New lessons from Dutch economist

At the launch of the book, UNDP And The Making Of Singapore's Public Service: Lessons From Albert Winsemius, are (from left) former EDB chairman Ngiam Tong Dow, director of UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence Max Everest-Phillips, and NU
At the launch of the book, UNDP And The Making Of Singapore's Public Service: Lessons From Albert Winsemius, are (from left) former EDB chairman Ngiam Tong Dow, director of UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence Max Everest-Phillips, and NUS senior fellow in economics Lee Soo Ann.PHOTO: DANIEL NEO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The late Dutch economist Albert Winsemius had no doubts about what was in store for this country when he came here as an adviser in 1960: "Singapore is a poor little market in a dark corner of Asia... It is going down the drain."

That Dr Winsemius changed his mind and, in fact, became an important figure in the nation's success forms the basis of a new book launched here yesterday. UNDP And The Making Of Singapore's Public Service: Lessons From Albert Winsemius was written by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Centre for Public Service Excellence.

Mr Max Everest-Phillips, its director, said "Winsemius' work in Singapore has been written about extensively before" but never from a public service perspective.

"In examining Singapore's success, therefore, the publication offers important lessons for sustainable development."

Dr Winsemius came here in 1960, sent by the United Nations to be an economic adviser to a city that was then facing labour unrest, political tension, high unemployment and a growing population.

He was Singapore's chief economic adviser from 1961 to 1984.

Former EDB chairman Ngiam Tong Dow said the values of self-sufficiency the economist believed in were still important to Singapore today. "He told me, 'I can teach you how to drive a car, I can even teach you how to repair your car, but you have to drive your car yourself'."

Dr Lee Soo Ann, senior fellow in economics at the National University of Singapore (NUS), agreed, saying that the Dutch cultural tradition of Calvinism shone through the work of Dr Winsemius.

This tradition, which valued self-reliance and hard work, helped to form a "moral fabric that put Singapore on a right path".

He said: "We should learn the deeper lesson from Winsemius, and we should - through the UN and other means - advocate the moral foundations of good economic thinking."

The book is available for free in print as well as online.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2015, with the headline 'New lessons from Dutch economist'. Print Edition | Subscribe