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Lessons African leaders can learn from Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

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Added 30th January 2019 12:37 PM

Singapore has proven that a system of clean, no money elections helps to preserve an honest government

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Singapore has proven that a system of clean, no money elections helps to preserve an honest government

By Dr Charles Kiiza

Fundamentally, Africa suffers from an acute deficiency of moral and spiritual values and principles in leaders at every societal level. For purposes of this writing, I will restrict myself to the political governance level. When one closely looks at the development paths of many Western countries from which the newly industrialized countries especially in Asia have ably emulated, you will discover that timeless values and principles provided the foundation upon which their civilization and hence development were built.

A critical examination of Singapore, a tiny country which barely has no natural and mineral resources apart from water, but which against all odds emerged from a Third World status to a First World country reveals that their Champion Lee Kuan Yew modeled its development path on Western timeless values and principles. Until Africa resolves this quagmire, it is never going to achieve its development goals even when it’s the richest continent in the World in terms of natural and mineral resources.

How then did Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew make it? In an attempt to challenge African leaders so as they can reconsider their priorities and hence resolve to build their countries on secure foundations upon which meaningful development can take route, the fundamentals that made Singapore what it is today are discussed in the paragraphs that follow:

As a symbol of a clean and honest government, Prime Minister Lee and his entire cabinet government wore all-white suits at their swearing in ceremony. Honesty in government springs from an intense desire to produce results, that is, service delivery for the people. Honesty is born from a focused intent to create better conditions for your people to fully express themselves in development processes. This is premised on deep rooted patriotism for one’s countrymen and posterity. Effectiveness in government is contingent on honesty, without which you cannot get your priorities right and therefore cannot lead a country to desired development.

The more power people entrust you with, the more you are responsible for bettering their living conditions. Lee, deeply understood this; they had to be careful not to abuse the absolute power they had been given. It is a serious breach of trust and confidence with the electorates when leaders choose to use power to serve their self-interests instead of serving broader national interests. When this occurs, leaders naturally lose influence over the people. The people cannot take them seriously and they too will very often practice the same in various relational levels.

Lee said that he was sure that if they remained honest and kept faith with people, they would be able to carry them along with them, however, tough and unpalatable their policies were. Once you demonstrate to the people that you are reliable leaders, they will more easily put up with programs and policies however much unpopular they might look at face value. The people will believe in the fact that the final outcome will be for their own good.

Singapore has proven that a system of clean, no money elections helps to preserve an honest government. However, according to Lee, Singapore would only remain clean and honest only if honest and able men were willing to contest for elections and assume office. One of the greatest challenge Africa is facing is well meaning political leaders with genuine intentions to serve the people. In many African countries politics has been commercialized; whoever wants to make quick money without having worked hard for it, will buy off people in an election contest.

Such a person after assuming office will focus on recovering his or her campaign expenses instead of fronting major concerns affecting his or her electorates. No wonder that the electorates have quickly discovered that it is a self-interest sort of game and have not shied away from openly asking contestants to give them their share immediately claiming that they were too going to eat big once they assume office.

African leaders have denied their people a better life by their unwillingness to build governments whose primary consideration is to serve them. Lee argues that people want a good, honest, clean government that produces results. A government which fails to deliver results to its people is simply not fit to govern them any longer.

Lee was not optimistic about Africa. In less than 10 years after independence in 1957, Nigeria had had a coup and Ghana a failed coup. Lee thought that Africa’s tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood. Once leaders lack a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism they will not have visions and programs to develop their countries. Their immediate

concern or preoccupation once they are in power will be to enrich themselves, cronies and family members and to ensure that they preserve power mainly by appealing to tribal and regional sentiments.

Lee was told by Singapore’s permanent representative at the UN in New York that the poorer the country, the bigger the Cadillacs they hired for their leaders. Lee then decided to make a virtue by using commercial flights on his official visit abroad. How do you afford to live in opulence when your people are still dying of preventable diseases and are living in deplorable and dehumanizing conditions? Not only is this immoral but it is an indictment to the African leaders. Leaders ought to feel a strong sense of responsibility to rid their people from such social evils and at the same time a determination to build strong economies that will improve the living conditions of their people.

According to Lee Singapore was safe and favored for investment because of having a work force that was industrious and productive, among other factors. In an attempt to attract investment, many African leaders have opted to extend tax holidays to potential investors ranging from 10 to 15 years, provide them with free land, ensure that there is no minimum wage for its poverty stricken laborers, but this has not attracted serious investment in Africa that is needed to spur development.

As Singapore demonstrates, non-physical inducements such as values of hard work, honesty and discipline are so critical in attracting credible and large scale investment. Moreover, as argued earlier, it is these values that are the building blocks of a solid foundation necessary to support meaningful and sustainable development.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew believed that social control could not depend on discipline alone. People had to have a decent life with reasonable housing and social amenities if they were to lead moral and upright lives. They had to accept the basic principles of our system of government, like obeying the law and observing their duty to help the police in the prevention and investigation of crime.

In a sense, ensuring that people have basic necessities of life precedes their full participation in promoting government policies and in living as law abiding citizens. Working it the other way around as many African leaders are doing, does not produce desired results. For this to happen, leaders need to have a deep sense of empathy towards their people.

People were struck by Singapore’s clean and efficient administration. According to PM Lee, they had preserved the people’s social and moral values by reinforcing the cultural assets the people had and their inherited values and a sense of right and wrong.

Lee added that in order to strengthen the legal system, Confucian virtues such as being filial to one’s parents, honest and upright, hardworking and thrifty, sincere to one’s friends, and loyal to the country played a critical role. This tells us that without a firm foundation built upon timeless values and principles, nations or countries cannot ensure efficiency and effectiveness in their human resource—factors crucial to spur sustainable development.

There is nothing that can be substituted for political will to root out social evils and therefore set the ground for meaningful development. Singapore under PM Lee set out to eradicate such weaknesses as nepotism, favoritism, and corruption, which were the dark side of Chinese Confucianism—the obligation to help one’s family. For that to happen, the leaders had to set the example in honesty and upright conduct.

PM Lee argued that in order to mitigate the harm to their social fabric, they had to inculcate and strengthen the traditional values of their people. Lee personally believed that the family had the greatest influence on a child’s values in the first years of life. Lee reasoned that sound values, if rooted early in life, could later resist contrary influences and pressures.

I believe the greatest problem afflicting Uganda and many African countries is not corruption nor bad governance nor any other problem but moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Without them, you have no foundational blocks upon which you can build strong governance systems and cultures devoid of such social evils as corruption.

Governance by principles is paramount to ensure progress and an all inclusive development. PM Lee stated that they stood a better chance of not failing if they abided by the basic principles that have helped them progress: Social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government.

This also tells us that you cannot ensure social cohesion, which is another critical factor that ensures sustainable development by simply talking about it, but by implementing practical measures that ensure that everyone feels part of the development processes.

In short, African leaders need to clearly understand that power is not an end in itself but a means to administer justice to society and defend the vulnerable and poor in society with the ultimate goal of creating better living standards for the people.

Writer is a senior lecturer and teaches international relations at Kampala International University

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