Charlayne Hunter-Gault's Reporter's Notebook

An Africa expert day-tripping in Singapore wonders whether any parts of that Southeast Asian success can be replicated in Africa.

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I am out of Africa and into Singapore—a country mostly off my radar screen—except when I am visiting Francis Daniels, the father of my godson, Themba. To Francis, Singapore's former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew is a kind of icon who invariably comes up in conversations about what Africa needs to do to get out of poverty and get on the good foot.

Among the things my friend admires about Lee Kwan Yew, is, in his words, the "…willingness to tell Singaporeans the hard truths about accumulating capital to employ people and develop their country, and cultivation of strong institutions manned by capable individuals."

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Lew Kwan Yew took Singapore from a poverty-stricken developing country to one of the most developed in the world, and though it is the smallest country in Southeast Asia, it has a GDP per capita equivalent to the four largest economies of Europe. Or, as Lee, now retired (after seven terms) titled one of his books: 'From Third World to First.'

And Lee did all this notwithstanding what some describe as his "autocratic" tendencies, state control of the economy and the media, and charges of nepotism. (Members of Lee's family hold or have held many government or government- related positions. His son is now serving as Prime Minister.) And it is well known that the Lee family's favorite form of revenge against its enemies is suing for libel.

Still, I am not here on a political mission. I am here to host a gala dinner for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) honoring seven world leaders for being "Champions of the Earth." They are from Barbados and the United States, Monaco and New Zealand, Yemen, Sudan and Bangladesh—leaders taking the initiative to help save the planet from its people and their excesses.

And I am determined to do something I rarely do when I am on a journalistic mission, and that is: be a tourist. Well, sort of. I really want to see what it is that makes this country the miracle I would hear described from the time I arrived, and why my godson's father so often refers to Lee Kwan Yew in discussions about Africa's poverty.

Thus, on a steamy hot afternoon, I find out where the tourist buses park, make my way the short distance from my hotel in Singapore's year-round steamy heat, buy a ticket for a three-and-a-half-hour "City" tour and, before boarding the bus, am directed to a local 7/11, where I stock up on Wild Berry mix, a container of Mock meat fan choy, nasi daging Tiruan (vegetables) I found in a warmer and two bottles of –what else? Evian water. I am now ready for day trippin' in Singapore.

On the bus, filled with tourists mostly from the UK, the guide introduces himself as Kong. "…As in King Kong," he tells us with a chuckle. And then he tells us: "You wanna know something, pay attention to this monkey in the front." Everyone chuckles except me. I get a little worried, but not so anyone can tell. Living in South Africa, I have learned that some of my African-American sensitivities are not always shared, as when the darker-skinned Capetonians, classified during apartheid as Coloured (sic) hold an annual parade , with many marching unapologetically as minstrels in blackface. Or when even some of my most liberal white and black friends talk about "darkies" (the black ones ) and "whiteys" (the white ones).

But otherwise, Kong is a good guide—not too wordy, avoiding politics, sticking to a pristine script in describing his country for innocent visitors, and introducing us first to the mascot of Singapore—the Singapore Lion—a creature with a lion's head and a fish tail. Though, there are no Lions in Singapore, Kong tells us legend has it that an explorer (or was it a prince?) arrived on the Island and spotted this creature and, believing it was a lion, named the Island "Singa-pura" or Lion City, which, says Kong, Singaporeans believe best symbolizes the national character of courage and strength. I buy a latte at the Starbucks behind the Lion thing, then walk around in front of him to observe the stream of water sprouting from his mouth.