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.

 
 
 
 

Two east London boroughs are planning to tax nightlife to fund the clean up. Will it work?

A Shoreditch rave, 2013. Image: Getty.

No-one likes cleaning up after a party, but someone’s got to do it. On a city-wide scale, that job falls to the local authority. But that still leaves the question: who pays?

In east London, the number of bars and clubs has increased dramatically in recent years. The thriving club scene has come with benefits – but also a price tag for the morning clean-up and cost of policing. The boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are now looking to nightlife venues to cover these costs.

Back in 2012, councils were given powers to introduce ‘late night levies’: essentially a tax on all the licensed venues that open between midnight and 6am. The amount venues are expected to pay is based on the premises’ rateable value. Seventy per cent of any money raised goes to the police and the council keeps the rest.

Few councils took up the offer. Four years after the legislation was introduced, only eight local authorities had introduced a levy, including Southampton, Nottingham, and Cheltenham. Three of the levies were in the capital, including Camden and Islington. The most lucrative was in the City of London, where £420,000 was raised in the 2015-16 financial year.

Even in places where levies have been introduced, they haven’t always had the desired effect. Nottingham adopted a late night levy in November 2014. Last year, it emerged that the tax had raised £150,000 less than expected in its first year. Only a few months before, Cheltenham scrapped its levy after it similarly failed to meet expectations.


Last year, the House of Lords committee published its review of the 2003 Licensing Act. The committee found that “hardly any respondents believed that late night levies were currently working as they should be” – and councils reported that the obligation to pass revenues from the levy to the police had made the tax unappealing. Concluding its findings on the late night levy, the committee said: “We believe on balance that it has failed to achieve its objectives, and should be abolished.”

As might be expected of a nightlife tax, late night levies are also vociferously opposed by the hospitality industry. Commenting on the proposed levy in Tower Hamlets, Brigid Simmonds, chief executive at the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “A levy would represent a damaging new tax – it is the wrong approach. The focus should be on partnership working, with the police and local business, to address any issues in the night time economy.”

Nevertheless, boroughs in east London are pressing ahead with their plans. Tower Hamlets was recently forced to restart a consultation on its late night levy after a first attempt was the subject of a successful legal challenge by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR). Kate Nicholls, chief executive at the ALMR, said:

“We will continue to oppose these measures wherever they are considered in any part of the UK and will urge local authorities’ to work with businesses, not against them, to find solutions to any issues they may have.”

Meanwhile, Hackney council intends to introduce a levy after a consultation which revealed 52 per cents of respondents were in favour of the plans. Announcing the consultation in February, licensing chair Emma Plouviez said:

“With ever-shrinking budgets, we need to find a way to ensure the our nightlife can continue to operate safely, so we’re considering looking to these businesses for a contribution towards making sure their customers can enjoy a safe night out and their neighbours and surrounding community doesn’t suffer.”

With budgets stretched, it’s inevitable that councils will seek to take advantage of any source of income they can. Nevertheless, earlier examples of the late night levy suggest this nightlife tax is unlikely to prove as lucrative as is hoped. Even if it does, should we expect nightlife venues to plug the gap left by public sector cuts?