How Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from small town into global financial hub

Bowing out: former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, has died at the age of 91. Image: Getty.

This week, we're looking at different perspectives on Lee Kuan Yew's governance of Singapore. This piece examines the positives. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of one of Asia’s smallest but most developed economies, has died. Lee led Singapore after its separation from Malaysia to emerge as one of the world’s most powerful financial centres.

The tiny nation, whose main industry was manufacturing when it became an independent republic in 1965, saw its GDP per capita skyrocket under Lee to one of the highest in the world in 2013. Its population has doubled to more than 5m.

Singapore flourished thanks to Lee's foresight and skill to join the ranks of New York, London and Switzerland as a global financial hub. Singapore has no natural resources of its own to exploit, so Lee used its port to increase trading activity. 

Even though Lee was criticised by many for leading the country in an authoritarian style that stifled political dissent and press freedoms, his firm grip on power and maintenance of stability gave little scope for corrupt financial practices. The orderliness that Singapore became known for was attractive to foreign investment – billions of dollars poured in, ensuring the country’s economic success.

Lee maintained a tight grip on domestic finance by preventing the internationalisation of the Singapore dollar and limiting the operations of foreign banks. This meant international firms saw an opportunity to establish themselves in the tiny island nation. Sound financial and economic policy coupled with a corruption-free environment and technological advancement meant many multinational firms chose Singapore as a regional hub. Lee championed free trade, which helped Singapore attract a free flow of foreign investment and multinational giants such as General Electric.

Singapore’s central business district, a hub for international business. Image: Limtohhan at Wikimedia Commons.

One clear factor in Singapore’s rise was Lee’s ability to take consistent advantage of global financial upheavals. This began in 1971 when America de-linked the dollar from gold. Lee was quick to grasp this opportunity and established Singapore as a regional centre for foreign exchange.

Indeed, since 1968, the Singapore government has provided incentives and preferential tax treatments to cultivate an Asian Dollar Market. This initiative proved instrumental in helping Singapore to develop as a financial centre and maintain a lead over its nearest rival, Hong Kong.

Keeping locals happy

Lee knew that for Singapore to compete with global giants, he needed to provide Singaporeans with housing and employment opportunities that would bring the nation economic stability. To this end, he established the Housing Development Board and Economic Development Board. The housing board transformed this space-constrained island into a world class metropolis that helped its citizens to move out of small ghettos into carefully planned mixed townships and provided superior living conditions for its citizens.

Source: World Bank.

Meanwhile, the development board slowly built up Singaporean industries and businesses to provide job opportunities for both locals and expats. These efforts of the premier saw Singapore’s per capita GDP jump from around US$500 in 1965 by a staggering 2800% to US$14,500 by 1991. Building on Lee’s economic model, it has since continued to grow to US$55,000.

Singapore under Lee also adopted a two-pronged strategy with regards to its financial sector. As well as making Singapore an international financial hub, it wanted the financial sector to play a key supporting role to the growing industries located in Singapore such as manufacturing and shipping.

Lee’s style of running Singapore earned him many accolades. He was once described by Richard Nixon as “A big man on a small stage who in other times and other places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, Disraeli or a Gladstone”.

He was a man with a mission to transform a small seaside town into a financial giant. The size of the country’s GDP per capita compared to its tiny size and lack of resources is testament to his success at doing so.

Nafis Alam is an Associate Professor of Finance and Director of the Centre for Islamic Business and Finance Research at the University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.