David Thomas: What Can Singapore Offer Africa?

In the city’s colonial district, an upright, preening statue of imperial founder Sir Stamford Raffles stands guard in front of the Victorian town hall, a reminder of an era when the port acted as a lynchpin in Britain’s maritime dominance of Asia. Across the bay in the multibillion-dollar Marina Bay Sands hotel and retail complex, posters boast of the endorsement of a smartly dressed David Beckham, emblazoned with the tagline “never settle”.

It’s a useful motto for a nation defined by forward momentum, forever attempting to cast off the shackles of an unpromising birth as a tropical trading post. Singapore’s transition from colonial outpost to an entrepôt of glamour and wealth is one that holds great attractions for ambitious emerging markets in Africa and beyond.

From Kigali to Lagos, this “Singapore model” is turning the heads of policymakers and city planners alike. Although vague enough to allow for significant leeway, the model pioneered by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew can be boiled down to a few basics – red-carpet treatment for investors, an efficient and effective bureaucracy, an iron-fist response to corruption and a forceful brand of one-party rule. That’s a potent brew for African countries facing the challenges of rising populations, urban sprawl and much-needed economic modernisation.

“It gives hope because they did it in a short time,” says Guillaume Kavaruganda, Rwandan high commissioner in Singapore. “In 50 years they’ve gone from third world to first world. It’s an inspiration.”

Valuable USP

For Singaporean policymakers, this endorsement amounts to a potentially valuable USP. Helping Africa develop much-needed institutional capacity – from training civil servants to planning for sustainable cities – is at the heart of Singapore’s business offering for the continent. Urban planners Surbana Jurong and Hyflux are leading the charge, signing deals with African governments to help plan new cities combining industrial development with an increased quality of life.

“In terms of service, knowledge, capital, that’s where Singapore can make a contribution,” says Johan Burger, director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies. “The whole idea of governance, master-planning, city development – few other countries have those and it’s a source of competitive advantage. I can’t see that other countries have the same level of efficiency as far as government is concerned.”

An influx of consultants, service providers and infrastructure experts could provide renewed impetus to an otherwise struggling trading relationship. Singapore’s trade with the continent amounts to a dismal 1% of its total international trade. For many Singaporean companies, flushed with opportunity in the rapidly developing Asia-Pacific region, Africa is an unappealing prospect – a risky market thousands of miles away offering little more than regulatory and currency uncertainty. The recent commodities decline and subsequent economic slump – exacerbated by restrictive currency policies – has done little to reassure businesses considering a move.

In a tacit acknowledgement that commercial ties are less than satisfactory, the Singaporean government has despatched political delegations to the continent in a flurry of diplomatic activity. Ministers talk up the idea of future free trade agreements and double taxation arrangements, particularly with Africa’s emerging regional blocs. In late August, Singapore continued the charm offensive by hosting some 500 corporate executives at an Africa Singapore Business Forum. With cooperation remaining high in oil services, agribusiness and shipping, pundits believe attempts to strengthen the trading relationship are beginning to pay off.

“From 2008 it finally made a difference, from the perspective of awareness of business people, government and policymakers, and the academic side. We see a continuation of the effort… in the longer term the picture is that there is still hope,” says Shabbir Hassanbhai, chairman of the Singapore Business Federation’s Africa Business Group.

Whether Singapore’s open-door business policies can be replicated on an African continent riven by borders, visa fees and heavy-handed government intervention remains to be seen. Yet African governments are already learning the lessons of Lee Kuan Yew’s revolution. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame’s government is tightening its grip on power, squeezing out opposition voices and independent media.

Governments across the continent are doing away with term limits in defiance of international partners, rolling back recent democratic gains. While Singapore consistently scores highly in business surveys – it ranked first for a second consecutive year in the World Bank’s Doing Business Rankings – inclusive politics is far from its strongest suit. The country is ranked 154 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom index, and is described as only “partly free” by US NGO Freedom House.

Difficult trade-offs

There is a danger African countries hoping to follow the Singapore model will sign up to Lee Kuan Yew’s controversial trade-off – an erosion of democratic rights in return for apparent development success. Whether the former is an essential component of the latter continues to provoke fierce debate. 

“We were fortunate that Lee Kuan Yew was truly a person who was doing something for the country and had a cohort of people supporting that idea who worked hard,” says Hassanbhai.

“So it’s difficult or impossible to replicate that political system. You can have democracy – but (first) we had a roof over our heads, people are generally rich, and we are respected where we go. It’s a chicken and egg thing. I think Africans realise this.”

Nevertheless, if African governments take to the best facets of Singapore’s model – a credible legal system, business certainty and a widespread sense of civic pride – the continent could receive a significant economic boost. Singapore’s explosive transition may well be out of reach for a large number of African countries. But incremental reforms along Singaporean lines – combined with an open and vibrant trading relationship with that country – offers a shot at prosperity.   

“Do I think Singapore has a lot to offer for African countries?” asks Burger. “Yes. The productivity, work ethic, educational levels – they can be role models, best practice, the benchmark.” 

David Thomas, via African Business