The Word On The Streets VI – Fear And Loathing in Las Gidi

We go straight to the point this time. 

1. On my way into Lagos I had the pleasure of sitting next to a rather chatty but good natured Tanzanian chap. So what’s a Tanzanian chap doing in Lagos I ask him? He tells me he works as an expatriate with the company that owns Genesis Cinemas. Apparently he was working in London installing and maintaining cinema screens for Odeon Cinemas when he got the offer to go work in Nigeria.

He tells me they just finished a 5 screen cinema in Enugu and there are more to come. Seeing as it’s not everyday you get to meet a Tanzanian, I steer the conversation away to local politics in his home country and he becomes even more animated.

When this new President was elected I told my Mum the guy was an [insert your choice of abuse here] and everyone told me to at least give him a chance. Can you imagine one day I am with some of my friends in London and they are texting the President and he is replying?! What kind of President is sitting in Dar Es Salaam texting his friends in London?

I have to say I found that totally hilarious. Even more, what kind of serious President carries a mobile phone?

Now they have found oil and they are just going crazy. Julius Nyerere knew there was oil [he mentions the name of the basin area but I’m struggling to remember now] but he knew that if it was exploited, the whole economy would be totally messed up. Now the Americans are building a small community because obviously they have to replicate their living standards back home there. Everyone is going crazy about oil and property prices in Dar Es Salaam are going nuts!

I acknowledge his point and add that this is specifically why the smart Norwegians do not allow any of their oil money make it’s way back into their own economy. All of the money is paid into their Sovereign Wealth Fund which is then invested in other countries. It’s very difficult to build a proper economy when you have all that resource money pouring into your country. Just today I saw this academic paper which shows that from ‘1975 to 2005 the size, diversity and sophistication of industry in Africa have all declined’. In other words, all of the growth has come from booms in commodities.

We wish the Tanzanians all the best as they enjoy their new resource.

2. The delectable Tiwa Savage was on the same flight into Lagos with me. I feel like I owe her some thanks for giving me a shoutout in the song ‘Everything’ she did with 9ice – you know the bit where she goes oko mi, aguntasolo, ma gbo mi l’ena, ma r’oka ife towards the end of the song 🙂 

But liver failed and I let her be.

But tell me something; when celebrities wear outsize sunglasses (sun or no sun) are they trying to hide their identity or draw attention to themselves? I am asking for a friend please.

3. Our hyperactive Aviation Minister is at it again. This time she has given the usual suspects, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, something like 30 days to ‘restore parity’ in the West African region in their pricing. Bear in mind that this ‘discrepancy’ is purely for premium tickets as it’s cheaper to fly economy from Nigeria than it is from Ghana. Presumably the minister is seeking to reduce the price of luxury tickets while increasing the price of economy tickets.

No point beating about the bush, the woman is an economic illiterate. As I got on the plane from London, I looked left and I couldnt see a single empty seat in 1st Class. Nigerians love flying that way. But there are only so many 1st class seats on a plane meaning the demand will probably exceed supply on most flights. So what on earth is an airline supposed to do in such a scenario? Reduce prices? 

Governments like to rob Peter to pay Paul because if done properly, Paul might be convinced to vote for the robber. Or perhaps in this case given that the people the Minister is waging war on behalf of are the well to do, they will donate to the PDP when fundraising season begins. 

I have been looking at tickets to Nigeria since December and consistently Arik has been the most expensive of the 3 airlines flying direct to Nigeria from London. Why should I fly them especially when a delay in leaving Lagos is guaranteed? If she really wants to be useful, why not lean on Arik to learn how to provide decent service to its customers? As opposed to this populist foreigner baiting. 

Under her watch, Sir Stelios has decided to set up his new no frills in airline with its base in Ghana ignoring Nigeria in the process. This is a direct cost of a minister who likes to ‘order’ prices to come down. Businesses dont like such people. 

But na them sabi

4. On Saturday I called a cab to take me from Oniru to GRA in Ikeja. He picked me up at 7pm and as there was no traffic, it took us under 40minutes to get to Isaac John. I had a meeting to attend so I had him wait for me. I left the meeting around 10.10pm and headed back to Oniru in Victoria Island. I got there just before 11pm. I asked him how much and he said N7,500. Sounded reasonable to me so I paid up without haggling.

Next morning I was leaving for the airport and I called the same cab man to take me from the same Oniru to MMIA. He picked me up at exactly 7.30am and we were at the airport in 30 minutes flat. I drop my bags and ask him how much. He says N7,500. I am shocked and I ask him how on did he come up with a pricing policy that charges the same for a one way 30 minute journey and a 3hr+ return journey? He says this is ‘airport fare’ and that’s ‘how they charge it’. I am not in a habit of carrying a lot of naira with me on my last day in Nigeria so I count how much I have left with me and it comes to N5,500. I hand over N5k to him and pocket the remaining N500. 

This formerly mild mannered man suddenly turns menacing and begins to ask me where I plan to get the balance from. I am now getting slightly irritated and I tell him there will be no balance forthcoming so he ought to run along. 

Someday when a metered taxi system is introduced and standardized across Lagos, the time he spent arguing with me over the rest of the charge will automatically become a cost to him and others like him. We ought to at least try to get rid of as much uncertainty in our economy as possible. The technology for metering cabs has been around for ages so we have no excuse really. 

