National People Management and Development (Part 1)

“What is it I am trying to do? I am trying to create in a Third World situation, a First World oasis. I am not following any prescription given to me by any theoretician on democracy or whatever. I work from first principles, what will get me there: social peace and stability within the country; no fight between the races and the religions or whatever; fair share for everybody. I want investment. I’ve got nothing except skilled manpower and infrastructure. I build up infrastructure. I educate the people. We have the best educated work force anywhere in Asia. And I will say within another 10 years, anywhere in the world. They are all educated in English which is our working language and they keep their mother tongue, whether it is Chinese, Malay, or Tamils or whatever. Must I follow your prescription to succeed? Do I want to be like America? Yes, in its inventiveness, in its creativeness. But do I want to be with America like America, with its inability to control the drug problem? No. Or the gun problem? No. These are my choices. I go by what is good governance. What are the things I aim to do? Healthy society that gives everybody a chance to achieve its maximum”

– Lee Kuan Yew (interview with Fareed Zakaria, CNN 2008)



How do you set out to manage and develop a nation? Is there a right or best way? Is there even a universal one-way or a set of options? Should we begin after we know or should we experiment ourselves to success? Or is it collaboration between knowledge and experimentation? Is what we think we know about national development skewed, outdated or incomplete? Can we say we truly know the paths our political leaders should tow or what our contribution as citizens should be? Have leaders and followers become trapped and incapacitated by psychic prisons?

My intellectual voyage and back-of-the-napkin research led me to the management and development of Singapore led by their late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. An attempt would be made through a series of articles to distill learning points from how he and his team attempted to build a First World oasis out of a Third World nation. Can Nigeria and Nigerians pick up mindsets and solutions that we can directly use or adapt? Do we see parallels between their challenges and ours? What posture and actions did Prime Minister Yew and his cabinet employ? And what were the supporting actions by the people? This set of articles are a must read for all, and the book on which they are mostly extracted is, ‘From Third World to First World’, by Lee Kuan Yew, is a must have for everyone wishing to see Third World nations transition into First World entities – these articles represent my attempt to summarise the book. He prefaced this book with the words, “This is not a how-to book, whether to build an economy, an army, or a nation. It is an account of the problems my colleagues and I faced, and how we set about solving them.” I beg to differ: it is clearly a manual on nation building.

Singapore: Some Statistics

In learning from PM Yew, it would help to provide some comparative information and statistics about what they have achieved, given where they are coming from. “Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: “easiest place to do business” (World Bank) for ten consecutive years; most “technology-ready” nation (WEF); top International-meetings city (UIA); city with “best investment potential” (BERI); 2nd-most competitive country (WEF); 3rd-largest foreign exchange centre; 3rd-largest financial centre; 3rd-largest oil refining and trading centre; and one of the top two busiest container ports since the 1990s.

Singapore’s best known global brands include Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Changi Airport, both amongst the most-awarded in their industry; SIA is also rated by Fortune magazine surveys as Asia’s “most admired company.” For the past decade, it has been the only Asian country with the top AAA sovereign rating from all major credit rating agencies, including S&P, Moody’s and Fitch. Singapore ranks high on its national social policies, leading Asia and 11th globally, on the Human Development Index (UN), notably on key measures of education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety, and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of citizens own their homes, and the country has one of the highest per capita incomes, with low taxes. Singapore is home to 5.5 million residents, 38% of whom are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. Singaporeans are mostly bilingual in a mother-tongue language and English as their common language. Its cultural diversity is reflected in its extensive ethnic “hawker” cuisine and major festivals—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Western—which are all national holidays” (Wikipedia). All these were achieved largely between 1959 and 1990 (a span of thirty years).

Singapore: Values and History

“The nation’s core principles are meritocracy, multiculturalism and secularism. It is noted for its effective, pragmatic and incorrupt governance and civil service, which, together with its rapid development policies, is widely cited as the “Singapore model.” Gallup polls show that 84% of its residents expressed confidence in the national government, and 85% in its judicial systems—one of the highest ratings recorded. Singapore has significant influence on global affairs relative to its size, leading some analysts to classify it as a middle power. It is ranked as Asia’s most influential city and 4th in the world by Forbes. Singapore is a unitary, multiparty, parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959.” (Wikipedia). “Informally known by his initials LKY, Lee was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governing for three decades. Lee is recognised as the nation’s founding father, with the country described as transitioning from the “third world to first world in a single generation” under his leadership.

