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How a Dutchman contributed to the rapid development of Singapore

In 1960, Albert Winsemius started to help the city state of Singapore achieve its rapid rise out of economic misery. He helped the Singaporean government understand how the Netherlands had managed to rebuild so quickly after the Second World War, with the help of the American Marshall Plan. PhD defence on 19 November.

After the Japanese occupying forces left Singapore in 1945, although the country was still a British colony, Singaporeans lived in relative poverty. In the late 1950s, the country began to seek out people with the knowledge and experience to help raise Singapore to a higher level of development.

The government ultimately chose a mission led by Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, who was also the father of Pieter Winsemius, the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment from 1982 to 1986. Historian Frans Stoelinga has written his PhD dissertation on Albert Winsemius and his remarkable work in Singapore. Stoelinga’s interest was first sparked when he noticed how swiftly Singapore had developed in the 1960s and ’70s.

Albert Winsemius

Ministry of Economic Affairs

From his roots in the Dutch province of Friesland, economist Albert Winsemius (1910-1996) rose to the position of Director-General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. He took on that role after the Second World War, when American aid was flowing into Europe under the Marshall Plan. One of the key aims of the plan was to stimulate prosperity by creating a favourable climate for both national and international businesses: financially attractive schemes and credit facilities, guaranteed by the state, in combination with a reliable electricity grid and high-quality education. The Netherlands was a significant beneficiary of the scheme, with around 400 American companies establishing a base in the country.

From civil servant to adviser to Singapore

When he left the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Winsemius moved to a Swiss weapons manufacturer that made him a very rich man. This kind of move from a ministry to the business world was quite common in those days, even for politicians. After nearly seven years, and in the wake of a notorious bribery scandal whose details were never fully revealed, Winsemius resigned.

Winsemius soon came to the attention of the United Nations (UN), who asked him to support Singapore, and in 1960 he left for the Asian city state. According to PhD candidate Frans Stoelinga, Winsemius was not given a permanent appointment: over the next 23 years he flew back and forth between the Netherlands and the island several times a year, with a bulging briefcase, to advise the Singaporean government. That advice was based around a combination of an adapted version of the prevailing Dutch politics of industrialisation and his own personal insights.

The city state-cum-archipelago of Singapore is located between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Free trade state

Winsemius advised Singapore to establish itself as the free trade state – also free from import and export duties – that it already was, and to open itself up to the whole world instead of focusing on its immediate Asian surroundings. This project was carried out in stages and involved many different aspects; ultimately, the process Winsemius started would take decades to come to fruition. Even so, the government paid attention as they could see how quickly Europe had got back on its feet. ‘The good thing was,’ Stoelinga explains, ‘that, in Singapore, Winsemius could avoid the mistakes made in the Netherlands and other European countries, so Singapore could develop even more rapidly.’ He even introduced a version of the Dutch Social and Economic Council (SER), and now Singapore is one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Too German-friendly?

‘Winsemius was accused of having a certain degree of “Deutschfreundlichkeit” [being too enamoured of Germany and German ideas],’ says Stoelinga. He had a German wife and, following his studies in Rotterdam, he also published at a German university, although this was not uncommon at the time. In Economic Affairs during the war he was also responsible for setting market prices for wheat, fish and hundreds of other products, and (whether or not under threat of force) those prices had to be agreed with the German occupiers.  After the war, Winsemius was even accused of having got too close to the Germans, but he was soon completely exonerated.

Difficult personality

Winsemius was definitely not an easy man to be around. Although everyone acknowledged that he was intelligent, hardworking and an outstanding organiser, he was also unconventional, recalcitrant, surly and authoritarian. He got into so many conflicts at work during the war that he spent two years at home, but after his rehabilitation in 1948 his talents weighed heavier than his difficult personality and he was reappointed as Director-General. The Singaporeans would later make the same calculation.

After Shanghai in China, Singapore has the largest port in the world.

Closed doors

During his PhD, Stoelinga travelled around the world to track down sources. Not satisfied with consulting the National Library of the Netherlands and the Dutch National Archives in The Hague, he also visited the Singaporean national archives and those of the World Bank and the UN. ‘The people at the UN were very helpful.’ Although a unique tape was unearthed at the University of Amsterdam, containing an interview with Winsemius, certain key sources remained off limits, such as the archives of individual ministerial organisations in Singapore. One reason given was the ‘sensitive’ information these archives were said to contain. ‘My professors tried their best, but it didn’t work out,’ says Stoelinga. ‘That said, when I was in Singapore I did get the chance to listen to an extraordinary recording of a huge multi-day interview with Winsemius.’ The other closed door was Albert Winsemius’s own personal archive. ‘I did approach the family. I had two, unfortunately brief, conversations with Pieter, once in the Netherlands and later in Singapore, but they continued to refuse access. That’s a pity, but I still managed to uncover enough for my dissertation.’ 

A commercial edition of the dissertation is also being published.

A doctor at 78
Frans Stoelinga will be 78 years old on the date of his doctoral defence. He previously worked for the Hagemeyer trading company and lived in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s and ’70s, where he learned to speak Malaysian. He was soon struck by the rapid development of the city state. ‘It’s very possible that I shook Winsemius’s hand at some reception or other,’ he reflects. Later, Stoelinga set up his own company, making semi-finished metal products for industries such as the railways and aviation. ‘My organisation acted as an intermediary between the industry sector in the Netherlands and overseas foundries and ironworks.’ He continued his nomadic lifestyle, although he began to travel less in Asia and instead made the whole world his domain.

After he retired, Stoelinga studied History at the University of Amsterdam. It was fascinating for him to study with young people, and to pit his thinking against the established literature. But the east was in his blood, and he was drawn back to Asia. During his degree, he studied some modules in Singapore: ‘I know every paving stone there’. He also studied in Leiden, where David Henley, lecturer in Contemporary Indonesia Studies and one of Stoelinga’s teachers, asked if he had an interest in doing a PhD. That idea appealed, and the rest is history.

Promotie Stoelinga

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photo above: Mike Enerio, source: Unsplash
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