The death of Lee Kuan Yew, architect of Singapore’s rise from a corrupt economic backwater to one of the globe’s most prosperous and clean societies will undoubtedly spark debate across the world on the lessons that can be drawn from his successful efforts to eliminate corruption. Across Africa, he has been lionised and some, particularly Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame, have sought to replicate his autocratic methods with varying degrees of success.
In Kenya, which is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt nations on earth, many have pined for a benevolent dictator in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew. The argument has been advanced that the country’s myriad security and economic problems cannot be addressed in the context of a free-wheeling liberal democracy. President Uhuru Kenyatta regularly proclaims his administration’s need to be freed from the constraints of constant political competition in order to focus on the imperatives of development and economic growth.
However, this misses the crucial lesson from Singapore. It is true that Lee Kuan Yew brooked little dissent and that his rule was characterised by a clampdown on political freedoms as well as harsh social controls. It is equally true that he ruled for an inordinately long time, turned Singapore into a de facto one party state and that his family, especially his children, have done pretty well for themselves: one son is the current prime minister, another heads the Civil Aviation Authority and his a daughter is the director of the National Neuroscience Institute.
But in this, Singapore is not very different from, Kenya and much of Africa, which have similarly experienced the diminution of civil and political freedoms though these have tended to entrench, not alleviate poverty and the looting of state resources. The crucial difference is not that Singapore was a dictatorship and Kenya wasn’t. It was in the quality of the leadership. Simply put, Lee Kuan Yew walked the talk on corruption. Where he eschewed graft and actively worked to prevent the capture of the state for the benefit of a corrupt elite, successive Kenyan presidents have used the state as a means to enriching themselves, their families and rewarding their cronies.
Compare the records of the two countries’ anti-corruption agencies. Lee Kuan Yew inherited the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau from the British and transformed it into a formidable graft-fighting watchdog which has taken scalps among high ranking government officials including cabinet ministers. According to a 2013 study commissioned by the Prime Minister’s office, in the previous five years, the CPIB had on average opened 39 cases involving public officers each year with two-thirds resulting in prosecution or disciplinary proceedings.
By contrast, Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission has only prosecuted 22 cases in the last three years, a negligible fraction of the nearly 10,000 complaints it received. And it lost most of these, securing only 3 convictions. Further, in the last half century, despite the fact that dozens of investigative commissions have thrown light on hundreds of cases of corruption, not a single cabinet minister has ever been convicted.
Currently, Kenya is prosecuting 13 suspects, including two former Finance Ministers over the Anglo Leasing scam which cost the taxpayers nearly $1 billion in fictitious supply of security related equipment. However, given the government’s past record, few expect that this will result in convictions. A “list of shame” released in 2006 by then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Martha Karua, had implicated at least 28 senior officials in the Mwai Kibaki and Daniel Arap Moi administrations including then Vice President, Moody Awori and current Deputy President, William Ruto. Further muddying the waters, the EACC and watchdog committees in Parliament today find themselves embroiled in allegations of taking bribes to cover up the involvement of senior administration officials and businessmen in the theft of public resources, including in the Anglo Leasing investigation.
The fact is while the Kenyan elite talks a good game, it has not demonstrated any interest in battling graft. They do not see the raison d’etre of the state as uplifting the lives of ordinary Kenyans but rather as a means of preying on them. Instead of fundamentally reforming the parasitic colonial system, the elite have instead sought to blame the victims, to convince Kenyans that they are the problem, their culture, their stupid and tribal politics, their willingness to pay bribes. In effect, the elite has argued that Kenyans are in fact stealing from themselves, impoverishing themselves and, in turn, scapegoating those in power.
Lee Kuan Yew’s record against corruption is not a lesson in what authoritarianism can achieve and democracy can’t. If it were, African countries would head the corruption indices. It rather teaches that what matters is a genuine commitment within the leadership to eradicating the vice and to building systems that, to paraphrase the former Singaporean Minister for Home Affairs, Ong Pang Boon, "reduce opportunities for corruption, make its detection easier, deter those susceptible to it and severely punish those who engage in it".
In truth, Kenyans and Africans in general, are no more prone to corruption than are Singaporeans. Their leadership, however, is. And that is the problem.