Lee Kuan Yew & Singapore – What Africa can learn. Part One

Posted April 24, 2013 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Africa ~ 7,823 views


Singapore, the island city-state, has achieved staggering economic success in the past 50 years. With little natural resources of its own, its food requirements almost entirely imported, with no fresh water resources to write home about, this small nation of 5.3 million people (the third highest population density in the world) started life as an independent country on a par economically with most African countries. Today it has left Africa behind by a good country mile. So where, and why, did Singapore get it right and Africa get it wrong? Our editor, Baffour Ankomah, was recently in Singapore and was bowled over by what he saw. Here is Part One of his series of reports on what Africa can learn from the island state.

Singapore’s former Prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the country’s economic miracle of the last 50 years, was a frequent visitor to Africa in the 1960s. On one such trip in 1964, he visited 17 African capitals to acquaint himself with what the newly independent African countries were doing to lift themselves from economic backwardness, itself a legacy of European colonialism of the previous century.From what he saw, Lee Kuan Yew was not best impressed. “I was not optimistic about Africa,” he confessed later. So, what informed his thinking? He explains in his fat book, published in 2000, From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, that certain things were happening in Africa at the time that did not seem quite right to him.

For example, while in Lagos (Nigeria) in January 1966, to attend a Commonwealth heads of state conference, Lee Kuan Yew was a bit alarmed by how Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s government was doing things. “I went to bed that night [at the Federal Palace Hotel in Lagos] convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”

True to his fears, only days after the Commonwealth conference ended, and just as Lee Kuan Yew and his delegation had arrived in Ghana from Nigeria, a military coup happened in Lagos in which President Balewa was killed. In Ghana, the Singaporean prime minister was welcomed heartily by President Kwame Nkrumah who was very proud of his bright 30-year-old vice chancellor of the University of Ghana, William Abraham. Abraham had taken a First in Classics at Oxford University (England) and was a fellow of the university’s All Souls College. Lee Kuan Yew was a bit puzzled: “I was impressed [with Abraham], but wondered why a country so dependent on agriculture should have its brightest and best do Classics – Latin and Greek,” Lee Kuan Yew wrote many years later.

But that was Africa, and that is still Africa! We study what we don’t need, and need what we don’t study. After inheriting an educational system from the colonialists who wanted not more than paper-pushers and lots of messengers, the newly independent African countries just carried on with the inherited educational system as if no independence had come at all, and as if the agendas and aspirations of the colonial were one and the same.

This explains why even a visionary president such as Kwame Nkrumah was proud of a 30-year-old vice chancellor of Ghana’s premier university who had taken a First in Classics – Latin and Greek! Imagine how Latin and Greek would develop Ghana’s cocoa or plantain farms! Imagine what a man who had gorged himself on Latin and Greek would impart to the students under his charge at the University of Ghana! Any wonder that Ghana and Africa are still treading water? “I wondered what would happen to these two countries [Ghana and Nigeria],” Lee Kuan Yew recalls. “They were then the brightest hopes of Africa, [they were among the first countries] to get their independence, Ghana in 1957, followed shortly by Nigeria.”

Lee Kuan Yew continues: “One month later [after Nigeria’s coup], on 24 February, as Nkrumah was being welcomed with a 21-gun salute in Beijing, China, an army coup took place in Accra. People danced in the streets as the army leaders arrested leading members of Nkrumah’s government. “My fears for the people of Ghana were not misplaced. Notwithstanding their rich cocoa plantations, gold mines, and Volta dam, which could generate enormous amounts of power, Ghana’s economy sank into disrepair and has not recovered the early promise it held out at independence in 1957. The news I heard saddened me. I never visited Ghana again.”

And guess what happened next: After the Ghana coup, Lee Kuan Yew enquired about William Abraham, “the bright young vice chancellor”, and was told that Abraham had entered a monastery in California, USA!