Arguments like that are a nuisance because we are both relying on some (different) abstract notion to price the same service. 

5. Nigeria scares the hell out of me sometimes. Like so many people seem to be on edge because of the dissonance between their situation and the wealth that is daily flaunted in their faces. I ask a laundry man to quickly straighten out a shirt for me as I was about to head out. He returns a few minutes later with the shirt ironed and I hand him N500. He gives me this terrible look that gives me panic before walking out of my room. 

Was N500 too little to quickly straighten out a shirt for me I wondered? I can only imagine that someone had distorted the market for shirt ironing by offering him perhaps N1000 to iron a shirt say the day before. Again, the market for shirt ironing relies on abstract notions so everyone has their own idea of what the value is = wasted time spent haggling getting to an acceptable mid price.

6. The Otunba Tunwase Michael Olasubomi Olayiwola Oladimeji Olaonipekun Balogun, The Olori Omo Oba of Ijebuland aka Sure Banker turned 78 a couple of weeks ago. So one might think he’d be ’rounding up’ his assingment on this earth. Nothing of the sort I’m afraid. 

My friend said he was going to drive me past his new house in Ikoyi and I managed to grab the photo below

Dsc_0024

Without trying to exaggerate, I’d put that front door at something like 12 feet high. The house and the gates are all adorned in his insignia as well. 

His kids are all grown up and very succesful in their own right so who would want this monstrosity after the man is gone? You can imagine that he’d be alone in the house with his wife and a multitude of drivers and servants a la Downton Abbey most of the time. What if they turn on him one day? Not saying it can happen but nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in a land of such wide inequalities.

A friend was telling me that if you drive past Chief S.B Bakare’s house in Ikoyi these days, you can see goats roaming about the compound probably unable to believe their luck at such a gilded existence that they live in. 

But is it my money?

7. Staying in Ikoyi, there’s this bridge coming from Lekki that is under construction by Julius Berger at the moment. What’s interesting about it is that it drops right onto Bourdillon Road (not too far from the Lion’s den) which as you know is a 2 lane dual carriage way. It looks like an interesting traffic experiment in the making but half bridge is better than none I imagine.

I once wondered what the fuss was all about cement prices in Nigeria being so high given that I didnt think the demand, driven by construction, was that great in Nigeria. One tends to judge these things by the skyline of a city and the Marina skyline hasnt changed at all since UBA House went up if I remember correctly. Most of the buildings there now look like derelict eyesores.

But I was partly wrong. Stuff is in fact getting built in Lagos it just depends on where you look. So driving round Parkview on Saturday morning, I counted quite a number of what looked like ‘serviced flats’ under construction. Not just that; builders were hard at work on them on a Saturday morning. This is generally a good sign that not only is funding for the project available, the owners are racing towards a deadline they have set for themselves. 

A friend of mine suggests that Eti-Osa should apply for nationhood from the United Nations and become an independent country. A bit risky given that were a fight to break out and soldiers drafted in from say Alimosho to quell their secessionist tendencies, they’d have nowhere to run to except inside the Atlantic.

But worth a try perhaps. Afterall what goes on there seems to have no correlation with the rest of the country or the state even.

8. Of all the things that have been destroyed by Nigerian govts over the years, none is more heartbreaking than education. They should never have had the power to do this. You hear all sorts of things that just make you despair. A rather succesful businessman told me the lengths he was going to to find half decent staff. I was dumbfounded as I have heard of such practices here in the UK but only during the boom years before the crash. In those days, I’d be at my job and I’d be getting calls and emails from recruitment agents trying to get me to switch jobs. I even once managed to get two job offers at the same time once and play them off against each other to get one of them to raise their offer.

But in those days you knew there was something like an excess of demand over supply. Not so in Nigeria. There is a plentiful supply of labour out there but sadly much of it is not fit for purpose. People have been so hampered by a terrible state education that they are literally hemmed into a life that is less than ordinary. How on earth are people supposed to fight poverty without an education? 

This businessman tells me that he is reduced to responding to client emails himself not because his staff cannot send an email but they do not know how to engage with an email to craft a response. All over you hear the same kind of story. I dont imagine that the job the Tanzanian guy I spoke about earlier is so terribly difficult that it cant be done by a Nigerian, but the fact is that it probably is hence why he’s in the country. 

Little wonder then that expatriates in Nigeria command some of the highest salaries in the world. 

This debasement of education also gives you a new class of people like Boko Haram seeking to undermine the state but incapable of doing it in any sort of seemingly civilised manner. It really is a tragedy.

9. Staying with education, I had the pleasure of meeting with some members of the Afenifere Renewal Group specifically to discuss the recently launched Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN) document/roadmap. It was a good meeting (better than I expected) precisely because I found them to be open to ideas (within their bounds) and generally had their hearts in the right place.

But the meeting got off a to a rather boisterous start especially on the issue of adopting Yoruba as the language of instruction for primary schools across the South West. I totally disagree with this policy as the entire idea appears to be largely based on the romantic notion of what went on the ‘good old days’. I suggested an experiment to place an English and Yoruba primary school side by side in a small village and see which one got more patronage from parents. They didnt buy it.

