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  • Albert Winsemius: De man die Nederland en Singapore rijk maakte by Frans Stoelinga
  • Sense Egbert Hofstede
Albert Winsemius: De man die Nederland en Singapore rijk maakte [Albert Winsemius: The man who made the Netherlands and Singapore rich]. By Frans Stoelinga. Amsterdam: Boom, 2021. 336 pp.

A biography of Dutch UN adviser Albert Winsemius (1910–96)—important for the post-independence development of Singapore but also for his European homeland after 1945—was missing until now. Stoelinga, a former businessman who lived in Singapore during the crucial 1965–1971 period, aims to fill that void with an adaptation of his dissertation for a general audience. His work on Winsemius merits attention from scholars of Singapore and of the intellectual history of development.

Pivotal work by Hong Lysa, Huang Jianli, Loh Kah Seng and others revised the orthodox Singapore story of Lee Kuan Yew’s introduction to the anti-colonial Chinese student activists. Stoelinga’s work offers tantalizing clues into what helped Lee see them as “communist” threats and result in the British-educated anti-colonial politician’s turn to American ways.

Apart from chapters summarizing Singapore’s history and the parallels between the Dutch and Singaporean starting points, the book tells the story of its protagonist in chronological order. From a modest, Calvinist background in the rural north of the Netherlands, Winsemius worked his way to a doctorate in Rotterdam and ended up at the Ministry for Trade, Industry and Shipping just before the German occupation in 1940. As Nazification of the bureaucracy intensified, he no longer felt safe staying in his price-controlling role. Stoelinga argues that the period from his sick leave in 1943 to his exoneration by the post-war denazification commission shaped his professional views on how to reorganize government.

Subsequent involvement with handling Marshall aid from the United States familiarized Winsemius with developing Dutch industry and exposed him to American anti-communist views. Winsemius co-authored the post-war industrialization memoranda for the Netherlands and helped implement them in 1949. Close [End Page 487] coordination with domestic and foreign businesses, including the arms industry, was the hallmark of the hands-on approach adopted by him as the new director-general for industrialization at the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Stoelinga describes Winsemius as a smart but tough person who always knew best. Through his network, in 1953 he wangled a position with the Spanish-Swiss arms manufacturer Hispano Suiza in Geneva, home to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The government official turned arms merchant judiciously left before the HS30 corruption scandal broke. Thanks to his international connections on the capitalist side of the cold war, he ended up being part of the UNDP mission to Singapore in 1960.

Stoelinga adds to our understanding of his Singapore role in three ways. First, according to the author, Winsemius brought along his political views to Singapore, urging Lee Kuan Yew towards anti-communism and the American way of business. Second, Stoelinga notes that Winsemius was opposed from the beginning to the way the merger with Malaysia was designed, placing stronger faith in promoting industrialization with a view to exporting to a global market. Last, the author stresses the parallels between Singapore’s trajectory and Winsemius’s plans earlier for the Netherlands.

The short chapter comparing the Netherlands after 1945 and Singapore after 1965 shows that the two countries—and, for that matter, post-war Europe on the one hand and the postcolonial world on the other—had more similarities than suggested by studies focusing on the uniqueness of the “Asian developmental state”. The way the Singapore model follows the Dutch blueprint is striking, from the establishment of the Economic Development Board and tripartism to the repeated folly of wage restraint. Lee and Winsemius both had an intellectually formative period in restive late 1940s Europe. Similar personalities might explain why Lee was so receptive to the anti-communist, anti-labour programme of Winsemius, whom Stoelinga quotes as not being particularly attached to democracy. Greater engagement with scholarship on Lee, such as the famous study by Michael Barr (2012), could have produced a more structured [End Page 488] comparison between the two strong-minded men beyond clichés of...