[OUTLOOK]Make the economy our priority

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[OUTLOOK]Make the economy our priority

The derogatory nickname for Japan when it became an economic power was the “economic animal.” This was a derisive comment that Japan is a snobbish country that cares for nothing but money. However, Singapore has pursued its “economy-first” policy more seriously than Japan.
Not only did former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew hand down the position of premier to his son, but his daughter-in-law and son-in-law have also taken important positions. In this regard alone, he is not much different from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, or former Indonesian President Suharto. Nevertheless, Mr. Lee is an internationally acclaimed leader and Singapore is one of the countries that the world recognizes as faring well. This is all because the economy is doing well. However its politics go and whatever people say about Singapore’s dictatorship or the lack of freedom of its press, its economy continues to prosper.
Although retired, Mr. Lee still holds high power in Singapore. It is noteworthy that although he has retreated from the frontline, he has undertaken the post of chairman of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore. By becoming chairman of the global investment management company that manages the country’s foreign reserves, Mr. Lee has turned into a businessman in his later years.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his son, inherited the “economy-first” policy from him. Prime Minister Lee’s speech to celebrate the 40th anniversary of national foundation in August was filled with talk on the economy, to the point of exceeding his father. A part of his speech follows:
“I will begin my speech with the economy today too. This is because it is the most important issue for our livelihood. In fact, around this time last year, ministers earnestly dissuaded me from talking about the economy and suggested changing the theme of my speech to a different one. But I will repeat the economic theme again this time. The reason is simple. Not until economic problems are solved, will other problems be.”
Putting his father in the shade, the younger Mr. Lee again talked about the economy, including technological innovation, corporate competitiveness, investment in research and development, education, measures for the aging society and the creation of new industries, throughout his speech. He warned that although people could previously make a living based on a low-cost/high-efficiency economy, that would not work any longer. His essential message was that the people should change their attitude and way of thinking altogether.
Mr. Lee also mentioned Samsung and Sony. He said his country should model itself after South Korea’s Samsung, which conquered the world’s mobile phone market by developing a new design almost every week, not after Japan’s Sony, which adopted the old-fashioned strategy of large sales at small profits.
The main thread of his entire speech was the strengthening of Singapore’s national competitiveness. Not in a vague speech of rhetorical flourishes but with very specific and urgent approaches to problems, Mr. Lee clearly defined what things the Singaporean government and people should cope with.
Seeing Singapore, we cannot help but be concerned about the Korean economy. Singaporeans worry about their economy, awake or asleep, even with their over 8-percent economic growth rate last year and double the per capita gross domestic product of Korea. Meanwhile, we are only debating whether the potential growth rate of 3 to 4 percent will be attained or not. Of course, it may be unreasonable to compare South Korea to a small country like Singapore. But, putting the size of the countries aside, a better-off country is working harder than a worse-off country and the former is far more advanced in terms of globalization ― to the extent that a catch-up would be impossible.
In this grave reality, we are worried about what choices we are making at present.
While Korean banks are closed on Saturdays, Singaporean banks are open. Singaporeans are much better at English but their pay is less, and the rent or housing expenses for foreigners in Singapore are less than half those in Korea. How can we overcome this difference in reality? Despite this, there are voices saying “the Korean economy has no problems.”
The biggest difference between South Korea and Singapore lies in politics and the governments. Strangely, entering the 21st century, the two countries have been following more separate paths. There is no change in Singapore’s making the economy its first and foremost priority. But in Korea, the president is taking the lead in changing the conventional basis of policy drastically.
The common perception held by leaders of this “participatory government” is that the economy-first policy was a “wrong choice of the past.” They give priority to political and social considerations over economic concerns.
It will take a considerable time to turn this priority to the economy again. Surely, the unemployment problem will further aggravate and as a result, the problem of polarization will become more serious.
It will be too late by the time they realize that if the economy does not do well, neither does anything else.

* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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