SINGAPORE - Singapore's economy is picking up and may do better than last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (April 30).
Total employment - the number of workers in jobs - is expanding, he noted in his annual May Day message to workers.
However, there are more retrenchments, and unemployment is also creeping up, he added.
This mixed picture shows an economy in transition, and workers, businesses and Government have to do their part and work together to ensure jobs for all, he said, as he gave an overview of global conditions.
The Singapore economy grew 2 per cent last year, and the United States, Europe, Japan and emerging economies are seeing an upswing.
But Mr Lee said prospects for international trade remain uncertain as America's attitude has changed.
He cited how when G20 finance ministers met recently, they could not renew their standard pledge to keep global trade free and open as the US objected.
"We will have to watch how other countries react to this US stance. If they too adopt win-lose approaches to trade, the result will be more protectionism, which will hurt everybody," he said.
Mr Lee's message comes as the Ministry of Manpower said on Friday that unemployment rose to 2.3 per cent in March this year, up from 2.2 per cent in December.
"As the economy matures, I expect that to creep up," Mr Lee said of the unemployment rate, noting that other developed countries have unemployment rates of 5 per cent or higher.
On Friday, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say warned in a May Day message that unemployment here has risen and could rise further.
This was because some sectors in the economy are still struggling with structural changes, a concern union leaders shared with the prime minister when they met in April.
In his message, Mr Lee said businesses are turning over and restructuring to adapt to changing conditions. "Some existing jobs are being lost, even while we are creating more new jobs," he said.
Mr Lee outlined steps that need to be taken to ride this transition.
"Our response should be to work hard to keep up our growth. Our economy can no longer grow at 5 to 7 per cent but we can still achieve 2 to 3 per cent growth by improving our productivity," he said. "2 to 3 per cent is a good growth rate for our current stage of development. It will mean we can continue creating new jobs and improving our lives."
"We must also work harder to help workers stay employed and find replacement jobs if they become unemployed," he added.
This task of helping workers cope with an economy in transition and find jobs is a tripartite effort, he said, referring to the three-way partnership between unions, employers and the Government.
Mr Lee said businesses must be willing to change, adopt new technologies, expand overseas and seize opportunities out there.
"Our workers must be adaptable, keen to upgrade and reskill themselves, when necessary changing careers to secure good jobs," he added.
The Government will take the lead and give full support to employers and workers, pledged Mr Lee.
He cited schemes such as SkillsFuture, job-matching and Professional Conversion Programmes that workers and those retrenched can turn to for help.
The Government is also paying close attention to PMEs - professionals, managers and executives - worried about losing jobs, he said. PMES have borne the brunt of recent retrenchments.
"The Government is always on the side of workers, but we make sure we are business-friendly and support our businesses to grow so that we have jobs for all," he said.
Prime Minister Lee will deliver his annual May Day Rally speech on Monday (May 1), kicking off month-long celebrations that include awards for stalwarts and carnivals for union members, maids and foreign workers.