Regina Ip suggests plotting course for high technology quicksand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am

'Singapore and Taiwan quickly recovered from the [Asian] economic crisis as they have niches in biochemical development and semiconductors.'

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee

Talk show host

YES, SINGAPORE DOES indeed have a niche in semiconductors, a very deep niche indeed, one that other semiconductor manufacturers would rather not occupy.

For an indication of the nature of that niche, just look at the bar chart. Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing, a government-sponsored corporation set up as the leading edge of Singapore's drive into high technology, has suffered cumulative losses of US$1.2 billion since the onset of the Asian economic crisis in 1997.

But, as Mrs Ip may point out, and the chart certainly reveals as fact, Chartered Semiconductor did take a break from posting big losses with a profit six years ago of US$244 million.

This happened at the height of that worldwide phenomenon we now call the Internet Bubble and I suppose she can argue that this brief shift from profit to loss helped Singapore to recover faster than Hong Kong did from the Asian economic crisis.

It is certainly true that Singapore's economy did a little less poorly than Hong Kong's from 1997 to 1999, although the performance of both has been roughly in line since 1999 but I can hardly see that not losing money for a year is an argument for copying Singapore's ways of throwing money into proven money losers. And if she wants a more up to date record of Singapore's experience with electronics, I refer her to the second chart. The Singapore market's electronics sector has been a woeful underperformer of the Straits Times Index for the past three years. It has in fact been the worst performing sector of the market over that period.

Not everyone is unhappy about this, of course. Take the owners of big American brand names in the computer business. If Singapore is happy to supply them with component manufacture and assembly operations that operate at losses or bare profits and thus invite them to post higher profit margins on the final sale of the goods, well, they are more than pleased to go along.

But what the Singapore government has had to learn in the school of hard knocks is that the only thing high in high technology is high risk and that profits in it are low or non-existent.

Singapore has high technology only because of a conscious government decision to pour a great deal of public money into it on the reasoning that relying on financial and other services provided to neighbouring countries is risky. Indonesia and Malaysia might make an effort to take these industries back and thus hollow out the Singapore economy. In the event it has proved the other way round. The service industries are doing fine and the high technology is a millstone around Singapore's neck.

We in Hong Kong have thus had a custom-made experiment conducted for us, all done for free in a similar economy, of what our prospects are likely to be should we make Singapore's mistake.

Taiwan is a more complex case but where Singapore is concerned, high technology can only be said to have helped the recovery from the Asian economic crisis because it was followed so soon after by the Internet Bubble.

This was only a brief bubble, however, and high technology then continued to sap the gains made by other sectors of Singapore's economy. It is still doing so now.

But Regina has high technology on the brain because she spent the past few years associating with techies at Stanford University in the United States and in my opinion, has blinded herself to the fact that things do not work quite the same way on this side of the Pacific Ocean.

It would not matter that much except that many of her former colleagues in government are like-minded and determined to plunge into the same quicksand in which Singapore has mired itself. We are all the losers if they do.