Lessons for President Sirleaf and Cabinet: How to Build a Nation

By: Theodore Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 23, 2015


Theodore Hodge and President Sirleaf

“There are books to teach you how to build a house, how to repair engines, how to write a book. But I have not seen a book on how to build a nation…” That is how Lee Kuan Yew begins his seminal work titled, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000”. Though the former Prime Minister of Singapore, the father of his nation, states the contrarian view, his seminal book turns out to be such a book: How to Build a Country. The book is so instructive, it is a futile exercise to ignore it by trying to reinvent the wheel. For all those interested in building a country or moving it forward in terms of development, don’t ignore this book; it is a must read.  Read it; for your own good, and perhaps for the sake of our poor nation and its people.

By now it is an old and familiar story that Liberia’s infrastructure, already dilapidated and outdated, was further damaged by years of civil war. We know it, and President Sirleaf knew it when she accepted the challenge to run for the presidency. She promised to restore the country and move it into modernity. She made several campaign speeches and promised that she was the most qualified candidate to lead the broken nation. The people believed her and chose her for the task. We also know that the campaign promises have yet to come to fruition. The country is as bad off as it was ten years ago; a little better off in one aspect or another, and worse off in others. Perhaps it is fair to say the country has remained stagnant. If one chooses to be a bit too critical or perhaps pessimistic, the view would be that the situation is regressive. In either case, the issue is debatable; meanwhile, the country’s plight remains bleak.

I am on record of being one of the pundits to make the case for the candidacy of Mrs. Sirleaf. I have since admitted I was wrong and parted company with her. In several published pieces, I have stated that I was a mere supporter, not a fanatic nor a disciple. Lately, some of my readers have challenged me that I’ve been too critical, or perhaps too harsh, without offering constructive alternatives. I have accepted the challenge to offer a constructive path to the analyses. In my last article, I reviewed two books written by renowned academics and suggested them for reading by the president and her staff. In this article, I offer to share light on the seminal work of Lee Kuan Yew, as introduced above. I will try to quote the author as much as possible, intending to allow the readers to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

From the very beginning of the country’s nationhood, the young prime minister realized and accepted that he and his colleagues faced a humongous task. To put it in his words, “We faced tremendous odds with an improbable chance of survival. Singapore was not a natural country but man-made, a trading post the British had developed into a nodal point in their worldwide maritime empire. We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body.”
Among the chief concerns were three: First, to get international recognition for the country’s independence, including membership into the United Nations; to build an army to defend the young nation; and the biggest headache was the economy… how to make a living for the people.


Again, let the author speak for himself. He writes, “After pondering these problems and the limited options available, I concluded an island city-state in Southeast Asia could not be ordinary if it was to survive. We had to make extraordinary efforts to become a tightly knit, rugged, and adaptable people who could do things better and cheaper than our neighbors, because they wanted to bypass us and render obsolete our role as [entrepot] and middleman for the trade of the region. We had to be different.”

He continues: “Our greatest asset was the trust of the people… We were careful not to squander this newly gained trust by misgovernment and corruption.” There is a Biblical saying from the Book of Proverbs, common among Liberians, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Lee Kuan Yew had the extraordinary vision to realize that the “people” were the country’s most valuable asset and their trust was essential and paramount. Secondly, in drawing up an economic plan, he envisioned that for the nation to become unique, it had to do things differently; in order to survive, it had to be great, not ordinary. He had a choice: To do things ordinarily or to “think outside the box”, so to speak.

The leadership of the new nation quickly and efficiently followed its agenda to build a relatively strong army, as they believed it central to the plan of building and maintaining a stable country. And here is the author again: “A country’s defense capability has to be continually upgraded as new technology, especially information technology, is incorporated into weapons systems. This requires a sound economy that can afford to pay for new weaponry and a highly educated and trained people who can integrate the various arms into one system and operate them efficiently and effectively.”

