The ‘guided democracy’ lead by the late Lee Kuan Yew had plenty of lessons — both good and bad — that can come in useful for leaders around the world

Nineteenth-century French writer Gustave Flaubert was of the view that “our worth should be measured by our aspirations more than our works”.

He would go down a treat with our local politicians, who often prefer peddling hope, lashed with dashes of fear come election time, to concrete achievement. Fixating on the past is also hardly the attribution one expects of our top-rated university. Yet the fevered rhetoric at the University of Cape Town is today all about where to place the statue of a dead, even perhaps a dreadful, white man who, as it happened, died 113 years ago.

Talk of the “African Century” and the continent’s renaissance has a hard swim in such currents.

All this in contrast to the gridfuls of electrons and forest worth of trees expended this week in eulogising former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in the city-state at the age of 91.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. In Lee’s Singapore — which he dominated until death though he retired as prime minister in 1990 — there are a lot of things you don’t want to be. Gays are harassed, drug dealers are hanged, political critics and opposition journalists are ruined through defamatory actions, gum-chewers are fined, and all manner of juvenile criminals are flogged.

Yet through sheer force of will, Lee created one of the most successful economic powerhouses in the world, where average per capita income rose from just $500 at independence in 1965 to a staggering $71 683 (about R850 000) today, perhaps twice the levels of personal wealth in the UK and 10 times the average income in South Africa.

Famously, Lee projected his tiny city-state (it’s just 710km²) into a world giant on the global stage, with no natural resources or economic resources to draw upon. Indeed, at independence, its one economic asset was the British colonial naval base, which soon thereafter disappeared.

Lee’s brand of “authoritarian” capitalism, or “guided democracy” as he preferred to call it, made great order and economic success out of chaotic beginnings, when he split the city-state from its far more powerful neighbour Malaya. Few imagined one man with an iron will could achieve so much, in such a relatively short time, with so little.

I suppose the politically incorrect question — and Lee famously hated political correctness — is to ask why Africa, with no shortage of statesmen and long-ruling heads of government, has never produced a Lee or a Singapore.

To be sure, there is Mauritius, also an island state with few natural resources other than sugar. In roughly the same period, it has undergone an impressive economic transformation from island basket case to continental top performer. But it lacks the global reach of Singapore and its founding leader.

Perhaps another recruit to the authoritarian capitalist model, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, will deliver the goods, but his authoritarianism is far less benign than Lee’s proved to be. Just witness the murder of one of his dissident military officers in South Africa last year. Rwanda geographically also offers no distinctions.

Leaving aside the geostrategic sex appeal of southeast Asia, and the pivotal nature of Singapore as a gateway to the fastest-growing region on Earth, I would hazard a guess that there are other explanations that suggest why our continent has produced many rhetoricians and even a couple of political visionaries rare in any part of the world, but few, if any, economic statesmen in the class of Lee, or even Deng Xiaoping of China.

Africa’s first statesman of the first independent state, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, had as his famous slogan: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will follow unto it.”

That might have been a famous rallying cry, but in terms of building a successful, high-growth society, it proved calamitous. Lee, who eschewed rhetoric, went in the opposite direction. Apart from effectively banning opposition activity, or severely repressing it, he used his decades in power to leave behind a durable legacy.

It rests on three essential pillars, each of which in the teeth of unpromising beginnings he lifted to great heights: suppressing corruption; basing governance on merit; and providing every child with quality education. Ironically, during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, the great man appointed Lee as an “informal adviser”. I recall on the op-ed pages of this very newspaper back in 1994, Lee offering this prescription as the road for newly democratic South Africa to walk. It’s a pity we ignored the advice proffered here 21 years ago, but perhaps it’s never too late to start.

But there is something less explicit but even more relevant, given our current fixation on changing or throwing out colonial relics of our past, which so sucks up the space in the national debate.

I guess in some ways Sir Stamford Raffles was the Cecil John Rhodes of Singapore — a relic of its imperial and colonial past, though whether he was as rapacious or even racist as Rhodes is difficult, after 200 years, to state. But he has a famous hotel, a boulevard and other locations that bear his name in downtown Singapore today.

The British, of course, were patsies in comparison to the brutal occupiers of Singapore, the Japanese, during World War 2. They brutalised and tortured the captured British garrison there, but treated the local Chinese and Malays far, far worse. They were massacred, or simply worked to death as slave labour.

In his obituary to Lee this week, British war historian and journalist Max Hastings noted: “Lee Kuan Yew acknowledged the bestiality of the occupation, because he witnessed it. But part of his hard-headedness was that he wasted little time on recriminations, and was content to traffic with any nation that would do profitable business with Singapore: China and the US, Israel and Britain, Indonesia and, of course, Japan.”

No end of lessons for us to apply here from the long and eventful life of this extraordinary leader.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times