Lessons for President Sirleaf and Cabinet: How to Build a Nation
By: Theodore Hodge
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By now it is an old and familiar story that Liberia’s infrastructure, already dilapidated and outdated, was further damaged by years of civil war.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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