Our conversation about the country and leadership is flawed

02 November 2012

MY last visit to Asia, including Singapore was about 10 years ago. I currently find myself in Singapore, participating in a conference looking at what ought to be the regional priorities of Asia in the Twenty-first century.


Also, whilst in this interesting city-state of refined alfresco dining, I am sharing my thoughts on Africa and its prospects for the future with political science students from the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS). While Asia as a region was underlined in the opening dinner by the eloquent KasiviswanathanShanmugam, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Law as the next big thing, I have been paying special attention to the place of Singapore in the region.

Why? There is one simple reason, which also renders itself well for a comparative view. Singapore is small state in what is without doubt, one of the most complex but dynamic regions in the world. The envisaged economic power shifts that are reconfiguring international affairs are unquestionably in favour of Asia.

Understanding this region and its dynamics has therefore become a key concern in global policy-making circles. As a result of these impending changes, various countries in Asia are repositioning themselves and recalibrating their policy options and institutional frameworks, in order to meet the new world that is emerging. Small states in Africa could draw lessons (of the right sort) from this part of the world.

Namibia too is a small country on a continent, and in a region that is undergoing profound mutations. Importantly, Namibia is also part of a world whose architecture is changing and this would ordinarily have implications for the place of our small state.

When leaders and citizens do the right thing, there is cause for optimism. But, when you observe Singapore and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the reasons for the optimism of the country are clearly understandable. In reply to a question about the sustainability of the Singaporean model in a changing political and economic geography, the Minister did not refer to any of the physical and natural infrastructures that our government men and women sell abroad. He surprisingly referred to sustainability and the competitiveness of Singapore as based on two broad outlines – the skills and talents of its people; and a government that is corruption-free and one that has profound respect for the rule of law.

When you open the Singapore Strait Times, the urgency of a people, the politicians and agents of civil society, including academia, the media are all at work shaping and harnessing a society that is based on the rule of law and the talent of its people. It is here where the conversation about the future of Namibia becomes a bit distressing.

We are currently on the verge of what will arguably turn out to be or ought to be the most crucial political transition in the ruling party, Swapo. Yet, when you observe matters closely, more so in light of what others are doing, our public and political conversation becomes worryingly lightweight.

There is a dominant debate in Namibia that looks at power and transition as a zero-sum game. In light of this, the factionalism that belies resistance to change is rooted in such a conception of power, which looks at political life through the under-belly of access to resources/and the preservation or further accumulation of material resources and wealth.

It is this sorry tale of leadership succession through which the public conversation is framed. This vision is even more worrying within the elite whose positioning is not issue-based but more a question of what it is that we can extract materially from this or the other candidate.

In this cacophony, the key guiding question that comes to mind is whether we can build a sustainable model on the basis of the extraction of all sorts.

Can a society that worships and bows in front material success be one that is well positioned to win the future? Certainly not! As a small state, our public debate ought to shift to the non-material tones of life, thereby defining success in different and sophisticated shades.

Sustainable welfare for Namibians can be created on the basis of public discussions that celebrate unquestionable excellence in leadership through hard work, merit and talent. It is for this reason that we should focus the debate about leadership to these qualities in order to advance a much better society. To do so would imply asking leaders what it is that they can do for us in the true sense of the word, and not what we mere mortals can do for them so that they in turn do something for us.

Consider this, in a meeting of two PMs 10 years ago here in Singapore; the former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong did inform his Namibian counterpart about the standing belief in Singapore that the Cabinet team of Singapore must be equal in skills to the board of directors of a top global corporation. Where are we 10 years on?


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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