Notice how he integrates his leadership goals, created during the central planning stage, instead of leaving them to unfold from haphazard circumstances. His number one goal is utilizing and developing the country’s primary asset, its people; developing a viable defense force for the country’s protection, and creating a sustainable economic plan to move the country forward. A clear vision, put into action and implemented effectively, equals good leadership. That is how the country, Singapore, set out to distinguish itself not just in its geographic sphere, but on the world stage… the results have been nothing short of spectacular.


Given the geographical limitations the country faced, a country without a hinterland, the prospects looked bleak. That is, unless a fantastic and innovative economic plan was unleashed. The author writes further: “…all of us in the cabinet knew that the only way to survive was to industrialize… For that, we concentrated on getting factories started. Despite our small domestic market of 2 million, we protected locally assembled cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, radios, television sets, and tape-recorders, in the hope that they would be partly manufactured locally. We encouraged our own businesspeople who set up small factories to manufacture vegetable oils, cosmetics, mosquito coils, hair cream, joss paper, and even mothballs! And we were able to attract Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors to build factories for toys, textiles, and garments.”

The government planners of Singapore realized that the Taiwanese and Hong Kong entrepreneurs brought low technology such as textile and toy manufacturing; labor intensive, but not on a large scale. Bear in mind, the government had pledged itself to the agenda of being the best in the region; being just as good as their neighbors was not good enough.

Lee Kuan Yew had learned that the Israelis, faced with a hostile environment, found a way around their difficulty by leaping over their Arab neighbors who boycotted them, to trade with Europe and America. In his wisdom, he quickly adapted the policy to “leapfrog” the region, as the Israelis had done. According to him, “We had to link up with the developed world --- America, Europe and Japan --- and attract their manufacturers to produce in Singapore and export their products to the developed world.

It must be noted here that many considered the idea of foreign multinational corporations setting up factories and exporting finished goods exploitative. The practice was referred to as the “dependency school of thought” or simply neo-colonist exploitation. But Singapore went along anyway, after a thorough examination of the costs and benefits. It came to the conclusion that it had no natural resources for the MNCs to exploit. On the one hand, this was a way to attract much needed foreign investment capital; on the other hand, its citizens stood to benefit from the training and the employment opportunities to be derived, a win-win situation.


The second strategy was to create a “First World oasis” in a Third World region. Again, here is the author: “If Singapore could establish First World standards in public and personal security, health, education, telecommunications, transportation, and services, it would become a base camp for entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, and other professionals who had business to do in the region. This meant we had to train our people and equip them to provide First World standards of service. I believed this was possible, that we could reeducate and reorient our people with the help of schools, trade unions, community centers, and social organizations.”

To make its business policy viable, especially for the purpose of attracting and facilitating needed foreign investment, the government established the Economic Development Board. Its purpose was to become a one-stop agency so that an investor need not deal with a large number of departments and ministries. This agency would sort out all an investor’s requirements, whether related to land, power, water or environmental and work safety.

Lee Kuan Yew: “The government played a key role in attracting foreign investments; we built infrastructure and provided well-planned industrial estates, equity participation in industries, fiscal incentives, and export promotion. Most importantly, we established good labor relations and sound macroeconomic policies, the fundamentals that enable private enterprise to operate successfully.”

The government was successful in convincing investors from advanced countries to set up centers in the country. The Germans, French, Dutch, Japanese and Americans agreed to the offer and brought in their own instructors to train Singaporean technicians. The local workers who were trained became familiar with the various work systems and cultures of the different nations, making them desirable employees.