But a bigger problem that troubled was the seeming total belief in the idea that the govt is capable of repairing the mess it caused itself. No politician seeks office on a platform that seeks to debase education in their time in office. If anything, education gets bigger budgets every year but the quality continues to deteriorate. The problem is mainly that politicians really have no incentive, especially in a short termist society like ours, to make public education work. Nothing has happened to rearrange the way these incentives stack up so why are we so eager to hand over more responsibility to the govt in this regard?

When govt fails, it doesnt mean that society is at a loss as to what to do. The vacuum is soon filled by the ‘market’. Because the govt is not able to provide water does not mean the people are going thirsty. People simply build boreholes. 

Recently in India, this report was released showing how the private sector had completely filled the gap created by state failure in the state of Bihar in India. So while the govt was ‘officially’ recording 350 schools in the state, the researchers found 1,574 schools in total i.e 78% of them were privately owned. What this meant, amazingly, was that out of a total of 333,776 school children in the state, 238,767 did not exist at all according to the govt records! Further, the researchers used satellite imaging to pinpoint the location of the private schools in the state, they found that there was hardly a street in the state that did not have a school serving it.

Government is overrated provided it can be convinced to stay out of the way and not cause a nuisance. In India, a 2009 Right to Education Act was passed which required that all ‘unrecognised’ schools be closed down by this year 2012. In other words, what the govt has been unable to provide, it does not want anyone else to provide.

But the Bihar education minister appears to be a smart man as he has given an assurance to private schools that he has no intention of harassing them in the name of implementing this law. And rightly so for the schools have committed no crime other than to provide a service that was clearly in demand. 

In South Africa the situation isnt much different as private schools are now booming especially in areas where the ANC has failed woefully to deliver quality education to its people. 

These stories are important in helping us bust the myth about what govts, especially destroyers like the Nigerian type, can and cannot do. As a friend of mine put it, what the govt is providing is subsidised illiteracy in the name of public education. We must not give them any more power to leave destruction in their wake. The less damage they are able to do, the better for us all in the long run.

So here’s a radical idea for the ‘progressives’ in Yoruba land – introduce a voucher system that follows each child through their education. A certain amount of money will be allocated to each child and the parents then find a school of their choice for the child to attend. The govt then transfers this money to the school. Each child can be given an account number or something that uniquely identifies them. They will have access to the account but cannot make withdrawals from it except to give their number to a school they have decided to attend and then that school makes a claim for the child which is then paid out of the account. The parents will be able to top up this account if they want their child to attend a school that is more expensive than the govt allocation.

Let govt then sit back and try to be a regulator while we pray they dont screw that one up too.

10. Everytime I go back home I wonder if I have the courage to move back and engage with the Nigerian system. But I am grateful for some straight talking friends who tell it as it is. This time around quite a few people asked why I would want to do such a thing.

Men love their country not because it is great but because it is the only they have. So said Seneca. I dont get up everyday wanting to be a billionaire. I’d like enough money to not have to worry about it again but that’s about it I think. But this is just me. There is no doubt that the Nigerian environment provides plenty of opportunities for people to make outsize returns. But engaging with the process does take something away from you. No one should be under any rose tinted illusions about this. 

The day I pack my bags to head back to the country, I will leave whatever things that are dear to me that I do not wish to be corrupted in a place the country cannot reach. 

11. The last bastion of hope for me are some of the young entrepreneurs I have made friends with over the last couple of years and are trying to do nothing but make a honest living. As you know, I am a fan of wealth creation and anyone who is managing to do this in a country like Nigeria as honestly as they can, can do no wrong in my eyes. 

I specifically have a lot of time and love for some female entrepreneurs I have had the good fortune of meeting over time. Some of them sell food but with a focus on the service aspect of things. Some others make and sell clothes after their own design and are seeking to take the business of clothmaking to the logical next step. I also know some who sell lingerie again with a service aspect as a large component of the package. Some make jewellery and all kinds of unique adornments especially for women. And there are many more I can name.

I do not know any other way by which we can defeat poverty other than by creating wealth to spite it. I had dinner with a few of such friends and I realised that such settings gave me real hope about the country.

We sat down and talked a lot about Nigeria of course. But I dont hesitate to tell anyone that this is an aberration. Our contemporaries in other countries are probably sitting down thinking of how to creatively destroy an established way of doing things. One imagines that Mark Zuckerberg didnt spend a lot of time at Harvard discussing the finer points of American democracy with his friends for nights on end.

But it is what it is.

12. Can you think of a reason why NDLEA officials will be on the streets fully armed with AK47s? My friend was giving me a ride home one afternoon and we hear sirens and loud shouts asking us to make room for some vehicle behind us (there was some traffic and they were carrying ‘something’ according to them). My friend rolls down his window and asks one of the men almost pleadingly why on earth they were toting guns openly in that manner?

The NDLEA official was apparently aware of the silliness of it all and only managed a smile back at us. 

This same friend showed me the badly damaged front bumper on his car and told me how his wife was driving the car one day when she ran into traffic that wasnt moving. Next thing this bullion type van hits her and does not stop. She manages to go after them and after reaching them confronts them to let them know what they had done to the car. One of the men in the van then proceeds to pull a gun on her. 

