Singapore and the death of a dictator

Surekha A. Yadav
Surekha A. Yadav

SEPTEMBER 8 ― A dictator died in Singapore last week. Of course the rich and powerful from across South-east and even South Asia are attracted to our world class medical facilities but the man in question was from even further afield.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, born in Southern Rhodesia. He struggled against white minority rule in Rhodesia and would become the first president of independent Zimbabwe.

He died in Singapore at the Gleneagles Hospital on the 6th of September, 2019 -- aged 95.  

Mugabe’s was an exceptional life trajectory. Born into rural poverty, he would become a school teacher, a political activist, a guerrilla fighter, a politician and then post-independence leader.

Initially a popular and conciliatory leader presiding over a period of economic growth, he would eventually become an unpopular dictator.

The economic policies he followed in the latter period of his rule would bring chaos to Zimbabwe while his treatment of opponents would be condemned around the world.

He was the leader of his country for 37 years, only ousted in 2017 at the age of 93.

He leaves a complex legacy but his life ended here. Singapore, an adjunct to an important story on an entirely different continent. 

It’s somewhat ironic that a strong man, famed for bringing one of Africa's most promising nations to its knees, died in an Asian country known for exceeding its potential.

But I’m not sure if this story should give Singaporeans much cause for smugness. 

Now I’m not an expert on the political history of Zimbabwe but I think there are some lessons Singaporeans can glean from the Zimbabwean strongman's demise. 

One take-away is that Singapore-Africa relations are under-estimated. While of course you hear a lot about Asean, North Asia, and connecting to hubs like New York it's easy forget that there are plenty of African business in Singapore. 

In 2017, trade between Singapore and Africa stood at S$10 billion (RM30 billion). 

There are dozens of Singapore companies operating in Africa and in 2017 an investment flows both ways. 

It's serious business but it’s hardly enough. Africa is home to over 1.2 billion people. The continent's GDP is over US$2 trillion (RM8.3 trillion) ― with more and more African economies boasting high growth rates.

More African business links would generate real opportunities for Singaporeans. 

But Singaporeans don’t know enough about the continent and what they do profess to know is often coloured by prejudice. 

A lot more could be done to improve ties between us. Flight connections are lacking and there should be more support in terms of cultural understanding. 

There is barely a single restaurant from any (sub-Saharan) African country in Singapore. 

Ultimately to be a global city ― in the same league as New York, Paris  and London ― we need to connect to the world’s second largest continent.

Another point to consider is the broader historical lesson. Zimbabwe and Singapore went in completely opposite post-independence directions.  

One would, eventually, move ferociously against foreign investment and its affluent white minority.   

The other built its future on attracting foreign capital and welcoming settlers and residents from around the world.

Singapore’s decisions have brought it wealth and today there can be no real comparison between us and the economic basket case that is Zimbabwe.

But we should be mindful.

Inequality, an over-zealous counter reaction and a lack of mechanisms to correct a skewed system saw Zimbabwe collapse. 

We need to ensure inequality is kept to a minimum and ensure that the public's ability to identify and correct poor decisions is strengthened.

That’s how, in the long term,  we can avoid Zimbabwe's fate while remembering to be open to opportunities everywhere ― even in Zimbawe.

Mugabe after all was, as far as Singapore is concerned, an excellent health tourist.    

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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