• Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Singapore is too small for our ambitions

He was the last of the titans, alongside Nehru, Sukarno, Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela and Jomo Kenyatta. One of the giants of the twentieth century, Lee Kuan Yew passed away peacefully in a Singapore hospital last week Monday, 23rd of March, age 91. For more than a half-century, he straddled his homeland city-state like a colossus. As the story goes, when King Phillip of the Greek kingdom of Macedonia saw how his teenage son masterfully rode an unruly horse against the sun, he called the young Alexander aside and counselled: “My son, Macedonia is too small for you; you must find kingdoms worthy of your ambitions.” In a manner of speaking, Singapore was too small for the talents and ambitions of Lee Kuan Yew. His greatest achievement was to have turned this backward fishing village and mosquito-ridden marshland into a first-rate forward-looking technological state and one of the leading nations of our twenty-first century.
Harry Lee Kuan Yew was born on 16th September 1923 into a middle class family of Hakka immigrant Chinese from the Guangdong province of Southern China. The eldest child of five children of Lee Chin Koon and his wife Chua Jim Neo, he attended the best schools in Singapore, winning laurels for his academic brilliance. He later studied Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and at Cambridge University where he graduated with a Starred First Class Honours degree. It was also at Cambridge that he met his future wife, Kwa Geok Choo, who also graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Law. They had a long and happy marriage and were blessed with three children, one of whom is the current prime minister of Singapore. His wife pre-deceased him in October 2010.
A child of the British Empire, Lee witnessed first-hand not only the humiliations of empire but also the brutal occupation of his country by the Japanese during World War II. These events were to shape his political sensibilities and his nationalist fervour. Beginning a career as a labour lawyer, Lee joined the nationalist movement, becoming one of the founders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has continued to rule Singapore since independence in 1965. Lee himself was to serve as prime minister from 1965 to 1990 when he voluntarily retired from active politics. He was made “Senior Minister” under his successor Goh Chok Tong during 1990 to 2004 and was made “Minister Mentor” from 2004 to 2011 under his own son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Singapore did not have a promising start. The brief experiment at federation with Malaya between 1963 and 1965 had failed woefully because the Malay majority never trusted the Chinese. According to Lee, “To begin with, we (didn’t) have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors of a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.” And no natural resources of any kind. Singapore is a country of 5 million heterogeneous peoples, of which 76 percent are ethnic Chinese, 15 percent Malay and 7 percent Indian. Racial and religious riots had been rampant in the 1960s, in addition to union strikes, piracy and other forms of criminality. With virtually no natural resources and a per capita GDP of US$500, Singapore was a no-hoper even compared to other developing countries, including Nigeria.
With this rather unpropitious initial conditions, Lee turned his country into a prosperous technological-industrial state with a per capita income of US$55,182, a staggering amount as contrasted to Nigeria’s US$3,416. Favoured by geography as one of the world’s great entrepots, Singapore has been voted the busiest port in the world, with capacity for a 24-hour turnaround for the largest ships. With no oil resources of its own, Singapore is the third-largest oil trading centre in the world and is home to some of the leading refineries in the world. For several years, Changi Airport has been voted the best in the world and Singapore Airline has been adjudged the best in the world and the most profitable among air carriers. Euromoney magazine has consistently placed the country among the least risky in the world and the second best performing in terms of international competitiveness. Singapore’s foreign reserves stand at US$250 billion while its sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings, has a total capitalisation of US$317.4 billion. Nigeria, with a population of 176 million, has a paltry US$34.51 billion in external reserves while our sovereign wealth fund has a token US$1 billion under management.
Singaporeans have a life-expectancy of 82, the third highest in the world. Nigeria has a life-expectancy of 53 years, among the lowest in the world. Singapore children perform consistently among the best in the world in maths and science tests while its universities are world leaders in cutting-edge research and innovation. Singapore is one of the world’s biggest financial hubs and is home to some the leading Fortune 500 companies; a destination of choice for foreign investors. Its corporate taxes are low, its workers highly skilled and disciplined, and its bureaucracy low on corruption and highly efficient. Singapore courts dispense justice with swiftness, efficiency and impartiality. Singapore is a stable and peaceful country whose leaders have evolved a common vision and consensus regarding their national destiny.
All these achievements are attributable to the foundation laid by Lee Kuan Yew through the force of his personality, his vision and sheer audacity. As a graduate student labouring to understand the economics and politics of world development, the “Singapore model” was often presented to us as the ideal paradigm for countries seeking to escape from a millennial poverty. The Singapore model was predicated on a number of policy choices and strategies, ten of which are central.
First, the pursuit of nation building as a political objective. Lee Kuan Yew deliberately forged a sense of nationhood out of diverse ethnic communities who often eyed each other with suspicion. He could easily have imposed Mandarin, the language spoken by his own Chinese majority, on the rest of the country. But he avoided that temptation. He opted for English. Singapore has stiff laws against ethnic or racial discrimination. Aggressive proselytization is discouraged so as not to antagonise the different ethnic and religious communities. Today, Singaporeans have a feeling of belonging to one nation with a common purpose and vision. Equally important was the commitment to national values. Lee and disciples such as Kishore Mahbubani have preached the gospel of “Asian values” as the foundational approach to the Singapore Way. These values centre on reverence for knowledge, respect for authority, family, social cohesion and self-restraint.
Second, Singapore made the rule of law the cardinal principle of rulership and civil government. Singapore has one of the most concise constitutions in the world. The party took exceptional measures in identifying candidates for parliament and grooming them for leadership. The judiciary is well trained and incorruptible while the higher judicature is world-class. Appointment to the higher ranks of the bench is based on merit and character. 
