EVENTS IN Singapore's troubled economic life at the tail-end of this year provoke a feeling people and institutions have been here before. In 1985, Singapore was clobbered by a nasty recession. After coasting along at a very respectable average growth rate of 8.5 per cent a year in the first half of the decade, the city-state was pitched into a downturn. The government, then under prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, wanted to know how best to respond. Mr Lee tapped the Ministry of Trade and Industry to draw up a report on what steps to take. The ministry in turn picked one of its junior ministers to oversee the task. At the helm of the project was Mr Lee's son, Hsien Loong, fresh from fighting his first general election in 1984. 'The committee's proposals that the government take strong steps to reduce business costs and strengthen competitiveness were a major political test for Loong and the other ministers,' the elder Mr Lee, now senior minister, later recalled. These days - with the slowdown in global growth, the hi-tech slump and the September 11 impact - it is recession time once more. The government - now led by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong - wants, once again, to know how best to respond. Mr Goh has tapped one of his leading ministers to oversee the task. That man is none other than Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lee Hsien Loong, fresh from fighting last month's general elections with his colleagues. The new group, dubbed the Economic Review Committee (ERC), met for the first time this week and mapped out a plan to draw up a new set of advice to 're-invent' the city-state. The work will take about nine months. In truth, much of what the 20-strong body will pore over are ideas or themes that have longed vexed the country's policy-makers: how can they keep a lid on costs; how can they make more of their citizens into risk-takers; and what can Singapore sell to the rest of the region to keep itself ahead? One comment from Mr Lee stood out starkly, however, when he suggested that the city-state might reasonably expect stronger growth from services than from manufacturing in the coming years. Services at present account for about 64 per cent of gross domestic product, while manufacturing accounts for 26 per cent, according to data from the World Bank. 'We will try and grow both [manufacturing and services] as quickly as we can. But our guess is that there is greater potential in growing services than in growing manufacturing,' he said. If the remark proves accurate, it would mark a remarkable break with the past, as the basic balance of the economy has been virtually unaltered for the past two decades. Again using numbers from the World Bank, Singapore's manufacturing sector in 1979 made up 27.8 per cent of GDP while services came in at 62.5 per cent. The chances are that the new working group will endorse a dilution of Singapore's love affair with making high-technology goodies, especially electronics. These account for more than two thirds of non-oil exports, a proportion that has left the country dangerously exposed to the current downturn. 'We should . . . remedy this defect,' Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan Keng Yam said last August. Mr Tan is also on the ERC. While observers may expect some shift in the country's economic make-up in favour of services, they would, however, be unwise to believe that Singapore is about to stop making things altogether, despite the relatively high costs in the land-scarce country. Ministers have often made clear that maintaining and nurturing a manufacturing base is an essential requirement of national defence strategy, as opposed to national economic strategy. 'The fact that we are a sovereign country, unlike Hong Kong, means that every year we have to spend 5 per cent to 6 per cent of our GDP on defence, a lot of which goes on science and technology,' Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo Yong-Boon said in a recent interview. Mr Yeo is another ERC member. Taking these comments together, a possible outline of a new Singapore economy comes into view. Manufacturing will still be evident, but less prominent in the overall mix than at any time since the 1970s. Growth in services to a recovering Southeast Asia and beyond boosts that sector. A Singapore 'reinvented'? Not quite, but it will probably be one that stands a better chance of a sustainable future.