Singapore Table of Contents

Modern Singapore, founded as a trading post of the British East India Company in 1819, achieved its initial economic success as an entrepôt because of the island's location, harbor, and free port status. Although Singapore at first served only as a center for trade and transshipment, by the early twentieth century, primary goods, mainly rubber and tin from the neighboring Malay Peninsula, were being imported for processing. Singapore also became a regional center for the distribution of European manufactured goods. After World War I, when the British established a naval base on the island, Singapore became a key element of the British Commonwealth of Nations military defense east of India, thus adding the naval support industry to the island's economy.

In the period immediately after World War II, Singapore faced enormous problems, including labor and social unrest, a decaying, war-ravaged infrastructure, inadequate housing and community facilities, a slow economic growth rate, low wages, and high unemployment made worse by a rapidly expanding population. As late as 1959, the unemployment rate was estimated at 13.5 percent. The struggle for survival in the postwar period deeply affected the economic decision making of Singapore's first generation leaders.

Mounting political pressure for independence from Britain culminated in 1963 in the merger of Malaya, Singapore, and the British northern Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak into the new nation of Malaysia. A combination of political and ethnic differences between Singapore and the national government, however, led in 1965 to Singapore's separation from Malaysia and establishment as an independent nation. The economic prospects of the new city-state at first appeared bleak. Upon separation from Malaysia, Singapore lost its economic hinterland and jeopardized its hopes for an enlarged domestic market to absorb the goods produced by a small but growing manufacturing sector. Moreover, Indonesia's policy of Confrontation (Konfrontasi) with Malaysia between 1963 and 1966 had substantially reduced Singapore's entrepôt trade.

Britain's announcement in 1968 of its intention to withdraw military forces from Singapore by the early 1970s marked the beginning of a greatly expanded, more intrusive role for the government in the economy. From then on, the government no longer confined itself to such traditional economic pursuits as improving the infrastructure, but instead began to engage in activities that were or could have been the domain of private enterprise. Britain's departure meant the loss, directly or indirectly, of 38,000 jobs (20 percent of the work force) at a time of already rising unemployment and rapid population growth; a consequent reduction in the GDP; and an increase in Singapore's own budgetary defense allocation to compensate for the British withdrawal. Even so, the S$1,616 per capita income of Singapore in 1965 already was quite high by developing country standards, an indication that subsequent high growth rates were not merely a result of beginning at a low base.

The period from 1965 to 1973 witnessed unprecedented economic growth for the island nation, during which the average annual growth of real GDP was 12.7 percent. Major credit for this development must be given to the effective implementation of soundly conceived government policies, which from the outset took full account of Singapore's strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, the time was right for structural change in the economy. Enough capital had been accumulated to permit the domestic production of goods that were more capital intensive. The government's economic response to separation from Malaysia and the withdrawal of British military forces included efforts to increase industrial growth and solve the domestic problems of unemployment, population growth, and housing. Growth was achieved because workers were added to the payroll and provided with better machinery with which to work. Even more remarkable, this growth was accomplished with an outstanding record of price stability. Inflation was kept low by the government's conservative fiscal policies, which included the maintenance of strict control over the money supply.

Industrialization promised the most economic progress. The strategic question was whether to rely principally on domestic entrepreneurs or to make a conscious effort to attract foreign direct investment. The decision to encourage the latter resulted both in a large share of Singaporean manufacturing being foreignowned and a high degree of export-led growth. Singapore's reliance on multinational corporations of the world to provide the necessary investment meant less dependence on the Southeast Asian region generally and neighboring countries particularly.

The 1973 oil shock with the collapse of prices and the worldwide recession it triggered brought the end of the super growth period. Even so, Singapore's growth rate averaged 8.7 percent from 1973 to 1979, which was high compared with other countries during that same period. Manufacturing continued to grow as did transportation and communications. Although the second worldwide oil crisis, beginning in 1979, set off the longest and deepest recession in the industrialized countries since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Singapore was seemingly untouched. If anything, its economy grew in 1980-81 while the world economy was contracting. The real average GDP growth rate between 1979 and 1981 was 8.5 percent. Financial and business services joined manufacturing as the major economic engines. During this period, Singapore's function as a petroleum-servicing entrepôt made it more like an oil producer than an oil consumer.

For the first two decades of its independence, Singapore enjoyed continuous high economic growth, largely outperforming the world economy. Its GDP growth rate never fell below 5 percent and rose as high as 15 percent. At the same time, Singapore managed to maintain an inflation rate below world averages.

Given Singapore's dependence on the world economy, however, the consequences of declining foreign demand were inevitable. The 1985 recession was the worst in the nation's history. Singapore staggered under a year of negative growth (-1.5 percent), then recovered slightly in 1986 (+1.9 percent). The causes lay both outside and within the country. Externally, worldwide slumps in petroleum-related and marine-related sectors were reflected in reduced demand for Singapore's goods and services and raised the specter of worldwide overcapacity in shipbuilding and shiprepairing . Furthermore, the slowdown in demand for semiconductors and electronics in the United States sharply reduced demand for Singaporean components and parts.

Internally, the construction boom--which had produced a glut of hotels, shopping centers, and apartments--began to be reversed. Domestic demand also weakened as a result of a rise in domestic savings, which was not matched by a rise in productive domestic investment. The situation was complicated by a loss of international competitiveness and a profit squeeze attributed to labor costs rising faster than productivity.

The government responded promptly and firmly by lowering employer contributions to the Central Provident Fund, freezing overall wage levels for 1986 and 1987, reducing corporate income taxes from 40 to 30 percent, reducing personal income taxes in line with corporate taxes, and introducing an across-the-board investment allowance of 30 percent to encourage greater investment in equipment and machinery. These measures were highly successful; costs dropped 30 percent and productivity climbed. By 1988 Singapore's economy had rebounded.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress