Wong), and other ministers and ministers of state, especially the younger ones. I am putting them in charge of this strategic effort. It is a deep transformation which will extend beyond this term of government. It is an opportunity for them to work closely together as a team, strengthen their bonds with employers and unions, and with each other, and show Singaporeans what they can do. It is their generation of leadership who will have to work with you to take this country to new heights.

Our unique tripartite partnership is the secret to why we have been able to transform our economy over and over again. Starting from our nation-building years when we had to industrialise, through the British withdrawal from their bases here in 1971, when we were faced with the prospect of tens of thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs; through our first major recession in 1985, when workers had to accept deep Central Provident Fund cuts to reduce business costs; through the Asian Financial Crisis, Sars, the dot.com bubble bust, the global financial crisis.

Each time the challenges we faced seemed daunting, sometimes even overwhelming. But each time we pulled together, adjusted course, made sacrifices, helped each other, and forged ahead. We will no doubt face further challenges ahead, even severe ones but if we strengthen our tripartite system, and remain united, if the labour movement remains strong, to take care of our workers and give them a sense that they are co-owners in our system, if all segments of society - workers as well as employers, managers and professionals as well as foremen and the rank and file - sacrifice equally when sacrifice is called for, and share in the fruits of success when we do well, I am confident we will overcome the challenges and emerge stronger.

Each one of us, with one another for one another, for Singapore. That is the way we make sure that every May Day we will have good reason to celebrate. That is the way we can make good things happen and create a bright future for our children.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'What Singapore is doing about jobs, jobs, jobs'. Print Edition | Subscribe