He was a valuable contributor to the rise of Singapore’s economy over the 1960’s to the 1980’s, serving 20 years as an economic advisor to Singapore and shaping the ways our founding fathers, Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, led Singapore to modern-day.
All that and he wasn’t even Singaporean. He was from the Netherlands. For those living near Clementi, you might have seen his name while driving past Sunset Estate.
Meet Albert Winsemius.
Growing up, Winsemius was a late bloomer by all accounts. Born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, young Albert picked up the family trade, working as a cheese maker in his youth. In his quest to earn more cheddar, he moved on to become a cheese salesman, but even then, he found the dairy industry too limiting.
He wanted to do bigger and better things.
At age 26, the one thing Winsemius felt he needed was a university degree, something he couldn’t get while working with cheese. And when applying, he got rejected by multiple institutions. One rejected him as he lacked secondary education in mathematics. Another refused him for not taking a test in Latin. Eventually, he was accepted into Rotterdam University, who allowed Winsemius to enrol even while working at the Hague.
Following his university degree, he found a valuable position in the government in the middle of World War II, managing prices on food (likely stemming from his cheese days) through the war. This led him to take charge of Netherlands’ industrial recovery after the war.He was so successful at this role, that the United Nations sent him to Greece, Jamaica and Portugal to help develop their economies throughout the 50’s.
Eventually, two individuals from Singapore, Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, reached out to Albert, requesting economic advice for a nation that was in the middle of its struggle for self-governance. And so, with the UN’s blessing, he took the call to go to Singapore in 1960, despite not knowing a whole lot about the country.
Taking on the Trouble
He travelled to Singapore under the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA) with the hope of expanding industrial development in Singapore, but initial signs weren’t promising, finding the scene in Singapore “bewildering” with constant worker’s strikes, high unemployment rates and political parties splitting themselves apart. In particular, union leaders like Lim Chin Siong were in constant conflict with fellow PAP members, and would later split to form the Barisan Sosialis.
Winsemius wasn’t here to just give whatever skills he brought from Europe and leave. Instead, he took effort to probe further and understand the problems of Singaporeans. He talked with bankers, the government and union leaders about the problems each group had with the other, and sought for any way to get them all to connect with one another. One time, he invited all of them to a party at the home of F&N’s General Manager at the time to see if they could chat, but Winsemius noted that they were all “like water and oil”.
Something had to be done.
The Man Who Saved Raffles
Normally, UN EPTA members wouldn’t get involved in politics, instead relying on purely economic devices in an attempt to get developing countries into manufacturing. However, these plans were often too rigid and couldn’t be adapted into developing economies, sinking countries further into debt. Through his time spent in Singapore, Winsemius realized he couldn’t stick to the rigid plans of his contemporaries if Singapore was to succeed economically. Thus, he suggested to PM Lee two simple measures to take politically.
The first was to keep the statue of Stamford Raffles standing. Despite willing for self governance from the British and potentially merging with Malaysia, Winsemius requested that the statue of Raffles remain standing to indicate acceptance of British heritage, in order to attract Western investors.
The second initiative, however, was more heavy — he wanted Singapore to “get rid of the communists”.
Winsemius would later admit regret using this wording when giving advice to PM Lee, but he insists he was talking purely from an economic standpoint, stating, “I added to it, as an economist. I do not care what you do to them.” He even suggested that PM Lee shouldn’t do it if he didn’t feel like it “for history’s sake”. He held no grudge against them and even had an admiration for those like Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, but thought that their ideology would come into conflict with the aim for Singapore’s economic progress.
Whether Winsemius’ comments were truly influential in everything that followed between the PAP and Barisan Sosialis, from the initial split in 1961 to Operation Coldstore, is up for debate. But when his final report was published, which suggested that Singapore start up its manufacturing sector with urgency and that the state take control of the industrial sector for the short term before handing it to offshoot organisations (now the Jurong Town Council, JTC), that would be the first step of Winsemius’ contributions to Singapore.
The mission to Singapore was supposed to be a one-time deal for Winsemius. Go in, give advice, get the country started up, leave. All his contemporaries did it, like Arthur Lewis in Ghana.
And that was what he did, at least for the time being.
In his initial report, he proposed that Singapore form a common market with Malaysia, but when merger happened just three years after Winsemius first visited Singapore, he felt it was too soon. He warned Goh Keng Swee that “this Malaysia would only last a few years”, suggesting both countries needed to gradually unify rather than a sudden merger. Despite this, he felt he didn’t want to tie himself to Singapore too much, electing to stay out of the UN team that advised Singapore during the merger.
But while he continued working in The Hague, Singapore and Malaysia experienced tensions throughout their merger. And when Singapore gained independence in 1965, they reached out to Winsemius again for economic advise.
This time, Winsemius didn’t say no.
His contributions through the next twenty years were numerous, almost too many to count. He still stayed and worked in the Netherlands, but Winsemius visited Singapore two to three times a year, staying for two weeks each time, working with the government on not just economic policies, but developing the country into what it is today.
He was able to personally influence multiple European corporations like Esso and Philips to invest in Singapore. He recommended the foundation of Nanyang Technological Institute, the predecessor to NTU, to produce more university-level engineers after Nanyang University was absorbed into NUS. Past the industrial stage of Singapore’s development, he foresaw Singapore as a hub for banking, transport and tourism. After plans by Esso were revealed to use Pulau Blakang Mati as an oil refinery, he instead put forth the proposal that the island should be used as a leisure destination instead. Not long after, Pulau Blakang Mati was given a new name: Sentosa.
Fishing in the Singapore River
Not all of his proposals were great though. He once told the Singaporean government to drain the Singapore River and put a highway in its place — because of how dirty the river was. Prime Minister Lee and his colleagues refused to accept this. They promised Winsemius that he would live to catch a fish in the river. Fast forward a few decades, and during his final visit to Singapore, a Garoupa fish was caught in the river. Jokingly, Albert alleged that a diver had attached the fish to the line, to make sure that Singapore’s face was saved.
While his Singapore River proposal might not have been great, Albert left a larger influence on Singapore than most people realise — probably because he opted to keep a low profile. He rarely appeared in newspapers or press conferences. He didn’t feel the need to make his presence known. He didn’t even have any formal, written contract with the government for his role as an economic adviser.
When Winsemius retired in 1984, he no longer felt like an adviser from the outside. He felt like part of the discussion, part of the team that shaped Singapore. He also received numerous honours and tributes to him. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal by Yusof Bin Ishak in 1967 and a Gold Medal of Honour by NTUC in 1976. Following his death in 1996, NTU established the Albert Winsemius Professorship in Economics in his name. The Dutch Chamber of Commerce founded the Winsemius Awards for business ties between the Netherlands and Singapore.
When driving past Sunset Estate, you might even spot the road named after him, Albert Winsemius Lane, in Clementi.
Though he wasn’t Singaporean, it’s not wrong to say that Albert Winsemius was one of our founding fathers.