A few similarities with Nigeria: it was colonized by the British; gained its independence in 1965 (five years after Nigeria) and, like us, it has had to grapple with economic survival, destiny definition, unemployment,threat from neighboring countries, a polyglot/multi-ethnic population,race riots and peculiarly,no natural resources. In ‘From Third to First World’, we are presented with vignettes of how LKY and his team responded to the challenges they had and how they resolved several issues that ushered in the disproportionate and sustained success called Singapore. Here we go:

They Built a People Infrastructure

In building an Army from scratch, “to have both brains and brawn, Keng Swee and I started to induct some of our ablest students into the SAF in 1971. We selected some of the best officer cadets each year for SAF overseas scholarships to study at Oxbridge and other universities in Britain where they did a full academic course in the humanities, sciences, engineering, or the professions. During their student years, they received full pay as lieutenants, besides a scholarship that paid for all fees, board and lodging, and other needs abroad. They had to sign a bond to serve for eight years after graduation. But within that period, they would be sent to America or Britain on two, often three courses: first, specialist training whether in artillery, armor, or signals: in midcareer, staff and command in America or Britain; and finally a course in public or business administration at a top American university such as Harvard or Stanford. At the end of eight years, they would opt to stay in the SAF, transfer to the public service as administrative officers, the top grade of civil servants, join a statutory board, or leave for the private sector. They would do their annual national service training of two or three weeks. Through this scheme, which I proposed and Keng Swee refined, we recruited some of our best students into SAF. Without a yearly intake of about 10 of our best students, the SAF would have the military hardware but without the brainpower to use them to best advantage. By 1995, four former SAF scholars, having risen to senior positions, entered politics and later became cabinet ministers.

They had a one stop shop for Foreign Direct Investors

We had established the Economic Development Board by statute in August 1961. This agency would sort out all an investor’s requirements whether relating to land, power, water, or environmental and work safety. For the first few months, the EDB had experts from the UNDP and the International Labour Office to help it. The EDB’s main efforts were in investment promotion, concentrating on the four industries Winsemius had named in his report – ship breaking and repair, metal engineering, chemicals, and electrical equipment and appliances. Hon Sui Sen was picked by Keng Swee as the first chairman of the EDB and given the choice of the brightest and best of our scholars who returned from universities in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These young men were inspired by Sui Sen, a quiet, outstanding administrator with an amazing ability to get the best out of those who worked for him. He shaped the culture of the EDB – the enthusiasm, the unflagging spirit, the ingenious ways they got around obstacles, to promote investments and create jobs.

He made the EDB so successful and large that he later had to break off different components of the organization, turning the industrial estates section into the Jurong Town Corporation and the development finance section into the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS). Both became leaders in their own fields. DBS helped finance our entrepreneurs who needed venture capital because our established banks had no experience outside trade financing and were too conservative and reluctant to lend to would-be manufacturers. It was hard legwork for our young EDB officers to interest foreign investors in the opportunities in Singapore, to persuade them to send missions here to see for themselves. When Chin Bock first began visiting corporate offices, the CEOs did not even know where Singapore was. He had to point it out on their globe, a little dot at the tip of the Malay peninsula in Southeast Asia. EDB officers would sometimes call on 40 to 50 companies before getting one to visit Singapore. They worked with inexhaustible energy because they felt the survival of Singapore depended upon them.

They sought to change the people’s attitude to life and work

The loss of British military expenditure between 1968 and 1971 was a blow to our economy. It was some 20 percent of our GDP, providing over 30,000 jobs in direct employment and another 40,000 in support services. I was determined that our attitude to British aid, indeed any aid, should be the opposite of Malta’s. When I visited Malta in 1967 to see how it had sorted out its problems after the rundown of the British forces, I was astounded. The Suez Canal had been closed as a result of the Arab-Isreali Six-Day War three months earlier, in June. Ships were no longer going through the Canal, hence the dockyard in Malta was closed, but dockworkers on full pay were playing water polo in the dry dock which they had filled with water! I was shaken by their aid dependency, banking on continuing charity from the British.

The British had given fairly generous redundancy payments, including five weeks’ salary for each year of service, and had also covered the cost of three months’ retraining in Maltese government institutions. This nurtured a sense of dependency not a spirit of self-reliance. I was convinced our people must never have an aid-dependent mentality. If we were to succeed we had to depend on ourselves. . . aid/assistance should provide Singapore with jobs through industries and not make us dependent on perpetual injections of aid. I warned our workers, “The world does not owe us a living. We cannot live by the begging bowl.” On my return to Singapore that January, I said in a broadcast, “If we were a soft society then we would already have perished. A soft people will vote for those who promised a soft way out, when in truth there is none. There is nothing Singapore gets for free, even our water we pay for . . . I felt strongly that the people’s morale and confidence would be decisive in the coming battle for Singapore’s survival.