Lessons from Malaysia, Singapore, China and Dubai

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In Nigeria
Aug 19th, 2014
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Being a speech delivered by Sam Nda-Isaiah during the 1st City People monthly lecture on Sunday, August 17, 2014, at Protea Hotel, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos.

General Yakubu Gowon, one of the former leaders of this country that I believe has not yet been given his rightful place in history, told me in a private discussion last year that what pained him most about the coup that removed him from office was not the loss of power but the loss of opportunity to implement his Third National Development Plan, which started the year he was overthrown and which could have moved Nigeria to the level of the Asian Tigers. He said that, before he left power, international organisations including the media were already saying that Nigeria was on the same development trajectory with some of these nations. And General Gowon believed his programmes would have taken us there. He has a lot to show for his tenure as leader. Apart from prosecuting the civil war and keeping Nigeria one, which Nigerians will eternally remember him for, Gowon also achieved significantly in the development of the country. I know there are people who may differ on this but most of the developments we still have on ground today in Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Benin City, Enugu and a host of other cities are traceable to Gowon’s era. I also believe that the First Republic leaders still have a lot of good history going for them.

Sardauna of Sokoto Sir Ahmadu Bello’s record still stands for him. The Ahmadu Bello University remains one of the biggest universities in Africa. The Hamdala Hotel he built, even though now mismanaged and run down, still remains the biggest hotel in Kaduna. The New Nigerian was, until recently, probably the most influential newspaper in Nigeria. The Ahmadu Bello Stadium is still the biggest stadium in the north. There is also the NNDC. There are several other monuments to his name. He believed that education should be a priority and a tool of modernization, so he insisted on free education without making even a campaign issue of it. But his greatest achievement appears to be bringing together the nearly 200 diverse and disparate tribes of the north, irrespective of religion, to live in peace and harmony – something that present-day leaders have failed to sustain.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the premier of Western Nigeria, built the first TV station in Africa. The University of Ife, which he founded, and of which I am a proud alumnus, remains one of the best in the world. The Cocoa House was at one time the tallest building in Africa, projecting strength, power and prosperity for our nation. He built the Liberty Station in Ibadan, the first of its kind in Africa. He also insisted on free education for all. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe taught Nigerians how to unite the country. He named the university he founded as premier, University of Nigeria. And he would have become the premier of Western Nigeria in 1951 if the carpet was not pulled from under his feet. These were significant moves considering the level of ethnic nationalism of those days.

There are a few more leaders that came and did their best, but we obviously lost it at some point. I love the story of Singapore so much that, about four years ago, I attended a governance programme at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore where most of the resource persons were former principal secretaries and ministers of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who is considered the founding father of modern Singapore. One of the former principal secretaries of Lee Kuan Yew told us that when Singapore gained independence in 1965, apparently without hope or a future to look up to, their greatest ambition was to grow to be like Nigeria and the Philippines in the future. Today, it is Nigeria and the Philippines that want to be like Singapore.

Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Dubai have a roughly similar history and circumstances. All of them were once considered Third World countries and were once termed emerging markets. Today, all the others have joined the First World; only Nigeria remains a Third World nation. And nobody still calls China, Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai emerging markets anymore. China emerged from behind to overtake every European country in terms of size of economy and has now overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world; it is poised to become the largest economy in the world shortly. Of these countries, only Dubai is homogenous in terms of race and religion. The three others, Malaysia, Singapore and China, have demographics that are even more variegated than Nigeria in terms of race and religion.

One thing that separates Malaysia, Singapore, China and Dubai from Nigeria is leadership – consistent leadership. Singapore had Lee Kuan Yew, China had Deng Xiaoping, Dubai has Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Malaysia had Mahatir Mohammed. Even though credit for the very existence of China today should be given to Chairman Mao, it was the courage, vision and character of Deng Xiaoping to chart a new direction for China that have made China an economic superpower and the main issue in today’s world. It was Deng that opened up China to the world by liberalising the economy. China became a market economy, reducing the central command structure that started what will soon make it the biggest economy in the world, that has substantially reduced poverty, and raised its people’s standard of living. He de-emphasised ideology and emphasised wealth creation. He is the author of the famous quote, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black; if it catches mice, it is a good cat.” He was the one that started negotiation with the British for the return of Hong Kong to China. He also started the negotiation for the return of Macau to China from Portugal. Deng was not a perfect leader but he, not Chairman Mao, is the father of modern China.

