Saturday, 3 May 2014

Confessions of a Singaporean in Africa

This will be one of my most emotionally-charged blog posts. You know when you love something so much that you hate it? This is how I feel about Africa. Right. Now. This will not please some of my friends. This will confirm the views of those who thought I was crazy. This will find some sympathisers who would agree wholeheartedly. This will unearth naysayers that will deny all allegations categorically. 

I, hereby, confess to being a Singaporean in Africa.

I Do Not Forgive Stupidity

Hailing from a country with a 93% literacy rate and world-renowned education system; it seems painfully obvious when I treat stupidity and its glassy-eyed practitioners with the loathing and derision that it deserves. As a collective, the African continent boasts (?) the lowest literacy rates on the planet. We've been raised on the value of 'meritocracy' - a ruling class of educated and able people. Devoid of any significant natural resources, Singapore had to upgrade their population rapidly and almost ruthlessly to ensure its survival among developing South East Asian counterparts. 

In 1965, this meant that Singaporeans had to mobilize en masse and create a society that was ready to compete on a global stage. This applied to everyone that was forged on the anvil that is the Singaporean educational system. We value intelligence and ability above all else. I think we have done a pretty good job thus far. Even though I'm currently a 'guest' of Africa, it does not mean in any way that I am compelled to accept stupid people. Yes, Julius, I'm talking about you. The only bright thing about you is your shoe buckle. 

A bit of juju. I think, therefore I am...not done yet.
Stupidity, borne of any ill-conceived reason, has no place on a continent that desperately needs the greatest infusion of talent to lift it over and above the poverty line. If the means are available and they always are if you look for them; there is always a way to learn more on any given topic. Stupidity can come in all forms and guises, however, this Singaporean does not forgive, much less, accept it.   

I Do Not Corrupt

Corruption exists in any society. I know that. It is critical to root it out as quickly as possible. If we are to group the most corrupt societies, guess where the majority of sub-Sahara Africa lands. Most that I encounter in my travels in Africa (alright, only 17 of 53 nations) seem to accept corruption as an irrefutable part of life. They simply shrug their shoulders and they carry on wondering why their country does not resemble Denmark or New Zealand. 

Corruption robs you of foreign investments in your country. Corruption robs you of running water. Corruption robs your child of access to good schools. Corruption robs you of the job that will pay for the roof over your head. Corruption robs you of the electricity that powers your lights at night. Corruption robs you at the gas pump. Corruption robs you of the food to fill your growling stomach. Corruption robs you of your every basic human right. 

Yes, it is some 'small' money.
It is a much more pervasive problem than the crooked cop behind his illegal road block. Needless to say, bribery of a public official in Singapore is liable for a hefty fine of up to S$100,000 or 5 years in jail or both. Not that penalties stop corruption, rather it is the enforcement that leads up to the capture of corrupt officials that will prevent that. Singapore's solution? They pay their ministers the same level of salaries that they would earn in private (legal) enterprises. And those ministers are well-educated enough to know they cannot get away with it. I know I cannot get away with it in my mind. Faced with a slimy African cop, I choose to wait them out, especially as these same officials rarely have the staying power to wait for your bribe to arrive. 

Big thumbs up to Thuli Madonsela, you are exceptional. I do not do it in my country, I will not do it in yours. This Singaporean does not corrupt. 

I Do Not Go Slow

A pretty tall and potty-mouthed British TV car show presenter is being hauled over the coals for uttering a racial slur. That was just unforgivably stupid. Some say he thinks that striking workers should be dragged out before their families and shot. That was just brilliant. 

I have spoken about this before. The pace of industry in Singapore is relentless and jarringly fast. People do not take the opportunity to laze too long as there will always be others drooling over those jobs. The unions in Singapore were incorporated into the management structure to ensure that transparency and representation were available. Any unsanctioned strike action was put down harshly and swiftly. What confounded me was the sense of righteous entitlement that seems to accompany unionised workers in Africa.

A world-class strike in action.

