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Singapore continues to boom

Nov 16, 2007 Business Daily, Leadership

“The strong global economic tide has lifted the boats of most South-East Asian countries, but perhaps the most impressive performer is Singapore. Its national income per head is already higher than Spain’s and New Zealand’s, and five times that of its nearest neighbour, Malaysia…since the 1997 Asian Crisis, it has fared markedly better than its rival, Hong Kong.

…Singapore has sustained its growth through unusually clean and efficient government, and by having one of the world’s best education systems.”

The Economist (October 27, 2007)

Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of Singapore’s rise from third world to first in one generation, is long gone from the seat of power. Yet the Singapore success story continues apace, without any sign of slackening.

It is easy to forget that we are talking about a nation that was until quite recently just a bunch of islands populated by fishermen. Its total land mass is just over 600 square kilometres. It is low-lying, hot and humid, and singularly lacking in any mineral or energy resources. Most food needs to be imported, and there is no natural source of drinking water.

Yet this is the country that now rubs shoulders with the long-prosperous, resource-rich nations of Europe.

As we discuss whether our own take-off is going to happen in Kenya, what should we discern when we gaze at those distant Asian islands? For one thing, we should see what clean government does for a country. Singapore is ruthless about corruption. Transgressions at any level are not tolerated. Ministers have been jailed when caught with their hands in the till. The country’s first-world, sparkling infrastructure is a poignant testament to what is possible when national resources are used properly to do the right things. In Singapore, a job in the civil service is not something to be ashamed of. The public sector attracts the cream of the workforce, not the larcenous or the lazy.

Education is undoubtedly another key driver. Singapore was not content with having just a good education system – it wanted the best. Singapore’s superb education structure is now the envy of most of the world. Let us gaze at that too: what well-equipped classrooms, top-notch teachers and outstanding research institutions do for a country.

But here’s a paradox: Singapore has some the world’s best human capital, yet it sucks in millions of immigrant workers. Its people are, on average, superbly educated; yet almost a third of its residents were born in other countries. Singapore’s visionary government has always been keen on foreign workers: it recognises that economies do not grow without access to a growing and diverse stream of human talent. The USA proved that case a long time ago.

In Kenya, sadly, we remain stuck in failed paradigms. We are still mistrustful of people who hail from even a few kilometres away, let alone from across oceans. Our history has brought rich streams of immigrants to this land, from all directions, and those streams have fed our national talent pool. Yet we still remain mired in village thinking, and are to this day mistrustful of ‘foreigners’. We could be so much more, but we are content to be surrounded by our clansmen.

Countries do not transform themselves just from within. We must remain open for business, and must allow talent, ideas, capital and culture to move freely, within and across our borders.

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