Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Book Launch of “Albert Winsemius and Singapore” on 23 May 2022.
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan,
Dr Pieter Winsemius,
Professor Euston Quah,
Ambassador Margriet Vonno,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good morning. It is my pleasure to join you this morning to launch the book “Albert Winsemius and Singapore”. Let me first acknowledge Dr Pieter Winsemius, whom I had the privilege of knowing. Pieter, thank you for flying from the Netherlands for this book launch. Pieter did not come alone. He brought with him eight of Albert’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are also here with us today. A very warm welcome. Your presence means very much to all of us.
I would also like to congratulate Professor Euston Quah and his team for completing this 1,000-page compendium on Dr Albert Winsemius. Dr Winsemius was a Dutch economist who helped to plan the Netherland’s own post-war industrial development. In Singapore, he is best known as our chief economic advisor during the founding years of our nation. This project is three years in the making and provides a definitive account of Dr Winsemius’ life. It is thoroughly researched, featuring interviews and reflections from ESM Goh, Mr Lim Chong Yah, and others who worked closely with him.
Dr Albert Winsemius
This book vividly outlines the challenges we faced in the early years of our Independence, and how – with Dr Winsemius’ help – we managed to overcome adversity to develop our economy and create jobs that uplifted our people. For a young nation such as ours, it is critical to learn from our past, to gain insights to help us better position Singapore for the future.
It is hard to imagine what Singapore was like in 1960, when Dr Winsemius was tasked by the United Nations to advise Singapore on our industralisation programme. At that time, Singapore was still a British colony, although we achieved self-governance under Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team the year before. Politically, there was a fierce battle between the communists and socialists fighting for the hearts and minds of our people. The economy was undeveloped, with a per capita GDP of around US$300. Educational attainment was low, and unemployment at over 12% was a serious concern, especially when we had over 60,000 babies born each year. There were hardly any foreign investments. The prospects were bleak.
But fortunately, from the very beginning, Dr Winsemius saw the potential of our country. He and his team presented the Government with what is better known as the Winsemius Report. He went on to serve as our economic adviser for nearly twenty-five years. In the words of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, it was Singapore’s good fortune that Dr Winsemius enjoyed working with us. In his memoirs, Mr Lee wrote: “Winsemius had a pragmatic, hands-on approach, a good head for figures, and a knack for getting to grips with the basic issues, ignoring the mass of details. Most of all, he was wise and canny. I learnt much from him, especially about how European and American CEOs think and operate”. ESM Goh, who had the privilege of working with Dr Winsemius, described him as one of Singapore’s greatest friends and benefactor. ESM remarked that Singapore owes him a great debt of gratitude, and I cannot agree more.
One key recommendation by Dr Winsemius was to attract foreign investments to create labour-intensive industries, driven by exports. It was a strategy that went against conventional norms. Singapore was trying to free ourselves from British rule, and critics saw multi-nationals as yet another form of “colonialism”. Mr Lee, Dr Goh Keng Swee and our founding fathers went all out to draw in foreign investments and industrialise our economy. We set up the Singapore Economic Development Board, following the recommendation by Dr Winsemius. Dr Winsemius also personally approached several multinationals to invest in Singapore, including Shell, Esso and Philips. By the early 1970s, our economy was growing rapidly, and our workforce was at full employment. Today, Singapore is one of the leading advanced manufacturing nodes in the region and the world. Jurong Industrial Estate became synonymous with our industrial development. As our economy grew, we created Jurong Island through reclamation for our energy & chemical sector. More recently, we established the Jurong Innovation District for R&D and tech innovation.
