Lee Kuan Yew’s visionary examples for public schools in Africa

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· Cleanliness is Godliness, and profitable

Time to “clean and green” Africa’s public schools

Let’s begin with the following lines parodied from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The man that hath no hygiene in himself, / Nor is moved with concord of sweet cleanliness, / The notions of his spirit are as dull as night … / Let no such man be trusted.”

In the column, “Social forces that influence a child’s personality into adulthood”, I noted that “The need for cleanliness in public schools – especially the lack of toilet facilities and water for both adults and children to wash their hands for good hygiene – cannot go unheeded [and that questions] the negligence of those officials – coasting comfortably on the nation’s payroll, with perks – whose responsibility it is to make sure that the proper hygienic conditions exist for the well-being of the nation’s children.”

Poor hygiene in Africa

A reader sent a response as follows: “But you know the phenomenon of poor hygiene is very present in our adult Ministries, Departments and Agencies. You will find to your horror that hardly any MDA can pass the hygiene test. Doubt it? Let’s carry out a survey of the bathrooms of all MDAs in Accra tomorrow morning.”

It seemed that some officials themselves share cardinal traits that see nothing wrong with the unhygienic conditions that exist today; but children must not be raised to perpetuate that sickly cycle. At the international level, the lack of good hygiene may dispel quality foreign investments and tourism and stall Ghana’s potential as an economic gateway to Africa.

From Third World to First

The ASEAN nations – touted today as models of excellence in hygiene – started off similarly from unhygienic lifestyles. The key example is Singapore, where Lee Kuan Yew showed that it is possible to be clean, proud, and profitable. Those who think that nobody is indispensable need to think again. Being a visionary, Lee searched for a master plan, some dramatic way to distinguish Singapore from other Third World countries in order to attract quality investors and tourists, and boost the economy.

It feels incomplete, lonely, and agonizing to appreciate something and not share it with those who need to be equally concerned. But this urge – if not acted out with courage and determination – leads into a downward spiral into decadence and mass poverty. And that is where visionary leaders step up to the plate and show their mettle.

In Lee’s case, he had to share a most painful truth, an unflattering portrait of his own people. He accepted that “We did not measure up as a cultivated, civilized society,” and added that Singaporeans must not be ashamed to admit their failings, and then set about to fix them, to become “cultivated” and “civilized”. That honesty was the linchpin from which all progress flowed to Singapore.

Lee had already visited about 50 countries and stayed in many official guesthouses including Ghana in 1964. What impressed him was not the size of the buildings but the standards of their maintenance. He could tell when “a country and its administrators were demoralized from the way the buildings had been neglected – washbasins cracked, taps leaking, water closets not functioning properly, a general dilapidation, and, inevitably, unkempt gardens.” He did not want visitors to Singapore to judge his people in that shameful way.

Clean and green Singapore

Having settled his mind for a “clean and green Singapore”, Lee called a meeting of public health officers and spelt out an action plan. He then met all senior officers of the government and statutory boards to involve them in the “clean and green” movement. He wrote: “I got the ministry of defence in charge of national servicemen, the ministry of education with half a million students under its care, and the National Trades Union Congress with several hundred thousand workers [to] make Singapore a pleasanter place for ourselves, quite apart from the tourist trade.”

At the beginning, Lee said, “Foreign correspondents used to laugh at us” but, as he put it, “we would have been grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts to persuade our people to change their ways.” Through the schools, the children sent the messages home to their parents to abandon the old habits and make good for a new day, and a new country.

He said, “We had to work hard to be rid of littering, noise nuisance, and rudeness, and to get people to be considerate and courteous … we kept down flies and mosquitoes and cleaned up smelly drains and canals. Within a year there was a distinct spruceness of public spaces.”

Africa to learn from ASEAN leaders

He noted that no other project brought cleaner and richer rewards to the region. The “biggest dividend was when Asean leaders decided to compete in the greening of their cities. Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir [when he became prime minister] greened up Kuala Lumpur.  President Suharto pushed greening in Jakarta, as did President Marcos in Manila and Prime Minister Thanin in Bangkok, all in the late 1970s. I encouraged them.”

There’s a moment when one has to have faith that a true instinct would respond concretely to a commitment. And when there’s the courage for a back-up, all other good things may be guaranteed. Transformational leaders persist in moving and changing things in a big way; they communicate a new vision and abundant possibilities to their people.

(Email: anishaffar@gmail.com)


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