There’s no penalty for bad behaviour to be found anywhere. And we have allowed the people who control the money in Nigeria to also control the guns. Cue bedlam.

13. No point talking about the power situation. It was terrible everywhere I went. I was fortunate to be staying with a standby generator ensuring 24/7 electricity. But whenever I was at home, it was easy to tell how many times the Power Holders gave and took away power i.e the airconditioning would stop working and I’d have to turn it back on. One morning I simply held the AC remote in my hand as I was lying down, so I could play them at their own game. If they were going to mess about with the electricity I was going to shame them by turning the AC back on each time.

Everyone complained about how the power situation had been so bad lately. And I do not know many people who have only one generator before we get to the business of inverters.

Maybe things will get worse before they get better.

14. [Left intentionally blank for the things I desperately want to say but I am unable to]

 

FF

 

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The Word On The Streets V – Singapore Edition

The Word On The Streets, now in its 5th instalment, has previously been reserved for things I picked up during trips to Nigeria. Well, seeing as I made the rules, I will now proceed to break them by bringing you this edition from Singapore. 

Leggooo!

1. You call the Singapore embassy in London and they then send you a sparse 3 page form by email almost immediately. You then fill this form with your trip details as well as where you plan to stay in Singapore. Also attach a passport photograph for good measure. You take the form at your convenience (between 9.30am and 2.30pm actually) to the embassy along with £15 in cash. You dont need an appointment to go to the embassy, just walk in. 

When you get there you hand over the form, the £15 and your international passport. Someone checks it in about 10minutes and then gives you a receipt asking you to come back in 72hours. 3 days later you go back there, collect your passport along with the visa stapled to your passport. That’s it. Job done. Enjoy your flight. Your visa will allow you stay for up to 30 days. 

The same process I just described to you with the Nigerian High Commission in London is as painful as having your eyelashes forcefully plucked out. It will also cost you $500 for a multiple visa. If you are lucky, they wont reject your application telling you that you didnt do something they never told you was a requirement in the first place. 

Please help us tell our Foreign Minister (once he has finished dealing with the bloody South Africans) that life need not be so hard. Shedding tears to get a visa does not by itself confer value on the thing. Let us make life easier for the people who want to come to Nigeria. They will come and spend money in the country. The benefits will be felt from the taxi drivers at MMIA to the hotels on the Mainland and the Island. Please help me beg him. I promise I wont be rude again.

2. Our flight stopped over in Doha for a few minutes so when we got on the plane to S’pore, we got handed some documents about the dos and donts in S’pore. We panicked a bit. There was a whole list of things that were banned and others which carried fines and import duties. Top on the list was hard drugs which carry the death penalty for anyone smuggling such into the country. These guys dont want drugs in their country. You may recall the story of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi who was executed in 2007 after he was arrested with hard drugs at Changi Airport in 2004. Thankfully my wife and I decided it was a bad idea before we left London so we didnt carry any. I’d say you shouldnt too.

But DVDs were also on the list which panicked us a bit. We had a DVD of The Figurine in our bag and we are generally law abiding people (or so we like to think). So upon landing and collecting our bags at the fabulous Changi Airport, we quickly went to report ourselves to the first customs officer we saw before our bags were screened. The lady laughed and told us it was no problem. Cue a collective sigh of relief from the both of us.

Chewing gums are also on the list. They are effectively a controlled substance in S’pore so you wont find them to buy anywhere in the country and you are only allowed to bring in medical gums or stuff like that. Apparently in 1992 some silly sod stuck gum in between the doors of a train which caused all sorts of delays on the public transport system when the doors couldnt close properly. Banned! ever since then.

3.  In keeping with the ‘life is not hard’ theme, here’s what a Nigerian friend who moved here a few months ago told me 

The one that surprised me was when we went to open our bank accounts like 1 week after we got here. We were still living in the hotel at that time. We sat in the bank and they took all our details and asked us how we wanted our names on our bank cards. We told them and I wanted to get up and leave when they said no we should wait. I was wondering and in a few minutes they brought out the bank cards and gave it to us. Everything from opening the bank accounts to getting our cards was completed there and then in like an hour [Paraphrased

I hear some Nigerian banks are now doing something like this. Please encourage them. 

Also please help us beg our regulators to do things to make life easy for regular people so they can concentrate their energies on going after the real criminals. 2 referees to open a current account is not the solution to fraud. Neither is making bank accounts go dormant after 3 months. If anything that can create a perverse incentive for dodgy staff members to keep an eye on dormant accounts with a view to making money dissapear. Again, I promise not to be rude anymore if our regulators can take steps to make life easier for regular Nigerians and entrepreneurs.

Walking out of the airport, we saw a stand advertising PAYG sim cards for use in S’pore. we thought to try it. 10 minutes and S$50 later, we were up and running with S$60 worth of credit. Despite my wife’s best efforts, we never managed to finish using it in 1 week. 

4. I was with a British friend of mine having drinks at a pub. The bill came in and I looked at the VAT of 7%. I then mused out loudly if a time would come when we would see such low taxes in the UK again? ‘No chance’ he said. 

Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state

The above is a quotation from Adam Smith which the Singaporeans seem to have taken to heart. And it’s not just personal taxes, it’s corporate taxes as well. Companies pay 17% in taxes on their profits in Singapore. In fact, in the APAC region, there is fierce competition among the neighbouring countries to win business. So in Hong Kong corporate taxes are 16.5% while Taiwan recently cut theirs from 25% to 17%. Malaysia and Indonesia have also been steadily lowering their taxes in a bid to woo businesses. 

Most people pay 7% – 15% on their personal income and the top band of 20% only kicks in when you earn above S$320k. 

The result is that Singapore is a permanent fixture at the top of the Doing Business reports ranking compiled by the World Bank. Every conceivable obstacle in the way of enterprise has been removed by the govt. Anyone can register a company in S’pore and be up and running in 24hours or slightly more. There is a generous amount of S$50k allowance for profits on which you pay no taxes. 

Can you give a good reason why tax rates in Nigeria are about double what you pay in Singapore other than the fact that we dont seem to be in competition with anyone but ourselves? 

Paging Mr Aganga…..

5. There are not a lot of Nigerians in S’pore. In fact there isnt so much of a ‘Nigerian community’ as you will find quickly in other countries. The few Nigerians you find there are professionals who have come to work in the country as ex-pats. It’s just not a place where you can hang about if you have nothing doing. 

Most Nigerians I saw or heard about are doing very well as a result. Without divulging too much details given to me in confidence, I heard about a particular Nigerian chap who is living the life…no other way of putting it. He dwells (yes, dwells) in what can only be described as the poshest part of town. In fairness, there are not a lot of black people actually. We didnt run into black people on the streets until after about a week (excluding our friends). So you do get a lot of stares on trains and in public places but of the non malicious variety. We are something of a novelty in these parts still.

Nevertheless, this Nigerian chap by the name of Amanchukwu Chukwuma not only managed to overstay his welcome in the country but he also strangled his Singaporean girlfriend in December 2009. He pleaded guilty so he got the lesser charge of culpable homicide (12 years) in January this year. From what I have heard about jails in S’pore, they are the equivalent of hell on earth and people are known to beg to be killed rather than endure the time there. The fact that he also killed a Singaporean makes you really fear for what will happen to him in there. 

But balance is good. We went out with friends to a water themed park with music blaring over the tannoy as you’d expect. Sometime after Rihanna came on and definitely before C-Lo Green and Adele, our very own Asa’s ‘Be My Man’ came on. Count it all joy my friends.

6. Ever wondered how Apple managed to become a $500bn company? Wonder no more for I have the answer. I thought London was iPhone country but S’pore is something else. For fear of exaggerating I will say between 70 and 80% of the people there use iPhones. It’s amazing…literarily everyone on the streets is carrying one. 

This is a very wealthy country with something like 15% of the population being millionaires. Christian Louboutins are par for the course (yes I know the red soles) and people were queuing to enter a Gucci store that wasnt on sale. It’s not so much that something is happening in Asia Pacific, it has already happened. The middle class are well and truly alive out there. And they are consuming things. Every shop you can name on the planet is in S’pore. Seemingly endless shopping streets and malls everywhere. They are spending the money.

This is the challenge that China is now trying to conquer i.e. moving the economy away from a heavy reliance on exports (with the attendant risks) to domestic consumption that can sustain the levels at which its churning out stuff. I observed that most banks were offering interest on savings of less than 2% across the board. Given the ferocious way in which Asians are known to save, if the interest rates are any higher than this, people will probably just chuck their money in the bank and leave it to grow there. 

We of course dont save anywhere near enough in Nigeria which has the annoying effect of making cost of borrowing very high (not the only reason but an important one). So we need to boost savings in Nigeria while the Asia Pacific guys need to curb saving to boost consumption and investment. Different strokes…

S’pore also doesnt produce much. Literarily everything is imported especially food given that Malaysia is only 45mins away by plane. The reason for this is simple, the opportunity cost of using land for farming is so great that it doesnt make any sense. Farming is a ‘waste’ really. I asked a class mate of mine how much of the food in the country is produced locally. She laughed and exclaimed ‘hey, we produce 20% of the eggs we eat!’. Buying a standalone house with its own garden will cost you up to S$30m from what I was told. ‘Why would you want to do that’? the same classmate asked me. Everyone lives in highrise condos and flats. More on this below.

This is food for thought for some people in our leadership who think it’s such a terrible thing that we import certain things. Such is the free market – even if you have all the resources to produce something, someone else might just be able to produce it more cheaply than you ever can making it more sensible to import. It might be down to culture or even the weather but in this day and age there really isnt any point messing about with stuff you dont have a comparative advantage in. Just import them and save your resources and energy for what you can do very well. In Singapore’s case, the photo below is one of the things it does very well – financial services and all things related.

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7. Food in S’pore is the business. Yours truly is a fan of oriental food especially Thai cuisine so the opportunity to go and eat Singapore Fried Rice ‘live’ greatly excited me. The food is cheap and plentiful to the point where our Nigerian friends told us its too expensive to be cooking at home. They quickly learnt this after moving there and adjusted accordingly. 