“I felt sad,” Lee Kuan Yew recounts. “If their brightest and best gave up the fight and sought refuge in a monastery, not in Africa but in California, the road to recovery would be long and difficult.” And that is exactly what it has been – “long and difficult” for Africa. Lee Kuan Yew remembers his visit to Zambia in 1970, for the Non-Aligned Summit. Zambia’s economy had declined at the time. “Everything was in short supply,” the former Singaporean prime minister recalls. “The shops were empty. Imported toiletries were absent and there was little by way of local substitutes … [President] Kenneth Kaunda’s major preoccupation was politics, black versus white politics, not the economics of growth for Zambia … After Kaunda left, the lot of Zambians did not improve much.”

In contrast, Singapore’s economic fortunes have been going up and up and up since those days, to the extent where today, an African visiting the island state for the first time could be excused if he rubs his eyes to make sure that what he is seeing is real. Whatever Africa does from now on, the continent should find time to study how Singapore got it right – in just the same period that Africa appeared to have lost its way. In fact, there is a lot to learn from how this small island city-state (size: 264 sq miles, the 189th largest of the world’s 206 countries), rose from poverty into wealth.

The rights and wrongs

To see where Singapore got it right, one only has to be at Terminal 3 of Changi Airport, the country’s main international airport at Paya Lebar, 17km northeast of the city-state’s commercial centre. It is like nothing you have seen before. Opened in 2008, Changi’s Terminal 3 is part airport, part shopping mall, part gym, part swimming pool, part botanical garden, part waterfall, part museum, part restaurant!

And it is so spacious that you wonder how an island city-state marginally larger than the Seychelles, Africa’s smallest nation, can have all that space to devote to air travel when it doesn’t have enough space for a decent football stadium. Perhaps Singapore needs that much space for an airport terminal as Changi serves more than 100 airlines connecting the country to more than 220 cities in over 60 countries worldwide.

In fact, Changi Airport has three terminals with a total yearly handling capacity of 66 million passengers. The construction of a fourth terminal will start this year, to be completed in 2017. It will have a yearly capacity of 16 million passengers. Since Terminal 1 opened in 1981, and Terminal 2 in 1990, Changi Airport has won over 390 awards. In 2011 alone, the airport won 23 “best” awards. Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but however one sees beauty, Changi Terminal 3 simply takes the breath away. Its interior design departs from any other airport that I have seen.

This is how one writer describes it: “… It has a structure mainly made of glass, with big transparent spaces inside the terminal… [and] incorporates natural features and warm tone extensively to balance the sterile feel of glass and steel. “For example, columns are given a wood-like cladding and the floor is mostly cream/beige colour. The roof has been designed to allow natural light to enter the building, with 919 skylights. A 16-foot-high ‘Green Wall’ with hanging creepers and waterfall was incorporated to enhance the tropical feel. The Green Wall, designed by the Singapore-based landscape design firm, Tierra Design, also helps to regulate the internal temperature of the terminal…” Africa’s airport designers may want to go and see Changi Terminal 3 for some ideas. They will come back hugely impressed.

History is important

Perhaps, to see how far Singapore has come, it is important to look at its history. Made up of 63 islands, the city-state lies off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and was first inhabited in the 2nd century AD. It is separated from two big neighbours, Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to the north, and from Indonesia by the Singapore Strait to the south.

Legend says that in the 13th century, Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Palembang, the then capital city of the powerful Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, which influenced much of Southeast Asia (today Palembang is the capital city of Indonesia’s South Sumatra province), was shipwrecked and washed ashore on an island he had never seen before. As he gathered himself, he saw a creature that looked like a lion. So he named the island “Singa Pura” which in the Tamil language means “Lion City” (in fact, native Tamils would tell you that the right rendition is “Singa puram”), from which the name Singapore was derived.

Singapore therefore became part of the Srivijaya Empire before falling under the power of the Sultanate of Johor between the 16th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the British statesman now fondly remembered as “the father of Singapore”, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, arrived on Singapore’s main island and signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah on behalf of the British East India Company to develop the southern part of Singapore as a British trading post.

