OPINIONBy Innocent Batsani Ncube
“There are books to teach you how to build a house, how to repair engines, how to write a book. But I have never seen a book on how to build a nation or how to make a living for its people,” said Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, I write this open letter to you as a way of sharing my thoughts as a patriotic Zimbabwean on matters that are dear to each and every citizen — the socio-economic prosperity of our country that tangibly translates to a better life for all who call Zimbabwe home.
I am a plebeian, a proud father of four and a patriot who cherishes a better life for our nation. To put across my argument and citizen advice to you, I will heavily rely on the reflections of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore.
From the story of that great city state which defied all odds and moved from third to first world in a generation, I will share with you three things that partly made this transformation possible with the fervent hope that the same principles will foreground your thinking as you execute your duty in the service of our great but presently challenged republic.
These three aspects are:, turning problems into opportunities, the role of lateral thinking in leadership and the importance of efficiency in strategy execution.
As a disclaimer, this advice is given freely, without any expectation for personal reward or honour. The only expectation, as you say in your inauguration speech, is to for you to embrace this treatise in the spirit of governing in the interests of all Zimbabweans.
Problems as opportunities
On August 9, 1965, the Malaysian Parliamentarians, in the absence of delegates from Singapore, voted unanimously
(126-0) to amend the constitution, leading to the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation.
The 42-year-old Lee was faced with an unenviable task of shepherding a young and vulnerable polity, which was literally on its feet without the support of its big neighbour.
There started the tumultuous journey of a young nation that did not have a water supply, relying on its hostile neighbour (We cry about currency that’s even a smaller challenge). The nascent city state was beset by many problems that included unemployment, the withdrawal of processing and grading goods business by its two trading partners, Indonesia and Malaysia.
As days and months progressed, unemployment and discontent were on the rise and the country was literally sitting on knife-edge.
Lee demonstrates this desperation vividly when he mentions that an expert seconded by the friendly Indian government produced an elaborate “voluminous” plan that was anchored on a common market with Malaysia!
Lee scanned the abstract and realised that no one will get it, thanked the expert and never looked at the report again. He knew at that stage that a radical ideation process that could result in charting a completely new path was needed.
Assessing the dire situation and preparing for the seemingly doomed future, Lee says, “We had to create a new kind of economy: try new methods and schemes never tried before anywhere else in the world.”
The first step in this journey was the acknowledgement of Singapore’s major assets. Unlike Zimbabwe, the city state had zero mineral resources to leverage on and their greatest resource was just its people.
The second element in Lee’s thought leadership was to conceptualise the kind of ethos that Singaporeans would be imbued with to ensure that the plans worked. He held that Singapore in its circumstances could not afford to be ordinary if it was to succeed. It had to make a conscious effort to be a tightly knit and adaptable society. On brand positioning Lee ensured that Singapore was to be “rugged, better organised and more efficient than others in the region”.
Lee believed that being as good as the neighbours would create no incentive for investors to set up base in Singapore hence his idea of ensuring that they make it possible for potential investors to operate “successfully and profitably” in Singapore, notwithstanding their lack of a domestic market and natural resources.
To drive this dream, Singapore set up at law the Economic Development Board (ECB), which was the one-stop portal for investor scouting, registration and extension support, as well as creating structural and programmatic enabling modalities for effective business operations.
Lee and the Finance minister Keng Swee, head-hunted Hon Sui Sen, a quiet, unassuming, amazingly talented and dynamic Singaporean professional who was at that time attached to the World Bank, to chair and propel the ECB. Hon was given the latitude to choose the best and brightest of Singapore’s returning graduates from universities abroad. He cultivated a winning culture at the ECB, anchored on enthusiasm, unflagging spirit, and ingenious problem solving. Inspired by Hon’s motivational leadership style, the core preoccupation of the young talented officers was attracting more investment and creating more jobs.
The team put in the legwork, courting foreign investors and persuading them to conduct site visits.
The moral of the story, Cde President, is that the ECB became so huge and so successful that it became necessary to split it into different components which exist to this day such as the JTC Corporation and the Development Bank of Singapore (US$10,28 billion, 2016 annual revenues.)
This awesome narrative has a happy ending. From a backwater US$3 billion dollar economy to the current US$509 billion, now an important financial centre it is ranked third richest in the world with a Gross Domestic Product per capita of US$90 530. The Singapore airline (an offshoot of the legendary ECB) is consistently part of the top three in the world and highly profitable. Challenges still exist but the trajectory is clear, it is a comet that goes up. When Lee died in March 2015, the outpouring of grief was palpable and genuine.
This story of the improbable success of Singapore has direct resonance with our republic. I contend that we are better off than Singapore as it had hostile neighbours we do not, it did not have natural resources we are spoilt for choice, it had an eager and hardworking population, which we also have.
Your coming to the Presidency when there is a unique constellation of three big game changers, including the palpable national consensus for change and socio-economic transformation, a surge in national consciousness and patriotism going beyond political parties — seen during the marches on November 18 and, critically, the evident goodwill from the International community to assist Zimbabwe is an ideal pedestal for you to establish a firm base whence your successors can build from.
To rebrand Zimbabwe, you should assume moral leadership in transforming the governance culture and the political DNA, promote open, transparent and clean governance, as well as creatively balance national healing and nation building. It is on you to inspire Zimbabweans to rally behind or around the flag and make Zimbabwe work and rock again.
Lee was a lawyer like you, but did not have the experience that you now have in government at the time when he started. Sir, there are many things both positive and negative that we as plebeians say about you based on your past record in government — but this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve our country has placed you on the cusp of history.
This new page that has been thrust at you by the convergence of personal effort, providence and fate is clean, and the ink and feather await your hand, await your instruction to establish the three-tier contact (feather, ink and paper). Once written, the ink is indelible and it is for posterity. Few will ever get this chance Shumba, use it wisely.
Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading Elections, Campaigns and Democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London.