It is great pleasure to be with you today. I would like to thank Professor Suresh for this invitation, and also for his many years of friendship with Rwanda.
A few moments ago, we made good on a discussion that Professor Suresh and I had a few years ago, by signing a partnership agreement between Rwanda and Nanyang Technological University.
This adds an important new element, to Rwanda’s relationship with Singapore. We are enthusiastic about the opportunities that this collaboration will open up for both Rwandan and Singaporean students and researchers, and we intend to make the most of it.
I consider the invitation to deliver the Majulah Lecture a particular honour, because the title is drawn from Singapore’s national anthem. “Majulah” is a call to progress, to move forward, together and united. In other words, to innovate, but inclusively.
I cannot presume to know all of the circumstances that led Singaporeans to choose these sentiments for the national anthem. But the words resonate.
It is therefore fitting to say a few words about the relationship between innovation and continuity, in the context of Rwanda’s unique journey over the last 28 years.
In 1994, Rwanda had basically ceased to exist as a nation. A million people lay dead, out of a population of around seven million, because of a perverted genocidal ideology. Millions more were refugees. Every public institution had been destroyed, and the national treasury was looted.
To most observers, all that Rwandans could aspire to, in the generation which followed that tragedy, was simply to survive. Charting a pathway to prosperity seemed like a preposterous dream.
We still have a long way to go, but our country has been fundamentally transformed for the better. We found our way forward by innovation through home-grown solutions in three key areas. Let me give you some examples of each.
First and foremost, was the need to innovate around national unity and social cohesion. We started by creating security, because that is the basis for anything else to happen. We also immediately initiated the process of merging the liberation army with the defeated army of the former government.
A country without a shared national identity has no future. Rwanda’s historic unity had been progressively corrupted by the previous colonial and post-independence governments.
We restored a traditional practice where a monthly community service brought all citizens together to improve their neighbourhoods. We released genocide suspects back into their communities, where they were judged through a process called Gacaca, that focused both on punishment and on bringing the truth to light. This was important for survivors and perpetrators to be able to live together again.
We also focused on equipping young Rwandans with a positive concept of citizenship that emphasizes what we all share, rather than what divides us.
As a result, today, independent polls find that Rwanda has some of the highest levels of social trust in the world.
Second, we had to innovate in techniques of inclusive, citizen-oriented governance.
In the past, public institutions and assets were treated as the property of a few. Even to study at secondary school was a privilege afforded to those with political connections.
But whenever citizens do not enjoy equal rights and treatment, a country’s stability is at risk. This is why we strive to establish a culture of meritocracy, where every young Rwandan knows that hard work and excellence will bring rewards, regardless of background.
One practice that has become a habit in Rwanda is the signing of ‘imihigo’ by leaders at different levels of government. These are performance contracts that specify what is to be delivered and how to measure it. This is one of the tools we have adopted to encourage citizens to be fully involved in holding government to account. The practice is simple but powerful, and also affordable.
The third area of innovation we prioritized was technology.
In the late 1990s, the government decided to make internet access and digital skills a keynote of our economic strategy. We even got pushback from some or our partners, the donors, at the time, who thought that technology was a luxury for a poor country.
Fortunately, we persisted, and today services are the fastest-growing segment of the Rwandan economy, largely building on those infrastructure and training investments.
All public services, such as obtaining birth certificates or paying tax, are now done online, via a platform called Irembo, which is largely designed and operated by Rwandan professionals.
Since the pandemic, like Singapore, Rwanda is working to become a vaccine and medicines manufacturing hub.
Next year, the first end-to-end mRNA manufacturing facility in Africa will be launched by the German company BioNTech, in Kigali.
But there was another reason we decided to make technology and innovation a centerpiece. Technology connects you to the wider world, especially young people. It helps build openness and curiosity. This was important for us, as we worked to overcome the divisions of the past.
What connects these three types of innovation that made a difference on Rwanda’s journey is the importance of mindset change.
From closed, to open. From dependent, to self-reliant. Above all, to have the confidence to just be our best selves, as Rwandans and as Africans, rather than trying to copy or imitate others.
Innovation is necessary for human survival, for example with urgent energy and food production challenges.
It is, incidentally, why Singapore’s story of building a successful society continues to have a wide meaning. It was achieved by investing in people, making good policy choices, and holding each other accountable for results. It was not an automatic process that can be taken for granted. This means that a rapid rise to high income status is a goal that other nations can also aspire to, and achieve, no matter their starting point.
We are very happy to have a number of dynamic young Singaporean entrepreneurs living and working in Rwanda, and making important contributions. We therefore look forward to much more collaboration and partnership with Singapore, and other like-minded nations and institutions.
With that, thank you for listening, and I am looking forward to interacting with you.