Helen Zille: From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore
I was blown away by the boldness of Singapore’s vision, that a small country with no natural resources had in a single generation moved from extreme poverty to the cutting edge of modernity.
Preparing for a recent working visit to Singapore, I was grateful to receive a gift from its High Commission in South Africa. It was a copy of Lee Kuan Yew’s international best-seller, detailing Singapore’s progress, From Third World to First – The Singapore Story, which it did in the space of 35 years (1965 to 2000).
I had read parts of it before, in the early 2000s, just after my election to provincial government, but had lacked the experience to grasp its implications. Anyway, I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”
I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.
Today, having been in government for more than 13 years, I found myself bound for Singapore for the first time. I decided to revisit Lee’s book. It was a revelation.
I am not gullible enough meekly to swallow all the arguments of the man who led Singapore to independence from British colonialism in 1965 and became its prime minister for three decades. The former trade unionist, legal scholar and anti-colonial activist, who is fondly known in his native land by his initials LKY, would obviously have focused his book on the more positive aspects of Singapore’s development.
So I read other material as well, including Freedom House’s analysis of comparative states of freedom in countries worldwide. Its conclusion was that South Africa is free; Singapore is only partly free.
On landing at Singapore’s Changi airport, after three flights totalling almost 13 hours (plus a six-hour time differential), our itinerary allowed a brief break to “freshen up” before plunging into the packed programme. As soon as it began, it felt like drinking water at full force from a fire hydrant.
The highlight was, undoubtedly, the presentation of Singapore’s latest five-year economic development plan, by some members of the team responsible for compiling it.
It was hot off the press.
Its purpose is to ensure Singapore retains its vanguard role in the future economy, which I assumed was “the fourth industrial revolution”. I soon found out that Singapore has moved beyond that. The focus now is on Society 5.0, the “super-smart” economy. Singapore plans to be one of its pioneers.
I was blown away by the boldness of its vision, but most of all by the fact that a small country with no natural resources had in a single generation moved from extreme poverty to the cutting edge of modernity, and is determined to remain there, constantly re-inventing itself in a changing global economy.
When the young presenter (who looked in her 30s) asked if we had any questions, I asked hesitantly: “Will this plan actually get implemented?” Behind her immaculate poise I could see she thought it was the dumbest she had ever been asked.
“Of course”, she answered, before explaining how the country implemented a new plan every five years. This is how Singapore became one of the world’s leading ports, developed a powerful manufacturing sector, attracted investment across the globe, and became the springboard for exports across Asia. Good planning and implementation was how Singapore moved from mass unemployment to a labour-intensive manufacturing export economy, then to a high-skills, capital-intensive economy, and then a digital economy. And now they are positioning themselves at the cutting edge of the future super-smart economy.
Embarrassed at how stupid my question must have sounded, I explained that in South Africa we develop some pretty good plans and policies, but tend not to implement them. She looked sympathetic and explained that “transformation maps” have been developed to guide all stakeholders in Singapore to get from where they are to where they want to be, across a range of sectors.
I asked whether I could see a transformation plan. It arrived at my hotel within 24 hours.
That night, seriously jet-lagged and sleep deprived, I sat in my bed at the Carlton Hotel and worked through Singapore’s “Plan for a Future Economy: Pioneers of the next generation.”
Government plans are usually an instant cure for insomnia. This one revved me up.
It focuses on how the country will deepen and diversify its international networks, how citizens and enterprises will move into the realm of “deep skills” that the new economy requires; how the state and other role-players will support enterprise innovation and scale up the next level of digital capability, and ensure Singapore’s industries remain ahead in an era of fierce global competition. That will require “transformational change” in “an expansive scope of industrial solutions such as manufacturing, logistics, sales, transportation, medical care, finance and public service”.
The word transformation featured prominently, but it meant something quite different from its South African equivalent. In Singapore’s multiracial and multicultural meritocracy, South Africa’s version of “transformation” -- bribe-based black elite enrichment, masquerading as black economic empowerment -- is an incomprehensible amalgam of racism and corruption designed to ensure economic failure.
I was exhilarated for Singapore, but depressed for South Africa. To try to focus my mind on other things, I started opening e-mails from home that had accumulated over the past 48 hours.
The first informed me of the withdrawal, yet again, of the teams installing fibre optic cable and internet connectivity to our poorest schools because, for the umpteenth time, they had been threatened by thugs in the area.
Then I read in the latest crime statistics that our murder rate was up, yet again. I reflected on the extent to which Singapore’s progress rests on having one of the lowest crime and corruption rates on earth.
And yet, I reminded myself, (desperately looking for something to cling to), Singapore is only partly free. We are free. Singapore sentences people to death for drug smuggling. Our Constitutional Court has outlawed this barbaric punishment.
I suppressed the thought that in our free country, our government is failing in its first duty, to ensure the safety and security of its citizens.