But it is not just about industrial development. Dr Winsemius was a strong advocate for developing our people and saw education as a critical enabler. He supported the establishment of the National Wages Council, a tripartite alliance to discuss wage increases and related issues. He later approached Professor Lim Chong Yah to head the Council. Dr Winsemius also advised the government to invest in a new university or technical institute, in addition to building more factories. To upskill our workers, we worked with foreign governments and companies to set up training institutes for workers. In fact, the origin of Nanyang Polytechnic can be traced back to three such institutions – the Japan-Singapore Institute, the German-Singapore Institute, and the French-Singapore Institute. Today, we invest significantly in our youths, from pre-school to post-secondary. We have created multiple pathways for our workers, not just pre-employment but throughout life. And Dr Winsemius had a role to play in setting the cornerstone of our human capital foundations.
Lessons for Our Next Chapter of Growth
Two key values underpin our response to the Winsemius Report. These are conviction and openness. The conviction to do what is right by our people, and the openness to take on new ideas and try different approaches.
Key to our economic story was that our founding fathers were prepared to get down to the basics, to innovate and go against the grain of conventional wisdom. Pursuing foreign multinationals to invest in Singapore, to create jobs for our people, and to connect with the most advanced economies in the world at that time was a bold choice. Dr Winsemius was a most valuable guide in this effort.
This focus on the basics, and the courage to innovate, underlies many other aspects of our economic and social policies. Many of our national institutions – including retirement savings through CPF, affordable home ownership through HDB flats, affordable healthcare through the 3Ms, and lifelong learning through SkillsFuture – are borne out of conviction. These are major innovations that have created economic and social value for our people. We must continue to have the conviction to do what is good and right for Singapore and Singaporeans, even if it means going against conventional norms.
The other important value is our openness. Dr Winsemius was not a Singaporean. He was not born here, and did not grow up here. Given that he had no prior nexus with Singapore, it is remarkable that he developed such a strong affinity for Singapore. His heart was with Singapore, and he was committed to do good by Singapore and help our people succeed. The Singapore Story would have been a very different one, if we had decided not to pursue his recommendations simply because it did not originate here. In fact, our openness – to ideas, investments and people from all over the world – has been what a critical factor in our success. At a time when many societies have become more divided and insular, this book reminds us that we must not insulate and close ourselves off from the world. We must continue to focus on the basics of what is best for Singapore, and open our minds to the best people, ideas, and support, from around the world. We must continue to develop deep capabilities, to equip ourselves to work together with the best around the world, to take on new opportunities, and make a difference. As an island-state, our success rests on our openness and connection to the world.
Conviction and openness. This was our founding fathers’ approach to nation building and to the advice that Dr Winsemius rendered over a quarter of a century.
Let me conclude. When I last met Pieter in the Netherlands, he told me that even into his old age, Dr Winsemius would regularly look out for news of Singapore. We are honoured that Dr Winsemius became a lifelong friend of Singapore. Several years ago, the family of Dr Winsemius presented EDB with a painting by Dr K Franz. It’s a painting of the swampy delta of the Jurong River, entitled– “Here, it is going to happen”. This painting sat above Dr Winsemius’ fireplace in his home in the Netherlands from 1961 to his passing in 1996. There is no better expression of his devotion to help Singapore succeed. The painting now hangs in EDB’s office and serves as a reminder to all of us of the “can do” spirit that brought us from Third World to First in one generation. Dr Winsemius’ deep sense of purpose and dedication to Singapore continues to inspire us. We must continue to stay true to our convictions as we chart the course for the future. We must continue to remain open to new ideas and embrace those who share our values and beliefs. We must continue to work in partnership with the Netherlands and other like-minded countries to improve the world around us. The legacy of Dr Winsemius is one that Singaporeans are grateful for, and one that Pieter and the Winsemius family can be very proud of. A road bearing his name, Albert Winsemius Lane, is in the western part of Singapore. This book is yet another way of honouring Dr Winsemius and capturing his remarkable contributions during this critical period of Singapore’s history, for generations to come. I thank Professor Euston Quah and his team for their painstaking research. Let me, on behalf of the Government and the people of Singapore, express our deep appreciation to Dr Winsemius, and to Pieter and his family.
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