Sisi's Singapore visit won't inspire an economic miracle

Sisi's Singapore visit won't inspire an economic miracle
Comment: Despite significant differences in economic models between Egypt and Singapore, Singapore's main port development is a lesson to be learned, writes Mohamed el-Meshad.
5 min read
07 Sep, 2015
Sisi (right) was the first Egyptian president to visit Singapore [Getty]

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister and founding father, sat at the helm of one of the world's most resounding success stories as far as economic development goes.

He built a nation in his image - pragmatic, efficient, strict, forward thinking. Today, the island city-state that was once considered to be an underdeveloped colonial outpost with few prospects and barely a cohesive national identity, now hosts one of the world's most bustling financial centres and harbours.

It boasts one of the highest GDPs per-capita in the world and is one of the top-ten performers in the global Human Development Index. When Egypt President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi visited Singapore, he voiced a desire to learn from the Singaporean experience and what is known as its economic miracle.

While the development of Singapore does hold some valuable lessons, like other isolated success stories where small countries or territories experience sudden growth and overall administrative progress - Dubai and Hong Kong come to mind - it has benefitted from being run like a company rather than country.

     Egypt can benefit from some very specific elements of the city-state's experience, such as port-development and water desalination

Egypt can benefit from some very specific elements of the city-state's experience, such as port-development and water desalination.

However, demographic, political and socio-economic issues mean that Cairo must find a way to govern that is more robust and diplomatic than what the Singapore experience has to offer, and indeed what Sisi's regime has had to offer thus far.

Singapore's miracle and Egypt's farce

Lee was the CEO, and Singapore followed his lead for more than 30 years. He led a team that identified opportunities and obstacles, and worked immediately on removing the latter and capitalising on the former.

For the majority of the country's five million inhabitants, this seems to have been a winning formula, as Lee passed away earlier in 2015, while seeming to have maintained his popularity.

His method of leadership appreciated achievement and vision above all. On the other hand, Egypt, from Nasser to Sisi, seems to have viewed Egypt's economy as one ship that needs steering by a steadfast captain who knows where he is going - even if no one else does.

Perhaps, Sisi saw in the state's budding years a mantra that reflected his own stated desire to achieve "great leaps" forward in a very micro-managed way. The Egyptian president's tour around the world to negotiate personally with companies on specific projects and his insistence on meeting ambitious construction goals, suggest a similar desire to micro-manage and push for growth.

Capital over civil rights

Lee did not tolerate dissent and rarely allowed any civil liberties that may destabilise the government or its ability to achieve its goals. He introduced an iron-clad Internal Security Act that immediately stifled any hint of subversion.

Strikes were rarely allowed, if ever. The government was made to be small, efficient and corruption-free. It led to the country being a safe-haven for international capital.

For a small country of five million, made up almost entirely of urbanites, this top-down way of ruling may have provided the most efficient way to achieve the "economic miracle".

Sisi, however, continues with a legacy of corrupt, inefficient government, underpaid labour, declining standards of living, and an economy that suffers from low levels of productivity. Strikes were banned and internal dissent stifled for the sake of moving forward.

He obviously would like to everyone to follow his lead on a path to "prosperity". But the problem is that this path lies firmly within the imagination of the president. The other problem is that the sheer size and scope of Egypt's problems make any single-minded effort doomed, and a more pluralistic approach necessary.

So far, the average Egyptian has yet to see major changes to blatantly corrupt and inefficient practices in governance. Most major infrastructure projects are military-run, as its economic clout seems to have only been expanding.

Whereas, in Singapore, Lee introduced changes to state bureaucracy that frequently topped rankings of easiest places to do business in the world. Egypt continues to teeter along the bottom half of this index, below Namibia and Zambia.

     The way to sustainably drive Egypt's economy is multi-layered, multi-faceted, spaced-out, socially just and rooted in a vision

The way to sustainably drive Egypt's economy is multi-layered, multi-faceted, spaced-out, socially just and rooted in a vision that takes into account the complexities and peculiarities of the country.

Encouragingly, Sisi focused major parts of his Singapore trip (part of a wider Asia tour) on understanding how the country made use of its strategic location on major international shipping routes to build a world-class port.

The development of these kinds of ports that offer refueling, maritime services and a free-trade zone along the Suez Canal are long overdue and would arguably be more important than the Canal expansion project itself. 

It would also provide important competition with the Ras Al-Khaimah Port in the UAE, which currently is the main port for such services in the area.

Like Singapore, a fair share of international maritime trade passes through Egypt. If allowed to develop in a manner free from corruption, unencumbered by political turmoil, and unopposed by allies of the regime (such as the UAE) who may not enjoy the prospect of competition in the region's seas, there is something to be said about the Suez Canal Area benefiting from Singapore's experience.

Let's just hope that Lee Kuan Yew's lessons don't spill over into other broader areas of Egypt's political and economic development. 

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focused on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book,
Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.