SINGAPORE risks regressing to become "just a normal country" unless it moves faster to enhance workers' skills and create new jobs, labour chief Lim Swee Say said yesterday.

The country should also venture ahead of its competitors in weaving technology into manufacturing, services and daily life, said Mr Lim in his final May Day message as National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general.

Failing to improve on the skills and jobs fronts in tandem may lead to shortages of both, and a mismatch between those available, he said. This may, in turn, lead to a rise in unemployment, structural unemployment and underemployment.

"We could then regress and become just a normal country with an ordinary economy and ordinary workforce. This will be painful," he warned.

Singapore, which has been praised for its exceptional economic performance over the past few decades, should take the lead in areas such as future manufacturing using robots, future services where customers are more involved, and being a smart nation where technology is more integrated, he added.

Mr Lim, who will move from NTUC to be manpower minister next week, also paid tribute to the Pioneer Generation, as well as all workers and tripartite partners for their contributions to Singapore's transformation over the last 50 years.

They have helped secure the economic conditions that workers here enjoy, he said. These are a tight labour market with enough jobs for workers of various ages, fair wage increases and bonuses, a higher re-employment age ceiling, and industrial peace.

In her May Day message, NTUC president Diana Chia highlighted the role of union leaders over the years, from standing up to errant employers in the 1960s to accepting the flexible wage system in the 1980s, which raised Singapore's competitiveness.

She added that the three-way partnership between unions, government and employers needs to be brought to the sectoral level as well.

"Government agencies work with employer groups and trade unions in each sector to chart out strategies that will deliver productivity and skills breakthroughs, so that Singapore and Singaporeans can continue to prosper," she said.