I am writing this editorial from my hotel room in the island state of Singapore. Outside my window I can see a forest of beautifully sculpted skyscrapers but when I look down, there are large areas of green – trees, hedges, flowers, lawns. In between the skyscrapers, you can see some exquisite old colonial buildings preserved like valuable relics from past ages and now serving as museums and libraries.
Singapore is an international icon and a benchmark for other nations, particularly coastal ones, to aspire to. Over the years, I have heard country after country saying they want to be the ‘Singapore of Africa’. But this desire to emulate Singapore is not limited to African cities – you will hear the same sentiments expressed in Asia, Latin America and increasingly now, in Europe.
When you come to this city state, you understand why. From the wonderful Changi airport where the terminal is more like a garden mall than the often grim, hostile structures one encounters elsewhere, to the ultra clean streets and the smiling friendly faces you meet, Singapore lives and breathes success.
This country of five million people has become one of the wealthiest in the world and its companies are some of the biggest and most significant in the globe. Around 90% of the people own their own homes. There is no poverty and they will tell you that corruption is ‘virtually zero’. Education facilities and standards are among the best in the world. You hardly ever see a policeman – this is probably the safest city in the world. A system of entitlement certificates means that few cars are more than 10 years old as you can only add a new car to the road if another is taken off.
I could go on and on enumerating the wonders of Singapore and we may do so in future issues as we look at developing nations against which to benchmark our countries, but for now I will focus only on what struck me most.
Rags to riches
Singapore’s amazing success has taken only 47 years, from independence from the British in 1965, to today. You can see exactly how this rags-to-riches story unfolded when you visit the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Through scale models of the island and its structures and other audiovisual exhibits, you take a journey through time to when the island was divided between elegant European quarters and teeming, stinking, dangerous slums where a population of Malays, Chinese and Indians jostled for breathing space.
Apart from its strategic trading position, Singapore had nothing. There was not enough land on which to even grow food and most of the population had to subsist on seafood and whatever they could import from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. It had, and has, no natural resources, no rivers, no large forests. The majority of the people were dirt poor and it was a struggle to get through a short life consisting mainly of drudgery and pain.
And look at it today, not even 50 years later. Its GDP per capita has increased an incredible 80 times since the 1960s – from a few hundred dollars per annum to nearly $50,000. A miracle, no less.
Singapore keeps winning global accolades – the world’s most competitive economy, the world’s easiest place to do business, the world’s largest transshipment port, the world’s best-linked international airport and, crucially, the best place in Asia to work, live and play.
Yet the people, including government ministers and other officials I met, are some of the humblest people you can hope to come across. “You can ascribe Singapore’s success to meticulous planning,” conceded Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State, Trade and Industry and National Development, “and of course the sheer determination of our founding fathers who had the vision and the capacity to carry though that vision.”
It sounds simple but it has worked like a miracle. Have a vision, plan meticulously and carry it through with single-minded determination and you get a miracle. Singapore is the living example of this.
We in Africa are now in the process of rebuilding our own cities and nations – in many cases, we are building brand-new cities based on our own visions of the future. The example of Singapore will continue to inspire us and we can learn a vast amount from their experiences. What is more, Singapore has rolled out the welcome mat to Africa. In August, it will stage its second Africa-Singapore Business Forum. Not one to be missed, I would suggest.