[Column] Leoncio Amada Nze Nlang: African economic and social awakening: Lessons from Singapore
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.
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.
Although each country is unique and has a particular story to tell (with its strengths and weaknesses), the case of Singapore can serve as an example for African countries, in pursuit of structural reforms that are capable of creating economic and social development. Despite vast natural resources and a rapidly growing young population, Africa remains the worst-positioned in terms of world’s economic, human and social development indexes.
The African continent must build its own paradigm and economic model based on the values of effort, discipline and free market. This requires, first and foremost, to ditch the development aid approach that has been adopted since the Second World War. After decades of failed policies, we believe that aid is unnecessary, prevents governments from seeking their own solutions, and encourages laziness. Therefore, the best thing Africans can do is to trust the market and its growth models. Africa must break its dependence on aid and work on strategic plans that would allow its people to be lifted out of poverty in an orderly and sustainable way through the promotion of entrepreneurship and free market. Aid has never been a catalyst to escape poverty and achieve economic development in any African country.
It should be Africans themselves who take the initiative and set themselves the goal of creating economies with a high regional and national content, since they have enough resources to achieve this strategic goal. It is paradoxical that the same countries that exploit the natural resources of the African continent later return a minimal part of the profits in the form of aid.
The problem, then, is the inadequate management of resources and the technical incapacity to transform natural resources into added-value goods and services. Africans have to understand that they do not need others to build the house for them, but rather learn how to build it themselves. No help is bad as long as it is done in a selfless and responsible way.