‘Hello Mr. Morgan Freeman, can I have your autograph please?’
The auditorium echoed with uproarious laughter as Mr. Kofi Annan related this amusing incident when he was staying incognito in a remote Italian hamlet, after his retirement as the UN Secretary General. Mr. Annan relates, ‘I had gone to the local bar, hoping that no one would know me here. But when this Italian man came over to me from his table, I was afraid I had blown my cover. I was only too happy to play Morgan Freeman after he said that’.
Mr. Annan is the first Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a tremendous honour for the school and for NUS. This was his first public talk, held at the University Cultural Centre Hall, NUS on 26th February 2010, and as NUS MBA students, we had special seats reserved for us. The topic of the day was Asia and Africa: Past Lessons; Future Ambitions.
Mr. Annan talked about Africa as the next Asia. Though endowed with tremendous natural resources, Africa, sadly, has also been bequeathed with a multitude of social and governmental problems that threaten to stall its hopes.
Talking about governance, Mr. Annan observed how governments typically spend the first year in office undoing the policy changes of the previous government. They then are left with only a few years in which to implement their own agenda, part of which will again be undone by their successors. This crippling inefficiency must be done away with, and political parties must have their broad national policies in alignment, said Mr. Annan.
And yet, he said, there was hope for Africa. Citing Botswana as one of Africa’s great developmental success stories, he told the audience of the efforts being made worldwide to liberalise and invigorate African economies. He went on to talk about Asia’s responsibility towards Africa, of showing it the path that Asia itself has followed on the road to economic progress. At the same time, he cautioned that Asia’s involvement in Africa could be controversial if not responsibly executed, since Asia is still a developing region, and competitor.
In the last part of his talk, Mr. Annan took questions from a very enthusiastic audience who queued up at microphones in the auditorium with questions. Dean of the LKY School, Dr. Kishore Mahbubani moderated the questions, which ranged from ‘Would you ever think of being the President of Ghana’ to ‘Should we have an African Union, along the lines of the EU’. Mr. Annan answered each question patiently, at times intensely, and at times with tongue firmly in cheek.
It was a great opportunity to listen to a Nobel Peace Laureate and a man who has been hailed as one of the greatest leaders of our times. Mr.Annan enthralled one and all by his profound sense of commitment, his deep insights stemming from a vast and rich experience, and sparkling humour. Peppered among his answers to questions, was one such amusing incident. He was once asked, ‘God made the world in 7 days, why does the UN take so long to make even minor changes’. Not missing a beat, Mr. Annan replied, ‘He had a unique advantage. He worked alone. He did not have a security council’.
NUS MBA Student, Class of 2011