Africa’s Singapore Dream
Why Rwanda's president styles himself as the heir to Lee Kuan Yew.
Rwandans are wondering a lot about their president’s future these days. Paul Kagame (shown above) is nearing the end of his second term in office, and according to the constitution that means he won’t be able to compete in the country’s next national election, scheduled for 2017. Will he bend the rules to allow himself to stay on?
In his latest interview, the 57-year-old Kagame is careful to avoid revealing his intentions, saying that the decision is not up to him: “2017, I repeat, is the people’s business.” But there’s an intriguing hint right at the end, where the interviewer touches upon the recent death of Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew, and asks Kagame whether he regards Lee as a model:
Evidently, an inspiration. A great man, driven by great principles and who achieved great things with a small country. Lee Kuan Yew has transformed Singapore and the lives of his people. This is also what we are doing in Rwanda.
Lee enjoyed an exceptionally long tenure as his country’s top politician — first as prime minister (1959-1990), then as senior minister (1990-2004), and finally as minister mentor (2004-2011). So Kagame’s fulsome praise for the Singaporean offers a highly suggestive hint about his own intentions.
Yet Kagame’s remark also begs a larger question: Why would an African leader seize upon a Singaporean as his model? The peculiar combination of rigid autocracy and free-market capitalism that Lee crafted for his country is often regarded as something deeply specific to East Asia. Lee himself sometimes alluded to the centrality of what he liked to call “Asian Values,” a Confucian-inflected mindset based on respect for education, entrepreneurship, and authority. Leaders from the region, ranging from China’s Deng Xiaoping to Malaysia’s Mahatir Mohamad, have been among his diehard fans.
Kagame doesn’t seem like a natural member of the club. Nestled in the mountains of Central Africa, on the surface Rwanda has little in common with the country that Lee turned into one of the world’s great business powerhouses. Singapore is an island on one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, its economy naturally predisposed to trade; Rwanda is a remote, land-locked state with little in the way of obvious natural advantages.
And though Singapore faced some serious tensions among its Chinese, Indian, and Malay citizens when it achieved independence in 1965, it never had to deal with anything like Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which took the lives of up to 1 million Rwandans and devastated the economy. That grim background is crucial to understanding Kagame’s muscular foreign policy, which doesn’t hesitate to use military means to achieve its ends. Rwanda has deployed troops and sponsored proxy forces in neighboring Congo, which it accuses of harboring guerrillas complicit in the genocide. Singapore, by contrast, is ostentatiously non-confrontational in its dealings with the rest of the world.
Yet there are also intriguing continuities. Both are relatively small countries: Rwanda’s population of 12 million is a bit more than twice that of Singapore’s. Both have started from low bases. Singapore’s per capita GDP at independence in 1965 was $516 (adjusted for current dollar values); in 2013, the figure for Rwanda was $638. Since neither country is particularly well endowed with natural resources, an emphasis on trade and services makes sense.
Kagame has been drawing parallels between the two countries for years. He refers to Rwanda as the “Singapore of Africa.” He cultivates Singaporean expertise, on everything from urban planning to the police. And he has even managed to replicate the Singaporean emphasis on tidiness. First-time visitors to Kigali, the capital, are invariably surprised by the spotless roads, the carefully ordered traffic, and the conspicuous absence of trash. (While Kagame hasn’t gone so far as to follow Lee’s bans on spitting or chewing gum, he has outlawed plastic bags.)
Nor are these the only similarities. Rwandan entrepreneurs and officials display a distinctly Singaporean boosterism as they tout their country’s business-friendly philosophy. And though Rwanda was under Belgian rule from 1922 to 1962, Kagame has renounced the use of French and embraced English. He’s even pushed his country into membership in the Commonwealth, making it one of the only two states in the organization that aren’t former British possessions — and yes, Singapore, too, is a member. (Lee, who was known as “Harry Lee” during his time studying law at Cambridge, maintained many aspects of the British legal system even after independence.)
Like Lee, Kagame has laid out a rigorous development strategy for his country based on trade, finance, and services. And like Lee he has pursued his plan with extraordinary single-mindedness, focusing limited resources on education, health, and information technology. Kagame, who aims to leverage cyberspace to overcome his country’s physical remoteness, has covered the country with a network of fiber optic cables. In 2000, according to government statistics, the number of Internet users in Rwanda was around 5,000. Today the number is 3.2 million, a quarter of the population.
Rwanda also follows in Singapore’s footsteps with its success in curbing corruption and cultivating the rule of law — in stark contrast to its neighbors, where courts and judges have miserable reputations. And unlike many other ostensible African success stories, Rwanda doesn’t seem to have made its progress at the cost of widening inequality. The government’s policies have produced steady growth — averaging about 8 percent between 2001 and 2013 — that has also benefited poor Rwandans.
These achievements have made Kagame a figure of esteem among some of his African peers — just as Lee was venerated by his East Asian colleagues. And it’s not hard to see why. The problems that faced Lee and his generation weren’t all that different from what their African counterparts confront today. Post-colonial Asia had to cope with deep religious and political divides, traumatic ethnic conflicts, and the sapping effects of corruption and mismanagement. Lee’s Singapore tackled the job with a ruthless focus on maximizing development; for Lee, ideology (and human rights) took a back seat to economic efficiency.
Kagame’s adaptation of the Singapore model could become even more influential in the years ahead. Africa, in the view of many observers, is now poised for a surge of economic growth that could replicate Asia’s remarkable rise over the past fifty years. According to some predictions, total African GDP ($2.6 trillion in 2013) could increase tenfold by the middle of this century.
Whether Africa can succeed in achieving solid economic growth depends largely on the quality of governance. Asians have already spent decades arguing the virtues and drawbacks of Singapore’s paternalistic model, which stressed clean government at the expense of civil liberties. Today’s Rwanda, which exemplifies the same trade-offs, is prompting similar discussion among Africans.
One of the key questions turns on the role of personality. Despots aren’t generally known for allowing the rise of potential rivals to their power; critics note that Rwanda’s current president has relentlessly purged anyone who might figure as a possible successor. Lee is lionized in so many quarters today largely because he was the rare example of an autocrat who succeeded in building institutions that outlived him. Will Kagame be able to make the same claim?
Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images