Mrs F and I went to a restaurant and I ordered some rice dish and asked for medium (so great was the variety on offer that I ended up ordering based on the pictures on the menu for stuff I hadnt eaten before). The waitress looked at me in horror and walked away. Half a minute later she came back and in broken Singlish told me that she didnt think it was a smart idea to order medium. She pleaded that I go for the small. I was very hungry and I was tempted to give her the famous proverb about how the tiger’s gentility should never be mistaken for cowardice i.e. slim dont mean I cant my weight in food. So I smiled and insisted that I was having the medium. A few minutes later someone else came and repeated the supplication that I should downgrade to the small sized dish. Weary, I agreed and told them to change it to small.

When the food came, she was right. Small was a full plate of rice with all kinds of fancy stuff in it. Getting up afterwards was predictably a challenge afterwards. 

The food was also very healthy across the board. On our first night I bought a bottle of apple juice from a store (or that’s what I thought it was as it had an apple on the bottle and had ‘juice’ written somewhere there). Got to the room and tasted it and there was barely a taste of apple in the damned thing. This was the same everywhere. These guys dont mess about with too much sugar. I didnt find a drink that was as sweet as London not to talk of Dansa juice in Nigeria. To the eternal shame of my detractors, I may even have put on some weight in just one week.

Is this govt policy? I dont know but I do know that getting people to eat healthy seriously saves on health care costs in the long run for which everyone in society ends up paying for one way or the other. As a classmate of mine said half-jokingly ‘in Singapore we say it is cheaper to die than to be sick because medical insurance is quite high’. 

I then asked her if they had any social welfare system. ‘Nothing like that in Singapore. Except during elections the govt might decide to give everybody 20% of their tax back using some silly excuse’. Ah, politicians…they are almost always the same eh?

8. All of Singapore is no more than 710sq kilometres and a population of 5.2m manage to squeeze in there. Now given how fabulously wealthy the country you’d expect Rolls Royces and Range Rovers to be bumper to bumper in gridlock traffic with Aston Martins and Bentleys eh? 

Something like 50 years ago, an economist called William Vickrey (Nobel Prize winner in 1996) came up with a proposal to charge for road usage as a way to cut traffic gridlock in congested cities. His idea was of a variable charge that went up as traffic went up and vice versa. He got short shrift in America and other western countries with his idea but in 1975, Singapore adopted his ideas and ran with it. 

Today S’pore is the world’s second densest country but the roads are free flowing. I encountered minor traffic only once and it was due to road works going on. The magic is what is known as ERP seen in the photo below. 

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During peak periods, the rates naturally go up and finally down to zero at 8pm in the evening. When you are in a taxi and the driver drives through an ERP toll, you hear a beep sound and the number ‘1’ appears on the fare reader, another one and it goes up to ‘2’ and so on. At the end of your journey, the total ERP is calculated and added to your fare and you the customer pays it. 

There is also the ‘Certificate of Entitlement’ which allows you drive a car in S’pore. For an average car this costs an eye watering S$50k and it lasts for 10 years. This is on top of the car’s cost. So you have a situation where a new Corolla for example can cost up to S$100k. If you buy a car and after 5 years decide to change it, the CofE is not transferable and you will still be liable to continue paying for it. For cars like Aston Martins and other luxury brands, I hear the total cost can be as much as $S1m. The effect of all this is that you dont see many cars on the road. Unlike other countries where you see flashy cars every other minute, in S’pore seeing a brand new Range Rover for example is so rare that I only recall seeing one the whole time. 

I also didnt see a petrol station until our last day in town. You dont notice they are not there until you actually think about it. Petrol costs around S$2.20 per litre which means the govt also applies a heavy tax on its consumption. 

The non existence of the problem of traffic congestion in S’pore is proof positive that the problem has in fact been solved. 

9. So if people cant drive how do they get around? The frighteningly efficient public transport system, that’s how. Oh the shame I felt coming from London and seeing the underground system. Air conditioned sparkling clean and modern trains all round that were very regular. The trains were also dirt cheap. You can travel for S$1 on some journeys. There is no journey possible in London for the equivalent 50p, even for 1 stop on a bus. 

Taxis are also very cheap and all conditioned. Same for the buses. The result is that the person sitting next to you on the train could possibly be a multi millionaire. Taxi drivers are apparently background checked to within an inch of their life and only Singaporeans are allowed to drive cabs.

10. Speaking of cabs, your correspondent subscribes to the conventional wisdom that in any country taxi drivers are the truth. There is what you hear on the television and read in the papers and there’s what taxi drivers tell you. 

After several attempts at striking up a conversation with different cab men and women, I finally struck gold the day before we left with a nice chatty guy. Highlights of our gist below

Taxi Driver: [Pointing] That’s the police headquarters over there

Me: Funny you mention it. How come I havent seen the police patrolling the city everywhere?

TD: Oh they dont just drive around. Petrol is very expensive you know. If you call them they will come over quickly

Me: How’s Lee Kuan Yew doing these days?

TD: The man is doing fine. You know he’s old now but his brain is still sharp [He’s now 89]. This is his constituency here [pointing to the area near the harbour as we drove past]. He’s still an MP. But now he doesnt have to wake up at 6am like before…he now gets up at 10am and takes things easy. But he did very well with the leaders he groomed after him. But when there are serious issues being discussed you always hear his wise counsel.

