How Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from small town into global financial hub

Bowing out: former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, has died at the age of 91. Image: Getty.

This week, we're looking at different perspectives on Lee Kuan Yew's governance of Singapore. This piece examines the positives. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of one of Asia’s smallest but most developed economies, has died. Lee led Singapore after its separation from Malaysia to emerge as one of the world’s most powerful financial centres.

The tiny nation, whose main industry was manufacturing when it became an independent republic in 1965, saw its GDP per capita skyrocket under Lee to one of the highest in the world in 2013. Its population has doubled to more than 5m.

Singapore flourished thanks to Lee's foresight and skill to join the ranks of New York, London and Switzerland as a global financial hub. Singapore has no natural resources of its own to exploit, so Lee used its port to increase trading activity. 

Even though Lee was criticised by many for leading the country in an authoritarian style that stifled political dissent and press freedoms, his firm grip on power and maintenance of stability gave little scope for corrupt financial practices. The orderliness that Singapore became known for was attractive to foreign investment – billions of dollars poured in, ensuring the country’s economic success.

Lee maintained a tight grip on domestic finance by preventing the internationalisation of the Singapore dollar and limiting the operations of foreign banks. This meant international firms saw an opportunity to establish themselves in the tiny island nation. Sound financial and economic policy coupled with a corruption-free environment and technological advancement meant many multinational firms chose Singapore as a regional hub. Lee championed free trade, which helped Singapore attract a free flow of foreign investment and multinational giants such as General Electric.

Singapore’s central business district, a hub for international business. Image: Limtohhan at Wikimedia Commons.

One clear factor in Singapore’s rise was Lee’s ability to take consistent advantage of global financial upheavals. This began in 1971 when America de-linked the dollar from gold. Lee was quick to grasp this opportunity and established Singapore as a regional centre for foreign exchange.

Indeed, since 1968, the Singapore government has provided incentives and preferential tax treatments to cultivate an Asian Dollar Market. This initiative proved instrumental in helping Singapore to develop as a financial centre and maintain a lead over its nearest rival, Hong Kong.

Keeping locals happy

Lee knew that for Singapore to compete with global giants, he needed to provide Singaporeans with housing and employment opportunities that would bring the nation economic stability. To this end, he established the Housing Development Board and Economic Development Board. The housing board transformed this space-constrained island into a world class metropolis that helped its citizens to move out of small ghettos into carefully planned mixed townships and provided superior living conditions for its citizens.

Source: World Bank.

Meanwhile, the development board slowly built up Singaporean industries and businesses to provide job opportunities for both locals and expats. These efforts of the premier saw Singapore’s per capita GDP jump from around US$500 in 1965 by a staggering 2800% to US$14,500 by 1991. Building on Lee’s economic model, it has since continued to grow to US$55,000.

Singapore under Lee also adopted a two-pronged strategy with regards to its financial sector. As well as making Singapore an international financial hub, it wanted the financial sector to play a key supporting role to the growing industries located in Singapore such as manufacturing and shipping.

Lee’s style of running Singapore earned him many accolades. He was once described by Richard Nixon as “A big man on a small stage who in other times and other places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, Disraeli or a Gladstone”.

He was a man with a mission to transform a small seaside town into a financial giant. The size of the country’s GDP per capita compared to its tiny size and lack of resources is testament to his success at doing so.

Nafis Alam is an Associate Professor of Finance and Director of the Centre for Islamic Business and Finance Research at the University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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