A leaf or two from Singapore

There are millions or perhaps billions of people out there which view Singapore as the ultimate utopian city or country. It’s systemic story of passing through the jaws of poverty very much resonates with African leaders who possess the belief that, like Singapore, they too can deliver their citizens from poverty in a single lifetime.

On Sunday, July 8, 2018, Ethiopian Airways flight ET638 on which I was aboard touched down at the Changi Airport, Singapore. It was my second time in Singapore, having been here in 2015, but it still feels like it is a whole new place altogether – given some expansion work carried out at the airport.

Unlike my first visit, this was at the behest of the Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry via its Africa Journalist Visit Programme (AJVP). The main objective of the programme was to offer journalists an opportunity to familiarise themselves with Singapore, by providing privileged access to the key public and private sector stakeholders driving Singapore’s engagement with African countries.

The journalists on this programme were drawn from Ethiopia, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, working at various types of media houses.

Over the five days we spent in the country, we had meetings with some of Singapore’s political leaders, were briefed by selected government agencies, and met with C-Level executives from Singapore-based companies which have a strong presence in Africa.

Before I delve into the meetings with the various officials we met, let me talk about what immediately strikes you about Singapore. Like excellent spatial-planning – an aerial view of the city-state gives you the impression of an immaculately planned city, especially taking into consideration all the constraints faced by the country.

To start with, Singapore is a really small country. Very small. Greater Accra is the smallest of the ten administrative regions, occupying a land area of about 3,245 square kilometers. Given Singapore’s land area of 721 square kilometers, you can easily fit in more than three Singapores into Greater Accra. Even more remarkable is to be told that over 20 percent of the country’s current area was reclaimed from the sea.

So, recognising that it doesn’t have the space, the country resorted to building very high-rise buildings – be it for commercial or domestic uses. It is instructive to learn that more than 80 percent of Singaporean reside in a public housing facility managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

There is no denying that public housing in Ghana is in complete disarray if one should make the mistake of comparing it to what exists in Singapore. While not much success has been achieved in the past, the Singapore story points to a raft of lessons that could be learned from a country knowing how to house its citizens well.

The fact that the country has a relatively bigger land mass doesn’t mean it should not use it judiciously. Our attempts at building public housing have been restricted to a few storeys, which doesn’t make the most of the land. There is a need to opt for much higher buildings – perhaps not less than 50-storeys.

One beautiful thing about public housing is that it ensures you control the expansion of utilities i.e. water, electricity, broadband etc., as well as the provision of other social infrastructure. We no longer have to bother about people going to form a community in a remote area. and the next thing is they are holding government to ransom to provide them utilities and other social amenities.

Talking about spatial planning in Singapore will not be possible without mentioning the role of Surbana Jurong. This is a government-owned consultancy company that specialises in infrastructure and urban development. It has been successful in master-planning the beautiful city that Singapore has become.

The same company recently announced a masterplan for Tamale and Buipe in the Northern Region. When fully implemented, the two cities will receive a facelift compared to that of Singapore as well as that of Kigali, which was also designed by Surbana Jurong.

Coming from Africa, we are used to natural resources – for example gold, diamond, bauxite and what have you. We have been told a million times how these resources are supposed to unlock our potential as a continent or various countries.

Singapore has relatively no natural resources except to be blessed with a strategic geographical location in South East Asia that makes it a very good location on the intersection of the East and West international trade lanes.

Having a strategic position is not enough. It is about devoting the right resources to exploit this position and reap the maximum returns. And that is what the country did. And today, the country’s port is among the top-5 busiest ports in terms of cargo, containers or any other metric used in measuring ports.

Indeed, half of the world’s crude-oil transships in this tiny country’s port which sees thousands of ships drop their anchors in its harbour that connects the port to over 600 other ports in 123 countries spread over six continents.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. It is about time we looked at what competitive advantages we have that we can truly catapult us into being a super-power in our own right. Indeed, the list is endless and ironically may have been the bane in our quest to decide which one to exploit.

Whether it is tourism, natural resources or any other thing, what we have to understand is value addition and superior service are essential as far as reaping maximum returns is concerned. The era when talent or a natural resource alone was enough is long past.

Apart from its natural location, the next resource the country is blessed with is its people. Whereas other countries could mine gold among others to export, Singapore knew that it could only export its human resource or their expertise.

And for that, you have to make sure you build on their capacities and help them to understand the needs of the market or industry. It is that simple. Education here is very practical and hands-on. Industry and academia are in bed and neither of them goes without the other.

When there is a problem in industry, it becomes a case study for academia. And when industry wants to venture into an unknown area, it interacts with academia and a roadmap is developed to help products to be functional when they come out.

But what do we see here? A weak relationship between industry and academia. More has been said about this relationship, but the more they remain the same. I won’t recount the problems, which are obvious – only say Singapore offers a blueprint regarding how such a relationship must be nurtured and exploited.

Talk to most people in Ghana and ask why working in the public sector appeals to them, and one of the immediate reasons will be job security. Productivity in the sector is another issue altogether, and this could be down to poor supervision, low capacity among others.

It’s safe to say that in Singapore the public sector attracts the best human resources, or appeals to the best of their human resource. Hard work is rewarded, and those who cannot keep up with the pace have to drop off.

There are no cover-ups. It is also interesting to learn that workers have access to funds they must utilise to not only further their education but also enhance their skillset to keep them up to date with trends in the industry. Failure to use this will attract queries.

There is no way we can develop as a country when our public sector’s productivity is always below optimum. We need to perhaps develop a new orientation that rewards hard work and not longevity of an employee, and encourage workers to seek higher education which improves on their productivity.

It wouldn’t be fair to ask our leaders to replicate the whole system of Singapore in Ghana. Of course, that would be a recipe for disaster as the various guiding principles are obviously not the same. But what this country offers us is a common history and common challenges the two countries faced in the past.

We can look at some of the challenges they navigated which we currently face, and look at how they were dealt with and perhaps adopt some as guide-lights in our journey, too. We may not have our own Lee Kuan Yew but, definitely, taking a decision to move our people forward would require a leader that thinks about tomorrow and not the next election.