Can African leaders follow the example of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was spotted earlier this month in the economy class of a commercial flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. In February, the country’s embattled finance minister Pravin Gordhan had won plaudits for doing the same after delivering what is widely believed to have been a fine budget speech. Mr Gordhan was also seen recently in a public train in Johannesburg without any of the ceremony of his office. At best, they were both making symbolic gestures. It is very well known Mr Ramaphosa travels around ‘very privately.’ His boss would probably not try such a stunt. Word is, the South African president would not need to worry about his aircraft breaking down on him again, like it did in Burundi last month. Plans are afoot to procure a ‘befitting’ airplane for President Jacob Zuma you see. His Nigerian counterpart has actually upped the ante a little bit. Following the example of his American counterpart, President Muhammadu Buhari now flies by helicopter from the State House to the airport when travelling abroad. It is just one helicopter you see, not the many cars in the convoy that needed to accompany him hitherto. Still, the supposedly modest leader has taken on a regal bearing. Not that I mind the pageantry. We cannot soon forget his not-so-confident but good-natured predecessor. I actually like the sound of bagpipes that now welcome the Nigerian president and visiting dignitaries. When I first saw the bagpipers, I wondered how idle they must have been hitherto. Nigerians do not have to worry about their leader flying commercial. This particular one is not going to take any chances. Incidentally, these ‘I feel your pain’ stunts by top South African officials are happening at about the same time as the first year anniversary of the death of Singapore’s revered leader, Lee Kuan Yew. The storied man – who died on 23 March 2015 – tells in his autobiography about flying on Singapore Airlines to a global event, much to the astonishment of other world leaders, especially the ones of third-world countries. Thing is, he did not do it just to prove a point. There is substantial evidence he lived a spartan life. One would certainly not begrudge African leaders if they were a little bit particular about protocol and ceremony. After all, there is a certain African saying about the modesty of deep wells.

I visited Singapore for the first time in December 2014. With the temperature at 29 degrees Celsius around that period of the year, the weather was welcome relief from a very chilly London, the city I travelled from. As I couldn’t immediately hit town upon my arrival due to an academic engagement the following day, I had to make do with sights I saw on my way to the hotel from Changi International Airport. Still, I managed to get a full day to explore the city before leaving. Double-decker sightseeing buses make it possible for you to get a sense of the city if you are time constrained like I was. In any case, most of the interesting sights are in the Marina Bay area of the city. At Nanyang Business School, the venue of the conference I was attending, I struck a conversation with a Singaporean student who was volunteering at the event. I wanted to know how wealthy he felt. Singapore after all has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. The gentleman thought he was not as wealthy as the average Singaporean. His sentiment caught me by surprise. Surely, if he was attending a top business school like NBS, he couldn’t be poor? So I asked the same question again but now as a series of questions. Do you have cable television? Do your parents rent or own the house they live in? Is any Singaporean able to attend NBS if they are accepted? His answers to these questions were in the affirmative. The “poor” guy was probably thinking about quite a number of his contemporaries driving their Ferraris and Lamborghinis with little care on the major streets of Singapore; a sign of intergenerational wealth. For a highly priced education – attending NBS for instance, the government provides financial assistance he would tell me. But the fundamental test for me of whether a country is wealthy is the proportion of its citizens that own their own homes. 91 percent of Singaporeans own their own homes, according to official statistics. On average, these homes are 4-room flats. That should give you an indication of how “poor” my Singaporean friend really was! Inevitably, I kept comparing Singapore with Malaysia, the country that expelled it from its federation in 1965, just two years after joining. Singapore being a city-state, a fair comparison would be with Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. One of my regrets when I visited Kuala Lumpur in 2011 was not being able to visit Singapore just an hour away. Africans face many constraints when they travel abroad. To try securing a visa then to see the neighbouring city would have been a little tasking. It would take another three years before I would finally get the chance. Today, Singapore is five times richer than Malaysia, on a GDP per capita basis.

Many an African leader uses Lee Kuan Yew’s example to justify holding on to power. Mr Lee was prime minister of Singapore for three decades. The typical argument goes thus: the leader needs time for his or her policies to yield results. Look at Singapore they say. The parallels to be drawn with Singapore for many an African nation that gained independence in the 1960s are not flattering. And just because a model worked for Singapore does not mean it would lend itself well to the African condition. In fact, one could say many a longstanding African leader had similar opportunities as Mr Lee. Africa’s current mixed fortunes point to the different directions taken by those opportune to lead its affairs at the time. My view is that it is too late for a Singapore model to be adapted for Africa’s peculiarities. A major constraint is the continent’s heterogeneity. More than 70 percent of Singaporeans are Chinese. Times have also changed. Growing up in Nigeria in the 1980s, everyone watched the same government-owned television channels, land telephone lines were the preserve of civil servants and the wealthy, most aspired to enrolling at government secondary schools, and there were no private universities. Today, things are very different. Social media has democratized speech. Most Africans have mobile phones. And parents are spoilt for choice on schools for their wards. So, some of the stringent government controls implemented by LKY’s Singapore in the 1960s to 1980s – that in part contributed to the country’s success – are no longer suitable. That said, there is clearly a need to rethink Africa’s “democratic” structures. Our current systems are just too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, African countries – Nigeria for instance – have no need for bicameral legislatures. And the costs of entry for aspiring politicians – well intentioned or otherwise – are all the more prohibitive on both pecuniary and moral fronts. Additionally, the emoluments and privileges accorded elected officials in a lot of African countries make the trappings of power all too attractive for rent-seeking leadership. Mr Lee made sure to dispense with such distractions. Is such a man or woman to be found in African countries currently in need of that type of leadership? Yes. Do conditions in these countries facilitate the emergence of such rare men and women into elective positions and allow them effectively govern without relying on patronage to buy influence? Not really. Homogeneity and a power-distant culture provided the foundation for the type of political stability that Lee Kuan Yew’s visionary leadership needed to triumph in Singapore. Most African cultures are power-distant as well. But the heterogeneity of cultures, beliefs, religions, and many injustices have made it difficult for such type of leaders to emerge on the continent. And the few that manage to get ahead soon learn weary indeed is the head that wears the crown.

Also published in my back-page column on BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper. See link viz.

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