Zimbabwe and Singapore prove that all dictatorships are not created equal: Part 1
By Bishop Dave Chikosi
In the end what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given? My life – Lee Kuan Yew
I have been to Singapore, a favorite destination for Zimbabwe’s First Family. But not for a medical visit or a shopping spree. I went there in the 1980’s for aviation studies.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is one of those projects that every aviation wonk dreams of studying. For over 15 years it has been ranked by Skytrax as one of the top three airports in the world.
Even its toilets are impressive. They are super clean, thanks to the micromanagement style of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and first Prime Minister.
LKY, as the Prime Minister was popularly known, is said to have one time required Singapore’s Director of Civil Aviation to submit weekly reports on the state of cleanliness of the airport’s bathrooms.
Talk about hands-on management.
The Iron Hand Under A Velvet Glove
But LKY was more than just a micromanager. He was a dictator, who for 31 years ruled Singapore with an iron hand, under a velvet glove.
“Iron hand under a velvet glove” is the quintessential description of what is known as a benevolent dictatorship. A benevolent dictator is an enlightened despot who governs his country with an iron hand, for the greater good of his people.
Unfortunately for Africa, we have a plethora of dictators and despots, and very few are benevolent. The majority are malevolent. They are emotionally volatile megalomaniacs who are wont to fly off the handle at the slightest of criticism.
In the case of Zimbabwe, the President, Cde Robert Gabriel Mugabe (RGM), like Singapore’s LKY, began his rule with also an iron hand under a velvet glove. Who can forget the remarkable policy of reconciliation espoused at Independence in 1980?
But it didn’t take long for the gloves to come off, did it now?
The First Three Decades after Independence
It is of interest to note that both RGM and LKY are cut from the same political cloth of socialism. But even though their political philosophy is the same, the trajectories of the economic development of their respective countries could not be any more different.
The first three decades after Singapore’s independence (1965) saw LKY’s government develop and transform this war-battered British port, which has almost zero natural resources and a very small domestic market, from Third World to First World status.
When LKY took over leadership, Singapore was torn with internal ethnic strife and poverty was pretty much widespread.
But in 31 years the Prime Minister managed to turn an island swamp into a thriving metropolis which has become the envy of many in the so-called First World.
Compare and contrast that with Zimbabwe’s first three decades after our 1980 independence. RGM’s government inherited what Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once described as a “jewel economy.”
But after 36 years of ZanuPF rule Zimbabweans are broke, busted and disgusted. The country has shifted from being the shining city on a southern African hill to a smoldering ruin in a hell hole of san imploding economy.
This very week the World Bank confirmed that Zimbabwe’s economy is dying. The Bank has therefore downgraded the country from its list of improved economies “to the unflattering tier of struggling countries.”
Hello Zim-nomads and hunter-gatherers! Welcome to the Fourth world.
Political Repression in Both Zimbabwe and Singapore
Singapore’s LKY, like Zimbabwe’s RGM was ruthless in dealing with political opponents. He detained hundreds of them under the guise that they were political malcontents and communist rabble rousers, bent on destabilizing the country.
His ruling PAP party muzzled trade unions, outlawed strikes and forbad work stoppages. The Press, local and international, was denied freedom, and all unregistered public meetings were declared illegal.
In fact LKY’s political repression was so thorough-going that in the 1968 general elections the ruling PAP party won all 58 seats in Parliament.
The lack of an independent electoral commission did not help the situation either. And the Prime Minister was unapologetic.
“What are our priorities?” he once asked at a press conference, and then went on to answer his own question:
“First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.”
Democratic norms were a luxury he just couldn’t afford. And he had absolutely no misgivings about interfering with the private lives of citizens. His favorite mantra was “So what?”
For him, the end justified the means.
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today . . . we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
To be fair, Zimbabwe’s RGM has not gone as far as regulating what we do with our spit in Harare.
However the spirit of dictatorship is the same. The demons of despotism are alive and well in what was formerly and fondly referred to as the Sunshine City.
[Bishop Dave Chikosi pastors a nondenominational church in Michigan USA. He studied Business Ethics and Marketplace Theology at postgraduate level. He can be reached at [email protected]]