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Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew: A lesson for Biafra

A teary-eyed Lee Kuan Yew made a broadcast in which he told his people that the merger between Singapore and Malaysia had collapsed.  This was…

A teary-eyed Lee Kuan Yew made a broadcast in which he told his people that the merger between Singapore and Malaysia had collapsed.  This was in early August of 1965.  Earlier in the day, Lee Kuan Yew signed an agreement detailing how the two nations would co-exist peacefully.

The collapse of negotiations was a personal blow to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.  And after the speech during which he fought back tears, he disappeared from the public for six weeks.

These dramatic events happened after Lee himself led Singapore to form a union with Malaysia.  In doing so, he used the referendum of 1962 to convince Singaporeans of the popularity of his proposal to join Malaysia.  Lee “rigged” the referendum to support his call, for, while 70% of voters supported joining Malaysia, the other votes cast were left blank because Lee didn’t allow an option for “No”.

Malaysia was then called Malaya and its prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, in 1961, proposed a federation (Malaysia) which will include Malaya, Singapore and Sabah and Sarawak (in the Borneo region).  One of the chief reasons for Lee to champion this call and support Tunku Abdul Rahman, was to help end the British colonial rule – who, Lee remembered, couldn’t help the Singaporeans during the Japanese occupation of the city-state from 1942 to 1945.

In September 1963 Singapore became part of Malaysia, but two years later, a separation became necessary due to: one, race riots (in which Malays and Chinese of Singapore killed themselves after a Chinese allegedly set upon a Malay rally with a bottle) and two, what Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman called “A State Government that showed no measure of loyalty to its Central Government.” 

Of the separation, a distraught Lee said: “every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life … you see, the whole of my adult life … I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories.

You know, it’s a people connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship…”

Lee soon came out of his seclusion to lead Singapore from 1959 to 1990; from a country that had nothing to one that had everything.  Now Singapore leads Asia in Human Development Index and is ninth in the world.

 The foregoing tells a story about early days of Singapore to make the point that Singapore and Biafra of today may share some things in common, one of which is the fact that they both have no easily identifiable natural resource.  For example, to this day, Singapore imports its drinking water from Malaysia.  Yet, many would argue that one major difference is that while Singapore is an island which berths many ships, Biafra is landlocked.

 However, the most important difference is that in Singapore’s experience with nationhood (merger with Malaysia, separation, self-governance, independence and its march into developed nation status), yields a point that differs with that of Biafra.  In all the struggles, Singapore was led by an incredibly patriotic statesman who  hungered for freedom – in all its shades – for his people.  Lee once said that if, while being lowered into the grave, something went wrong with Singapore, he would wake up!

What I take away from the renewed struggle for Biafra is that the movement still lacks a leader.  As a result, I conclude that for Biafra to succeed and leap-frog Nigeria in development a la Singapore and Malaysia, the movement needs to find itself a self-less leader.

Biafra and Singapore both experienced war, in Singapore’s case, a Japanese occupation in which Lee was once slapped for refusing to bow to a Japanese soldier and once escaped the firing squad. The drivers of Biafra, notably Nnamdi Kanu, do not appear to have that experience.

Lee is highly educated. He and his two brothers graduated from Cambridge.  He, as a lawyer who graduated with First Class and a perfect score in Part II Law, Nnamdi Kanu, the face of the new Biafra movement, on the other hand, if he’s educated at all, does not project that image.

While Lee was wise enough to realize that his nation needed Malaysia and even signed agreement on trade and defence, Nnamdi Kanu wants to burn down everything in Nigeria.  And he attracts the same followership whose dustups are laden with ultimatums instead of moving and convincing speeches: “do this or we burn down the embassy!”

 I don’t see why Biafra would want to leave Nigeria. (Igbos are enterprising and therefore need the large market Nigeria offers.) I also see no reason why Nigeria should keep Biafra. (They account for a

large chunk of our negative image abroad.) I however think a separation would bring benefits to both countries.

 As illogical as that may sound, many variables would come into play that would engender such advantages.

But the Biafra Movement would do well to replace its rhetoric of fearwith plans and negotiation of how the future nation will survive, collaborate and compete with its neighbours.  Rallying behind a strong leader is a good way to start.  Israelites had Moses, Singaporeans had Lee, and even the first Biafrans had Ojukwu.

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