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Keeping out of trouble

Singapore has fared better than its neighbours since the onset of the Asian crisis. But its financial authorities recognize that the situation could worsen. Measures to support corporations have been introduced and there has been an intensification of efforts to make the island a major financial centre, including market liberalization and an encouragement of banking consolidation. Gill Baker reports.

"Running a government is not much different to running a company just keep your books well," advises Singapore finance minister Richard Hu. The former Shell Singapore chairman an engineer by training has been at the helm of the republic's finances for the past 13 years and has so far managed to avoid the worst of the region's troubles.

But the good times are well and truly over and the government is now anxious to prepare its citizens for the sort of hardships facing many of its neighbours there is even talk of recession in the pristine streets.

"You cannot avoid being shaken if you are standing in the eye of a hurricane and we might have to accept some recession," concedes Hu. GDP grew 7.8% last year, but the forecast for this year is 0.5 to 1.5%. After robust first-quarter growth of 6.1%, it fell off dramatically in the second quarter to 1.6%. Second-half growth looks likely to be negative.

The Singapore dollar may have held its own better than the Malaysian, Thai or Indonesian currencies in fact it has appreciated slightly against a trade-weighted basket of regional currencies but it has still fallen 18% against the US dollar since July last year, leading to questions about export competitiveness.

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