'The Kigali consensus': Lee Kuan Yew hero to African leaders, but it's tricky to pull off a Singapore miracle

The Singapore model has served as a governance standard for a number of African countries, with the "development first, democracy later” approach.

SINGAPORE’S first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died today aged 91; he is credited with successfully transforming his tiny island from a British colonial backwater to a first world nation in a single generation.

Tributes and messages of condolences are pouring in for a man idolised by many Singaporeans, especially the older generation who remember what it was like living in poverty – one 79-year-old  quoted in the New York Times, Zhuang Yaying, spoke of living in a thatch-roofed house when she was young, and said, “Singapore is like heaven now,” mentioning the “proper” pavements and high-rise apartment complexes.

Lee Kuan Yew. (Photo AFP).

US President Barack Obama called Lee, who led his country as prime minister for 31 years from 1959 to 1990, a “giant of history” who will be remembered as the father of modern Singapore, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described him as “a legendary figure in Asia.”

Africa fan club

Africa has many die-hard Lee fans as well, and Singapore is often hailed by African leaders as the archetype in delivering a “development first, democracy later” model of governance.

Singapore is efficient but repressive, “Disneyland with the death penalty,” as cyberpunk writer William Gibson  labeled it. For all his successes, Lee was ruthlessly authoritarian, cracking down relentlessly on dissidents, political opponents and general troublemakers; the state has a strong emphasis on discipline and there are harsh punishments for even ‘small’ crimes.

Graffiti is punishable by caning, and chewing gum is forbidden because it makes pavements messy.

It’s been described as the “authoritarian bargain”, or, in some African circles, the “Kigali Consensus”, where leaders focus on a top-down, state-engineered approach to delivering tangible economic benefits to citizens, in exchange for a narrowed political space where the government can maintain control, without the distracting noise of liberal democracy and its “annoying” agitation for rights of all and sundry.

Lee argued that Western-style democracy just wasn’t suitable for all nations, and that young countries needed stability and economic development before they could afford the luxuries of democracy and personal liberty.

The model has served as the governance standard for a number of African countries, particularly Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn in 2012 and has continued the policy direction.

Rwanda seeks “Singapore of Africa” status

Kagame in particular, has said he  wants to turn Rwanda into the ‘Singapore of Africa’, hoping to emulate Lee’s example in attracting foreign investment. Under Kagame’s tough-as-nails leadership, Rwanda has made huge gains in discarding red tape, fighting corruption and strengthening institutions; the country regularly gets glowing reviews in doing business in Africa rankings.

Like Lee’s focus on making Singapore, a small, rugged country with no arable land or natural resources into a global shipping, trade and finance powerhouse, Kagame is looking to do the same with information technology in Rwanda.

The Lee Model has made waves elsewhere too, especially on its strong focus on getting technocrats to do the job of governance in order to supress the politicking which tends to capture civil service. 

Kenya’s 2010 constitution partly draws from this thinking, by requiring that cabinet ministers are not members of parliament and do not hold any elective political office – a radical departure from the past where the president appointed his cabinet from the ranks of MPs.

In Ethiopia’s case, the policy focus of the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) has been on building a developmental state through state-led investments, including a strong focus on infrastructure. 

The country is currently at the tail end of its five-year (2010-2015) Growth and Transformation Plan, which  has been called “extraordinarily ambitious” and has been compared to China’s Great Leap Forward. According to the GTP, Ethiopia aims to double the size of its economy in five years and vastly expand its road, railroad and other infrastructure in order to meet all Millennium Development Goals.

But the political space in both countries is decidedly narrow, with journalists saying there is limited media freedom, activists and opposition figures work under pressure and some end up in exile, and there is very little tolerance for  the kind of freewheeling dissent seen in countries like South Africa, or Ghana.

Looking at the growth figures, it would appear that Lee’s model works. 

Rwanda’s economy has grown by 8% annually over the past decade, and GDP per capita, when adjusted for purchasing power, has grown from $575 in 1995 to almost $1,170 in 2012, with dramatic improvements in health and educational outcomes.

Ethiopia has grown by 10% annually over the past ten years, new housing complexes are springing up everywhere, a highway has been built around Addis Ababa, there have been regional universities opened in dozens of smaller cities, and significant investment in rural healthcare.

Tough act to follow

But Singapore has one key factor that Rwanda and Ethiopia do not have: a highly educated population. 96% of Singaporeans aged 15+ are literate, but it’s for 65% for Rwandans and 39% for Ethiopians.

Rwandans students now in college or university make up just 7% of their age group who started grade one of primary school, a gross enrolment ratio that was Singapore’s  in 1960.

Rwanda is in slightly better straits than Ethiopia, because of its relaxed immigration policy, and the government’s particular focus on attracting skilled and highly qualified people into the civil service.

Having a highly educated population makes it easy to blur the lines between politics and technocracy, and in Singapore’s case, the political and expert components of the governing system there  seem to have merged completely.

But the bigger problem is the lack of flexibility that a top-down, state-engineered approach gives the economy.

At one of his last African Union summits, Meles Zenawi  dismissed the World Bank/ IMF’s emphasis on the private sector as “market fundamentalism that has wrecked African economies”, but there is something to be said about having an organic, grassroots foundation to growth.

Without a big professional cadre who can deliver competently, and shorn of the natural resilience that a market-driven, less regulated economy would bring, the whole edifice becomes brittle and can easily collapse in the face of a shock, despite it’s outward sheen.

Ethiopia’s case is worse because its such a big country, the second most-populous in Africa and tenth-biggest by land area, making it that much more difficult to make everyone comply to the broad vision:  So many people in such a big place introduces numerous variables that could tip the equation the wrong way.

There’s a sweet spot to economic success, beyond which it is difficult to reverse the gains. Singapore might have cracked it, but the jury on whether Rwanda and Ethiopia have done it is still out.

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