DELIVERING
ON OUR PROMISE

It was a matter of national survival, in our earliest days of Independence – facing a critical need to provide jobs and new growth opportunities for Singapore, officers of the Economic Development Board (EDB) took on this challenge with vision and grit.

Based on the oral history account of Mr Chan Chin Bock and passages from Heart Work (EDB and EDB Society, 2002)

A view of the Jurong industrial area in 1967

The renowned economist Milton Friedman arrived in Singapore soon after the nation’s Independence in 1965. A proponent of free-market capitalism, he wanted to learn how Singapore’s economy could possibly pull through after hopes of a common Malaysian market were dashed.

Mr. Chan Chin Bock

Mr. Chan Chin Bock

“We don’t know what we’re going to do but I want to assure you that if you come back in 10 years’ time, you will see that we have succeeded,” Mr S. Dhanabalan told him. Then 28, Mr Dhanabalan held the role of Senior Industrial Economist with EDB.

“What kind of answer is that from an economist?” asked Professor Friedman.

“I’m sorry but the truth is, we have not the slightest clue what we will do or should do,” said Mr Dhanabalan. “We just have the will and the determination. We will not only survive, we will prosper.”

This unshakeable conviction in delivering on their promises has long been a hallmark of EDB’s officers. Established in August 1961, the agency knew that with the loss of the common Malaysian market, it was no longer enough to encourage local businesses to invest in industrial ventures. Already dire, Singapore’s economic prospects were dealt another blow by the unexpected news in July 1967 that all British troops would be withdrawn from the island by the mid-1970s.

Jobs were desperately needed. In order to achieve a quantum leap in the investment needed to create new jobs and opportunities, one fact was clear – EDB would have to look beyond Singapore’s shores.

Mr Chan Chin Bock was one of the agency’s early “road warriors”. Then Chief of the Investment Promotion Division, he was 34 when he was deployed to EDB’s first overseas center, in New York City.

I arrived in New York all bundled up on a cold, frosty morning in January 1968. The prospect of having to set up home, live alone by myself, and worse still, convince hard-headed American executives that Singapore was the best place for them to put their money in, sent a shiver through my almost frozen body.

An early meeting with Mr Harold Burson, Chairman of the noted public relations firm Burson Marsteller, prepared Mr Chan for the scale of the challenge.

He made it very clear to me. He said, “Mr Chan, New York is like the Mecca for people who are seeking investments for Third World countries, so you would be a lost voice. Unless you have a very active program, you spend a lot of money on PR, many millions of dollars… People won’t listen to your message and you’d never be able to change that.

Jurong Industrial Estate 1967

Jurong Industrial Estate 1967

Undaunted, Mr Chan drew up a plan. In his first year in the United States, he called on some 100 companies making everything from sneakers to greeting cards. He also made it a point to focus on a single company, General Electric (GE). Traveling across the country to meet its managers, Mr Chan learnt what the leading multinational needed above all – a manufacturing base that would allow it to compete with fast rising Japanese competitors. He knew Singapore could provide the winning edge.

I got a receptive ear at all the GE companies, and wherever I could convince them that Singapore could deliver the desired cost savings, they invested in a production facility in Singapore. In three years of intensive work [on] GE, we secured 10 GE projects. Their new factories in Singapore sprang up everywhere – in Jurong, Toa, Payoh and Kallang.Total GE investments in Singapore at the end of 1972 reachedS$67.3 million. But what was more important for us [was] they employed a total of 13,000 workers and GE became the largest multinational employer in Singapore collectively.

GE’s investment proved to be a turning point in EDB’s efforts and helped pave the way for other companies to come to Singapore, bringing with them new jobs and opportunities. EDB officers rode this wave and convinced companies such as National Semiconductor, Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard to set up operations here.

We had learnt how to promote export industries… if we needed more investments and jobs we just had to target more companies like GE and the semiconductor majors and scale up the effort. If we needed to diversify the source of our investments, we could organize similar promotions in Europe. We had seen the light at the end of the tunnel – it promised to lead us to a bright future.

Labour Intensive Industries 1978

Labour Intensive Industries 1978

Having created this first wave of labour-intensive industries, during the 1970s and 1980s, EDB officers worked to bring in skill-intensive,high-wage industries, attracting precision engineering companies such as Makino, Rollei, and Seiko, as well as technology firms like Apple, Digital Equipment and Seagate.

We must never, never in
our course of work undermine
Singapore’s credibility to deliver.
This sterling record, built up
painstakingly in the last 40 years,
saw us through Jurong Island,
and is our most powerful asset.

Mr Philip Yeo
Chairman, EDB (1986–2001)

Then came the 1985 recession. With Singapore undergoing negative growth for the first time since Independence, a slew of retrenchments occurred. Once again, economic survival was a matter of reinvention, and EDB turned its spotlight on high value-added, fast-growth sectors such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and energy. However, in planning for an integrated energy and chemical hub, the agency faced a familiar challenge: the lack of suitable land for development. Where could this hub be located?

The game-changing solution arrived unexpectedly. As EDB Chairman Mr Philip Yeo was flying back to Singapore by helicopter from Karimun, Indonesia, he noticed the shallow waters around Singapore’s Southern Islands. The view got him thinking: what if the channels could be filled to make the seven islands into one big land mass?

With a dedicated Chemical Island, we could put in shared infrastructure… for steam, utilities, raw materials and finished products. This meant that any company could just plug into the existing system and not bother about all that pipe laying [and] cable wiring that delayed production and whittled down capital. It could just concentrate on producing and selling its product… to its neighbor. Without the need to transport chemicals, it would also be safer and more environmentally sound.

With massive reclamation works starting in 1993, EDB officers ventured abroad once more, this time with plans for the new hub, Jurong Island, in hand. Their grit, together with Singapore’s proven ability to make good on its promises, won the day with investors.

It took a lot of faith and guts, because it meant showing your investor seven little islands and telling them that we [had] reserved a choice site for them somewhere in the channel. Investors could sense that our passion to deliver was real and made a calculated risk. This was a humbling lesson: we must never, never in our course of work undermine Singapore’s credibility to deliver. This sterling record, built up painstakingly in the last 40 years, saw us through Jurong Island, and is our most powerful asset.

Jurong Island has a land area of 30 square kilometers and is now one of the world’s leading energy and chemical industry hubs. Integrated production chains allow companies to enjoy economies of scale while a pool of engineering know-how, management talent and skilled technicians ensure that the island remains a trusted base for high-tech manufacturing and research.

Jurong Island has a land area of 30 square kilometers and is now one of the world’s leading energy and chemical industry hubs. Integrated production chains allow companies to enjoy economies of scale while a pool of engineering know-how, management talent and skilled technicians ensure that the island remains a trusted base for high-tech manufacturing and research.

When Jurong Island finally opened in October 2000, over 60 companies had invested more than $20 billion in the global energy and chemical hub. Another crucial pillar of Singapore’s economy had been built; another promise had been signed, sealed and delivered.