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Robert Mugabe vs Lee Kuan Yew: A Zimbabwean tribute

By Silas Chekera

This week the world joined the people of Singapore to mourn the passing of their beloved leader, Lee Kuan Yew. US President Barack Obama aptly described him as “a true giant of history” while UK Prime Minister David Cameron fittingly acknowledged that he was “one of the greatest success stories” of our time.

Lee Kuan Yew vs Robert Mugabe
Lee Kuan Yew vs Robert Mugabe

Credited for discipline, foresight and conviction, but sometimes criticised for dictatorship, Lee literally hauled the small Asian country from a fishing village into a modern technology-based economy in a single generation.

No other leader has achieved a similar feat. Today‘s Singapore is one of the world’s major commercial hubs, with the fourth-largest financial centre and one of the five busiest ports. Its globalised and diversified economy depends heavily on trade, especially manufacturing, which accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s GDP.

The country boasts of the third-highest per capita income in the world and ranks highly in education, healthcare, and economic competitiveness. Such is the legacy Lee leaves behind.

In Zimbabwe, as we join the world in mourning the former leader of our second capital away from home (if we are to go by the first family’s constant sojourns to Singapore), it is difficult to resist a comparison between the departed legend and our own patriarch, not least because they are of the same vintage.

Lee Kuan Yew and President Robert Mugabe share similarities in many respect. Ranking among the longest serving politicians in the world, in 1959, Lee inherited the reins of power from colonial Britain just as Mugabe did a little over 20 years later.

Lee went on to serve as Singapore’s prime minister for 30 years before assuming other ministerial positions into the later stages of his life. Similarly, Mugabe has been in power since independence in 1980, now almost 35 years and counting.

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Both men, intellectuals and protégés of a Western education, grew up under colonial rule to become nationalists and leaders of independence movements in their respective countries. As leaders in the free world, they both shared a mutual distrust of western democracy, with critics accusing them of dictatorship.

Yet, if these similarities are compelling, the differences between the two leaders are even more pronounced. Where Lee leaves behind an economy with a per capita income bigger than that of our mutual colonial master, Mugabe presides over an economy on a downward spiral. Unemployment is rife as companies close down by the day.

The entire physical and social infrastructure continues to crumble and there is no end in sight. As Lee bequeaths an economy founded on modern technology and innovation, Mugabe continues to insist on a feudal agro-based economy premised on, as he has lately conceded, a poorly implemented land reform programme.

With no solid financial sector to underwrite farming and a government giving up on an unsustainable and corrupt, subsidised to free agricultural input scheme, most of the newly settled commercial farmers have found farming not as easy as their erstwhile predecessors made it look like. For many, as the old fox has himself observed, the vast farms have become a mere status symbol.

In mining, industry and commerce, hitherto part pillars of the crumbling economy, rather than adopt sound policies and programmes, which encourage investment and promote growth, Mugabe’s 51 percent local ownership scheme, despite its best intentions, has only yielded negative results.

Opaque, bureaucratic and inconsistent, its most immediate result has been to scare away investment. Moreover, as critics argue, at best, the scheme would only transfer ownership of what little wealth is left (to cronies), without promoting investment or growth.

Indeed, where Lee appeared to have moved past Singapore’s colonial legacy, going on to champion his own philosophy of controlled democracy and soft dictatorship, our leadership is still stuck in the colonial past, with some of its policies seemingly driven by hatred, spite and retribution, and the so-called Western “machinations” serving as an excuse for every last failing. As the jester says, even failed rains.

Where Lee, frugal in his own personal life, promoted personal and fiscal discipline, at one point decreeing that all cabinet wear white as a reminder of purity and virtue, and was able to reign in corruption, Mugabe has presided over a corrupt and bloated cabinet and civil service. Government ministers with spilling bellies and puffed up cheeks publicly boast of immense (allegedly ill-gotten) wealth as lesser mortals share the crumbs.

Little has been seen of the billions which were supposed to come from the Marange diamond fields amid claims that most of the proceeds found their way into private or party pockets. At a lower level, at such institutions as the passport office, the back door works more efficiently than the front, only the leadership pretends not to know.

At the ubiquitous police roadblocks, now principal revenue collection points for a cash strapped regime bent on squeezing the last penny out of its impoverished citizenry, it is only a matter of time before police officers accept bribes through “Ecocash”, if not already.

In short, where Lee built a country, Mugabe destroyed one. Ironically, as the regime in Harare lauds a questionable “Look East” policy, Lee’s East looked West to found a vibrant economy based on capital markets, global shipping, manufacturing and retail.

Today Singapore is a world away from Zimbabwe, it is nearly frivolous to try and compare the two. In proper context, this short piece should therefore not only serve as a eulogy for a statesman who delivered his country from ruin, but also as an inspiration to the long suffering masses of Zimbabwe as to what our country could be. RIP.