Analysis & Opinions - The Daily Nation

Africa Can Still Learn Important Lessons from Lee Kuan Yew's Work in Singapore

| March 24, 2015


This commentary was reposted by the African Review on March 25, 2015.

The death on Monday of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, comes at a time of considerable interest in alternative economic models among African countries.

Many countries have looked to Singapore's economic success for lessons. That country's GDP rose from less than $1 billion in 1960 to about $300 billion in 2014.

Over the same period, its GDP per person grew from $427 to $55,000. Such extraordinary growth was also associated with the strong leadership provided by Lee Kuan Yew.

It was a style that has glibly been referred to as "benevolent dictatorship". Singapore did not advance because it had a benevolent dictator. It grew fast because it had a leader with a clear vision, sense of purpose, and determination.

Lacking natural resources, the country was forced from the outset to adopt a long-term view that involved investing in human capital and imparting a strong work ethic.

These are critical sources of economic transformation that continue to elude African countries. Their inability to focus attention on entrepreneurship, innovation, and management is partly a result of the excessive policy attention to the role of natural resources.

Singapore joined the community of free nations as a deeply troubled country. Its inability to contain in time the ethnic riots of 1964 led to its expulsion from the federation with Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew was forced to focus on economic transformation from the outset.

But even more importantly, Singapore learned quite early that independence came with the responsibility to build human and institutional competence for national stability. Lee Kuan Yew saw political institutions as instruments for supporting economic policies.

His philosophy rested on three pillars that fostered continuous economic learning. First, he placed emphasis on entrepreneurship, which for him included incessant efforts to identify market opportunities and translate them into economic benefits.


Secondly, he recognised the power of innovation and the need to develop new products that generate economic value. Finally, he stressed managerial discipline, which is needed to open new markets. He also cracked down on corruption and upgraded the competence of the civil service.

Lee Kuan Yew had disdain for rhetorical arguments that did not address the immediate challenges of Singapore. He also rejected the separation between entrepreneurship and scholarship. Central to his economic vision was the supremacy of the quality of human capital.

He argued that competent citizens could "manage their own control systems, supervise themselves, and take upon themselves the responsibility to upgrade. They must be disciplined enough to think on their own and to seek to excel without someone breathing down their neck."

He placed a premium on the "creativity of the leadership, its willingness to learn from experience elsewhere, to implement good ideas quickly and decisively through an efficient public service." In addition, he argues for a leadership style that can "convince the majority of people that tough reforms are worth taking, that decide a country's development and progress."

Lee Kuan Yew had candid views about African leaders, whom he thought were playing by a different set of rules. He had strong advice for leaders who focused more on the trappings of power and less on delivery.

But he remained optimistic: "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 the confidence of investors by upholding the rule of law." Lee Kuan Yew has bequeathed to the world an enduring legacy of what can be achieved by focusing on human capital and managerial discipline. It is about determination, consistence, and persistence on the part of the leadership.

Those leaders who think that by merely flouting political power they will help their countries to grow are misreading the history of Singapore. They might as well take Lee Kuan Yew's advice:  "Anyone who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist."

Prof Juma is faculty chair of the Mason Fellows programme at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Twitter @calestous

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Africa Can Still Learn Important Lessons from Lee Kuan Yew's Work in Singapore.” The Daily Nation, March 24, 2015.

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Calestous Juma