Me: You mean his son? [Lee Hsieng Loong the current Prime Minister]

TD: Not just him. They are all very good…all the ministers. I think Singapore needs an opposition but they wont be able to ever win elections to take over the country. 

Me: But I heard the opposition did well in last year’s elections?

TD: [Laughing] Yes they tried. They won in my area Aljuneid because they had a good GRC [this is a uniquely Singaporean system where parties field a team of candidates to represent a particular consituency. Sort of like a package deal where your one vote gets you like 5 MPs]. They even beat the foreign minister [George Yeo. More here]…they had very good candidates. One of the guys has degrees from Oxford and Harvard [he repeated this point] and another woman was a lawyer who had made a lot of money in her private practice. I voted for them! [now laughing]. The candidates were very good so I say give them a chance. 

Me: Your roads are very good and clear here

TD: Oh yes…all the money they take from us they put it back into the roads. Even the certificate of entitlement money we pay, you can see them spending it back on the roads. In Kuala Lumpur traffic is really bad. But Jakarta is the worst…it’s terrible there. 30 years the population is increasing and they dont increase the infrastructure because of corruption

 

I was in another taxi the next day and I noticed the driver’s name was a Muslim Malaysian sounding one. So I asked him if he was born in Singapore. ‘Oh yeah I was born here. I grew up here and I have seen it change. When I was younger you couldnt hang around outside or even visit some neighbourhoods because different gangs controlled different areas. By 8pm everyone was indoors because of crime’

I’d hazard a guess and say the cab man was something like 60 years old. I shook my head in disbelief when he said that. It is just impossible for the brain to imagine a Singapore that was once crime riddled with gangs running riot. Today it has one of the lowest crime rates in the world leaving the police with plenty of time to investigate ‘internet love scams‘ and other such ‘serious’ offences. 

11. Do you think you can teach maths and perhaps English? There’s money to be made in S’pore for you. A couple of my classmates who have kids were telling me how ferocious the competition in their education is. Both of them said they couldnt help their kids with their homework because even at the age of 8 the kids were all doing algebra. 

So even as good as the public education system is, it’s still the norm for parents to pay for extra lessons for their kids. Apparently teachers who offer these extra lessons for 1 hour a day are known to make up to S$500k a year. 

12. Finally housing. This is one problem that, as smart as the leadership of S’pore is, they cant seem to solve and they probably will never solve as long as it is defined as a ‘problem’. It’s not the size or quality of the houses that is the issue, the flats and condos are very nice and well maintained. The problem is the cost of housing. It is terribly expensive to live in S’pore. They are building them as fast as they can as you can see below but this is doing nothing to bring down prices. 

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If I were to leave London today and move to S’pore, I would expect to pay more than double what I currently pay for accomodation. Apparently this is a hot button issue in the country and the govt tries to address it with public housing known as HDBs (Housing Development Board). These flats are supposed to be for the ‘poor’ people. An example is below…dont laugh please even though they look like what we call ‘serviced flats’ in Lagos for which people pay in dollars. 

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They are very clean and tidy as well. Only thing is you wont find a communal swimming pool like all the other private ones have. Apparently even the HDBs are very expensive now and hard to get. It’s also interesting that both houses in the photos above are literarily across the street from each other. You can throw a stone from the posh flats to the HDBs.

This is not something I have ever seen in any western country. The only way such a thing can work is if you have extremely low crime rates because generally speaking public houses are known in most places as crime filled areas. In fact in the UK, the valuation of a house will be depressed if it is simply facing the direction of a public housing estate. The reverse is the case in S’pore. People who live in HDBs are said to complain whenever a posh or upscale block of flats is being built near them as this inevitably means the value of the public houses goes up along with the rents there. Fascinating. 

The cost of housing or rents in general is also the biggest barrier to starting a business from what I gathered after speaking to a few people. If you are starting a business that involves renting office space or a shop, then you’d need to be able to fork out the rent for it (those teachers I mentioned earlier generally do the extra lessons from inside their flats to save costs). 

 

Development does not happen by chance. Just standing still will not build you a decent public transportation system. To think that this country was once poor and is now not just one of the wealthiest in the world but with an economy that grew at 7.9% in 2010. It runs a free market economy where any and everyone gets a fair crack of the whip yet Temasek, the state owned Sovereign Wealth Fund, has stakes in companies that account for more than half of the country’s GDP. 

It doesnt hand out money to people to sit at home (you get a wage top up if you earn below S$1700 per month or thereabouts), yet it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. The state does not ‘dash’ people pensions but instead forces everyone to save towards their own healthcare (Medisave) and retirement. If you fall ill and have a large medical bill, the state will only intervene after your insurance has paid up and then your Medisave account has been drawn down. The govt is always advertising about how Mrs so and so fell ill and had a bill of S$150k yet managed to pay it all without recourse to govt help. 

In short, it’s left, it’s right and is all things pragmatic at the very same time. 

You can feel the people’s pride when they talk about their country. 3 different taxi drivers asked me to move to Singapore and come work there for a while stressing that I’d love it (as if I needed any convincing). They know what they once were and you get the sense that having now tasted the good life, they’d fight to the death to protect it. Neighbours will phone the police if they see a suspicious person just hanging around. 