Lee Kuan Yew is to Singapore what Deng is to China. At independence in 1965, Singapore was hopeless. It was too small and too poor to have a future. They had no resource at all. In desperation, they wanted to remain with Malaysia but the Malaysians threw them out. They thought Singapore was a liability. Lee Kuan Yew took the bull by the horns, supported by some of the best minds the country had such as Goh Keng Swee, who was at different times minister of finance, education, defence and deputy prime minister. Lee Kuan Yew was without government service experience when he took over but was armed with courage, vision and character – the most important ingredients a leader needs to change a nation. He decided to build the biggest seaport in the world and he succeeded. He decided to have the best airport in the world and he succeeded. He decided to have the most beautiful city in the world and he succeeded; and even though Singapore does not produce a drop of crude oil, he decided to make his country an oil-rich nation. He succeeded. Today, Singapore through several indigenous and multinational companies refines nearly 2 million barrels of oil daily and exports to countries like Nigeria. But the first thing to know about Singapore is her strict adherence to the rule of law. Corruption is punished harshly.

Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai, and, in his book My Vision – Challenges In The Race For Excellence, he tells us that what we see in Dubai today is nothing compared to his ultimate vision for Dubai. Dubai today looks like a utopian city, with the tallest building in the world. If Dubai today, which appears like a city running on steroids, has not started yet, then, I wonder what Al Maktoum plans to do. He obviously plans to disgrace every world leader that has no vision for his country. But that is what vision is all about.

Nigeria needs a new leadership. We need our own Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, Mahatir Mohammed and Mohammed Al Maktoum. And we do not even need to re-invent the wheel. Before Deng started his revolution, he visited Singapore in 1978 and met with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He also visited Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. In 1979, he visited the United States and looked at all the models and then improved on them.

Al Maktoum obviously wanted to make Dubai a First World nation for the pleasure of all Arabs in the Middle East. Instead of letting his people travel to Europe and the United States for vacation, he sought to create a place in the Middle East where they would prefer, and he succeeded. He has succeeded even beyond his imagination because not only Arabs, even the Europeans and Africans now patronise Dubai as a vacation spot. In his quest to create Europe and the United States in the Middle East, he outdid even the Europeans and Americans. Like he said, the race for excellence has no finish line.

One other thing that is common to these countries is that they are well secured. In Singapore, Malaysia, China and Dubai, nobody fears that he is going to be shot, kidnapped or bombed at any time of the day. I visit these countries, so I should know. And the reasons are straightforward. In Singapore, for instance, the penalty for arms trafficking is the death sentence. Crimes like murder and possession of hard drugs also carry the death sentence. And all crimes are punished. In Singapore, the definition of arms trafficking is being in possession of more than one firearm, and if you are found with just one firearm, you must prove that you do not intend to use it.

In all these places, corruption is punished severely. In China, certain levels of corruption carry the death sentence. When I was in China sometime ago, I read in their newspapers that two local government chairmen had been executed for corruption the day before I arrived. A serious leader must know that corruption can kill his country and treat the evil accordingly.

We are not yet on the path to development in this country. Nigeria is the exact opposite of these countries when it comes to the rule of law. We have a president who openly says there is a difference between stealing and corruption, and when the CBN governor raised the alarm over the theft of billions of dollars, his first reaction was not to get alarmed but to suspend the CBN governor. That shocked the world. Nigeria currently cannot even secure its boys and girls, as we have seen in Bunu Yadi in Yobe State, Chibok and Gwoza, both in Borno State. Additional 100 young men were abducted in Borno State three days ago. Since Jonathan became president, we no longer see people punished for corruption. We have ceded parts of our country to terrorists because money meant to buy ammunition is stolen daily. The same Nigeria that liberated countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and southern African countries has become the butt of jokes of smaller nations. Last month, Ghana said they were sending troops to Nigeria to help us defeat Boko Haram.

How Do We Start Solving This?

Nigeria needs a brand new leadership. First, we must do something about education. The UN says Nigeria currently has the highest out-of-school children: 10.5 million children are out of school. The education of the youths should be the topmost priority of any nation. It is unacceptable that we now send our children to Ghana and even the Sudan to attend schools because our public schools have collapsed. The WASSCE result released last week showed that 70% of Nigerian students failed.  It is very dangerous to continue like this. We will have to change the standards of both teaching and learning. The content of what we teach must also change. We still teach our children with some of the same curricula that we had 30, 40 years ago. But the world has moved on. The curriculum we teach our children must be dictated by the trends that move the world. The world has changed so much in the last 15 years that if we still teach our children with a curriculum that is 30 years old, then, we have lost it. Our curriculum must prepare our youths to graduate and become employers of labour instead of seekers of good jobs. We must now dedicate at least a quarter of our resources and budgets to education until further notice.

