By Muhammed Sabally
Most Gambians must be familiar with this marvellous City-State, Singapore, due to former President Jawara’s obsession with transforming our smiling coast into the “Singapore of Africa”. Although Jawara’s insistence was not backed by adequate action, it is still a feasibility to turn “the New Gambia” into “Africa’s Singapore”. The striking, yet very deplorable (for us Gambians) similarity between The Gambia and Singapore is that the two countries gained independence in 1965, in fact the Gambia happens to be three months older. Furthermore, both The Gambia and Singapore have no substantial mineral resources. Despite coming from similar humble beginnings, the two countries’ stories have gone extremely divergent paths.
What’s the secret to Singapore’s success and how can our government learn from this small city-state? Well to illustrate this, it is necessary that we look at the leadership approaches of the two states, for leadership is a vital component in the prosperity of any nation. After independence, Singapore was led by a visionary, competent, and incorruptible leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew, a man, I and many others around the world hold in high-esteem owing to the fact that he pulled an unfathomable miracle by turning a poverty stricken country into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to leading a country was summarized by himself in three very simple but powerful words that if we act upon, surely we shall achieve the economic superpower status that former President Jammeh constantly promised us. The words were “Meritocracy, Integrity, [and] a level playing field for everyone” . These three aspects that can be utilized for effective nation building is what I am about to assess in this piece.
Meritocracy is the idea that the most competent people get the best jobs. In view of our “no vice president crisis”, it is indispensable that President Adam Barrow ensures that this vacant seat, nay, any other important government position is occupied by “the best man or woman for the job”.
Having the best people acquiring the best jobs significantly increases the productivity of the nation, thereby leading to national development. Even though this sounds quite obvious and you might be thinking, why would the government need anyone to tell them this? Well if we look at the history of the government of the Gambia, one might come to the realisation that we have a deep underlying problem with nepotism. Under the Jawara regime, top government positions were held by people related to the president or friends of the president. Appointments in very crucial government positions became a matter of relation to the president rather than competence. This resulted in the unbelievably high levels of corruption during the Jawara regime, consequently we did not see drastic national development in the country.
Under the Jammeh regime, it was a quite similar story but to give credit to Jammeh he did attempt to democratize the government positions even more, and by that I mean, he initially tried to appoint people that were not related to him. However, he indulged in appointing people based solely on who fulfilled his own interest rather than that of the country. Evidently, government appointments have not been meritocratic. I would argue it still is not but ultimately it is the responsibility of the President to value excellence and competence over political affiliations, self-interest, and relations when appointing people, in order to lead our nation toward unprecedented national development.
Integrity, the ability to be honest and uphold high moral standards. In this context, it is to be incorruptible. It is true that one cannot completely stagnate corruption but it is pivotal that we limit it to a bare minimum. Government corruption, the mismanagement and stealing of public funds to be specific, is a major phenomenon in our country. Our Singaporean counterpart’s corruption index is mindblowingly 7. They are the 7th least corrupt country in the world.
Whereas our beloved nation’s corruption index is 145 according to reports by Transparency International. It is evident that we need to work on our “integrity” as shown by this statistics.
Minimising corruption should be one of our top priorities as corruption severely halts productivity. The root cause of most of our economic woes can be directly associated with government corruption. Rooting out corruption will cause our economy to flourish significantly as it would attract foreign investment. This is precisely what happened in Singapore, minimal corruption meant that big companies were willing to invest more in Singapore, that is a very adequate summary of how Singapore became an economic powerhouse.
Without a speck of doubt, I believe we can replicate this in the Gambia. It just requires a lot of effort from the government. If the government earnestly works towards it; it will most definitely happen. If it means setting up an independent anti-corruption committee like the Singaporean government did, then the government should immediately do so.
Lastly, we need to have a level playing field for everyone. It is the duty of the government to ensure that we live in an egalitarian society. Our country is lacking in giving everyone equal opportunities, as a result many of our youths and even my childhood best friend are embarking on the “back-way” as an alternative to get greener pastures. The Barrow government has been incompetent and lukewarm in addressing this issue. This should be the government’s number one priority, nothing is affecting the country more than the backway is right now, we are losing our labour force in the Mediterranean Sea due to the government’s failure to provide the youth “a level playing field to succeed”.
It is true that these problems were inherited from the Jammeh regime but the government has been very silent on the issue. Therefore, it has to redouble its efforts in solving this lingering problem. The means by which the government can provide equal opportunities for everyone is by investing in, and ameliorating our education system. It so happens that Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world simply because the Singaporean government prioritizes creating a “level playing field for everyone”. Singapore’s government invests around 20% of its Gross Domestic Product in education alone. As a result, their citizens have better opportunities to succeed. The Gambian government should also do the same by directing a significant amount of our G.D.P towards education. Invest more in our education system and improve our human capital to provide better opportunities for our citizens.
It is important that we look up to countries like Singapore in our quest for economic development. The government should not let the Singaporean dream die; the dream should be revived and we should commence pursuing it. The journey to become an “economic superpower” will be long and hard but as the old adage goes “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step” let’s take a step today.