By Okechukwu Onwuka
As our plane approached the Changi International Airport, Singapore, I found myself getting more and more apprehensive. The last time I visited Singapore, three years ago, it was already a beautiful country. The impact of the level of development I met in Singapore then was so much that I refused to take any photographs.
I also refused to take photographs during my earlier trip to Malaysia. Even at the site of the magnificent twin towers in Malaysia, I would not change my mind. While my friends and colleagues were busy enjoying the beauty of the environment, I was a very sad man indeed. And I could not even conceal it. How can I take photographs? For what purpose? In the early days, I took several photographs in many US cities and Europe.
It made sense. Back at home in Nigeria, I could show the level of advancement in countries that are several hundred years old through the pictures. It would be apt to feel good about the travel experience.
But how do I explain that Malaysia, then still ranked as a 3rd World country could be that developed while Nigeria had not even started? That Malaysia is now a leading producer and exporter of Palm oil was further rubbing salt into an old wound. If the Malaysian development can be attributed to their oil revenue, assuming I needed to justify the disparity by any means, how do I explain the Singapore story? With no natural resources, no oil and mineral deposits, poor natural water supply, the transformation is a well known wonder story.
It doesnâ€™t matter how much youâ€™ve heard of the beauty of Singapore, youâ€™ll still be impressed when you visit in person. Considering the neatness of the streets, the orderliness of the society, visible modern infrastructure, road networks, sublime architecture, evidence of quality planning, design and execution everywhere, seamless integration of nature and man-made structures, it is a tourist delight any day, anytime. All that beauty had only one effect on me; Sadness. Iâ€™m not sad at the development of the country. Nor do I envy the Singaporeans. Itâ€™s just that I feel sad when I see the citizens as individuals and realize that they are not more endowed than the Nigerian. They are not taller, not more beautiful, not more intelligent, not more athletic. Physically I see nothing that should make us ashamed of ourselves.
But when you consider the quality and depth of their output as a society when compared to ours, as Nigerians, youâ€™ll feel really sad. Sad that inspite of the abundance of huge natural resources in Nigeria from oil & gas to solid minerals such as coal, carbon and limestone, expansive waterways, and massive population, we still lag behind even the smallest of countries like Singapore! So why was I getting apprehensive as we approached landing in Singapore? Two reasons; The first is my fear that they would have improved on last time, thus making it more uncomfortable for me.
The second is, how do I handle it? There was no disappointment though. The greater sophistication of the aircraft was one indication of the things to come on touchdown. As I was driven to my hotel, the chauffeur gave me detailed updates of the recent improvements in the country. When he got to the new Casinos, I was only too glad to tell him that I donâ€™t gamble. Not to be deterred, he reeled out a host of other new developments. With what I saw, there were definite improvements in reality. Suddenly, I became conscious of my assignment in Singapore. How will the team of specialists from Singapore, US, UK , Malaysia, China and other top countries cooperate with my leading the critical risk assessment studies? Why did they even choose me for the task? Considering that Iâ€™m from Nigeria, I suspected that I will be under intense scrutiny from the minute I walk into the conference room.
If I did not have significant experience in the field before now, I might have chickened out but some anxiety remained though. Why should they even trust a Nigerian to be in charge of such a crucial design analysis when we cannot even generate electricity for our own people? The respect we give to expatriates in Nigeria is not because of the colour of their skin.
Or the degrees they have acquired. The respect is borne out of the measurable results that their forefathers and fellow citizens have produced for their countries and the world at large. But when I remembered the saying â€œWarri No dey Carry Lastâ€, I changed it to â€œNija no dey carry lastâ€. Iâ€™m glad that the sessions ultimately went beautifully well. On national development, I spent the first five days analyzing the root cause of the disparity. The bottom line is that in Singapore, the people appear to have a defined minimum standard below which business or daily life cannot be conducted. They recognize the paramount importance of National pride over individual success.
The people see their personal success tied to National success. Minimum standard for accomplishing any task is that it MUST be done exceptionally well. And the minimum standard is world class standards. There appears to be no hurry anywhere.
Buildings, hotels, malls, restaurants must be beautifully designed, finished and maintained. Workers understand that hard work is minimum standard. Professionals and specialists are valued. Processes and systems are valued over rash decisions. Citizens donâ€™t litter the street. Eating in public is discouraged to avoid litter. Human behavior is controlled through tight regulations and laws that are enforced. That one taxi driver played a fast one on me by taking a longer route to collect higher fare shows that in any society, there will be bad eggs.
But when the corrupt and bad are in the majority, there is trouble. Some of the citizens still complain about the Government, particularly regarding high cost of housing and high cost of goods resulting from influx of tourists. This gives me hope because it shows that no Government can be perfect in the eyes of her people all the time.
All we need is to develop a sense of minimum standards at work, school, religious organizations, leadership, politics, enterprise, ethicsÂ and national pride at all levels in our society. I believe we can make it. All the resources are available. It all starts from the mind.
If Lagos and Calabar can transform in such a short time, Nigeria will transform in my life time. I can never give up on this hope. I have no other country. It is impossible to give up.