Third, Singapore embraced international trade as a vehicle for engineering prosperity. Lee and his colleagues were not impressed by the Third World dependency theories of the seventies which discouraged international trade and demonised the transnational corporations. On the contrary, he aimed to attract them by offering favourable terms of entry such as low taxes and low tariff barriers.
Fourth, bold efforts were made to enhance national competitiveness, focusing particularly on SMEs and entrepreneurship, research and innovation and opening up new markets and distribution channels.
Fifth, infrastructure development was rigorously pursued not only as a means of bettering the living conditions of the people but as a way of creating an attractive environment for inward investments. From very early on, Singaporeans were encouraged to save while the pension funds pooled long-term capital that could be invested in building world-class infrastructures. Singapore rejected the begging bowl syndrome. They understood that aid cannot ensure long-term prosperity. If a nation has to grow it must do so with its own inner resources, strength and will-power. Today, there is near-universal home ownership in Singapore. Its infrastructures are world-class.
Sixth, human capital development was pursued with great rigour. The Singaporeans invested heavily in child education at the elementary and secondary level. But they also put emphasis on higher education, particularly in the technical and engineering fields. The ablest students were given special scholarships to study at the world’s top institutions in Britain and America, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Berkeley and Stanford. Lee convinced the Germans and the Japanese to set up special training centres where Singaporeans could acquire new technical skills needed by multinational firms investing in their country. It has been a win-win policy for everyone.
Seventh, Lee took deliberate efforts to create a world-class merit-based civil service. Recruitment and promotion are based on competitive examinations and performance. Salaries are at par with those of the private sector so as to attract the best while discouraging corruption.
Eighth, in a world in turmoil, Lee made his country an oasis of peace and harmony. The neighbourhood in which Singapore found itself was far from being a peaceful one. There were upheavals in Indonesia, the Koreas, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Faced with hostility from Malaysia, Singapore “leapfrogged” its neighbours by benchmarking against the rich and prosperous nations. They created strong laws and institutions to enforce the common peace, tackle criminality, public nuisances and other common Third World maladies. Special attention was also paid to the “greening of Singapore” through massive tree planting that has made the country a garden of enchantment surrounded by a sea of turmoil. When you drive from Changi Airport to the heart of the city, you are greeted by tree-lined boulevards interspersed by eye-pleasing architectural edifices. The streets are immaculate. Traffic is orderly. The people are gentle and courteous. I have visited the world’s greatest cities and I can testify that Singapore can give Tokyo, Paris, Cape Town, London, Washington, Rome, Bologna, Turin, Budapest and Warsaw a good run for their money. It is one of the most civilised places on earth.
Ninth, Singapore pursued an aggressive economic diplomacy that aimed to broker partnerships to support its economic development efforts. Lee understood that his is a small country with little or no leverage in international politics. He therefore pursued an activist diplomacy not only within the Commonwealth but also at the UN and with several other countries in a bilateral basis: Japan, America, Britain, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand. He also reached out to his immediate neighbours, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. He befriended world leaders and used personal networks to advance the interest of his country and people. He was on first-name terms with Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Alec Douglas Home and Tony Blair.
And tenth, leadership was decisive in accelerating growth and transformation of Singapore as we know it today. Lee Kuan Yew was an outstanding leader who was not threatened by anyone who exhibited exceptional talent. He thrived on gathering around him men of ability. Sadly, women were, and still are, not well represented in decision-making positions in Singapore. Lee paid detailed attention not only to intellectual ability but also to character and individual psychology in selecting those to lead the departments of government as well as the various parastatals. He was unapologetically an elitist. His doctrine of “leadership creativity” was anchored on the conviction that creative leaders should be willing to “learn from experience elsewhere, to implement good ideas quickly and decisively through an efficient public service”. As a leader, Lee Kuan Yew spoke with clarity and conviction. And he was no one to suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, his critics also believed that he did not have a thick skin. He often took criticisms too personally and often clamped ruinous lawsuits on those who publicly criticised his government.
The Singapore model worked for Singapore, but it is not without its blemishes. Until recently, Singapore has been a country where citizens spoke in whispers. It was a model of authoritarian democracy where the opposition was often hounded while independent opinion was suppressed. In the 2011 elections the ruling PAP managed to win barely 60 percent of the votes. Clearly, things are changing. A new generation of Singaporeans are getting tired of the nanny state syndrome and are insisting on having a say on how their lives are run. Lee Kuan Yew has done his part. It is now up to the next generation of statesmen to carry the baton from where he left it. They would have to improve those areas that need improving while discarding those that no longer accord with the imperatives of a new digital industrial civilisation.
Lee Kuan Yew did not think much of Africa or, indeed, of the African people. In his quixotic approach to genetics and IQ, he believed his own Chinese people were the best, followed by the Indians and the Caucasians. He was not alone in holding such opinions.
We in Nigeria have just gone through a historic election. Whoever emerges as president will have a huge task ahead of him. I believe that ours is a world-historic destiny. Singapore is too small for our ambitions and the hope we hold for our continent of Africa. But just as Deng Xiaoping, China’s great reformist leader, was not too proud to learn from Singapore, we in Nigeria should not feel too proud to learn from Lee and his successors. Singapore has important lessons for us in nation building, infrastructures development, and institutionalisation of the rule of law, human capital, national competitiveness, international trade, leadership and international economic diplomacy. As Lee wrote in the final epilogue to his eponymous autobiography, From Third World to First (Harper Collins, 2000), “There is no reason why third world leaders cannot succeed…if they can maintain social order, educate their people, maintain peace with their neighbours and gain confidence of investors by upholding the rule of law.”
Obadiah Mailafia