Debunking the Harry myth
19 Dec 05

Why would Malaysians, Chinese especially, often quote Singapore and Harry Lee as role models for world-class financial achievement? Why not South Korea?

Some parallels in history.

  • Both Singapore and South Korea were under colonial dominance before WWII, the former under British rule, the latter Japan’s.

  • Both had dictatorial regimes in the guise of democratic electoral processes, only that South Korea was courageous to take down the repressive regime back-boned with the armed forces’ might.

  • Both have close-to mono-ethnic demography, which off-loaded the countries the extra-luggage in formulating social-economic policies.

  • In terms of GDP performance, South Korea has a composition by sector that makes it 40.4% industrial and 56.3% services-based. It’s an almost similar skew for Singapore: Industry: 32.6%; Services: 67.4%.

  • Both are advanced in Internet-based economy, with South Korea having an obvious horse-nose advantage in residential broadband penetration and applications.

  • Both are are American allies, if cronies is too harsh a word. Both contributed substantially towards the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some fundamental differences.

  • South Korea has relatively a vast population, while Singapore is a tiny red dot. Proportionate ratio is at work when it comes to provisioning of all kinds.

  • After WWII, South Korea’s economy and demographics were ravaged by the Korean War in the 50’s. Singapore continued as a British protectorate under the Straits Settlements after WWII, faced home-grown communist insurgency in the 50’s and mid 60’s, and well-shieled by Malaysia during Konfrontasi.

  • On independence, Singapore inherited and perfected the jewels of the crown left behind by the British, the harbour infrastructure, the entrepot trades, the regional financial hub – milking its northern hinterland that the colonialist decreed by design. South Korea built itself from scratch after picking up from the ashed of the invaders’ loots.

  • During the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, South Korea needed international resuscitation while Singapore remained resilient though public debt is 102.5% of GDP as at 2004. South Korea has a public debt of 21.3% of GDP recorded for the same period.

  • As at 2004, the CIA says, Singapore has a GDP (purchasing power parity) of US$120.9 billion, and a GDP per capita purchasing power parity of US$27,800 set against a GDP real growth rate of 8.1%. In comparison, for the same period, South Korea has a GDP (purchasing power parity) of US$925.1 billion, and a GDP per capita purchasing power parity of US$19,200 set against a GDP real growth rate of 4.6%.

Both lists could go on and on.

As we scan the landscape for world renowned brands in the global marketplace, we see Sim Wong Hoo‘s Creative Technologies. But we also see Hyundai and Kia cars, Samsung semiconductors, Samsung and LG electronics and more.

Perhaps that’s where lie the differences between being a purveyor of a middleman/services oriented fiscal policy and that of an innovator/global brand builder.

Perhaps, this is where the myth gets debunked in the current century. Democracy and thriving economy does not tie their umbilical cords to an iron hand that mocks democracy.

If you care to adulate the irreversibly ageing Harry Lee, why not give a thought to South Korea in in present real-time?

South Korea, as we have come to learn, is built on the contribution of nameless Koreans and fallen chaebols. So, please help me find a Mentor that makes South Korea what it is today, where all citizenry, not one mortal, gets the collective credit for nation-building.

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