Singapore and africa - lessons from singapore
By Donald L. Cassell, Jr., AIA, Senior Fellow, Jordan Clark, Research Assistant, Sagamore Institute
When Singapore gained its independence from Great Britain in 1965, it was considered a “basket case.” Wealth was scarce at $400 GDP per capita, unemployment was high (14%), and sanitation and education services were poor. Lacking in natural resources and possessing almost no land space in which to grow, it was plagued by a depleted treasury, tense labor standoffs, and widespread social indiscipline. This instability earned Singapore a reputation as one of the world’s riskiest places for investment, with some even fearing a communist takeover.
Fast-forward fifty years and the island city-state bears almost no resemblance to its former self. It boasts the world’s third-highest GDP per head, and ranks second on the Global Competitiveness Report. Singapore has become a top-tier global exporter with a sterling business reputation, having developed with astounding speed and efficiency into an economy that thrives on exports in consumer electronics, IT products, pharmaceuticals and the financial sector. But Singapore’s rise wasn’t alchemy. The country’s transformation from backwater to business hub is attributed to its leaders’ pragmatic blend of posture and prioritization.
Singapore is a completely urbanized state with no hinterland. Its 276 square miles (716.1 square km) contain a dense and diverse population of Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Its government mostly functions as a Parliamentary democracy, a legacy from its British colonial past as an entrepot. Its sole natural resource remains its deep-water port. Its land constraints are even more acutely felt given its population growth. Singapore’s case is no doubt unique, but an examination of its ascent can provide valuable insights for the leaders of Africa’s developing countries.
In 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew took the helm of the newly independent state of Singapore that was widely expected to fail. After nearly a century and a half of British rule and an unsuccessful merger with neighboring Malaysia, the tiny nation was on its own. Understanding the limits inherent in Singapore’s precarious position, Lee Kuan Yew identified and prioritized the country’s most pressing needs, while cultivating an administration of practical problem-solving. His non-ideological approach to statecraft, rooted in a firm grasp of the landscape and an espousal of innovative policy solutions, has been dubbed “strategic pragmatism.” Given regional tensions and its own dearth of resources, Lee concluded that Singapore needed to attract substantial foreign investment, and towards that end, it must present itself as the most efficient, best-equipped partner in the region. Lee would later write: “We had one guiding principle for survival that Singapore had to be more rugged, better organized, and more efficient than others in the region.”
In formulating a strategy for economic development, Lee sought outside advice and studied successful models worldwide. His economic team tailored an approach compatible with Singapore’s idiosyncrasies and goals. Lee insisted upon the need “to create a new kind of economy, try new methods and schemes never tried before anywhere else in the world, because there was no other country like Singapore.”
In his own words, Lee was focused on “getting the basics right.” He identified the country’s top priorities: defense and security, law and order, the economy, and people. Lee bolstered Singapore's defenses against its hostile neighbors by forging friendly international ties beyond its neighborhood. Its international partnerships allowed it to build a defense and security apparatus from scratch. Lee’s government also passed legislation that curbed the effects of potentially destabilizing domestic forces.
Abandoning failed ventures in input substitution, the government shifted to export-oriented growth by attracting American multinational corporations (MNCs). These MNCs would bring technology, new jobs, advanced technical and managerial training, and, ultimately, marketable goods for export. Singapore attracted the attention of American MNCs by offering perks like cheap labor, tax relief, and stability, and by displaying an aptitude for speed and efficiency. Believing that the country’s tiny economy could not afford to wait for homegrown industries to grow up on their own, Lee’s team decided on a heavy use of foreign direct investment (FDI) to generate rapid growth domestically. Essentially internationalizing the local economy by courting FDI, Singapore’s leaders fashioned an outward-looking society and tied the country’s success to international trade and commerce.
