Monday, October 7, 2013

Singapore: Leadership Lessons for Kenya and Africa

 Photos of Singapore - Featured Images
This photo of Singapore is courtesy of TripAdvisor

 Singapore, having gained independence from the British the same year as Kenya, is often cited in comparing and contrasting between visionary and short sighted leadership.

While the Asian Tiger rose from the doldrums of an un-developed country grappling with Third Word problems like unemployment, corruption, insecurity, traffic jams and garbage to First World in three decades Kenya have stagnated in a socio-economic rut for half a century.

Even with the hatching of the ambitious Vision 2030 that meant to lift Kenya to second world in seventeen years Tiberious Barasa, lecturer and researcher in Maseno University, says this will remain a pipe dream unless we learn from the examples of the like Singapore and South Korea who were our equals at independence.

“Integrity and sincerity among both regional and national leaders so that they are committed to the promises they make to the people during elections,” Dr. Tiberius Barasa explains. “Selflessness, brutal war against corruption and long term visionary policies is what defined the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew for three decades”.

Unlike Kenya which boasts of 581, 309 square kilometer of land, vast forests, larger population and other physical resources Singapore is a mere 640 square kilometers man-made country of slightly more than five million people established by the British colonialists as a gateway to the South East Asian trade corridors in 1819. 

At independence the country grappled with the issue of patriotism since majority of the population were Chinese, Malaysians and Indians most of whom still pledged their loyalties to their ancestral fatherlands. Singapore was also licking the wounds of a devastating Japanese occupation during the World War Two besides living under the constant threat of an imminent attack by expansionist neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia. 

 “Our greatest asset was the trust and confidence of the people…these we had earned by the fight we had put up on their behalf against the communists and the Malay Utras,” Yew explains in his mercurial book From Third Word To First, termed a leadership bible for all third world leaders aspiring to lift the welfare of their nations. “It was crucial to keep united Singapore’s multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious society and make it rugged and dynamic enough in world markets. But how to get into these market? I did not know the answer”.

But along the way Yew assembled a team of the best brains in the country, sort of Singaporean “John Michuki’s”, to implement the pragmatic socio-economic programs hatched through brainstorming sessions with his team. They included people like Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Yew as premier in 2004, Goh Keng Swee, Eddie Barker and his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong who is the country’s current Prime Minister.

So successful was this team that by the time Yew was leaving office in 1990 Singapore’s GDP was among the highest in the world up from $511 in 1965. Today Singapore has the highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the world at 407.9 percent compared to Kenya’s 67.1 in 2011.

Unlike Kenya’s situation where most ordinary folks never felt the personal impacts even when the economic growth was said to be seven percent in 2007, in Singapore growth have trickled down to the population. 87 percent of Singaporeans are homeowners, unemployment rate was less than two percent in 2011 and the country has the highest ratio of millionaires to the population in the world.

For these reasons the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) have won each general elections since 1959, clinching all the parliamentary seats in the unicameral parliament in four consecutive polls from 1968 to 1980 which unheard of in many parts of the world.

“People had full confidence in the PAP leadership and were not interested in having an opposition,” the legendary leader narrates. “They wanted to get on with the economic growth, leave their squatter huts for new homes they would buy with rising incomes from well-paid jobs, and send their children to the better schools we were building”.

But given our equal footing to Singapore during independence, where did the rains of stagnation start beating Kenya?

“The problem started when leaders started using their positions for self enrichment and lacked a vision that envisaged the country beyond their lifetimes,” Barasa explains. “While Singapore embraced servant leadership, in Kenya leadership became a vehicle to quick riches and self gratification which led to social and economic stagnation”.

Some of the programmes that turned on the magic for Singapore have also been initiated in Kenya but, according to Barasa, the only difference is they were never implemented with the commitment and thoroughness as was the case in the Asian country. They included the Central Providence Fund, equivalent to the NSSF, and the Housing and Development Board (HDB), equivalent to the National Housing Corporation (NHC), which enabled thousands of Singaporeans to own homes in government-built high rise buildings.
“The highly successful Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS) implemented between 2002 and 2007 was borrowed from the Singapore strategy,” Barasa points. “It was successful enough to register a national growth of 7 percent until the leaders lost the vision due to petty interparty political wrangles in the NARC government”.

Unlike the NSSF, the CPF was managed in such a way that workers contributions gradually increased with their income, aided by the rapidly growing national economy. At one point, members were contributing as high as 40 percent of their incomes to CPF, which inculcated a stringent culture of saving in the national psyche.

Today, around 87 percent, among the highest number in the world, of Singaporeans are home owners. But, as Yew explains, such a drastic change will not always be easily acceptable to people used to peasant and slum dwellings.