And I felt embarrassed that shortly before our visit, South Africa’s High Commissioner in Singapore, Hazel Ngubeni, had been fired for failing to disclose a previous criminal conviction (and two years’ jail time) for smuggling cocaine into New York. In South Africa, where she faced another charge of smuggling heroin from Thailand, the case collapsed because a key witness refused to testify.
How much does our freedom rating actually mean, I asked myself, when we cannot even get the rudimentary criminal justice pipeline functioning? And when charges are routinely withdrawn against ANC cadres in high places? In any event, what does freedom mean without the rule of law?
Unable to sleep, I recalled the passage from Lee Kwan Hew’s book where he describes how he lay awake at night, contemplating the challenges of the dirt-poor country he was required to lead: its mass unemployment, lack of education, almost non-existent sanitation, a dearth of natural resources (not even sufficient water), squalid shack settlements prone to major fires, opium addiction, the absence of a sense of nationhood and national pride among people with myriad languages, “races”, cultures, religions.
These challenges caused him so much stress that his wife, Choo, asked doctors to prescribe tranquilisers, but he recalls, “I found beer or wine with dinner better than the pills.”
I listened to my husband’s deep breathing next to me. Over 34 years (apart from a glass of wine), this sound has become my tranquiliser of choice.
I turned my mind from problems to possible solutions. LKY’s success was based on the only resource his country had: “People who were hard-working, thrifty, eager to learn”.
He combined this with a relentless future focus, uncompromising meritocracy, zero tolerance for corruption, and a determination to build on the institutional foundations the colonists had left behind, particularly the English language, the sea port, and the nascent, cash-based trading system.
At the time, his approach was totally counterintuitive. The conventional wisdom – nay, incontrovertible truth back then – was that multinational corporations represented the evil face of colonialism, “exploiters of cheap land, labour, and raw materials”. (The South African equivalent today is White Monopoly Capital).
While LKY understood this discourse, he had no time for ideology.
“We had a real life problem to solve,” he wrote, “and we could not be conscribed by any theory or dogma”.
That biggest “real life problem” in Singapore then (just as in South Africa today) was mass unemployment and poverty. Every time he and his colleagues drove by a school and saw hundreds of children streaming out, they wondered how on earth these children were going to find jobs and improve their lives.
LKY toured the world, reassuring the former colonial powers and foreign governments that Singapore would be a safe and profitable investment destination, that it would be an ideal manufacturing and export base, that the corruption-free government would facilitate the alignment of local skills to business needs, encourage a strong work ethic, an outward orientation, and beat the competition through productivity.
It did not take long before Singapore and its port boomed.
Within 15 years of independence, Lee wrote, “we had left our old problems of unemployment and lack of investments behind us”.
The tiny, once poverty-stricken backwater had become a magnet for entrepreneurs worldwide.
While he generally used the legacy of colonialism to his advantage, he encountered one obstacle. “Singapore’s British-style trade union practices,” he laments, “had been the bane of our labour movement.”
Lee had himself been a union leader, but then turned to unions to argue that excessive demands would damage the interests of the workers and the newly independent country.
“I told the unions they must not kill the goose whose golden eggs we needed,” he wrote. Labour unrest, he warned, would encourage mechanisation, and increase unemployment. Improved productivity would attract more investment, more innovation, more demands for skills, and higher wages.
The result was a level of growth that brought unemployment down to 1.8% in 1997. And for 25 years, from 1973, wrote LKY, “average real wages increased annually by almost 5%”.
The story of how he solved the country’s housing crisis is even more fascinating, but is too long to tell here: suffice to say that despite government subsidies, no one got a free dwelling. Everyone pays for their housing.
Today, the notion of paying your own way, of self-reliance, is so engrained in the Singapore psyche that people think it is normal.
It starts with the games children play. I was fascinated to encounter them at the Singapore Discovery centre, which seeks to orientate young people to face the challenges of the future.
There was a children’s computer game, headlined “We must uphold Meritocracy and Incorruptibility”. Players find themselves on the fictitious Metrox colony, where they have to take on all sorts of challenges and find it is only possible to do that by staying honest and improving their performance.
Then there is the game titled “No one Owes us a Living” which plays itself out on the imaginary colony of Lax, where food runs out and the players have to find alternative sources. The winner is the one who succeeds in importing sufficient food, paid for by currency earned through “competing fiercely to attract investment and create jobs”.
There is also a game focusing on language in a fictitious colony called Lingua. Here the fractious, divided people need to find a common language so that the “different species of inhabitants” can find ways to work together. It is a way to introduce children to the importance of English.
I had a lot to think about. How could we emulate Singapore’s achievements in our democracy? Is it even possible, I asked myself?
En route for home, we again passed through Changi airport. The day before it had just been named the world’s best airport by Skytrax, an airline rating agency, for the fifth consecutive year.
Twelve hours later, a huge billboard trumpeted the achievement. Everyone from the toilet cleaners to the bartenders radiated confidence and pride in their joint achievement. Through the night they worked, replenishing food, setting out the latest editions of world-famous newspapers, cleaning washrooms, attending to the needs of a bustling late-night crowd. It was obvious why they were the world’s number one.
