African Economic and Social Awakening: Lessons from Singapore

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By Leoncio Amada NZE NLANG

With 1.2 billion people and the youngest population on the planet, the African continent has great potential and much room for improvement to become one of the most vibrant economic centers globally.
To achieve this, the continent will have to undertake deep and painful but necessary structural reforms in its socio-economic architecture, if we are ever to get on board train that leads to progress and sustainable development. In this regard, the development model of Singapore offers several lessons.

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Singapore is a relatively young country, like many in Africa, but is now globally considered as an example to follow in terms of sustainable economic development. Singapore is also mistakenly considered an economic miracle, even though nothing is further from reality.
The success of Singapore is not a fortuitous event or a miracle, but the fruit of the effort, sacrifice and vision of men and women with a great sense of state who decided to work towards a common goal that was none other than getting their country out of the list of the poorest in Asia, and turn it into one of the richest and most prosperous on the planet.

It can be argued that no country made the leap from Third World poverty to the wealth of the developed world as quickly and completely as Singapore did.
In the 1960s, Singapore was known for its opium lairs, gang-ridden streets, and racial tensions. It is now known for its high-tech industries, comfortable lifestyle, and high-speed internet penetration. Singapore emerged from being a tropical haven to become one of the richest nations in Asia in just only a few decades. Per capita gross domestic product increased from $516 in 1965 to $22,000 in 2004 to $50,123 in 2011 and to $66,000 in 2019, according to government statistics.

It is surprising to see how a small country of just 700 square kilometers with few natural resources has become one of the richest countries in the world in just five decades. At its accession to independence, the country’s per capita income was then comparable to that of countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, etc. Projections by the World Bank and other international institutions predict that by 2050 Singapore will continue to top the list of countries with the highest income.

When Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister in 1959, the country’s per capita income was just under $500. A short time later the Singapore Economic Development Board was created to design and implement a series of economic measures. At that time, Lee Kuan Yew decided to go for the secondary sector, initiating a prosperous stage of industrialization. The father of the nation knew how to create six decades ago a master plan on what his country should do to become a very prosperous nation in Southeast Asia. The central axis of that plan has been economic freedom and a high-end education. This vision was rewarded in the 1970s, by attracting foreign capital from oil companies and becoming one of the largest oil refining centers in the world.

Today, Singapore is one of the world leaders in a multitude of industries with high added value, as is the case of the petrochemical industry. If we have to explain the key to its success in the shortest possible way, we would cite the following factors:
• Great sense of state.
• Assumption of historical responsibilities
• Very high degree of economic freedom.
• Low tax pressure
• Limited size of the State.
• Trust in the internal financial system
• Low public debt
• Leading education.
• Zero tolerance policy against corruption.
Singapore demonstrates that the most important resource that countries have is their human capital and that providing high quality education generates prosperity for all. Such returns on investment and social benefits are superior to any other policy. This remains a daunting task for Africa given the difficulties in accessing higher education, the low quality of programs or careers at universities and technological institutes, the disconnection between the curricula and the competences required in the labor market, as well as the deficit in the funding of public schools and universities.

Singapore also serves as a mirror to counter the culture of corruption that prevails in most African countries. In Singapore, anyone who uses illegal channels or promotes the misuse of public resources is severely punished, which produces trust and transparency in each of the processes that the Government carries out with third parties. Africa is still too far from the Singaporean example in these aspects, given the instability in legal rules for companies and citizens, many of which are counterproductive to economic growth and wealth generation.

Another lesson that African countries can learn from Singapore is the integration of technology and innovation to drive economic growth that is sustainable over time, as well as finding solutions to urban problems. It is necessary to consolidate productive synergies with more sophisticated goods and services or, in their effect, encourage other types of strategic sectors where the continent has great potential to position itself in the increasingly competitive global scenario. Unfortunately, Africa still remains a welfare-oriented continent and with ample resistance to change in the face of new trends that have already been successfully assimilated by others in global markets.

At the continental level, there is also a lack of true leadership that is visionary and inspiring to build a collective narrative that manages to bring together all countries and economic sectors, beyond confrontations and ideological speeches. Just as Singapore allowed the mixing of races so that beyond their ethnic or linguistic provenance they saw each other as people of one nation, the African continent must take advantage of its multiculturalism to encourage the development of its people who have been excluded from the benefits and advantages that the globalization brings.

If Africa manages to take this path, then perhaps one day we could live up to the Singaporean example and be recognized around the world, just like the successful model that led to fame and prosperity in the Asian country. Only in this way can we dream of talking about the “African miracle or awakening” in the not-too-distant future.

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