Rather than entering into a dialogue to negotiate peaceably, the African striker way seems to be: burn down their place of work, damage their tools of trade, carry on to neighbouring areas and proceed to destroy properties of foreigners who have allegedly stolen the same jobs that they have elected not to do. Singaporeans might hate their job but they carry on doing it, while looking for new employment. Their world-class abilities and education allows them to do so. It is downright retarded to want to go on strike and risk losing your job completely. But I guess, in the domain of the unskilled and illiterate, stopping your work could appear to be the best way to compel your employer to pay you more. Hear this, retards; this Singaporean does not go slow.    

I Do Not Perform Charity

Late 2013, while I sat sipping an imported whiskey at a party in Africa, I was inexorably harangued by a young Canadian lady. It was her first trip to Africa, intent on making the world a better place, she was volunteering her skills for the next 100 days to a NGO before heading back to the wilds of Quebec to complete with her post-graduate studies. With her French accent, bated breath and stars in her eyes, she asked why I did not volunteer to help since I 'obviously knew Africa well'. Since she was swooning with the romantic notion of making the world a better place, I mumbled something about well-intentioned "voluntourism" and having no capacity for altruism. I was serious about the latter at least. 

This is not the Canadian lady. She will end up with a photo very similar to this one though.
It is a very narrow chasm indeed, between altruism and charity. I am not an altruist. Neither am I a charitable sort. One involves the selfless concern for the welfare of others, the other involves the voluntary giving of help or items to those in need. I have to admit, I do not see 'charity cases' after 9 years of living in Africa. I see the uncomfortable results of stupidity, corruption and over-blown sense of entitlement; but not so many charity cases. The intentions of my Canadian friend and her peers must be sound and good. I believe that in order for charity to work, it must be sustained, ongoing and inevitably the recipient will pay for it in one way or another. Being raised in Singapore, harsh as it sounds, charity is a dirty word. People do not take charity as it pointed to one's weakness and impotence. 

The performance of charity in Africa have not and will not yield a society of recipients that will grow in self-reliance and problem-solving skills. A government that is resolved and committed to improve the skills of the people and create a viable workforce can. You can help by contributing to the economy of the country. So without hippie headbands nor local fabric sling bag to carry water/hand sanitizer/candy bars and the ubiquitous 20th century digital camera, this Singaporean does not do charity. 

I Do Not Skip Showers

Two letters have somehow became the bane of my life --- B.O. 

I hear about water resourcing issues, lack of potable water, horrid weather conditions, soap being too expensive and all that. Having been through Singapore's little 'defence force' training, I have trekked through tropical jungles, covered with dirt,  bitten by leeches, baked dry by the blazing sun to cool back down in my own sweat of an 8 day-old army uniform. I know what bad body odour smells like. 

Cartoon by talented South African artist, Zapiro

I am mortally embarrassed to smell even a little ripe and will seek out the closest ablution facilities. That was before I moved to Africa and learnt about Zuma's HIV-beating techniques. I have survived multiple assaults on the olfactory senses. While I cannot change the way the men smelled or acted around me, this Singaporean does not skip showers.

I Do Not Know Africa

After getting the above out of my system, I am nearing the bottom of my whiskey glass. While I might have worked and lived on the continent for 9 years now, there is a nagging suspicion that I will wake up tomorrow and forgive myself for the ranting. Or, I might not.  

Being in Africa has been an eye-opener (nasal, as well) and it airlifted and dropped me way outside of my privileged comfort zone of the island of Singapore. I have had to undergo a period of intense retrospection with the passing of Nelson Mandela, relocation, work permit screw-ups, career changes, the Arab Spring, the separation of Sudan while on the continent. I know that if I lived the next decade anywhere else in the world, I would not ever be able to experience the same dramatic emotional highs and lows that Africa has given me. There is so much that I have learnt, so many other African nations I have yet to visit. There remains much that I have not encountered. 

The last thing I confess, this Singaporean still does not know Africa.