 “There were enormous problems, especially in the early stages when we resettled farmers and others from almost rent-free wooden squatter huts with no water, power, or modern sanitation, and therefore no utility bills into high-rise buildings with all these amenities but also a monthly bill to pay,” he recalls. “Several pig farmers could not bear to part with their pigs and reared them in their high-rise apartments”.

From a paltry 3,000 in 1967, by which time Singapore was still at the same footing with Kenya, the number of HDB flats rose to a staggering 750,000 in 1996, out of which 91 percent were owned by their occupants.
Given the huge number of congested slums in urban centers in Kenyan cities today, what can the country learn from the Singaporean HDB program?
“If run properly the NSSF, which is the equivalent of CPF, could drastically transform the lives of millions of Kenyans through home ownership programs that are ideally supposed to be implemented through National Housing Corporation (NHC),” Barasa explains. “But the tragedy is some powerful politicians have a stake in the real estate sector, hence they draft policies and laws that ensure most urban Kenyans remains tenants”.

This, he says, ensures the real estate sector, owned by powerful individuals, remains profitable by housing millions of Kenyans who can’t afford to buy a house. 

“Corruption is the biggest enemy of NSSF and other government entities where top managers at the pension fund are always being taken to court for embezzling funds,” the Maseno University based economists says. 

“Corruption, the biggest hurdle in Kenya’s development agenda estimated to gobble more than Sh400 billion annually, is our biggest undoing”.

Unlike the Ethics and Anti-Corruption (EAAC) which have been termed by a many as a toothless publicity entity and a waste of taxpayers’ money, Singapore used the hugely powerful and dreaded Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) to purge graft both in the public and private sector. In a span of ten years, corruption in the police and government inspectorate departments was literary decimated. 

The Singaporean anti-corruption campaign spared no one with three key ministers being pushed out of office by graft cases between 1960s and 1980s.

Today the country is consistently ranked among the least corrupt in the world by the respected Corruption Perception Index (CPI). The same institution ranked Kenya as the fourth most corrupt country in the world in 2013.

“When we took the oath of office at the ceremony in the city council chamber in June 1959, we all wore white shirts and white slacks to symbolize purity and honesty in our personal behavior and our public life,” Lee Kuan Yew recalls. “We made sure from the day we took office that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grassroots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way”.

To successfully wage the anti-graft war the CPIB boss was given sweeping powers to investigate and prosecute and the legal system drastically reformed to deal heavy fines and long jail terms to convicted individuals. Another key strategy was to remunerate ministers and other senior government officials two thirds of what their colleagues in the private sector were earning to deter the allure of taking bribes.

“For any country to fight corruption successfully there
 has to be a political goodwill,” Barasa says. “As long as the Kenya’s leadership does not display a political will to prosecute its own, corruption will continue eat through the fabric of our society like a cancerous tumour, stagnating every development initiative”.

Another area that Kenya can imitate Singapore, Barasa says, is the issue of traffic jams in Nairobi and other urban centers. 

Realizing that the more economically endowed the nation became the more people bought cars, Singapore introduced certificate of entitlement (COE) whereby to own a car one had to apply for a government license. The licensing system is planned in such a way that the COEs are increased according to the road network capacity, which have drastically cut traffic congestion and left the roads in good shape.

“No matter how many underground passes, flyovers, and expressways we built, the car population would increase to clog them all up,” Yew observed. “I believed the answer was to limit the growth of the car population to the rate the roads could take without massive traffic jams”.

The government also introduced digital tall stations which exempted cars with more than four occupants which encouraged people to use the underground train, called mass rapid transit (MRT).

But Barasa says that although this is a good strategy it can’t work in Kenya for the moment because there are no alternatives like MRT to absorb the more than a million commuters who transit to and from the Nairobi CBD daily.

Negative ethnicity is blamed for the 2007/8 post-electoral violence that killed more than a 1000 Kenyans and displaced more than 600,000. Being an ethnic Chinese, who consists of 75 percent of the population, Lee Kuan Yew was keen to introduce an egalitarian system that favoured everyone. 

“Being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society the country comprising of a majority people of Chinese descent and Indian and Malaysian minorities, the country experienced very many race riots in the sixties and fifties,” Barasa observes. “But Lee Kuan Yew introduced fairness where buy all races are represented in all levels of government and all enjoyed the fruits of economic progress”.

Other key issues that Kenya can learn and adopt from the fairy-tale Singapore include taxation and the maintenance of law and order. 

“At one point value added tax (VAT) in Singapore was only three percent compared to our sixteen percent. This should provide an ideal model for our financial experts who recently implemented an outrageous VAT regime,” Barasa conclude. “Crime rate in Singapore is among the lowest in the world which was achieved through the purging of corruption in the police and judiciary and introducing caning and community work for petty crimes like vandalism”.

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