The unemployment level in the country should frighten all of us: 48 million Nigerians are unemployed. Since 48 million jobs are not available, Nigeria must create an army of entrepreneurs. Even though the economy has grown, the poverty rate has increased, precisely because the sectors driving the growth are not the ones in which the majority of Nigerians are accommodated. We must therefore bring in more youths into agriculture, online business, housing and manufacturing. Nigerian leaders must fashion out policies and subsidies that would create at least 10 million new small businesses in the next five years if we don’t want a misfortune worse than Boko Haram to destroy us. A small business typically creates between two and five new jobs; so, potentially, with 10 million new small businesses, we can create 50 million new jobs. Moreover, with Nigeria’s current housing deficit of 17 million housing units, Nigeria needs a government that will start building at least 1 million new housing units annually. This is huge, but very possible. With one million new housing units annually, several millions of jobs would be created: engineers, quantity surveyors, architects, labourers, block moulders, flourists, mortgage banks, estate agents, cement, tiles, paint sellers and manufacturers, food vendors at construction sites, etc, would be employed. We can borrow money from the N4 trillion pension funds since the houses are going to be sold to the public and the money will be paid back. And to encourage manufacturing, especially for the small-scale manufacturers, we need to strengthen our local currency and significantly reduce interest rates. We can strengthen the naira by paying the monthly allocations to all tiers of government in dollars since oil which is our main revenue earner is paid for in dollars. But instead of dishing out dollar cash which could encourage capital flight, the federal government should issue dollar certificates to the different tiers of government. These different tiers of government would then have to convert these dollar certificates to naira in our local banks. If more dollars start chasing less naira, the value of the naira would improve immediately. And if this happened, interest rates would also go down. Nigerian manufacturers would then be able to procure machinery and spare parts more easily and, at single-digit interest rate (instead of the current scandalous 25%), it would be possible for their products to compete with imported products. Our population of 178.5 million as currently estimated by the UN is a large market.

And talking about driving economic growth in the sectors that most Nigerians reside in – apart from the above, do we know that we can create a soccer economy in Nigeria? Nigerians’ passion for football is incredible. Most Nigerians have one European team that they support in the European leagues with a passion that is even greater than the support they give their own indigenous teams. And Nigeria has several soccer talents that have not been tapped. If European countries can have a thriving soccer economy, why not Nigeria? Most of the investors in the soccer economy in Europe are foreigners and many of their players are foreigners including Nigerians. Many of the stadia in Europe were built by foreigners and many of the clubs are now owned by foreigners. Old Trafford, the stadium owned and built by Manchester United, is said to fetch $1 billion for its shareholders every year. Emirates Airlines paid £300 million for a new stadium for Arsenal, and Etihad paid £270 million to acquire a new stadium for Manchester City. Soccer is serious business. We can also achieve this in Nigeria if we create the enabling environment for foreigners to invest in. Nigeria can have a thriving and sophisticated league. This is one of the several big ideas that can change our country. Moreover, we can use soccer to unite Nigerians.

The country also needs to tackle corruption urgently so as to loosen up more money to secure the country. If we defeat criminals, Nigeria can earn revenues from tourism just like Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and China.

To move Nigeria forward, we must also change the way government works. Governments all over the world, but especially in Nigeria, have a problem of inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption directly impeding several well-intended plans. We cannot change a country without first changing its government. I believe one way to achieve this in Nigeria will be by the appointment of CEO-style ministers and heads of government agencies with clear targets and commensurate salaries and bonuses.

I also think that Nigeria’s leaders should start reading. If you don’t read, how do you know what is happening in other countries? Nations are in competition with each other and every leader must know what his competition is doing. Many Nigerians don’t read. We must know that the educated man who doesn’t read is not different from a man who can’t read.

Finally, there must be an elite consensus in Nigeria to move the nation forward. The Nigerian elite must agree that the only way to move our country to the level of Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and China is to get that leader with vision, character and courage and not to choose leaders because they are from our tribes or only on the basis of whether they are Christians or Muslims. All over the world, it is the elite that decides the fate of a nation. The Nigerian elite need to get serious.

The most important thing to know is that it can be done. And we must do it. All we need do is find that leader that wants to do it. A leader that knows that his first duty to the country is to secure the people, and not to complain that some people don’t like him and have decided to make the country ungovernable for him. We need a leader who will fight corruption. We need a leader with vision, character and courage who can think the impossible for the country and go ahead to achieve it. We need a leader who badly wants to leave a legacy for God and country.

Ladies and gentleman, we have to get that leader in 2015. May God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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