Charlayne Hunter-Gault's Reporter's Notebook

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

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This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP/Getty Images

The famed Merlion statue in Singapore.

But soon after we leave there, we are passing a series of white buildings so tall I can't see the tops of them. Kong tells us these are 50-story public housing apartments being constructed to house Singapore's growing population, expected to reach six million in the next ten years, up from 4.5 million today. He goes on to say that 90 to 95 percent of Singaporians live in public housing, thanks to a program put together by the government that requires employers and their employees to contribute equally to a fund that puts them in a position to finance the purchase of an apartment from the government on terms they can afford.

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Families making over $8,000 Singapore Dollars (SDs) a year do not qualify. Moreover, most Singaporians making less can afford to buy their own living spaces because most work. The unemployment rate in Singapore is around 2 percent, thanks to government planning and job creation through a major industrialization program initiated after Singapore became independent in 1965.

All this, I learn from Kong, as I am looking at these magnificent white high rise buildings—too tall for my taste, yet tasteful. And in a few minutes, we are driving past older public housing that is stunning— six and seven stories and some maybe a little higher, painted in a variety of beautiful pastel colors without a single smudge; even the wash hanging on poles extending from the terraces is hung so neatly that it doesn't detract.

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This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP/Getty Images

The buildings are surrounded by greenery — tall trees and short ones, and lovely, manicured grass. And there is no litter anywhere, the result, I surmise, of the trucks of sanitation workers I spot ever so often collecting garbage in several of the areas we pass.

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We pass a senior citizen center near one public housing development, and I later ask Kong if it is state-owned. "We are not a welfare state," Kong responds emphatically.

He then tells me that most seniors rely on their children for support in their old age, if they are having trouble making ends meet. He says that, at one time, the state had decreed a policy of two children per household, but the population is now aging and the state is encouraging families to have more children, not only to provide workers for the growing economy, but so that there will be enough to take care of the aging parents and grands.

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I finally get him to admit there may be a few poor people here and there and he tells me that for those few, the state makes provisions. But he doesn't want to spend time on that.

As the day goes by, I am struck by the range of nationalities I see—not all of which I recognize at first. Singapore, Kong tells us, is a multi- ethnic society, where people do all get along—Malay, Tamil, Chinese , Indian. English is the lingua franca, dating back to the country's first colonization by Britain in 1819. And while each group has its own areas where they sell their wares, souvenirs, or clothing, as in 'Little India,' they often merge.

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When I visited a Chinese Temple, I walked a few yards down the narrow street and passed rows of shoes belonging to the men praying inside a Mosque.

And food.

Everywhere you look, there are what they call "Eating Houses," featuring all the cuisines of the inhabitants. "Two things Singaporians love to do," Kong tells us, "Eat and shop." Boy, do I feel at home! (I actually surprise myself by getting full on the delightful smells wafting through the air.) Kong says of all the people making these delightful smelling dishes: "They all live mixed up together in the public housing, with no problems."

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I spend the rest of my free time over the next two days talking to Singaporeans—young, old and in between. And very few of them —well, to be precise, none of them — contradicted what I had heard from Kong. A few mentioned the state control of the media and the lack of a vocal opposition party, but not with a lot of critical conviction. Some talked about nepotism, but at least one I talked to dismissed that charge, saying Singapore's leaders were chosen on merit, not on family relationships.

Still, a few seemed a bit disconcerted that Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group authorities blame for a string of bombings in the region , including one in Bali that killed 202 people in 2002, had not only escaped though a toilet window of a local detention center as guards waited for him outside the door, but that he had been at large for two months—in the most technologically advanced country in Southeast Asia.

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But I am not on a journalistic mission, and while I do engage a few of the Ministers who attended the Champions of the Earth on a few points, I decide I need more time than I have on this trip — or at a cocktail reception — for the Champions laureates.

Instead, I retire to my room and send an email to my friend Francis and ask him if he thinks what Africa needs is a Lew Kwan Yew, albeit with a few more democratic tendencies.

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He writes back, almost instantly:

"The continent is way too large for one person to pull out of poverty. One would need a couple of regional Lees (West, East, South, and North) to stimulate regional rivalries to do good. Recall Plato's observation from "The Laws" that the easiest, but rarest, way to change a country for the better is to have good princes (I think that is the word, he uses, but I cannot remember). But, he adds that is it extremely rare for people at the top to think of those at the bottom. It is that very rarity which makes democracy the best practical form of government. Lee, in my view, is the rare example of the benefits of a "good prince".

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This sends me back along memory lane to my academic travels back in the day, when , I was a student of the Greek philosophers, and I recalled this from Plato:

"Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils…"

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I decide I must put back on my journalist's hat and return to Singapore one day for a more indepth look, mostly at its politics. And then, once back in Africa, I must look for its "good princes" wherever they may be, for the continent sorely needs them.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.

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