This question tickled me when an interviewee raised it as I asked him questions over the phone about the African economy. While the topic of our conversation was about Africa, it was only tangentially related to the question of who becomes the next Singapore among African nations.
True, that is a question we all need to ask and find an honest answer to. For an African country, becoming like Singapore will mean re-writing the story of backwardness, poverty, slums and chaotic economic management models that defy description. It will mean the emergence of an African Lee Kuan Yew, who will help a nation chart the economic and political systems that can guide it to greatness.
Governments have to get involved in the economic system and get their priorities right. The governments will have to develop the right relationships with investors, which in the long run will translate into investment flows into different sectors of the economy. Investment flows have a positive correlation with the development of an economy’s productive capacity, both in terms of the provision of the physical infrastructure and industrial plants and equipment for the actual production of goods.
Such a country must make optimal use of its labour force, and in a typical African country, that includes the youth. Over 60 per cent of the continent’s population is made of people below the age of 25, according to the World Economic Forum. So, to make the most of this large army of young people, governments need to have a positive relationship with their rising young population. This means that government policies must be tailored toward preparing them for the future before that future arrives. That is the only way to get them involved in the economic system.
Having a positive relationship with the youth requires getting them trained now and given the right education, equipping them with the relevant skills that will be needed in tomorrow’s economy in which they will play. An uneducated, unskilled youth has no future to look forward to.
In broader terms, the government must have a positive relationship with the future of the economy in the sense that it is the actions of the government today that will define where the economy will be in a few years’ time from now.
Having a positive relationship with the future economic development of the country means laying today the foundation of tomorrow’s economy. In other words, 10 years, 20 years, or even 50 years down the road, Nigerians should be able to correlate the performance of the economy thence with actions and policies being taken by the government of today.
Policies that could have taken Nigeria higher on the development pedestal ought to have been made four or five decades ago and sustained over the intervening years by supportive measures borne out of new global realities.
So, who will be the next Singapore in Africa? The answer is not necessarily a question of who is where now. Neither is it about the country with the largest amount of natural resources. We have seen countries bulging with natural resources go cap in hand begging. We have seen such countries, including Nigeria, hit the bottom of the human development index. This is because the political and economic systems to guarantee their beneficial use to all have been lacking or weakened by the ineptitude of governments.
The African country that will be the next Singapore is that nation that will provide the right answer to the question: Who will make the right choices?
So, what is it about Singapore? Why would an African country aspire to be a Singapore? Well, Singapore was a very poor country when it gained independence in 1965 from Malaysia.
That was five years after the Union Jack was lowered in Lagos, and the Green-White-Green flag hoisted in its place, signifying Nigeria’s independence from Britain.
At the time it gained independence, Singapore’s economy was marked by poverty, unemployment, and a lack of natural resources. It had ethnic tensions, as we experience in Nigeria.
But the difference between its leadership and those of other countries is that the country, under Yew, made the right choices in terms of its policy framework. It adopted an export-led industrial policy and backed it with the right policy mix.
Over the years, that island country has transitioned from labour-intensive industries to knowledge-based industries such as ICT, financial services, and of course, biotechnology.
However, the most significant of the country’s achievements is the role that human agency or leadership has played in its meteoric rise from a third-world nation to a first-world country in terms of human living conditions.
Within a short time (about a generation), this island nation has joined the elite club of rich and prosperous nations whose citizens, on average, can be said to be happy. They include countries in Europe and North America, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, attribute this transition to “economic and political rules created and forced by the state and citizens collectively.”
While the current struggle by the African Union and individual countries on the continent to join global groups is quite commendable, this does not in any way obviate the need for the countries to get their acts right at home first. Joining BRICS or the G-20 is good and necessary in today’s world defined by integration and networking, but ensuring that national institutions and systems are established and respected by all, is key to national greatness.
“Economic institutions shape economic incentives: the incentives to become educated, to save and invest, to innovate and adopt new technologies, and so on. It is the political process that determines what economic institutions people live under and it is the political institutions that determine how this process works,” according to Acemoglu and Robinson.
This boils down to the making of the right choices, the prescription made by my interviewee at the beginning of this piece. The making of an economy that will last demands that the right things be done by both the state and the citizenry.
Becoming the next Singapore will require an African nation to attract capital and retain it through policies. It will require being transparent and open to change and innovation.
Africa has vacancies for leaders that will anchor the transition.