7 excerpts from DPM Heng’s speech at launch of book on Albert Winsemius that explain S’pore’s success

At the launch of the book “Albert Winsemius and Singapore: Here It Is Going To Happen”, which chronicles the life of Singapore’s chief economic advisor Dr Albert Winsemius, on May 23, 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat highlighted two key values of our founding fathers: conviction and openness.

Without the conviction to do right by Singaporeans and openness to ideas, Singapore would not have worked with the late Dr Winsemius’ and his suggestions – or more famously known as the Winsemius Report – which went against conventional wisdom but ultimately proven right.

The Dutchman served as chief economic adviser to the government from 1961 to 1984. He passed away from pneumonia in 1996.

Here are five key excerpts of DPM Heng’s speech.

1. Things were bleak

“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.”

2. This is some praise

“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.'”

3. Swimming against the tide

“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’.”

4. The secret sauce

“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.”

5. Building from the basics

“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.”

6. Permeates every level

“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.”  

7. Staying open

“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.”

Cover photo credit: PMO