Cynics often take “the next Singapore” to connote the perceived illiberal political regimes of both countries. He Zongying has an alternative interpretation.
In the 2015 press freedom index, Singapore was ranked at 153 out of 180 countries, and just a few places above Rwanda at 161. Yet, the bigger story here is that Singapore is a nation that has made it from third world to first in a little under a generation.
2014 International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates put Singapore in third place in terms of gross domestic product per capita in a worldwide ranking.
So how close is Rwanda getting?
To be sure, there are numerous parallels between Singapore in the 1960s and the Rwanda that emerged at the turn of the century and the policy decisions they have taken since then.
While Rwanda struggled to emerge from the ruins of the 1994 genocide, Singapore in the 1960s was also undergoing its own struggles, experiencing racial riots and strife, albeit to a different degree.
The result though is that both had to be culturally sensitive and that had a tremendous effect on the crafting of subsequent policies. Adopting English as an official language required political will for both countries. English was the language of Singapore’s former colonial masters at a time where regard for them was at an all-time low due to the destruction of their infallible image after the Second World War.
The adoption of English by Rwanda was radical considering their numerous years as a francophone country. Both realised though that it was the dominant business language of the times, and pursued it nonetheless.
The implementing of Umuganda, a form of community work, in Rwanda also served to institute a sense of shared responsibility and allowed the nation to heal its divisions with amnesty reintegration programmes. Singapore had likewise placed an emphasis on racial integration by championing meritocracy over race-based politics, and implementing quotas in its public housing projects to ensure that there would not be separate cultural clusters.
Investing in infrastructure
Just as Singapore focused on building its manufacturing industry, Kigali has placed its bets on the manufacturing of today - information technology. A pertinent example is how the government laid out 2,300km of fibre optic cables across the country in 2011, meant as the infrastructural bedrock upon which it would attract the growth of foreign investments and the e-commerce industry.
Rwanda also invested in its people. Rwanda is similar to Singapore in that it has no significant natural resources. Unlike oil-rich Nigeria or diamond-laden Angola, Rwanda is a land-locked country with little else going for it. Recognising that its people were its main resource was a fundamental basis on which Singapore built its policies. Emphasis on education was key to building a ‘knowledge-based economy’, and developing a healthcare system that was ranked by Bloomberg in 2014 as the most efficient in the world.
Rwanda, too, has instituted compulsory primary and lower secondary education and has partnered with One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit initiative to introduce technology to children from a young age.
Life expectancy in Rwanda, similarly, has risen from 28 years in the aftermath of the genocides to 65.7 this year.
Similar policies, such as fighting corruption, clamping down on organized crime and having strong centralized institutions, all serve to draw comparisons between the two.
While still in their initial phases of efforts to emulate the city-state, Rwanda’s people must also acknowledge the less flattering connotations of the comparison - the clamping down of opposition and the not-so-invisible hand of the government in everyday lives.
Singapore today is having another look at its grow-at-all-costs policy. Economic success has not made the government immune to criticism.
The last elections in 2011 resulted in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) having the lowest share of the vote since Independence. From society’s point of view, it should be a good problem to have. It is that of a country that has enlarged the pie enough for it to step back and think about how it should distribute it.
It is an often-acknowledged fact that the government in Singapore leverages on its dominance in parliament to push through ‘politically unpopular, economically efficient’ policies.
This reliance on political stability should not be confused with having to have illiberal measures in place to exercise control over the populace.
The challenge, then, is to thread precariously in between the two positions and find the sweet spot.
After all, the legacy of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, resides in him knowing when to step down, having a succession plan that bears his vision and the building of institutions that can outlast him.
There is no doubt that Rwanda has taken great strides in the last 10 years, but in a continent scarred by the actions of strongmen in recent history, Rwanda must remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
This article was first published in African Business magazine, June 2015 issue. Copyright IC Publications 2015. Published under permission by IC Publications www.africanbusinessmagazine.com.