Five years later, in 1824, the whole of Singapore became a British possession via another treaty with Sultan Shah. The final nail of colonialism was driven home in 1826, when the island-state became part of the Straits Settlements under the jurisdiction of British India. Ten years later, in 1836, Singapore was made the capital of the Straits Settlements.

It is said that before the arrival of Sir Thomas Raffles in 1819, the population of Singapore was just about 1,000 indigenous people, but by 1860 the population had grown to over 80,000, about half of whom were ethnic Chinese who had come to work in rubber plantations on the island. Today the ethnic Chinese population makes up the largest group in the country, followed by Malays and Indians.

Under British colonialism

During the Second World War, the Japanese Army captured Malaya after defeating the British in the Battle of Singapore. The British surrendered on 15 February 1942 in what Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

After the “capitulation”, the Japanese ran Singapore with an iron fist. One particular massacre perpetrated by the Japanese, which came to be known as the Sook Ching Massacre, is forever remembered. In that orgy of blood, the Japanese killed between 5,000 and 25,000 ethnic Chinese people. The Japanese rule scarred the Singapore psyche so badly that to this day it evokes sad and bitter memories in the older generation of Singaporeans who lived through it.

Fortunately for the country, the British army regrouped and kicked the Japanese out of the island-state in September 1945 when they forced them to surrender in a treaty signed in the Singapore City Hall. Ten years later, in 1955, the first general election in Singapore was won by the Labour Front, the pro-independence party led by David Marshall. The party wanted complete independence but the British would not grant it, until Marshall resigned as party leader and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock. London saw Marshall as a hothead but found Lim’s policies comfortable enough to grant Singapore full internal selfgovernment in all matters except defence and foreign affairs.

In the next general election held in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by one Lee Kuan Yew, won a landslide victory. Lee became prime minister as Singapore became an internally self-governing state within the Commonwealth.

All through this time, in the 1950s, communists, supported mainly by the ethnic Chinese people on the island, had tried to seize control by waging an armed rebellion against the state, resulting in what became known as the “Malayan Emergency” and later the “Communist Insurgency War”. Finally, on 31 August 1963, Singapore declared total independence from Britain by joining Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah (all former British colonies) to form the new Federation of Malaysia, itself a result of a merger referendum in 1962.

Singapore joined the federation mainly because its leaders thought its small size would not encourage the British to grant it independence on its own merits, and even if the British granted independence at all, the country could not survive on its own because it suffered from a severe scarcity of land, natural resources, water, and markets. Besides, Singapore wanted Malaysia to help it fight the communists.

Sadly, things did not work out within the Malaysian federation as envisaged by the Singaporeans, and after two years of hostility exhibited by the majority Malay ethnic group in Malaysia towards the ethnic Chinese population of Singapore, the citystate was compelled to withdraw from the Federation of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, and go it alone as an independent country. It is here that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, credited with transforming Singapore from a poor British naval base to the prosperous nation it now is, came into his own!

He stayed as prime minister for 31 years, from 1959 to 1990 when he stepped down for Goh Chok Tong to take his place. In 2004, Tong was succeeded by Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, as the country’s third prime minister. Lee Hsien is now in his ninth year in office.

For those you say economic development comes via multiparty democracy, here is one inconvenient statistic: In all these one party, Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action

Party (PAP), has ruled Singapore throughout, winning election after election after election, and bringing political, economic, and social stability to the island nation in a manner never known in the region until Lee Kuan Yew popped up, after his university studies in Britain.

So, contrary to the popular belief that frequent changes of government and leadership – as is currently happening in many African countries – fosters democracy and development, Singapore’s experience has turned that belief on its head. And the statistics are awesome: The country started from a very low economic base in 1959, it has seen just one party in government for 54 years, the first prime minister stayed for 31 years, the country has had only three leaders in 54 years, and has seen a massive increase in wealth in the last 46 years, becoming the world’s fourth leading financial centre, one of the four Asian “economic tigers”, and its harbour one of the five busiest in the world! Singapore simply takes the breath away! A lesson for Africa?

