Singapore in 1965 was neither underdog nor Third World

Underdog made good

I refer to the 25 July 2014 Straits Times letter “Underdog made good” by Mr Jeremy Cheong Weng Kee.

Mr Cheong characterized Singapore in 1965 as the underdog that overcame the odds to succeed. Far from it, Singapore was already ranked Third in Asia and 29th out of 109 countries in output side per capita GDP (2005 PPP USD) back in 1965 (Penn World tables version 8.0), not top notch but neither underdog either.

We were also more than just the underdogs because:

• Singapore had become a global port that could rival any other in the world by the time the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and with the advent of the steamship revolution in the latter half of the nineteenth century
[Derek Thiam Soon Heng, Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Singapore in Global History, page 57]

• Singapore was already the estimated 5th or 6th most important port in the world by the early 1930s and the key port in the Straits region by the late 19th century
[Goh Kim Chuan, Environment and development in the Straits of Malacca, pages 107, 114]

• Singapore was the most important communications centre in the Far East, not just for shipping but a focal point for airlines, telecommunications and mail distribution at the beginning of the 1950s
• Singapore was the biggest market in the world for natural rubber, an important international market specializing in tin futures and a major oil distribution centre in the inter-war period
• Singapore had extensive numbers of high quality entrepreneurs and substantial industry and a skilled labour force, not least in ship repair prior to independence
• The first estimates of Singapore national income in 1956 showed rapidly rising per capita income that was very much greater than almost anywhere else in Asia
• Singapore had already experienced considerable economic development before World War II
• Singapore in the mid-1950s had 30 people per private car compared to 70 for British Malaya and more than 120 for the rest of Asia
[The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century, W. G. Huff, pages 31-33]

Mr Cheong reminded us of the many resilient people capable of extraordinary things Singapore was blessed with. One such resilient person was Dr Toh Chin Chye whom Dr Goh Keng Swee credited as the one who nudged both him and Lee Kuan Yew to snap out of their anguished moods.

• During the Big Split … Dr Goh Keng Swee … recalled Dr Toh Chin Chye visiting him in his Fullerton Building office in 1961, after seeing Mr Lee, saying: ‘I have just come from Harry’s office. He was staring at the ceiling just like you did. You should snap out of this mood. The fighting has just begun. It is going to be long and nasty. But if we keep wringing our hands in anguish, we are sure to lose.
[Straits Times, What if there had been no Toh Chin Chye?, 4 Feb 2012]

Another resilient person capable of extraordinary things was Dr Albert Winsemius:

• Dr Winsemius and I.F. Tang made extraordinary contributions to the economic development of Singapore as leader and secretary of the first UN Industrialisation Survey Team in 1961.
[Ngiam Tong Dow, A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections, page 66]

• Lee’s dismay was also not shared by the country’s most prominent foreign advisor. Winsemius, the former leader of the UN development mission and now a regular consultant to the Singapore government, said in an interview in 1981 … to my amazement, a discussion had started: can Singapore survive? That was the only time I got angry in Singapore. I said: ‘now you have your hands free – use them!’ It was the best thing that happened during the whole period from 1960 till today.
[Sikko Visscher, The business of politics and ethnicity: a history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, page 171]

Uniquely Singapore way to fund needs

I refer to excerpts from the 27 Feb 2014 Straits Times article “Uniquely Singapore way to fund needs”. The article referred to Singapore as a Third World country which our pioneer generation contributed to.

Using data from the Penn World Tables, it can be shown that Singapore back in 1965 was no longer a Third World country but a middle income nation.

1965 per capita GDP / GNP / GNI GDP per capita (output) GDP per capita (expenditure) GDP per capita (average)
Real per capita GDP (chained PPP, 2005 USD) from PWT 8.0 $6,279 $2,957 $4,618
Real per capita GNP (chained PPP, 2005 USD) using PWT 7.1’s GNP to GDP ratio $6,449 $3,037 $4,743
Real per capita GNP (chained PPP, 2011 USD) converted by comparing World Bank’s current GNI and 2011 GNI for 2005 $7,229 $3,404 $5,317
World Bank classification by income Upper middle income status Lower middle income status Upper middle income status

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