From the archives: Singapore emerges unscathed thanks to Hu and his team

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on May 16, 1998.

Delivering the opening address at a seminar on Global Lessons In Banking Crisis Resolution for East Asia earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore may not be as lucky the next time a financial crisis erupts.

This implies that the relatively minor hits taken by Singapore's currency, shares and bank balance sheets, compared to the drubbing suffered by its neighbours are due to luck rather than sound policy and planning.

Was Brigadier-General (NS) Lee being unduly modest? Perhaps. But it is a modesty that is diplomatic.

When the country's friends and closest neighbours are soaked and floundering, it will not do to boast about why Singapore has come out of the same shipwreck almost bone-dry.

But when the tribute comes from a third party, such as financial magazine Asiamoney, it will be ungracious not to concede that the kudos has a point. In its May edition, Asiamoney notes that Singapore emerged unscathed from the Asian crisis and "not least, credit must go to Richard Hu".

Under a banner reading "Finance Minister of the Year" and the headline "The caution that paid off", the magazine says the fruits of what it calls the "Hu era" are:

* "A highly-respected MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore), a legacy of official surpluses, a well-capitalised and well-supervised banking and financial system, low inflation, and - as the last nine months have demonstrated - financial stability under the most trying circumstances".

Referring to the change of guard that has taken place since Jan 1, Asiamoney adds: "If Singapore has survived the year's storms, if Singapore's financial sector is extraordinarily well run, it is due not to the new guard - still to prove itself - but to the previous generation."

Indeed, in the flurry of excitement that began last August when it became clear that BG Lee would be taking over the helm of the financial services industry, it is easy to overlook that Dr Hu and his team had laid a solid foundation to be built upon. As Asiamoney notes, MAS under the new leadership could see a "more internationalised, more proactive, less regulated style". But how big a harvest will come from this lies in the future.

From the past stewardship, there has already been a bumper dividend. Singapore is free from the havoc seen elsewhere - brokers swept off their feet, companies seeking bail-outs under an avalanche of worthless paper and banking systems rocked to their foundations.

The Pan Electric crisis of 1985 had taught MAS that stockbrokers and major shareholders of listed companies could be the Achilles heel of the banking system, if left to wheel and deal.

Thus a tight rein was kept on brokers' operations from capital adequacy to client and share exposure, what profits could be paid out to shareholders, settlement, delivery, expenses and control of front and backrooms.

The same firm hand was maintained on listed companies, especially those prone to takeover or bonus issue rumours and always hungry for capital. Many companies saw their bonus hopes dashed or slashed while their applications for fresh capital were often put under the microscope.

For share swap artists, it was easier to get an appointment to see their maker than have deals to inflate company values approved.

With excesses minimised, Singapore's financial system is sustaining no more than cuts and bruises in the financial tornado, even as others are losing their limbs and perhaps their lives.

Sure, what MAS did in the past decade might have been micro-managing in the extreme but in retrospect, it is just as well that Dr Hu's team, despite vocal critics, refused to be pushed into liberalising at a pace which Singapore's financial infrastructure was not ready to support.

Viewed from this perspective, Singapore is indeed lucky that when Dr Hu was in charge during those critical years, he took the view that opening up Singapore's financial sector in the way demanded by foreigners was ridiculous.

Had he been less firm when firmness was most needed, then Singaporeans today will have even more reason to be gloomy as the bad news keeps piling up.