Mystery document of state business ties

SINGAPORE, Sun. – While the Singapore government has a policy of reducing its stake in private enterprises, a mystery document circulating in the republic appears to show government-linked firms playing a bigger role in the economy than ever before.

The document, with its explicit detailing of government-linked personnel in businesses, produces little new information but has provoked wide debate on who the true author is, and the motivation for compiling and distributing the work.

Under the heading “Why it might be difficult for the government to withdraw from business” the paper claims a government withdrawal “could hurt the employment, income and ownership interests of people closely connected to it.” It details a long list of board positions and shareholdings held by relatives of senior government leaders, former senior government officials and military commanders, current senior officials and past and present MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party.

The paper has been widely distributed to foreign journalists and businessmen in the city-state and has also been posted on at least one Singapore website.

It is said to have been written by a Tan Boon Seng, but efforts to track down a person of that name have proved unsuccessful leading to speculation about the true author.

Guesses range from a foreign power to someone well-placed within the government.

“This would have to have been compiled by someone in the government,” a stock market dealer who did not wish to be identified, said.

“I think everything is in the public domain but who else would have the time to conduct such research,” he said, adding “it makes interesting bedtime reading.” Government officials would not comment on whether they know who wrote the 19-page document or the motives behind it, but they have not disputed its accuracy.

As a special Economic Review Committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, examines the government’s role in private enterprise the suggestion has been it would recommend a more hands-off approach.

“What really matters for East Asia is a shift towards open, competitive markets, and away from the state-driven industrial policies and the collusive domestic networks that have led to low returns on investment,” senior Trade and Industry Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said recently.

But the document also refers to a statement by Lee, expected to replace Goh Chok Tong as prime minister before the next election due in 2007, saying governmentlinked companies (GLCs) would continue to be “one of the thrusts forward” for the Singapore economy.

The carefully-worded paper makes no allegations of any wrong doing, but observes: “That the government seems reluctant to withdraw from enterprise could be complicated by its potential effect on the interests of people closely connected to the government.” It says that as with any business, there is a tendency for managers to appoint people with whom they have shared a common past and if the government withdraws from business “a prestigious and lucrative destination for senior government officials would be taken away.” The document jibes at some appointments, wryly noting that in a country with a “perceived shortage of talent” some former military personnel now occupy posts ranging from chief executive of a resort management company to a director of corporate communications. It said government participation in the economy has become more widespread. – AFP