This is the biggest trick their govt has pulled on them – by delivering prosperity to the people on a large scale, they have shifted the hard work of protecting it to the people. No one who knew what the country once was ever wants to go there again. Enjoyment trumps sufferhead all day every day.

Let’s get this Nigerian show on the road even if none of us might see the dream in our lifetimes.

 

FF

P.S They did not take light in my one week there. What were you thinking?

What She Said – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala by The Numbers

A couple of days ago, the Finance Minister and ‘Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy’, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gave an interview to Vanguard Newspapers where she spoke about a number of issues concerning the Nigerian economy. 

She also gave some insight into how she’s managing the Nigerian economy specifically on the issue of debt. Now, they say ‘words are the currency of fools’ because you cannot spend words especially those uttered by a government official. But even more importantly, words spoken have the annoying effect of meaning something completely different in practice. 

So perhaps a useful exercise will be to convert the words of the Minister into numbers so we can get a better idea of what she’s talking about yes? 

Let’s start off with what I think is the main quote from the interview below

I will be the last person and the President will also be the last person to subscribe to a situation in which we would pile up debts. We watch those indicators like a hawk. Mr President is very clear on this issue. As you well know, we have some ratios that we monitor with regard to GDP.

The norm internationally is that it should not exceed 60% of GDP. In Nigeria, we have adopted 30% out of that because we want to be really careful. Right now our debt to GDP ratio is about 20%, well below the 30% ratio we have set for ourselves.                             

Now the above sounds very nice and good doesnt it? In fact if not that we want to be really picky, we should just leave this statement as it is and pray for the Minister’s success as we like to do in Nigeria. 

 

If you google ‘Nigeria GDP’, you get a figure of $193.67bn. For the purpose of simplicity let’s round this figure up to $200bn (what’s $7bn between friends?). 

At the beginning of that interview the Minister mentioned that Nigeria’s economy is expected to grow by 7% per annum for the next couple of years. For the uninitiated, GDP is simply the total of everything, tangible and intangible, that is produced in Nigeria in a year. So this assumes that all told, everyone producing something in Nigeria will increase their output by 7% per year.

Let us assume that we grow at 7% for the next 3 years (including 2012), we will have the following GDP figures

2012 – $214bn

2013 – $229bn

2014 – $245bn

Now even though the govt has set a target of 30% of GDP for borrowing, the figure is currently around the 20% mark. Let us assume that borrowing is a constant 21% of GDP over these 3 years. The debt figures will thus look like the following

2012 – $45bn

2013 – $48bn

2014 – $51bn

That is to say, purely on account of the economy growing by itself, the govt will be able to borrow an extra $6bn to spend over these 3 years. Now given that the ‘target’ is 30%, your guess is as good as mine as to where the actual numbers will end up. So if the govt were to hit this 30% target in 2014, the debt will be $23bn higher than above i.e. $74bn. Perish the thought.

Note that the govt is not going to ignore this ‘opportunity’ to borrow presented by the growing economy. Indeed in that same interview, you will notice the Minister alluding to the fact that the recent $8bn borrowing for pipeline projects is part of ‘meeting this target’.

On to the next, if you believe that an economy can grow, then you must also believe that it can contract. These cycles are part of life especially for economies prone to shocks like ours. 

So what happens if after reaching $51bn of debt in 2014, the Nigerian economy suffers a shock in 2015 leading to say a 3% drop in GDP? We will then have a GDP of $238bn. Now imagine that after this happens, the Nigerian govt doesnt borrow a single penny more so the debt remains at $51bn. Without doing anything at all, the ratio that the Minister is ‘watching like a hawk’, will climb to 22%. 

This leads us to ask why exactly is Nigeria borrowing based on GDP in the ‘good’ times? Several countries, Denmark being a good example, have it written in their constitutions to balance their budgets while their economy is growing. They might not hit this target but at least their politicians are not sitting around dreaming up new vanity projects to spend money on when the economy is growing.

We also know that our hawkish Minister turns into a dove when it comes to cutting spending given that she could only muster a 1% cut in spending every year over the next 3 years. Say we spend 10% of the debt on servicing every year, we will move from $4.5bn to $5.1bn over 3 years in the scenario. This becomes an even bigger burden not just when the economy contracts but if the growth rate slows down. 

 

And so the moral of this story is that ‘watching the debt like a hawk’ does not mean anything at all. Even if you close your eyes, the debt will continue to increase at this rate. But watching cannot possibly reduce it. If you only believe in words, you might be fixated on 21% and not notice that over 3 years the same 21% has increased by $6bn as in our example above.

A lot of countries have adopted this strategy and ended up disasters. Moreso, when the govt inevitably hits its ‘target’ of 30%, there is nothing to stop it from increasing it to 50%, afterall this is still below the ‘world class’ level of 60%.

We dont need the Minister to ‘watch’ our debt grow for us. We can see that from where we are sitting. What we need is a commitment to restraint by way of an explicit commitment to a balanced budget while the economy is growing. If and when the economy stutters, then we can borrow in order to meet our commitments.  

Now that would be impressive wont it? Or do you know any other way of reducing your debts other than living within your means?

 

FF