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A year that many would like to forget


SINGAPOREANS worried about their jobs in 1985 as economic growth dipped after two decades of spectacular growth.

Thousands - mostly foreign workers - were laid off but most Singapore workers remained unaffected.

The fat built up in past years served us well. And we still employed more people than during the booms of yesteryear (see chart).

The economy churned out more goods and services than any other year except 1984. This year’s production was more than twice that of 1975. And real growth actually averaged 7.3 per cent a year over the past 10 years.

Still, business was poor. Interest rates dipped. The National Wages Council recommended its lowest pay-rise increase.

The taxi-driver, vocal in his fashion. complained bitterly.

Several companies, large and small, succumbed to mounting debts and deficits.

The stock market received a Pan-Electric shock, while empty hotel rooms and shipyards in discomfort added to our woes. Car sales dipped, too.

Yet, all said and done, the pessimism in 1985 was probably an over-reaction.

Amid the doom and gloom, the Government quietly built more roads and factories to prepare for the next upturn.

The first phase of the MRT project passed its halfway mark.

The HDB completed 61,000 flats - a record - in the 12 months ending March.

Efforts to tackle long-term problems

Halfway through the year, our total savings exceeded the $65-billion mark. This worked out to about $25,600 for every man, woman and child in Singapore.

Waging war against the slowdown, Mr Lee Kuan Yew urged Singaporeans to lift productivity while accepting pay restraints.

The Prime Minister also toured China and the United States to open more trade doors and to try and turn the protectionist tide.

Back home, the Economic Committee and its eight sub-committees were tackling the country's long-term problems.

The Government presented a "businessman’s Budget" and businesses welcomed tax cuts, rent rebates and other concessions.

We went further on the road to privatisation.

We also thought about town councils and sought more autonomy for our hospitals and our schools.

Trade and Industry Minister Dr Tony Tan, among others, called for a temporary cut in the CPF rate. And the Medisave scheme was fine-tuned.

More liberal use of CPF

It was announced that we could soon use our CPF money to invest in gold, shares and government bonds.

Several HDB and HUDC rules, including the unpopular resale levy, were relaxed, revised or removed. The poorest families were given help to own homes.

The year saw our leaders mulling over Election '84 and seeking to forge a new consensus with the younger electorate.

First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong identified two priorities of the new Cabinet: "To assess the root causes" of the 12.6 per cent swing in votes, and "to establish rapport, accord with the population".

Accordingly, the Government formed the Feedback Unit and reviewed several controversial education policies.

Among other things, it scrapped the graduate mothers school priority registration scheme and involuntary streaming at the primary level.

Today in Parliament became a TV phenomenon. We watched in our living rooms the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate - or the lack of it.

We shared the pain of Mr C.V. Devan Nair's resignation in March. But, five months later, we also rejoiced with Mr Wee Kim Wee as he became the Republic's fourth - and, perhaps, last - non-elected President.

In 1985, we ate more frozen pork, spoke more Mandarin, became more courteous and responded to the Singapore Armed Forces' open mobilisation.

We also acted to stamp out Illegal gambling and glue-sniffing.

Cash registers rang a little less as we saved more and as a consequence of cashless shopping.

But Merilon Week and other major light-ups brought festive cheer to the retailers of Orchard Road, Serangoon Road, Gey Lang Serai and Chinatown.

We welcomed the three-millionth visitor to our shores and played host to several distinguished speakers.

The police organised a pop-and-rock concert to soften its public image.

There were fewer major crimes as the friendly neighbourhood policeman increased his rounds. Break-ins rose, however.

The Social Development Unit, with help from the People's Association, extended Its match-making activities to O- and A-level holders.

The dreaded Aids scare visited Singapore. Three Singapore men - later, 16 more - were found with Aids-linked virus.

The year also saw bulldozers tear down Bugis Street.

Halley's Comet was all set for its cyclic, celestial comeback.

Drop in starting pay

On the disaster scene, we had our fair share of calamities.

The Sports House was destroyed in a blaze and a single fire killed nine people in a Chinatown shophouse.

Floods caused traffic snarls and the MRT project brought with It a few road cave-ins.

Starting salaries dropped as job-hungry graduates snapped up temporary teaching positions.

Property prices plunged and some builders delivered flawed homes.

The slump made itself felt but for most people, 1985 turned out to be no worse than a mild rainstorm after a long sunny period.

Top stories of the year

1. Economy expected to slide 2 per cent as perk-up packages are announced.

2. Jitters on the stock market after the Pan-Electric affair.

3. Reversal of graduate mothers school priority policy.

4. President Devan Nair resigns and Mr Wee Kim Wee takes over.

5. The taxi-fare controversy.

6. The Prime Minister’s twin visit to China and the United States.

7. More uses for CPF funds allowed and possible cut in contribution rate.

8. Changes in HDB rules to help, among others, the poor own homes.

9. MRT phase one reaches halfway point despite construction snags.

10. Aids-related virus detected in Singapore.

'We have gone through • worse times like the 1973 and 1979 oil ft shocks, and survived.'

- Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his Lunar New Year message.

'All of us can decide not to shave and grow a beard till the economy picks up. It will make the headlines. But would it solve our problems?'

- Mr S. Dhanabalan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Community Development, in August.

'The Government has no other magic source or magic well out of which money can appear.'

- Brig-Gen (Res) Lee Hsien Loong, Minister of State (Trade and Industry and Defence), in September.

See also[]


  • Ho Chin Beng, "A year that many would like to forget", The Straits Times, 31 December 1985[].


This article was archived by Roy Tan.