The author continues here: “If I had to choose one word to explain why Singapore succeeded, it is CONFIDENCE. This was what made foreign investors site their factories and refineries here…”

It is clear, so far, that Lee Kuan Yew took his responsibility seriously. He didn’t simply seek an elective office for personal ego aggrandizement; he considered it his obligation to uplift his nation and people through genuine economic policies. He had a vision and most primary to the vision was the integrity of leadership; the people were recognized as the nation’s most valuable resource, whose trust must not be violated or taken for granted. He saw his nation depending on a few basic strategies to move forward into the comity of nations; foremost were a strong national defense and viable macro and microeconomic policies. In Part II, we shall see how the miracle unfolded to make Singapore one of the modern world’s mysteries: Turning a Third World country into a First World country in twenty-five years.

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Patrick Sneh Davis
This paragraph is very powerful:
"The second strategy was to create a “First World oasis” in a Third World region. Again, here is the author: “If Singapore could establish First World standards in public and personal security, health, education, telecommunications, transportation, and services, it would become a base camp for entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, and other professionals who had business to do in the region. This meant we had to train our people and equip them to provide First World standards of service. I believed this was possible, that we could reeducate and reorient our people with the help of schools, trade unions, community centers, and social organizations.”
While Liberia is a long way from an "oasis" of the kind in this paragraph, "we have it within our power" to pursue the necessary infrastructure outlined in it. Yes, it is going to take a massive "reeducationing", an arduous task, but there is no short-cut to this.
Thanks Theo; we needed that!
Patrick Sneh Davis at 01:02PM, 2015/02/23.
James McGill
Yes. This is yet another brilliant and intellectually stimulating piece from Theo. I was mesmerized on how the paper described the fortitude of Mr. Yuan in taking his country, Singapore, from infancy to being a robust industrial power. What really pierced me during the reading is the fact that unlike Singapore, Liberia is blessed with both a hinterland where one can find some of the most coveted mineral resources in the world, a verdantly green forest and a coastal area where harbors for the shipment and transshipment of goods and services exist. Nevertheless, in the midst of the vast wealth, even a token quality of life for its average citizen is non-existent and it has baffled renown economists for over a century now.

Why should it be this way? One can only grope for answers through the eyes of some researchers who have postulated a hypothesis that the reasons for Africa's underdevelopment is endemic corruption. To begin, the hypothesis states that corruption appears like it is inbred or genetically encoded in Africans so to speak. In buttressing this statement, they cited case scenarios where individuals visited several townships and clans in several West African countries to study ways and means of bringing development into those areas, and they produced these findings. Before they could chat with anyone within the village hierarchy, they had to offer bribes to all the chiefs and elders to accompany a simple hello and a returned welcome. Why? Because according to the findings, giving bribe to village power brokers and elders is a sign of great respect; moreover, it is an African culture tradition!! (kola nut)

On the central government level, when government ministers and lawmakers were asked, was corruption acceptable? They all said an emphatic no. On the other hand, the practice of graft and the acceptance of flush funds and backroom deals was still high among them. The study also discovered that there exists an indirect relationship between attempts to curb down corruption among government ministers and lawmakers in West Africa and the upsurge of more corruption. It states that the more attempts were made to tackle this blithe, the more the malefactors would conjure up other mechanisms to continue the diabolical act. This hybrid headed mismanagement monster has produced a serious crisis of confidence within our society; and not by any stretch of the imagination does it come close to the kind of "CONFIDENCE" which Theo alluded to, within the context of Mr. Yuan's experiences and his beloved country of Singapore.This is the kind of confidence that goes with integrity, hard work and love for one's own country.

I wish that our local and national leaders could read this kind of literature to glean some thoughts that can be used to improve our impoverished society. Many thanks for the incredible insights and I am waiting for Part II. Stay on course; keep driving the message home.
James McGill at 03:23PM, 2015/02/23.
Flahn Momoh Dualu
I still remember the many case studies in developmental economics on Lee Yew ;he laid out a step by step guide to development. If only our leaders just read alittle or better yet care just a bit.
Flahn Momoh Dualu at 05:08PM, 2015/02/23.
Very insightful bro…you are right not only could this book serve as instruction manual, there are other nations with similar stories as ours that turnout successful in the end…we did not need to reinvent the wheel when there are countless examples to emulate. That brings to mind the question of sincerity…How sincere was the president and her lieutenants to transform this nation and its people when she took over some nine years ago, I wondered. A classic example is our educational system, the bedrock for any modern society, nine years into her presidency yet no viable solutions. We have successive leaders that pretend to reinvent the wheel at the detriment of society…why it is true the buck stops at the president’s desk, we must not lose sight of the fact that those that enable this fail system should be held accountable, otherwise they will resurface in future governments just to repeat the same…

