SINGAPORE - Singapore's economy grew by 3.3 per cent in 2018, close to 2017's growth which was 3.5 per cent, and above expectations, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year Message.
He said the economy is expected to grow by between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent in 2019, but warned that the global economy faces major uncertainties with growing trade conflicts, nervous financial markets and signs of slowing growth.
But with long-term policies in place and a strong team in charge, the Republic has reason to be confident about its future, he added.
In his traditional message released on Monday (Dec 31), PM Lee noted that significant headway in leadership succession was made in 2018.
Parliament re-opened in May after a Cabinet reshuffle and the younger political office holders are being exposed to different responsibilities and working together as a team. They have settled on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as their leader and supported Mr Heng's choice of Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing as his deputy.
"This is a good outcome. It gives Singaporeans and foreigners alike confidence that Singapore will be in good hands over the long term, beyond the working lives of me and my senior colleagues," he said. "The older Ministers and I will do our utmost to help the new team take over the reins from us, and to succeed in their responsibility to lead Singapore and secure its future."
Underlining the vital part Singaporeans play in the transition, he asked Singaporeans to work with the younger leaders "to form the best team for Singapore".
The country's model of governance is "quite exceptional, and has served us well", he said, enabling Singapore to make the most of what it has and stand out in a highly competitive world. "Singapore politics cannot afford to be riven and destabilised by the rivalries, contestations and factions so often seen elsewhere," he said. "Instead Singaporeans must stay united, and work together resolutely to strengthen and renew our social compact."
Singapore on the global stage
On the international front, he said Singapore had an eventful year hosting the historic summit between American president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as chairing Asean. Under its chairmanship themes of innovation and resilience, it launched practical initiatives to enhance regional stability and integration, he added.
But tensions between the US and China will cause problems for the world and make it harder for countries to be friends with both, he said. "If countries are forced to choose sides, the open and connected global order will be further divided, hurting one and all."
Closer to home, Singapore is also tending relations with its immediate neighbours.
Relations with Indonesia have been positive, with significant cooperation and investments flowing in both directions, he said.
On Malaysia, which formed a new government following elections in May, he said: "We hope to maintain a constructive partnership with Malaysia, and look forward to the new leaders on both sides developing good working relations with one another."
Nevertheless, several issues have recently arisen between both countries, "as they will from time to time between two close neighbours tightly bound by history, economics, culture and kinship".
"When Malaysia wanted to defer the High Speed Rail project, Singapore worked with them to accommodate their needs," he said.
"The new disputes on maritime boundaries, following provocative intrusions into our territorial waters, and on airspace, particularly the Instrument Landing System (ILS) rules for Seletar Airport, are more difficult to resolve. Malaysia also wants to revise the price of Johor water, an old issue recently revived, on which Singapore's stand is quite clear."
Singapore will deal with all these matters "calmly and constructively", he said.
"Singapore and Malaysia must manage specific problems, however difficult, while preserving the overall relationship. The way to do so is through equality and mutual respect, upholding international commitments and the rule of law."
He said older Singaporeans will remember that this is how Singapore dealt with previous rough patches in bilateral relations.
"Each time we would unite as one people, and stand our ground calmly but firmly. I am confident that this time too Singaporeans will work closely together to keep relations with Malaysia stable, and a new generation will learn how to collectively protect our vital interests while living in peace and friendship with our neighbours."
On the domestic front, PM Lee said Singapore faces pressures common to many countries. Societies abroad are under stress because people are angry that wages are stagnating, their lives are not improving and political systems are malfunctioning.
"Being a highly open society, Singapore is exposed to similar pressures. But we have coped better than most other countries, because we have worked closely together to improve the lives of all Singaporeans," he said. "The economy has grown, unemployment remains low, and incomes have risen across the board. We have created good jobs, and prepared people for them through education and SkillsFuture."
He added: "Crucially, the Government is focused on people's concerns, and working with citizens to create a better tomorrow for all."
He listed policy improvements in such areas as healthcare, education, housing and public transport.
For example, healthcare infrastructure is being ramped up and schemes like the upcoming Merdeka Generation Package will make healthcare more affordable.
In education, greater emphasis is put on holistic development rather than examinations and grades, and more resources are being invested in preschools.
The Housing Board is working on schemes such as the Home Improvement Programme (HIP), HIP II and Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (Vers) to ensure flats remain quality homes with "a good store of value for retirement".
HIP and HIP II are schemes to upgrade Housing Board flats. Under Vers, owners in flats aged 70 years and older can vote for the Government to buy back their homes before their leases run out, if their precinct is selected for the scheme.
Progress has also been made in public transport. Buses and trains are now less crowded and more reliable, new trains for the Thomson-East Coast MRT Line have been delivered in time for the stage 1 opening in Woodlands in 2019, and public consultations for the 2040 land transport masterplan are underway.
These, PM Lee said, are critical investments in Singapore's future, and to realise them requires steady and capable leaders who can rally Singaporeans.
"With long-term policies in place and a strong team in charge, we have reason to be confident about the future," he said.
"Despite the uncertain external environment and economic outlook, we are entering our Bicentennial Year with renewed vigour and purpose," he said. "We are ready to tackle the challenges ahead and make further progress in building a secure, harmonious, and prosperous nation."
He wished all a happy new year.