SINGAPORE'S POLITICIANS do not like to spring surprises, especially in the critical area of economic policy. Their preferred approach is to scatter set-piece speeches, ad hoc comments and interviews with clear hints about the state of their thinking. The early-warning system can act well, both for citizens and the broader community of international investors. The voting public is kept abreast of developments that may affect them, such as this year's economic downturn, which may trigger up to 20,000 retrenchments. Likewise, non-Singaporeans with interests in the city-state are alert for verbal signals, especially those from Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo Yong-Boon and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The two cabinet members do most of the spadework on economic policy. What then can we expect? A reading of many of their recent comments suggests that a competition law is in the offing. The yet-to-be-released statute could empower a semi-autonomous government agency with the ability to police the economy's main sectors, as already happens in many other countries. Mr Lee offered the latest insight yesterday, addressing a conference on the new economy. 'We need to put in place a clear, coherent competition policy framework. This will ensure a level playing field for new entrants, and prevent dominant firms in an industry from exploiting their market power to stifle competition or jack up prices,' the deputy prime minister said. 'This is a major and complex issue which the MTI [Ministry of Trade and Industry] is studying closely with other ministries, with a view to eventually drawing up a set of competition legislation.' Although the MTI mandarins' work remains unfinished and the government leaders have yet to signal their total commitment, the project does appear to have gained a good deal of momentum. If pursued, it would bring Singapore in line with practices in most advanced industrial economies - and at the same time set it apart from Hong Kong. The SAR has consistently shunned the development of a generic competition law, opting instead for a sector-by-sector approach. What is driving the Lion City's push? In a word, the answer seems to be 'liberalisation'. Although the government remains a significant player in some main parts of the economy, its influence is waning. The state's equity holdings are being sold down as the government concentrates on providing an environment conducive to business, rather than being an actor in its own right. Statutory bodies are being corporatised and, most significantly, barriers to foreign entry into service sectors such as telecommunications, power generation, retail banking and others are being progressively dismantled. As that more liberal economy gradually takes shape, the government is swinging behind the concept of a competition law, apparently to ensure that the new regime operates for the maximum benefit of the public. The MTI itself is somewhat more coy on the issue. A spokesman for the ministry said the economy had traditionally been open, especially in manufacturing. However, policymakers are aware that it remains necessary to guard against the development of abusive monopolies or cartels. 'We believe that the best approach to effectively control anti-competitive activities is by promoting a free and open market, whereby entry and exit barriers are non-existent,' the spokesman said. 'Notwithstanding liberalisation, we recognise that market failure may still occur due to such constraints as market size and limited players. We recognise that for sectors where there is a high risk of anti-competitive practices, competition law could help to ensure that there is sufficient and fair competition.' Although there had been speculation that the study was also linked to the raft of bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs) that Singapore is negotiating, the MTI quashed that suggestion. 'The process of reviewing, improving and adopting new laws and regulations to control anti-competitive practices is not related to our FTA negotiations,' the spokesman added. 'Singapore recognises that every country has the right to adopt its own approach to ensuring efficient and fair competition in its markets.' Running in parallel with the competition law study, the MTI is also part of a task force examining the merits of adopting a fair-trading act. If approved, this could also bolster consumers' standing, with extra protection against dubious practices such as high-pressure selling. 'We have to strike a delicate balance, penalising and deterring anti-competitive behaviour effectively, while not imposing overly onerous obligations on companies, or blocking necessary mergers and rationalisations, especially in industries facing global competition,' Mr Lee said. Hong Kong - and many other territories and states in the region - will be watching to see how the initiative develops.