The one question that keeps pondering me is why did Liberians re-elect this president the second term in office when her first was not convincing? Her first was marred with everything counterproductive to building a viable nation, yet she was highly favored among the candidates…I’ve tried convincing myself to an acceptable conclusion, but finding it hard to accept. Any thoughts…?
Jgbomo at 11:47AM, 2015/02/24.
James McGil
Many thanks for sharing these thoughts and also requesting for others to give their opinion. Please permit me to isolate two quotations to offer some takes on.

“The one question that keeps pondering me is why did Liberians re-elect this president the second term in office when her first was not convincing? Her first was marred with everything counterproductive to building a viable nation, yet she was highly favored among the candidates…I’ve tried convincing myself to an acceptable conclusion, but finding it hard to accept. Any thoughts…?”

Liberians saw Ellen as the last straw that a drowning country could put its bet on. When Ellen took over the rein of power in Liberia, most of our qualified university and college graduates had fled the country. Therefore she recruited whomever she could find with whatever token skills they had to manage the affairs of the country. Are there not capable Liberians to run the country? Yes, there are. Nevertheless, a large pool of Liberian professionals remains external capacities and they are not willing to live in Liberia. Well, one can make the case that this is morally wrong. On the other hand, they are simply obeying the economic rationality. Humans simply would like to live where they can enjoy a better quality of life – have an education, have access to jobs, health care, have incentives, and so forth. Liberia cannot offer this; so, the president selected from the cards that were dealt to her at home.

No matter how many differences, dislikes, and negative opinions that one might have of Ellen, she brazed the storm and stood up to the call of leadership. In the Great United States and likewise other western democracies, large segments of the population may differ from their leaders based on policies such as health care, education, the military, infrastructures, the gender gap, and so forth, but yet they still maintain some level of respect for those leaders. Why? Because certain aspects of the leaders’ policies may appear to be unfavorable to some people, but favorable to others. Ellen might not have built mansions in the skies. Nevertheless, many Liberians especially our poor indigenous people who only need peace so that they can live on their subsistence farming have high regards for her. Under her administration the country has remained peaceful and she has shown respect for the rule of law and human rights.

“…why it is true the buck stops at the president’s desk, we must not lose sight of the fact that those that enable this fail system should be held accountable, otherwise they will resurface in future governments just to repeat the same…”.

It is wishful thinking to belief that after Ellen’s term the unqualified lawmakers and mediocre cabinet ministers will no longer have the opportunity to work in the government. Why? They are Liberians and so they will still be entitled to the same rights and privileges as other Liberians. Can anybody compare the misery and death under the Doe and Taylor regimes to anything we are witnessing today under Ellen’s? No. Nevertheless, many of the perpetrators of those filthy administrations are holding top positions today. Why they were not barred from holding these positions? Why should the Ellen's administration be treated differently?
James McGil at 10:56AM, 2015/02/27.
Frederick S. Cooper
This is a hallmark of a true patriot. Leadership merged with patriotism is what got Yuan to succeed in his quest to lead the people of Singapore. This is what we lacked as a country. We travel alot and know of the good things that happened in other countries just deliberately refused to bring them back home to integrate into our system. If Liberia must succeed in 2017, we as Liberians must watch carefully as who to elect as our next leader;if not, we are treading a dangerous path to development and will cost us our future and the future of the unborn.
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