As always, it was wonderful to return to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport next morning. By now I know the staff in its protocol lounge well. They allocated us to the beautifully decorated room with a montage of African oxen on the wall.
I needed to catch up on the local news, so I searched around (in vain) for the TV’s remote control. It was still missing, as it had been in December last year (the last time I passed through the lounge). We shone a torch on the side of the TV flat-screen looking for the on/off button. It wasn’t working either (just as it hadn’t been in December).
I reported the problems again.
“Yes, we know”, the charming protocol officer replied. “But it is not our responsibility to fix it. We have reported it to ACSA.” (Airports Company South Africa).
Next, I asked whether I could see a newspaper. Sorry, no newspapers. At 07:15 it was too early.
They offered us something to drink. We ordered tea. It came, but, “sorry, there’s no milk”, the smiling attendant said. It was exactly what we had been told in December 2016, but I remembered that some milk had eventually been located in the staff fridge. I asked, at the time, why there was no milk in the passengers’ fridge and was told that milk left in that fridge overnight was inevitably stolen.
So this time, I requested another milk search and, lo and behold, a glance into the staff fridge produced the same positive result. Milk for the staff but not for the passengers seems to be the norm at OR Tambo.
Johann went to the bathroom. As he came out, I heard him report, in his gentle way, that the basin tap could not be switched off. When we were last there in December, he explained, the tap was already dripping, but now it was a steady trickle. Again the lady was charm itself. “That is ACSA’s responsibility”, she replied.
Fresh from Changi airport and Singapore, I asked myself again if we had any clue at all what kind of a world we would have to compete in.
I opened my computer, I went through my e-mail and my Twitter timeline and dispatched a 12-tweet series on lessons from Singapore (which I cannot discuss here as I may be facing disciplinary charges in the DA in relation to them. But if anyone wants to know what they are, here is the hyperlink to the Politicsweb report on them.)
I then turned my mind to the budget committee I would have to face as soon as I landed in Cape Town later that day. After becoming accustomed to punctual arrivals and departures in all five of the Singapore Air flights I had taken during the past week, the SAA departure to Cape Town was delayed by almost an hour.
By this time the world was exploding around me. The tweeple had concluded that I had defended colonialism. Not so, I said, I had merely said that although it had been an oppressive and evil system, not every consequence had been negative.
There were many who agreed with me, but berated me for trying to convey this in the 140 characters that Twitter allows.
I was reminded of what President Nelson Mandela had said of the missionary schools, where so many African leaders of his generation were educated:
“These schools have often been criticised for being colonialist in their attitudes and practices,” said Mandela. “Yet, even with such attitudes, I believe their benefits outweighed their disadvantages.”
He could not have tweeted that, because Twitter did not exist then, and also because it is more than 140 characters long. But with a little editing (to make it less controversial) he would have had 15 characters to spare:
“These schools have often been criticised for being colonialist. Yet, I believe their benefits outweighed their disadvantages.”
Then I considered the famous verse by the legendary Xhosa praise poet, Mbongi Yali-Manisi:
Siyabulela thina basemxhoseni
ngokufika kweento nooRose nezooBheni
Ukuz’ amaXhos’ avulek’ ingqondo
Kulo mhla yaqal’ ukubalwa le ntetho
Intethw’ engqongqotho yasemaXhoseni
That is also slightly too long for Twitter. But it can be edited to make it more understandable in the modern idiom without changing the meaning at all and leaving 14 spare characters:
ngokufika ko Rose noBheni
Ukuz’ amaXhos’ avulek’ ingqondo
Kulo mhla yaqal’ ukubalwa le ntetho
Both convey exactly the same meaning, thanking the missionaries for turning Xhosa into a written language.
I had learnt that in partially free Singapore, one can express an opinion on these matters, but not in free South Africa.
While travel broadens the mind, I tend to forget that, on returning to South Africa, it is best to shrink your mind again to fit the contours of political correctness. Especially if you are white. We pay lip service to equal citizenship. In reality, every opinion is judged on the basis of the colour of the person who expresses it. “Speaking while white” is considered the ultimate sin, in terms of the increasingly popular ideology called “critical race theory”. Perhaps Freedom House will investigate a way of factoring these attitudes into their freedom index.
I have always known that African racial nationalism is the central tenet of the ANC.
But is it becoming the philosophy of the DA?
I am deeply grateful for the DA’s legacy (dare I call it colonial?) of due process of law, including audi alterem partem (hear the other side). If I am charged, I will have a fair trial and the panel will reach a conclusion, consistent with the DA and South Africa’s Constitution.
But my personal fate is irrelevant.
The real danger is that the DA, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda, including the scape-goating of minorities, populist mobilisation and political patronage. Then the institutionalisation of corruption will only be a matter of time.
If this were to happen, it will be irrelevant whether we win or lose elections, because we will no longer offer an alternative.
That is why these debates are not a diversion. It is essential to have them. DM