Brad Bowyer: Progress stopped 15 years ago. Why and what can we do about it?

by Brad Bowyer

As this article from the Asia Times by Joseph Nathan clearly shows Singapore was not the mythical fishing village when the PAP took over, nor was it poor nor disadvantaged.

There may have been extreme inequality, with the majority living in kampongs or squalid living quarters, but it was a rich and bustling economy with all the main elements of government already in place which the first generation of leaders inherited and capitalised on to solidify our position at that time as a regional economic powerhouse.

Many have not heard of Albert Winsemius but he was a Dutch economist working for the UN who was Singapore’s Chief economic advisor for nearly 25 years. In 1960 he led the United Nations Expanded Programme for Technical Assistance (EPTA) team which evaluated and came up with the economic plan that the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and later Goh Chok Tong followed to great effect. He only retired from the role in 1983 when he was already in his 70’s.

Using his guidance for the backbone along with the likes of experts from N.M.Rothschild & Sons Ltd, who Goh Keng Swee brought in when the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) was formed in 1981, Singapore achieved annual growth of around 6% per annum from the 60’s to the mid-90s and in the process lifted many from poverty.

This enabled Singapore to achieve Developed Country status by most measures by 1999 although the OECD rankings still place us as developing primarily due to concerns of sustainability around our GLC focused policies with little “real” SME and domestic economy support. As a side note this is the mythical “first world” status we are told about, but a term that economists don’t generally use, and was finally reached under Goh Chok Tong and not Lee Kuan Yew.

So with such a strong start, what went wrong?

Well, we no longer have such high powered advisors and secondly instead of drawing upon the best and brightest in Singapore, who have gained real-world experiences and are creative and leader material who can leverage upon this background, we are ruled by a manufactured team largely comprising family members of the early generations plus scholars and generals of which very few if any of them know anything more than what came from a book or what their fathers did. They are certainly not businessmen and entrepreneurs which makes things even worse as our country is being run more like a private business than a country anyway.

This, of course, is compounded by our economic future being almost totally concentrated into the hands of Temasek which has been the major beneficiary of the privatisation of many public assets over the decades but which seems incapable of managing or running them wisely or profitably. We only have to look at what has happened with NOL, SPH, Keppel, and Sembcorp for examples with all sorts of problems and declining fortunes and these are the more public ones we know of.

Aside from the attached Joseph Nathan article this was eloquently analysed by Professor Christopher Balding in his research Note on Temasek Holdings And Singapore: “Mr Madoff Goes to Singapore”, (you can google and download it) where he demonstrates how Temasek’s purported returns are bolstered by this privatisation of profit and public asset and socialisation of loss policy, especially since 2004 when the numbers went parabolic on the supplied graphs.

How can we fix it?

We arguably have a more developed and refined civil sector and infrastructure in place now than in 1965 although it has certainly suffered recently with poor management, numerous failures, the curtailing of checks and balances and stifling under many new and heavy-handed laws and other devices to mask the realities and secure power for the incumbents over any challenges by more qualified individuals.

If we can get a competent team in place, re-evaluate the GLC policy, look long and hard at how the likes of Temasek and GIC manage our monies and investments and start running our country as a country again and get the governments heavy hand out of business we have a chance at reviving our economic fortunes and getting back on to the positive path the early generations and their advisors put us on.

If we don’t life will only get harder for the ordinary Singaporean and we will head back into the poverty we started from while the now self-styled “Natural Aristocrats” become the rich colonial equivalents and drive us to insolvency and irrelevancy.

We already are arguably accorded little global respect given where Lee Hsien Loong has been placed in recent photos at the few events he was able to attend and we see our economy slipping in to recession while regional countries still enjoy growth (ASEAN as a region is expected to achieve around 4.8% this year while countries like Vietnam and Indonesia achieve 6.6% and 5.18% respectively).

It is time for us to take a critical look at the Hard Truths surrounding who and how our country and economy are being run and judge them for today and not on a romantic view of the past.

Singapore in the 21st century needs 21st-century thinking and leadership, not a 20th century or worse rulership and rehashing of old plans and models.

I hope we collectively wake up before it is too late.

This was first published on Brad Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.