How people can be so similar and yet so different! We refer today to Liberia’s 19th President, William V.S. Tubman, and Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
He was Prime Minister when Singapore achieved self-government from Britain in 1959.
Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday at 91, was, like Tubman, a charismatic leader. Like Tubman, too, Lee was an authoritarian, who did not allow too much freedom of expression or of the press. Lee ascended to leadership in 1959 just as Tubman was about to end his third term as President (1959).
Also like Tubman, Lee initially led a largely impoverished, illiterate country.
But that is where the similarities stopped!
Unlike Liberia, Singapore has no natural resources, except the strategic Strait of Singapore through which ships pass to important world markets. Singapore has no diamond, gold, iron ore and very little land. It is only an island city-state in Southeast Asia with about 5.2 million people; yet they live and work within only 700 square kilometres (270 sq mi), making her the world’s third most-densely populated country . The entire island functions as a single metropolitan area.
Liberia, on the other hand, is a far bigger and richer country. Its coastline alone—350 miles along the great Atlantic—is far bigger than Singapore! But more than that, Liberia has 43,000 square miles, which boasts millions of fertile green acreage on which anything can grow—fruits, rice, rubber—one of the world’s most valuable agricultural and industrial products—other tree crops, vegetables and livestock of all kinds. Yet unlike Singapore, Liberia imports most of its food, including its staple, rice.
But unlike Tubman, who was apparently interested in political power for power’s own sake, Lee Kuan Yew used political power to transform Singapore from an impoverished and backward city state into a modern nation, one of the world’s financial centers, an industrial Mecca and one of the world’s richest nations, with a per capita income in 2013 of US$36,897.87!
And Liberia, 55 years following 1959: is still one of the world’s poorest countries, its 4,000,000 people living on a dollar a day or roughly US$400 per year! Just last week the United Nations announced Monrovia one of the world’s five poorest capitals!
Yet, in the early 1960s under President Tubman, Liberia was one of the world’s fastest growing nations, far outpacing even Singapore and richly endowed, unlike Singapore, with diamond, gold, iron ore and vast swathes of green acreage.
Without Natural Resources, however, Lee turned an impoverished city state into one of the world’s richest nations. It has for several decades now been 100 percent literate and before the end of the 1990s achieved 100% computer literacy.
What happened to Liberia? How did Lee Kuan Yew surpass Tubman as a leader, causing Singapore to be so rich, and Liberia, so abjectly poor?
The answer lay in the CHARACTER of Lee Kuan Yew: he was TOALLY committed to Singapore and exerted ALL his energies to ensure her growth and development. In this mission, he was ruthless: he warned his coworkers that if anyone were found cheating or stealing from the country, he or she would be ruthlessly dealt with, including imprisonment and paying back every cent.
The result: Singapore became one of the four rich, successful Asian Tigers—the others, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, said of Lee Kuan Yew: “He was a leader of integrity, tenacity, vision and drive," adding that the former Prime Minister had "laid the most solid foundation possible for the impressive economic development, prosperity and social harmony that epitomizes Singapore today."
Can we say the same thing about Liberian leaders, from Tubman on up to the present? What has been their attitude to development and to corruption?
The answer lies in our abject failure as a nation state so richly endowed, yet so vastly poor, so near the bottom of the human development index.
We hope that Lew Kuan Yew’s passing will signal a wake-up call for us all, especially our leaders to consider what Liberia could have been had we had Lee’s “integrity, vision and tenacity and drive.”
It is not yet too late for us! But . . .