HomeOpinionEditor's memo: If Mugabe had Lee’s vision

Editor’s memo: If Mugabe had Lee’s vision

LEE Kuan Yew, the leader who transformed Singapore within a generation from a tiny barren colonial outpost without natural resources into a prosperous modern city-state with some of the best economic indicators in the world, died this week aged 91 like President Robert Mugabe.

By Dumisani Muleya

Lee, also like Mugabe, had led his country to independence and thus became its founding father. Similarly, he was also a lawyer having trained at Cambridge. Mugabe did his legal studies by correspondence with the University of London.

But that’s where the similarities between Lee and Mugabe end.

The death of Lee, Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990, marked the passing of one of the last towering post-independence Asian leaders.
When Lee became premier in 1959, Singapore, a former British colony, was in a precarious position and only pinned hopes of a better future in joining Malaysia to form a union. It had emerged in 1945 devastated by Japanese occupation, and without natural resources — besides a small port — its future looked bleak.

After the Japanese invasion, the country briefly returned to British colonial rule, finally becoming self-governing in 1959 as a tiny nation with few resources in a region shaped by Cold War power politics. Some of the worst Cold War conflicts, including in Vietnam and the Korean Peninsula wars — were fought in the region.

As a result, Singapore’s neighbours were — without exception — gripped by devastating ideologically-driven conflicts, instability and killings as global tensions reached boiling point.

Given his country’s poverty and the hostile surrounding environment, Lee initially saw Singapore’s only hope lying in joining the Malayan Union — now Malaysia — and did so in 1963. But staying in the union, from where Singapore drew water supplies and its lifeline, proved untenable for many reasons and the project collapsed amid communist subversion and race riots that upset the delicate ethnic balance of the fragile federation.

So in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia had to go separate ways. Lee was deeply worried, although the painful reality forced him and his people into a survival mode.

Though Singapore occupies a strategic position along east-west trade routes at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, competition from adjacent ports such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam had reduced its continued importance.

So Lee had to come up with a new unique model, starting from scratch.

Despite his authoritarian methods and cronyism, Lee had to build a nation where there was none. This meant forging nationhood in a diverse state with competing Chinese, Malay, Indian, Tamil and English ethnic groups, among others. Since he was articulate in English, Mandarin and Malay, Lee was able to reach out to the widest audience in Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society. He often stated the nation’s only natural resources were its people and strong work ethic.

So he came up with a vision and plan to develop a strong human capital base, infrastructure and institutions to support a knowledge-based economy. And from being a poverty-stricken nation, Singapore, with a population of about 5,5 million, became a highly developed trade-oriented economy, one of the four Asian Tigers alongside Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Singapore achieved all this thanks to Lee’s vision and leadership.

By contrast, Zimbabwe, under Mugabe, has been going in the opposite direction — from relative prosperity to grinding poverty.

When Zimbabwe became independent from Britain in 1980 it was the most industrialised country in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa. The mineral-rich nation, with many other resources, had a diversified economy, well-developed infrastructure, and an advanced financial sector. It was the jewel in the crown for Africa as Julius Nyerere put it.

Instead of building on that foundation, Mugabe ran down its economy through extended periods of autocratic leadership and policy failures, corruption and mismanagement, compounded by the country’s extractive politics and economic institutions.

If only Mugabe had Lee’s vision and leadership qualities, Zimbabwe could be the Singapore of Africa.

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