It is what it is

Finweek English Edition - - THE WEEK LETTER FROM NIGERIA -

fora rightly proud peo­ple, Nige­ri­ans seem to spend lots of time ar­gu­ing about what they’re not. Of­ten peo­ple will ask me how it’s pos­si­ble that Sin­ga­pore can be like Sin­ga­pore, for in­stance, but that Nige­ria can’t repli­cate the or­der and pros­per­ity of the South­east Asian city state. The an­swer is usu­ally that al­though both Sin­ga­pore and Nige­ria are former Bri­tish colonies, this his­tory shouldn’t be used as a rea­son to ex­plain all the un­rest or po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity Nige­ria has since ex­pe­ri­enced.

I am in Sin­ga­pore this week, and while it’s a city I ad­mire and have huge af­fec­tion for, I can’t see how on earth you could trans­plant this model suc­cess­fully to Africa’s big­gest econ­omy. From the out­side look­ing in, I know it seems Sin­ga­pore has it­self sorted, but it’s al­ways cru­cial to re­mem­ber that the mod­est size of the place makes gov­ern­ing here closer to be­ing mayor of Lon­don or New York than it does to be­ing pres­i­dent of Nige­ria.

To give an idea of the rel­a­tive scales at play: the pop­u­la­tion of Sin­ga­pore (5.5m) is roughly a quar­ter that of Lagos, the big­gest city in Africa. Try im­pos­ing even one of Sin­ga­pore’s strict rules on a city where the only kind of suc­cess­ful gov­ern­ment is in­cre­men­tal, re­al­is­tic and slow, and peo­ple will laugh you out of town. It takes less time to get from one end of Sin­ga­pore to the other than it does for many Lagosians to get to work in the morn­ing.

Then there are the ways of do­ing busi­ness. Sin­ga­pore is a city that works on screens, that deals in in­stru­ments too ab­stract for many peo­ple. Nige­ria is an econ­omy that thrives on the rough and tum­ble of phys­i­cal mar­kets, where peo­ple love to get stuck into sup­ply and de­mand, where every­thing can be bought and sold and ev­ery man can be a mil­lion­aire if he can spot the mar­gin. Stick Lagosians in an of­fice and talk to them about delta hedg­ing? You’ve lost all the hus­tle that makes the city great.

Then there’s the at­mos­phere, the mind­set: sur­veys oc­ca­sion­ally show Sin­ga­pore­ans to be among the world’s least happy peo­ple and Nige­ri­ans to be among the hap­pi­est – who would want change that seems to bring dis­con­tent?

For all this dif­fer­ence, there are oc­ca­sional com­mon­al­i­ties, run­ning from the leg­isla­tive (hefty car im­port tar­iffs, though Nige­ri­ans and Sin­ga­pore­ans re­spond to that chal­lenge rather dif­fer­ently) to the gas­tro­nomic (no one will ever leave a Sin­ga­porean or Nige­rian home un­der­fed) and most im­por­tantly: the fa­mil­ial.

Nige­rian and Sin­ga­porean so­ci­ety are both built on the fam­ily struc­ture; the knowl­edge that ev­ery gen­er­a­tion will be looked af­ter by the gen­er­a­tion pre­ced­ing or suc­ceed­ing. Ad­mit­tedly, though, your av­er­age Nige­rian fam­ily is a whole lot big­ger than the reg­u­lar Sin­ga­porean house­hold.

Com­pared with the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic so­ci­eties of, say, Western Europe, this is a huge suc­cess fac­tor in both coun­tries’ favour. It means women can go out to work more eas­ily, leav­ing young chil­dren with grand­par­ents. It means fam­ily busi­nesses thrive and grow more eas­ily. It means older peo­ple don’t erode their sav­ings on retirement homes or health­care.

Want to suc­ceed in busi­ness in Sin­ga­pore or Nige­ria? Get with the fam­ily way of things. Want Nige­ria to be more like Sin­ga­pore? For­get it, it’ll never hap­pen and it’ll never work, but in­stead recog­nise the ways in which they’re al­ready sim­i­lar and al­ready work­ing, how­ever hard you have to look. ed­i­to­rial@fin­

Want to suc­ceed in busi­ness in Sin­ga­pore or Nige­ria? Get with the fam­ily way of things. Want Nige­ria to be more like Sin­ga­pore? For­get it…

The Sin­ga­pore sky­line

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