Forty-five years after Singapore’s expulsion from a union with Malaysia left Lee Kuan Yew in tears on national television, the economy of the city-state he led to independence is poised to overtake its neighbor.
Singapore’s gross domestic product will cap its fastest annual growth this year since independence, rising as much as 15 percent to about $210 billion, while the economy of Malaysia, a country 478 times its size, will expand 7 percent to $205 billion, government forecasts show. The nations are scheduled to release their 2010 data by February.
The island that former economic adviser Albert Winsemius once said was considered a “poor little market in a dark corner of Asia” is now ranked by the World Bank as the easiest place to do business, has the world’s second-busiest container port, and boasts the highest proportion of millionaire households, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
“Singapore kept on moving to the next level as the world economy evolved and adjusted to market demands and investors’ interests,” said Lee Hock Guan, senior fellow at the Singapore- based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Malaysia was struck by the curse of resource-rich countries: It didn’t optimize its human capital.”
From a low-cost manufacturing center for companies such as Texas Instruments Inc. in the 1960s, Singapore has become the world’s fourth-largest foreign-exchange center with a S$1.2 trillion ($932 billion) asset-management industry.
Smaller than New York City and the only Southeast Asian nation without natural resources, Singapore has grown 189-fold since independence in 1965, helping boost GDP per capita to $36,537 last year from $512. Malaysia’s economy expanded at one- third the pace during the same period and had a GDP per capita of $6,975 in 2009, up from $335 in 1965.
Malaysia’s growth fell to an average 4.7 percent a year in the past decade, from 7.2 percent in the 1990s, when former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad wooed overseas manufacturers, built highways and erected the world’s tallest twin towers.
“Development is like a marathon and all policies geared toward it must be sustainable and continuous,” said Thomas Lam, chief economist at OSK-DMG, a venture between Malaysian securities firm OSK Holdings Bhd. and Deutsche Bank AG. “Malaysia runs the marathon like a 100 meter event, so you see the initial spurt but not continuous progress in the race.”
Singapore was kicked out of the union partly because Lee opposed Malaysia’s affirmative-action policy, which provides special rights to the ethnic Malay majority. While Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has pledged to roll back key policies of ethnic favoritism, he told UMNO’s 61st General Assembly last month that the “social contract” that gives benefits to the Malays cannot be repealed.
“Singapore will overtake Malaysia because its focus is just on economic growth,” Mahathir, Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “There is no social restructuring goal such as fair distribution of wealth between races as we have in Malaysia.”
Najib is trying to return the Malaysian economy to the levels of growth that boosted stock prices almost fivefold in the decade through 1996. He set a goal of tripling gross national income to 1.7 trillion ringgit ($550 billion) in 2020, from 600 billion ringgit in 2009 and creating 3.3 million jobs.
His government unveiled an economic transformation program in September aimed at attracting investment, including $444 billion of programs this decade ranging from mass rail to nuclear power, led by private and government-linked companies.
“Malaysia has to ask itself why its investment rates are so low,” said Vikram Nehru, World Bank regional chief economist for East Asia and the Pacific. “There are questions about availability of labor, entry and exit barriers, and underlying concerns about policy executions.”
Singapore beat 182 economies to take first place in the World Bank’s annual ranking of business conditions, which looks at property rights, taxes, access to credit, labor laws and regulations on customs and licenses. Malaysia climbed two steps to 21st, according to the Nov. 4 report.