Over the last half century or so, across the international development realm, donors and individuals have been extremely active in providing advice to recipient nations on how to improve their overall economic development. As the world moves towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), these practitioners should look back at the economic development history and examine a successful case: that of Albert Winsemius who helped shape Singapore’s economic development.
Winsemius’ contributions to Singapore’s development at a critical stage presents a case study with several key characteristics. First, he examined and took steps to understand more than the economic conditions of the newly-independent country. Winsemius closely studied the country’s issues by interacting with Singapore’s leaders, British officials, trade union leaders, workers and the local population. This allowed him get an accurate picture of the situation at hand. This is in contrast to advisers who were often detached from the country they were sent to. Craig Murphy in his book, The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): A Better Way? contrasts Winsemius’ engagement with Singapore to Arthur Lewis, a prominent UNDP adviser to Ghana, who was noted to be detached from Ghana in the same time period and had a poor relationship with its leaders. Winsemius close understanding of and relationship resulted in him providing sound advice.
Second and following suit, Winsemius provided economic advice that went against economic norms but relevant to Singapore’s economic environment. The prevailing economic advice in the post-World War Two period by economists was for newly-independent nations to pursue import substitution industrialisation—the country would initiate local industrialisation by imposing tariffs on exports and regulations on foreign firms. The country should relax such restrictive conditions on external goods only after the appearance of stable local industries. A further prevailing model by young Asian country was to follow the Japanese model of focusing on small firms and large-scale public transport.
Winsemius instead recommended to Singapore’s leaders not to completely follow such prevailing industrial and management models but rather adapt various models to suit Singapore’ own advantage. This again is in contrast to other advisers who imposed fixed economic templates, for example the market-centric neoliberal or ‘Washington Consensus’ that has been recommended by many development practitioners since the 1980s. Such rigid frameworks have stalled economic growth and increased poverty in many developing countries. Winsemius unorthodox, yet, country-specific policies helped Singapore progress successfully.
Third and linked to the above, Winsemius also provided non-economic advice to Singapore’s leaders. This advice included strategies for promoting national stability and a stable trade union in order for successful economic and social development to occur. The latter advice resulted in the creation of the National Wage Council (NWC) which links government, industries and employers together to discuss wages and socio-economic progress. The value of this advice is seen in the fact that over the last 50 years, the NWC is still an important component of Singapore’s economic landscape Such advice reflected the arguments by political economists such as Karl Polanyi that the economy is always shaped by socio-political forces. In contrast, other technical advisers informed their recipient countries to leave market forces to shape the economy. This as many scholars have argued, increased poverty and inequality in developing countries. Winsemius was a successful technical adviser by comprehending the local economic and socio-political environment of the country he advised.
Critics, however, may argue that Winsemius succeeded easily because he was advising a small country. Other counterparts faced countries of larger populations and more challenging scenarios. It is true that Singapore is a city-state that had smaller problems than other developing countries. Yet, as noted in the report, UNDP and the making of Singapore’s Public Service, Singapore faced similar problems in the 1950s and 60s that other newly-independent countries face. These included high employment, stagnated trade, housing shortages, union strikes and tense ethnic relations. In light of this, Winsemius was facing a country, however small, that was characteristic of a developing country in need of advice.
It may also be argued that Winsemius’ success was not fully his alone, but due to the competence and actions of Singapore’s first generation leaders. It is certainly true that Singapore’s early political leaders such as the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, finance minister Dr Goh Keng Swee and others including Mr Hon Sui Sen were pro-active figures who shaped Singapore’s economic and social environment. All these efforts, however, does not negate Albert Winsemius deep contributions to Singapore’s economic development. In fact, Mr Hon Sui Sen himself noted that Singapore’s economic progress would have been much slower had Winsemius not provided his relevant, and ultimately useful advice.
A further critical view would be that technical advisers cannot easily intrude into non-economic roles like Albert Winsemius did. Even advisers from prominent multilateral organisations face bureaucratic hurdles when attempting to provide advice on non-economic issues. It is not my suggestion that all development advisers start intruding into the socio-political environment of all recipient countries. Rather, as Albert Winsemius did, they should understand the economic and socio-political landscape on the country and work closely with the country’s political leaders in order to provide sound advice.
Albert Winsemius as a humble economic adviser provided astute economic and non-economic advice which turned Singapore into a country that not only has high Gross Domestic Product but scores high on the Human Development Index today. International development technical advisers and organisations should examine how he helped developed Singapore and use it as a successful model.
Dr. Li Jie Sheng is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation. His research focuses on the effectiveness of donors and international organisations. He holds a PhD (International Political Economy) from the University of Birmingham and a Mphil (Development Studies) from the University of Cambridge.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.
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