So what can Africa learn from Singapore? A lot, methinks! And who better to tell it than the “father of the Singapore miracle” himself, Lee Kuan Yew. In his book, From Third World to First – The Singapore Story:

1965-2000, Lee Kuan Yew tells how his small, resource-starved nation transformed itself from a dirt-poor backwater into today’s pleasant garden city-state of “first world” facilities. In his Foreword to Lee’s book, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state of yore, writes about some profound truths that Africa and the world should care to listen to.

For a start, Kissinger concedes that the “long-established nations of the West have fallen prey to the temptation of ignoring history and judging every new state by the criteria of their own civilisations. It is often overlooked that the institutions of the West did not spring full-blown from the brow of contemporaries but evolved over centuries which shaped frontiers and defined legitimacy, constitutional provisions, and basic values.”

So, here, in mitigation, Africa’s apparent slow march to development, according to Kissinger, is not unique. It takes time, even centuries, for institutions to evolve; and all countries, including those of European stock, went through this history. And, as Kissinger says: “History does matter. The institutions of the West developed gradually place in elaborated form immediately.”

Kissinger continues: “In the West, a civil society developed side by side with the maturation of the modern state. This made possible the growth of representative institutions, which confined the state’s power to those matters which society could not deal with by its own arrangements. Political conflicts were moderated by overriding purposes.”

What Kissinger says next, using Singapore’s experience of the last 50 years as the base of his argument, is so pertinent that it deserves to be quoted extensively here:

“Many post-colonial states [like those in Africa],” he says, “have no comparable history. Tasks which in the West were accomplished over centuries must be completed in a decade or two and under much more complex circumstances.

“Where the common natural experience is colonial rule, especially when the state comprises diverse ethnic groups, political opposition is often considered an assault on the political validity of the state rather than of a particular government. “Singapore is a case in point. As the main British naval base in the Far East, it had neither prospect nor aspiration for nationhood until the collapse of European power in the aftermath of the Second World War redrew the political map of Southeast Asia. “In the first wave of decolonisation,” Kissinger continues, “Singapore was made part of Malaya until its largely Chinese population proved too daunting for a state attempting to define its national identity by a Malay majority.

“Malaya extruded Singapore because it was not yet ready to cope with so large a Chinese population or, less charitably, to teach Singapore the habits of dependence if it was forced back into what later became the Malaysian Federation.

“But history shows that normally prudent, ordinary calculations can be overturned by extraordinary personalities. In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore’s emergence as a national state, the ancient argument of whether circumstance or personality shapes events is settled in favour of the latter.

“Circumstances could not have been favourable,” Kissinger goes on. “Located on a sandbar with nary a natural resource, Singapore had in the 1950s a polyglot population of slightly over a million [today over 5 million], of which 75.4% was Chinese, 13.6% Malay and 8.6% Indian… By far the smallest country in Southeast Asia, Singapore seemed destined to become a client state of more powerful neighbours, if indeed it could preserve its independence at all. “Lee Kuan Yew thought otherwise. Every great achievement is a dream before it becomes reality, and his vision was of a state that would not simply survive but prevail by excelling.

“Superior intelligence, discipline and ingenuity would substitute for resources. Lee Kuan Yew summoned his compatriots to a duty they had never previously perceived: first to clean up their city, then to dedicate it to overcome the initial hostility of their neighbours and their own ethnic divisions by superior performance.

“The Singapore of today is his testament. Annual per capital income has grown from less than US$1,000 at the time of independence to nearly US$30,000 today. It is the high-tech leader of Southeast Asia, the commercial entrepot, the scientific centre. Singapore plays a major role in the politics and economics of Southeast Asia and beyond.”

What a testimony! For Africa, Singapore presents a lesson worth studying, and in my next instalment, we shall look at how Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues practically turned around the island city-state into the pleasant place it has now become.

Source — New Africa Magazine


About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.



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