Dutch economist Albert Winsemius was a visionary with utopian dreams of what Singapore might one day become but he was above all a realist, according to a panel yesterday.
Three speakers at The Business Times Leadership Conference - all of whom had worked with the late Dr Winsemius - discussed the legacy of the man who has been credited with transforming Singapore's early industrial landscape.
Dr Winsemius, an economic adviser to the Government for 25 years, worked closely with the founding generation of leaders - including first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew - to propel the economy into the big league.
He arrived here in 1960, tasked by the United Nations with salvaging the ailing island economy.
One of his early recommendations was for Singapore to go into shipbreaking, said former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan - a young officer in the Ministry of Finance when he first met Dr Winsemius.
The industry is now seen as "low-tech, labour-intensive, and not very suitable for Singapore", but in the 1960s, Dr Winsemius saw that the country - suffering high unemployment and with a poorly educated workforce - needed "doable" solutions, said Mr Dhanabalan, also a former Temasek Holdings chairman.
Dr Winsemius, who died in 1996, was also a key architect of Singapore's wage policies, said former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, who was also working at the Ministry of Finance when he met him.
The Dutchman warned that Singapore would be caught in a low- wage trap - where poorly paid workers support low-skill, labour-intensive trades - unless it took decisive steps to phase out such industries. He recommended wages be raised to encourage economic restructuring and better productivity.
Dr Winsemius and founding leaders such as Mr Lee believed that "no one owes Singapore a living" - a particularly important message now as the Republic competes on an increasingly competitive global stage, said Mr Ngiam. "Multinational companies are unsentimental. They will go wherever they can maximise profits... Without political stability, no one will put a cent into Singapore."
Dr Ng Pock Too, political secretary in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and formerly Dr Winse- mius' staff officer, said he was fastidious about punctuality and also "had a deep passion for tracing his roots", going as far as to attempt to track down a 17th-century ancestor from records in Taiwan.
The conference, held at the Grand Hyatt, was attended by more than 200 delegates. It also featured speakers such as GIC group president Lim Siong Guan and Keppel Corporation's director of group strategy Ong Ye Kung.