Singapore has been able to be the sort of nimble, resilient partner that attracts outside investment in large part because of the robust, catalytic role of the government in economy. Its Economic Development Board (EDB) was responsible for identifying and recruiting MNCs, and making the investment process a smooth one. Lee made eliminating corruption an early priority, and gave the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau wide authority to pursue and strictly punish corruption in all sectors. To further disincentivize corruption, and to attract top-level talent, Lee’s team remunerated civil servants well. Top government positions garner salaries comparable to those of top private sector earners. Moreover, bonuses and many departmental budgets were tied to the country’s GDP performance. Early policies were enacted to encourage a more orderly, stable, and cleaner state in what commentators have referred to as a Confucian bargain between the Singaporeans and their leaders.
The true root of the success of the Singaporean state, of course, lies in its people. In the words of historians Will and Ariel Durant, “Man, not the earth, makes civilization.” The city-state has clearly been blessed with talented, visionary leaders who have shown remarkable incorruptibility and pragmatism in handling Singapore’s political, economic, and educational priorities. They have proved a determined and inventive force capable of both casting and implementing a coherent vision for the success of the whole.
Leadership, moreover, is reflective of the community. Lee Kuan Yew’s strong, disciplined approach to governing aligns with (and largely works because of) the values embraced by Singapore’s people. Though not a monolithic bunch, Singaporeans can be said to share the standards of hard work, discipline, obedience, self-sacrificing, thrift, and purposefulness. There exists a profound respect for hierarchy and education, and responsiveness to competent leadership, a strong commitment to the family unit, and an appreciation for the greater good. In their ability and willingness to perpetually strive for excellence, it is the people who are ultimately responsible for making Singapore the center of continued growth and learning that its leaders have envisioned. Wealth creation requires a cultural context.
Lee Kuan Yew and his team imagined a Singapore that would become a first-world oasis in a third-world region. In Lee’s own words: “We did not measure up as a cultivated, civilized society and were not ashamed to set about trying to become one in the shortest time possible. First we educated and exhorted our people. After we had persuaded and won over a majority, we legislated to punish the willful minority.” This is a bold and somewhat hyperbolic statement that must be understood in a broader context. It reflects Lee’s single-mindedness in seeking solutions to overcome Singapore’s depressing conditions and go beyond the heritage of their ancestors. It is important to note that Lee’s government has had a constant reputation for transparency, efficiency, and responsiveness. The muscular Singaporean regime, in practice, is one that provides stability, safety, and opportunities for the population and not exploitation. Nevertheless, for Singapore’s “miracle” to persist, the leadership and its people must remain in harmony, embracing respect and the larger concerns of the community.
In fostering an atmosphere that emphasizes order, hard work and ingenuity, Singapore has been able to turn its fortunes around and create a space filled with opportunities for its citizens. Its leadership, with a grasped of local and international trends, has formulated economic policies that helped open doors to rapid advancements in the education, health, and wealth of its people. Its intolerant stance toward corruption plays a major role in luring investment, sustaining a competent meritocracy, and fostering the popular confidence necessary to maintain legitimacy. Singapore thrives because of these core values: industriousness, discipline, purposefulness, thrift, and respect for competent authority, education, and the needs of the community as a whole.
African leaders would do well to find lessons in the Singaporean “miracle.” This does not imply a simple copy-and-paste procedure. Rather, Africa’s leaders must take stock of their countries’ assets and liabilities (both physical and societal), and prioritize accordingly. The larger lessons of Lee’s “strategic pragmatism” are eminently translatable to the African context. Transformation requires thorough and sustained effort. A firm, competent, and creative leadership, governing with transparency, honesty, and a clear commitment to the people’s wellbeing, results in a more stable society where people can flourish and add value to the state. As in the case of Singapore, postcolonial resentment ought not to undermine potentially advantageous international relations. There is value in reconciliation and partnership. An emphasis on education and ethical standards is imperative. As Africa learns from Singapore, she will do well to remember that men and women do not live by bread alone. For humankind, there must also be a sacred fire to tend.
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