[Singaporean Literature]

Lessons from African Decolonization: Lee Kuan Yew's Visits in the 1960s and 1970s

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

In a brief aside, Lee Kuan Yew contrasts his experience of Lusaka under British rule with its post-indendependence state, drawing from this contrast important lessons for his tiny island nation. Recalling that when he stayed at the "well-furnished and well maintained, but not luxurious," home of the British governor of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), he noted that the "toiletries, soap, towels, cutlery and china were similar to those I had found in British government houses in Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo. They were all part of one well run system." He was also particularly delighted to see "deer, antelope, red bucks, peacocks, cranes and other African animals and birds in the garden" (538).

I was to go back to Lusaka in 1970 for the Non-Aligned Conference, and again in 1979 for the Commonwealth Conference. Each time was a saddening experience. I remembered the flowers, shrubs, trees and greenery at the side of the roads and at the roundabouts when I was driven in from the airport in 1964. Roses grew in abundance. Six years later, the roses had gone and weeds had taken over. Nine years after that, even the weeds had given up; the roundabouts were covered with tarmac. And there seemed to be fewer animals and birds in the grounds of Government House, now the President's Lodge. I wondered why. [538]

The immediately paragraph following derives several unexpected political lessons for Singapore from the degradation of Lusaka's environment, for, like the great Victorian sages and social critics Carlyle and Ruskin, Lee finds crucial political lessons in a seemingly trivial, if obviously unfortunate, phenomenon: "I had received," he tells us, "an unforgettable lesson in decolonisation, on how crucial it was to have social cohesion and capable, effective government to take power from the colonial authority, especially in Africa" (538-39). Clearly, the loss of beautifying vegetation in Zambia is taken as a sign of ineffective government, but Lee continues, going much farther when he draws two other specific political conclusions. First, he argues that ineffective government inevitably arises when those in power neglect and exclude members of minorities; or as Lee states this point: "When the leader did not preserve the unity of the country by sharing power with the chiefs of the minority tribes, but excluded them, the system soon broke down" (539). Second, "when misguided policies based on half-digested theories of socialism and redistribution of wealth were compounded by less than competent government, societies formerly held together by colonial power splintered, with appalling consequences" (539) These conclusions have obvious relevance to Singapore's multiracial, largely capitalist society, but someone who did not have much experience of Africa since decolonization might object that the Senior Minister has overinterpreted the loss of flowers: perhaps the Zambian government had other priorities, or perhaps the nation was so impoverished it could no longer afford to maintain flowers, shrubs, and wildlife.

But in this case, Lee is clearly correct, for as the writings of many African authors -- say, the Nigerians Achebe, Saro-Wiwa, and Soyinka -- demonstrate, ethnic factionalism (or what in Singapore is termed communanlism) and misguided socialism did in fact quickly lose many of the advantages these countries had at independence. Such a recognition seems particularly painful when one recalls that as the colonizing powers relinquished territories they had controlled in Africa and Asia, most observers predicted that the great natural resources of Africa would quickly make it the far more prosperous and secure of the two continents. By the end of the twentieth century, people throughout the world instead speak of the Asian miracle -- and the many tragedies of Africa.


Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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