Lee Kuan Yew, the founding President of Singapore is regarded, the world-over, as the miracle man; one who combined a rare attribute of intellectual capacity and executive power to turn around the economically fragile State of Singapore into a modern economic powerhouse.
In the 950s, Singapore was a little fishing village with hardly any modernized physical infrastructure, no functioning education system and no formal economic structures. It largely survived on revenues from the nearby British Military base situated east of the Suez and resources from the former Malaya federation, of which Singapore was part.
When the British Military base was shifted and the Malaya federation collapsed Singapore’s survival was in doubt before a man known as Lee Kuan Yew, who some scholars describe as “near-genius” came in.
Lee Kuan Yew pulled off a miracle by uplifting his nation from a little fishing village into a flourishing economic powerhouse.
He positioned Singapore to become a service economy with a commitment that in its chosen areas of specialization Singapore would be second to none within their region. They set out to be a centre of excellence in Banking, Insurance, Dry-dock, Services and Technology.
Today Singapore is not only a successful economic power in South-east Asia but also a model for any serious nation that means business.
But yet again, critics say Lee Kaun Yew’s approach to development is a sharp contrast to what democracy teaches us. The say the people of Singapore have accepted a tight discipline, more or less, autocratic, as the price for prosperity.
They point to Lee Kuan Yew’s own words. “A people must have reached a high level of education and economic development, must have a seasonable middle class and life must no longer be a fight for basics, before that society could work such a democratic system,”
Meaning that high literacy and a large middle class are the social requisites of any democratic system that indeed serves the true aspirations of this virtue.
Today, the debate on whether the need for economic prosperity suffocates democratic values in emerging countries is a debate that is gaining interest in many circles. And the debate is simply a chicken and egg scenario----the question is; democracy and development which comes first?
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was explicit in his response to this question. Get to a certain level of education and economic prosperity then start to think of working out your democratic system, otherwise before you gain economic independence, you are simply wasting time on democracy. For this, Singapore was described as a progressive nation with a regressive approach to rights.
Today the same criticism is being baptized on Rwanda. And yet the leadership has a more balanced approach to this dichotomy, one that takes stock of the importance in having both rights move side by side.
To Rwanda, democracy and development are not mutually exclusive; they are like Siamese twins and go hand in hand.
No better way to explain this than borrowing President Paul Kagame remarks at his inauguration last year, “---we hold the view that you cannot have sustainable socio-economic development without corresponding growth in democratic governance. And in turn, political rights without a matching reduction of poverty and improved quality of life would be meaningless.”
In other words, what is democracy in the eyes of a family that cannot afford a meal a day? What does electioneering mean to a person who has never used a pen or seen what an electric bulb or a tarmac road look like?
To sow seeds of lasting democracy, you simply need to sow seeds of economic prosperity because; one succeeds largely due to the other.
This is what the Arab spring teaches….that prosperity has to be riding in pattern with democratic rights but not one overtaking the other. The challenge comes when some forces demand one at the expense of the other.
The evolution has to be gradual and in stages depending on the prevailing circumstances; you accelerate one, you lose the other.
Rwanda’s decentralization policy, seen as one of the most effective on the African continent does not only economically empower the ordinary person but also places enormous power in his/her hands to actively participate in issues of governance, including firing and hiring a leader.
It is a gradual process that builds democratic values right from the base. What baffles me is how some sections ignore the importance of such a system in building this foundation and only choose to echo concerns from a handful of noise makers that are largely seeking to satisfy their own individual interests.
I understand democracy is about the rule of law. How then does demanding respect for these laws constitute violation democratic rights? In other words, because of democracy, one can preach ethnicity and is simply cheered on. Is that a society we would want to build? I don’t think so!