• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 11:08pm


PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am

I SAY THIS not because I like a good bit of Singapore bashing, although I do, but for the sake of ordinary Singaporeans because I have read elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew's two-volume autobiography.

It convinces me that if this recession does not give Singapore a chance to break out of the mould in which he has cast it then any bounce up is likely to change into just another bounce down again at an early stage.

Let me give Mr Lee his due first.

He was the right man for his times. In the early 1960s communist subversion was a real threat that needed forceful counter-measures, there was a real need to define Singapore's place within a Malayan confederation and the Singapore economy needed a jump-start.

None of it could easily have been done within the political factionalism that would have prevailed in the absence of a strong leader.

But that was the 1960s and, although Mr Lee has supposedly taken a step back from the centre stage, you will pardon me if I think it is only to become prompter in a play in which he has also written every line for the actors.

I saw a picture a while back of a Singapore cabinet meeting with him sitting across from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and I shall eat my hat if a fawning Mr Goh was not saying: 'Right, boss, what do we do now?'

Good question and, unfortunately, the answer is still being given by a man who trained as a lawyer and whose economic ideas bear the firm stamp of 1940s socialist thinking with little real opposition since that time to challenge his intellect.

Let us face it. Ignore 20th century Leninist mayhem and Singapore has come closer than any other nation state in the world to having achieved communism in the classic Marxist sense.

Everything is done at the behest of central planners and they protest so loudly when you tell them so because they know it.

Of course, sometimes they also grin and tell you that it has clearly been successful too.

Singapore is now a wealthy state. What is so bad about central planning? It is a question you can laugh at in Russia but you do indeed have to take it more seriously in Singapore, given a much better record of it.

The answer to that question is first of all that Singapore is only a small city with a resident population of barely three million people who have benefited from rising wealth in neighbouring countries.

This is a toy test of central planning, not a real one.

Give any poor city state at a crossroads of world trade the conditions of peace, rule of law and massive technology transfers and it would take skill not to get rising wealth as a result. Yes, many world leaders had that skill. Singapore was blessed.

But what does it do now that it has the wealth?

The answer, unfortunately, has been to stick to 1960s ideas, to pour massive amounts of public money into the fashionable industries of the day, to ignore the now inevitably poor returns on such investment and then to resort to national hubris at a clear danger to standards of living when the proof comes in that civil servants are not good judges of business.

The unexpected reverses of the past few years seemed, however, to have humbled them a little. They have even spoken of a more market-oriented economy.

But do not count on it if that economy now seems to bounce back quickly.

Put emphasis in that sentence on 'seems'.

The troubles will return as night follows day if Mr Lee and company skip out of class before the lesson is fully taught.


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