Events

Winsemius in Singapore’s Economic History

Original

Dutch economist Albert Winsemius’ role in Singapore’s development offers an intriguing case study of expert intervention in colonies and former colonies throughout the world after the Second World War, a contrast for instance to the failings of technical advisers in the disastrous East Africa Groundnut Scheme. How did Winsemius succeed where so many experts had failed?

On 7 June 2017, Dr Loh Kah Seng, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, discussed how Winsemius worked together with local officials to come up with recommendations for Singapore and how he had greater impact on Singapore history than what was generally thought.

Dr Loh began by explaining the context surrounding the post-colonial period and how Singapore became a part of a transnational world after the second world war and when many nations gained independence. This time period became the era of the expert, which allowed Western intervention, in the form of expertise, to become more acceptable to non-Western countries.

He then briefly shared the events that led to Winsemius coming to Singapore, including his two industrial survey missions to Singapore from 1960 to 1961 and how he became the unofficial adviser to the government until 1984. Interestingly, Winsemius knew nothing about Singapore except that he was given the impression that it was ‘going down the drain’. He was assigned to find out if Singapore would be able to industrialise, and if so, what kind of industries it could focus on.

Winsemius found Singapore to be a challenge as it ‘was neither an underdeveloped, nor a half-developed or a highly developed country’. He studied the country, listening to locals to have a better understanding of the country’s potential. After that, he recommended moving away from entrepot trade, and encouraged full-time employment and the development of planned modern housing.

He also recommended focusing on heavy industries and attracting international, private capital. Singapore should then explore all export markets around the world. He also encouraged public housing as it could demonstrate symbolically to Western investors that Singapore was not ‘going down the drain’. Winsemius believed that management and labour must cooperate, and argued that it was important to raise productivity first to give room for negotiations on wages.

Winsemius also provided the political advice of ‘eliminat[ing] the Communists’ during the time of tensions between the government and its left-wing allies who believed that the state should be in control of industries.

His dialogic approach with the Singapore government allowed him to understand Singapore and helped shape it. Given his influence over policies, Dr Loh argued that Winsemius may have been more successful than generally believed.

The talk ended with Dr Loh addressing the audience’s questions, which included further clarifications on Winsemius’ rationale behind his recommendations, as well as the dynamics between Winsemius and some political leaders of Singapore during the early years.

Video excerpts of Dr Loh’s lecture can be viewed here.