Singapore's development model viable, but Kenya must tackle corruption

President William Ruto with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at State House, Nairobi. [PCS]

On May 18, President William Ruto, speaking while hosting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hisien Loong, praised the country’s success in the public housing provision, saying that Kenya is 60 years late in taking the bold step of saving into a housing fund that will mirror Singapore’s model.

Recently, during a meeting with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the Council of Governors, the President once again invoked the Singapore housing model, to drum up support for the ambitious government housing project saying it cannot wait.

Singapore featured again during his speech in Kakamega on Sunday June 18, telling the audience that Kenya cannot wish to be like Singapore without making the requisite decisions and sacrifices. What is this Singapore development model that has eluded Africa? Is it that the continent has been lackluster in its adoption or it is simply not replicable elsewhere?

In 1957, Britain granted Singapore partial self rule and the Labour Front Party assumed power. In the 1959 elections, following the end Britain’s colonial rule, Lee Kuan’s  Party the People Action Party (PAP) defeated Labour with an outright majority, and Lee Kuan Liew became the country’s first Prime Minister. The party has ruled Singapore since then. 

In the last elections in 2020, PAP won its 13th consecutive general election since independence by a comfortable majority.

In 1963, there was a negotiated merger of Malay, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak territories to form a union called the State of Malaysia. But in 1965 Singapore left Malaysia, due to a series of policy disagreements. This separation greatly saddened Lee Kuan. He wondered how a tiny island state with no natural resources, and very little land mass would survive on its own.

He had hoped that the union of Malaysia would provide Singapore the requisite land mass, natural resources, market and security. But he managed to not only survive but lead a united political leadership that presided over the miraculous rise of Singapore from the dungeons of a poor little third world country to the glamour of a modern prosperous first world country in one generation.

In 1990 he handed over the country leadership to Goh Chok Tong. But 14 years later in 2004, Singapore’s leadership reverted back to the Lee Kuan family through his first son Lee Hsien Loong, becoming Singapore 3rd Prime Minister.

There are four key pillars that epitomize Singapore’s rapid development: foundational pragmatic leadership of Lee Kuan, rapid industrialisation, affective public bureaucracy and effective control of corruption.

The materials for these pillars are plenty in the African continent and within Kenya’s borders. For Kenya, given its current ambitious development agenda, demographics and socio-polico-economic infrastructure, Singapore’s model constitutes its low hanging fruit for rapid economic development.                                   

First, meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty were the three foundational guiding principles in Lee Kuan leadership duped the MPH doctrine. Lee believed that however good the system of government was, bad leaders could bring about a derailment of its ambitious programmes.

However, he also believed that meritocracy alone cannot achieve the desired developmental success. One must be pragmatic and not dogmatic. In the 1960s and 1970s, anti-American-West and anti-multi-national corporations was rampant especially in South East Asia where Singapore is located. 

Lee Kuan adopted pragmatism by befriending the West and courting western multi-national corporations because he noted that they had the technology, the knowhow, expertise and the markets.

Pragmatism dictated a willingness to introduce and try new policies or modify the existing ones as the prevailing circumstances dictated regardless of his ruling party’s ideological principles.

At the dawn of independence, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta led Kenyans, united against the departing British colonial power. Under his visionary leadership ambitious postcolonial development programmes and projects were conceived and put on the table for implementation.

Key among these was the 1965 Sessional Paper NO 10 that detailed his government’s plan for rapid development, factoring in the reality that like Singapore, Kenya did not have natural resources. Like Singapore, Kenya has enjoyed relative stability compared to regional and other African countries.  

Its score on MPH though has been seriously wanting. However, the Kenya Kwanza government has embarked on a departure from that. Pragmatism is taking root.

Second, the PAP government adopted rapid industrialisation. To achieve this, Lee Kuan invited a UN mission led by the Dutch economist Albert Winsemius to craft Singapore’s industrialisation programme. He laid on the table two pre-conditions in order to achieve the country’s quest for the rapid industrialisation. a) Get rid of any groups opposing the government. They should be out of government and out of unions as well as off the streets. b) Singapore should restore ties with the West. Lee Kuan complied and the floodgates opened - western MNCs ran streaming in. Soon Singapore was the home to leading oil and gas companies, industrial, manufacturing and financial firms, as well as global shipping and maritime firms.

Kenya, like Singapore, does not have commercial oil and gas yet, but it has large enough land mass for agriculture. Soon after independence, ambitious programmes were launched to revitalise, the agricultural industry through well-funded state corporations. Unlike Tanzania, which pursued Ujamaa socialism and nationalised foreign firms, Kenya adopted free market policies and attracted continued operations of MNCs at industrial areas.

