One of my professional mentors in the early days of my career was a terror by any standard. With a reputation for chewing a subordinate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, he was the bane of those with the notion that government service was a lark, especially if one had some nuisance value. He was the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, with no pending work for the day. He was not afraid to say no to the people upstairs and hated sycophants and liars. His favorite quote and one, which he put to rigorous practice was “what is not inspected is oft neglected”. This amazing man is now well into his eighties and frail, yet while we hated him during our service, we realized on moving on into our respective assignments, how true and useful his lessons were. It is for this reason that many of us always visit his simple home in Lahore, whenever we are in or around that city.

I remember being at the receiving end of this man’s tongue for a lapse that was mine (although I did not think so at the time). As I was given more and more responsibility in my upward mobility, I began to see the wisdom in his words. The occasion was the visit of one of our Prime Ministers in a dictatorial dispensation, somewhere in the nineteen eighties. One could see the state of urgency bordering panic as buildings were white washed, roads resurfaced and street lights replaced. The only oasis of calm, professional preparation was our premises, where nothing cosmetic was undertaken and life went on as usual. The visit came and went and the VVIP did not even notice the difference. It was during a short talk to his staff after the event that ‘the old man’ said, “Facades are a sign of weakness, of unprofessionalism and above all lack of moral integrity and courage. When someone important comes a visiting, show him how things really are – not how they should be”. Regrettably, after two decades into my retirement, I seem to see nothing, but ‘facades and cosmetics’ around me.

I was once asked by a senior government functionary, who was in charge of public relations and image building, as to what should be done to change international perceptions related to Pakistan. My reply was simple – “In today’s electronic age, when nothing could be hid, it was best to show our real face to the world. Tell the world that we were a country with its strengths and weaknesses – good things and bad things. On one hand we have a law and order situation created by a hardcore, yet small group of people, but on the other a vast majority of the nation, though conservative, was brimming with hospitality, even to perfect strangers. While some specific areas carried risks for visitors, others were breathtakingly beautiful and friendly”.

One of our Head of Executive in the previous government decided to visit the home of a senior party functionary, to offer his condolences on the sad demise of a family member. This party official lived in a suburban area of Islamabad on the road that led to a major water reservoir supplying water to the Federal Capital. I had travelled on this route for years to visit friends and had cursed ‘what had once been a road’ and the effect it was having on both public and private transport. Then just two days before the visit, I found building crews working at breakneck speed and within 24 hours, a brand new asphalt strip complete with cat’s eyes, was conjured right up to the PM’s destination.

The Metro is finally up and running and in all fairness, running to capacity (except during late night hours). I however had a problem with the inaugural preparations and the cosmetic work done in preparation for the launch. Putting up flags, I can tolerate, but decorating the route with loads of artificial flowers and of all things - card board (or perhaps chipboard) flora stuck into the green island was nothing short of a comic façade. We would have been happier if the PM and the Punjab CM had just ridden the bus from Rawalpindi to the Secretariat, but no – whoever was in charge of the show, had to show his competency by doing what he did.

This reminded me of something that I saw in the Netherland capital – the Queen of Netherlands pedalling away on a bicycle amidst everyday traffic and (believe it or not) stopping at red lights.