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Monday, February 22, 2010

U.S. Prof lambasts Singapore’s “Temasek model” for investing in failing individuals and products

U.S. Prof lambasts Singapore’s “Temasek model” for investing in failing individuals and products
February 10, 2010 by admin
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Written by Our Correspondent

Beijing-born Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political economist Professor Huang Yasheng had criticized Singapore’s state-linked enterprise model dominated by its two giant sovereign wealth funds GIC and Temasek Holdings as a “sure-fire way to stifle the economy in the long run.”

In a recent speech made at the Civil Service College, Prof Huang urged Singapore to “rethink” the “Temasek model” and warns that Singapore’s state management model has “milked this system for all it is worth.”

“The private sector is the best way to grow the economy. It has the most productive, most innovative and entrepreneurial culture. The state-owned enterprise system doesn’t give you that….You are already hitting the wall. Retaining this strategy could mean sacrificing future growth that is possible only through a bigger, more dynamic private sector,” he said.

Prof Huang felt that governments should not get involved in venture financing as they are using taxpayers’ monies and questions how the government can defend its decisions to invest in “failing individuals and projects”:

“Nine out of 10 investment projects fail. Does the government have such a high tolerance for risk? It’s taxpayers’ money, right? I don’t think, politically, it’s legitimate for the government to keep investing in failing individuals and failing projects. How do you defend these decisions?,” he asked.

Temasek Holdings is led by the wife of Singapore’s prime minister Ho Ching. It had lost billions of dollars in failed overseas investments such as Thailand’s Shin Corp, Australia’s ABC learning, and U.S’s Merrill Lynch. Ho Ching is an engineer by training.

GIC has been headed by Lee Kuan Yew since its inception in 1981, a lawyer by profession who has never worked in the financial industry before.

Prof Huang opined that Singapore should expand its private sector in order to compete with China and India:

“Maybe a better way is for the government to fund more basic research and then allow universities, private equity firms, venture capital firms and rich individuals to take care of the rest. That is because even when the state sector is well managed, it is not as innovative as the private sector, he says. From a technological development point of view, you need a bigger private sector to compete, to come up with new products, processes and technologies, to better compete with India and China.”

Under Singapore’s state-model enterprise, civil servants are often placed in leadership positions in its major state-linked companies and research agencies. For example, the current head of A*STAR is Lim Chuan Poh, a former Chief of Army with no prior experience in the private sector.

Prof Huang felt that creative thinking is often in short supply with civil servants leading the charge due to the culture they are immersed in:

“Civil service culture is about discipline. It’s about execution. It’s about efficiency. Entrepreneurial culture is about challenging the authorities, questioning the existing ways of doing businesses, moving away from the routines and norms. It’s about the unconventional, rebellious and diverse. These values are almost polar opposites.”

He also criticized Singapore’s education system for “not producing diversity in ideas and unconventional ways of solving problems” and warns that Singapore risks going down in history as an “economic has-been” if it fails to exploit the potential of its private sector.

Prof Huang had hit the nail on the right spot about the macroeconomic problems plaguing Singapore – its one-dimensional political economy. However, he is not aware of the political implications of the “Temasek model” which serves two purposes: one, to ensure the continued political hegemony of the ruling party, or rather a select group of people and two, to keep the citizenry weak so that no alternative centers of power can emerge to challenge the status quo.

As entrepreneurs are fiercely independent, unconventional and rebellious by nature, they cannot be brought easily under control or co-opted into the system. Having a few rich self-make millionaires running around will pose a threat to the political elite, as Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and South Korea’s Lee Myuang Bak had shown.

Unfortunately, for a repressive, insecure and paranoid regime which is bent on complete control and dominance at all costs, it is unlikely to see the profound wisdom in Prof Huang’s words and Singapore will have to pay the price for its ignorance one day when we are overshadowed completely

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