Albert Winsemius, 'founding father' of Singapore

Thirty-five years ago, in the spring of 1960, Dr Albert Winsemius arrived in Singapore - soon to become his second fatherland -- for the first time in his life. He headed an international team of experts in the field of development economics. A year earlier the former British colony had become independent, and the government of the young nation had asked the United Nations to invite Dr Winsemius, the founding father of the Dutch post-war industrialization programme, to help them to find out which chances the future would offer to Singapore.

By Kees Tamboer

Dr Winsemius' first impression was anything but hopeful. "It was bewildering," he remembers. "There were strikes about nothing. There were communist-inspired riots almost every day and everywhere. In the beginning one has to very careful about passing any judgement - one does not know the country, one does not know the people, one does not know the men and women who are trying to steer this rudderless ship. But after a couple of months the pessimism within our commission reached appalling heights. We saw how a country can be demolished by unreal antitheses. The general opinion was: Singapore is going down the drain, it is a poor little market in a dark corner of Asia."
Within a year, on 13 June 1961, the Winsemius team offered Singapore a development plan. The final assessment was written by Winsemius personally: 'Expectations and Reality' was his motto. This was permeated with an emotional appeal for unity, a passionate warning that time was running out if Singapore was not to sink away into the mud. The gloom was not completely unrelieved, there was one bright spot on the horizon: "In our opinion", wrote Winsemius, "Singapore has the basic assets for industrialization. Her greatest asset is the high aptitude of her people to work in manufacturing industries. They can be ranked among the best factory workers in the world."

Shirts and Pyjamas
After delivering his development plan in the summer of 1961, Winsemius became the chief economic adviser to the Singaporean government. He held this function for almost twenty- five years, and at no time was there ever any written contract. The collaboration was based on mutual trust. Twice a year Winsemius flew to Singapore to spend about a fortnight there - one time it was to help drafting the plans for the coming year, the other time for checking and steering. Part of the deal was that he would come immediately should the government let him know that his help was needed at short notice, which was, for instance, the case in 1965.
"When we started with the implementation of the first development programme, Winsemius recalls, "I was convinced that a policy of protection of the home market would come to nothing, because there was almost no home market. I immediately advised them to try and form an economic federation with Malaya. As soon as this aim was achieved, I assumed, we would be able to move over to the next phase and try to conquer a position on the world market. Four years later Singapore was expelled from the Federation, and there were the signs of some initial panic in the state. In my opinion there was no longer any reason for such a reaction. On the contrary, this is the best day of my life, I told my friends in Singapore, for in those first years of development Singapore had proved that it was able to overcome internal antithesis and to work together to build up a manufacturing industry that would certainly be competitive in the long run."
Albert Winsemius distinguishes five main phases in the economic development of Singapore.
"The first step", he explains, "was to set up low-value industries, such as the production of shirts and pyjamas in factories in which women could work. The contribution made by the women during the initial years of industrialization has never really been properly studied. This contribution can easily be underestimated. It was the only manufacturing activity then with sufficient experience. The sewing machines could be rented, and the girls and women had experience in working with them. Therefore a very quick start was possible in the field of shirts and underwear. This aspect of early industrial development deserves more attention than it has received so far."

The Separation in 1965 marked the beginning of the second phase. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) started with an enormous building programme, under the leadership of Mr. Howe Yoon Chong. "This was very inspiring, people could see what was being achieved. On Sundays fathers and mothers showed their children in what kind of new dwellings they would live presently. In that same period we succeeded in interesting, just as had happened in Holland fifteen years earlier, big oil companies like Shell and Esso in establishing refineries in Singapore.
The third phase was that we started as soon as possible with the upgrading. Singapore became very active in promoting education for technical jobs, especially for the electronics industry. In the beginning it was quite a difficult job for me to convince people at the top of the big Dutch electronics company Philips to set up production plants in Singapore. I went to Eindhoven, where the headquarters of Philips are situated, to warn them: you have to hurry, I told them, otherwise there is a very real danger you will be too late and then you will be sure to miss the boat in the growing market of Southeast Asia. The result is that Philips is now one of the big investors in Singapore and is doing a very fine job there.

The fourth phase was to make of Singapore an international financial centre. Formerly the young state was bound to the English pound sterling. I knew a Dutchman who had lived and worked in Singapore; he was an employee of the Bank of America in London at that time. I visited him and told him we wished to transform Singapore into a financial centre for Southeast Asia within ten years. He told me it could be done in three or four years. He took a globe and showed me a gap in the financial market of the world. Trading, he explained, starts at nine o'clock in the morning in Zurich in Switzerland. An hour later London opens. When London closes, New York is already open. After closing time on Wall Street, San Francisco on the American west coast is still active. But as soon as San Francisco closes, there is a gap of a couple of hours. This gap can be filled by Singapore, should the government not shun taking some drastic measures - such as cutting its links with the British pound.

Container harbour
And the fifth and last phase was that we transformed Singapore into a centre of international traffic and transport. My advice was: build an airport where the biggest aeroplanes can land and let everyone know that they are welcome to land there. In other words, do not use landing-rights to protect your own Singapore Airlines. They followed this advice and it became a success. And thanks to this initiative Singapore has become a tourist centre too, especially for short stays. In the same vein, we started to construct a big container harbour. In Holland I had been chairman of a committee to advise the Dutch government on the problems to do with shipbuilding, so I had some knowledge about what was going on in that world. I saw the enormous growth of container transport between the United States and Europe, concentrated initially in the harbour of Rotterdam. So I advised the construction of a big container terminal in the harbour of Singapore, taking the risk of overcapacity and unoccupancy during the first years for granted. The advantage was evident: Singapore would be the only harbour in the region with container facilities. Nevertheless it was a hard job to convince the harbour authorities. Only after a small conversation with the minister the decision could no longer be postponed. Nowadays Singapore, after Rotterdam, has the second largest container harbour in the world. That surely is something of which to be proud."
"In my opinion", says Dr. Winsemius, "it would be next to impossible to transplant the Singapore wonder elsewhere. I have experienced it in other countries. I have given advices to the government of Greece and, for five years, to the government of Portugal. It is senseless to launch an economic development programme in a country which lacks political stability and does not have a government that sticks to that programme in the knowledge that, one day, it will be recognized and rewarded by the voters."

Kees Tamboer is the economic editor of the Dutch daily Het Parool

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