However, the elephant in the room has been the high cost of doing business, curtailing the optimal performance of existing industrial firms and putting brakes on new foreign investments. The 2017/18 Big Four Agenda comprising food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable health care was meant to be the silver bullet development blue print in this regard, but it faced numerous challenges.

Presided over by Speaker Moses Wetang’ula, who once advised President Ruto “never fear to act and never act in fear”, the National Assembly received the 2023 Kenya Kwanza government maiden budget on June 15.

It contained clauses which demand sacrifices by citizens, reminiscent of Singapore’s decisions soon after independence. When the PAP government got into office in 1959, they inherited a poor economic state with a huge budget deficit. Immediate corrective actions included imposing higher taxes and cutting of senior civil servants allowances.

The double edged sword in this year’s Budget, of imposition of higher taxes on imported consumer goods which can be manufactured locally and the tax waivers for inputs for local manufacturing, is a shot in the arm for faster industrialisation as was envisaged in the Big Four Agenda by providing a more conducive environment for foreign investments and improving further Kenya’s index of doing business.

The ambitious affordable housing blueprint is modelled after Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) scheme, credited for providing decent and affordable housing to over 85 per cent of its residents. The government should now hold the bull by the horns and adopt Singapore’s rapid industrialisation in its entirety-neither piecemeal nor lackluster.

Third, the World Bank defines effective public bureaucracy as: quality of public service provision and bureaucracy, competence of civil servants, independence of civil service from political pressure and credibility of government’s commitment to policies.

Whereas Singapore attains 100 per cent in all the five criteria, Kenya has struggled over the years with each one of them, so much so that in every elections cycle, they constitute each political party’s elections’ agenda. It is encouraging to note that, the current government is committed to addressing pertinent issues with regard to each of the criteria.

As the economy in Singapore improved in the 1990s, the government increased civil servants’ pay to match those in the private sector. Currently, the salaries of Singapore ministers and senior civil servants are the highest in the world.

To ensure there was an adequate pool of highly educated workforce, the government since independence, prioritized the provision of the best education to its citizens. State institutions of basic and higher education were given adequate funds. The education budget has grown by over 200 times since independence.

As a result, Singapore’s literacy rates jumped from 70 per cent in the 1970s to the current 98 per cent. Kenya has done well in Africa, in the education sector, to the point of exporting its educated and well-trained workforce to Africa and the world. It is encouraging that in this year’s Budget, education got the lion’s share of funding. However, a lot remains to be done in this sector including matching education curricula with current job market requirements

Fourth, corruption in Singapore was endemic during British colonial administration due to a lack of political will, weak anti-corruption organs, low salaries in civil service, high inflation and poor administrative supervision. PAP won the 1959 elections riding on rigorous anti-corruption campaigns. In fact, during their swearing-in as government, all leaders wore white shirts signifying purity and honesty. Mitigative actions to fight corruption included providing autonomy to law enforcement agencies and the Judiciary.

The staff in these agencies was increased as well as providing them with their own budgets. Lee believed that if senior members of civil service were underpaid, they would either bolt out or remain and engage in corrupt practices. One effective control of corruption would therefore entail remunerating them adequately to match the private sector wages.

In addition, in fighting corrupt practices, a total approach to enforcement was adopted to deal with major and minor cases of public and private sector corruption equally regardless of the amount, rank, or status of persons under investigation. Both the giver and taker were regarded equally culpable.

In Kenya, the vice of corruption has been endemic in both the private and public sectors. According to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index report by Transparency International, Kenya is ranked as the number 123 least corrupt country out of 180 countries. Denmark and Singapore retain their number 1 and 4 respectively. In Africa, Seychelles and Botswana are leading at number 23 and 35 respectively.

The day Kenya slays the corruption dragon is the day it can embrace the Singapore development miracle with confidence. One of the first actions taken by the Kenya Kwanza government, upon assuming office was the appointment of more judges and the provision of financial autonomy to the law enforcement agency. It was encouraging recently, to see the decisive immediate actions by the government against certain elements of corruption.

Replicabillity of Singapore’s development model in Africa may be likened to plucking a plant and planting it in another environment. The Singapore model is replicable in Africa, but may have to be adjusted to fit the conditions prevailing in individual African countries. It is unlike the EU welfare state model which Singapore itself flatly rejected.

Lee Kuan noted that in the welfare state, some workers prefer to live on welfare forever. PAP argued that unemployment benefits in a welfare system are not suitable to a developing country. They viewed social welfare as a consumption good that leads to citizen’s unhealthy dependence on the state.

They decided therefore to invest in provision of investment loans to citizens for enterprise development that would lead to investment in production activities rather than consumption. In this regard, Kenya Kwanza government’s Hustler fund fits the bill and is highly indicative that indeed the Singapore development model is Kenya’s low-hanging fruit.

The writer is a socio-economic researcher.