Monday 23 March 2015

Jamaica went for sprints, Singapore goes the distance

A journalist from the Caribbean island looks at the two former colonies' differing fortunes in search of lessons for his country
By Garfield Higgins, Published The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2015

TWO weeks ago, the head of Jamaica's Planning Institute, Mr Colin Bullock, announced that the economy was in recession following two consecutive quarters of decline in GDP. Since then, a puerile tug-of-war as to what constitutes a recession has started among Finance Minister Peter Phillips, a few pundits, spin doctors and operatives of an administration that has not demonstrated the ability to grow the economy after being in power for 21 of the last 25 years.

Ordinary Jamaicans do not question whether the economy is in recession. Thousands are feeling the pangs of hardship, inability to take care of daily obligations, such as buying food, and paying rent, mortgage and bus fare. We know that the country is in recession because we live and feel it every day.

Jamaica has truly squandered a glorious opportunity called independence. Often, where there was no great struggle, there is no great pride. Independence was given to us by Britain.

A day before I began to write this piece, I heard an interesting news feature on the BBC: Singapore is celebrating 50 years of independence.

Let's contrast Jamaica and Singapore. In the 1960s, Jamaica started off the running blocks as fast as lightning, like sprinter son Usain Bolt. Today, we are limping like a "tyad" and fatigued marathon runner, reduced to haggling over whether our economy is in recession and the benefits of 0.5, 0.8, 1.6 per cent possible growth in the future. In the tiresome polemic about anaemic growth, I could not help but hear the recurrent argument, albeit implied: Jamaica cannot do any better at this time. Such dwarfed confidence in our abilities reminds me of anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's words: "The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!"

Home-made problems

OUR economy is now the sick man of the Caribbean. "In real terms, Jamaicans are no richer today than they were in the early 1970s. And most of the island's enduring problems, like its public finances, are home-made". (The Economist, July 2012.)

There are many important lessons to be learnt from the rise of the most powerful of the Asian Tigers and the rapid diminution of Jamaica, once the most beautiful Pearl in the Caribbean - devalued to an ordinary bead. Indeed, while former Jamaica prime minister Michael Manley was gallivanting with Dr Fidel Castro, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was busy building a nation that would achieve developed-country status in less than 45 years.

How did Singapore rise from rags to riches? "In 1959, Britain took the first steps towards granting independence by allowing Singapore to govern itself. The charismatic Lee Kuan Yew of the People's Action Party won a landslide victory in the first fully elected Parliament. In August 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. It was made up of four countries and territories - Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore," according to the BBC.

The members of the federation disagreed on fundamental issues, like who should control the finances of Singapore. Racial tensions led to riots between Singaporean Chinese and Malay groups that peaked in 1964. In 1965, Singapore was forced to leave the Malaysian Federation.

"We had a huge task when we first started in 1960. At that time, our population size was 1.6 million; out of that, 1.3 million lived in squatters, not to count thousands of others living in slum areas and old buildings," says Mr Liu Thai Ker, who was known as Singapore's "master planner" in the 1970s and 80s. The new Housing and Development Board (modelled somewhat on our National Housing Trust) was developed. The high-rise buildings introduced many Singaporeans to the miracles of flushing toilets and clean water at the turn of a tap.

"But the housing policy was not just about bricks and mortar, it was also about nation-building. Each HDB block of flats would have a quota system that encouraged a mix of different races... The whole idea was to have the Chinese not thinking that they were Chinese, or the Malays thinking they were Malay, or Indians thinking they were Indian." The objective was to have everyone thinking and behaving like Singaporeans.

"Nation-building also took the form of a campaign to instill more courtesy, prevent spitting in public or stop 'killer litter'. These campaigns dominated the airwaves, schools and billboards of the nation," reported Sharanjit Leyl of BBC Singapore earlier this year.

While Singapore was struggling to build its economy in the 1960s, Jamaica was sprinting. We had one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America and the Caribbean (6 per cent growth per annum on average). Scores of international companies flocked to Jamaica's shores. Factories were opened in quick succession. Local small and medium-sized businesses sprang up in appreciable numbers. Former prime minister Bruce Golding recounted that when he graduated from the University of the West Indies at Mona, companies literally were lined up to employ fresh graduates and competed to offer many incentives to attract the best and brightest of them.

The Jamaican economy in the 60s was like a "stepping razor", to borrow a phrase from reggae singer Peter Tosh. Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore (a country slightly larger than St James in terms of area, but now with a population in excess of four million) for 31 years and is credited with turning a "resource-poor, malarial island into a modern financial centre" with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, was initially in awe at the stories of the then miracle called Jamaica and followed its development keenly. Alas, when he visited Jamaica for the Commonwealth Conference, a different reality hit him.

Lee Kuan Yew in Jamaica

"AT KINGSTON, Jamaica, in April 1975, Prime Minister Michael Manley, a light-skinned West Indian, presided with panache and spoke with great eloquence. But I found his views quixotic. He advocated a 'redistribution of the world's wealth'. His country was a well-endowed island of 2,000 sq miles, with several mountains in the centre, where coffee and other sub-tropical crops are grown. They had beautiful holiday resorts built by Americans as winter homes... One Sunday afternoon, when Choo (Mrs Lee) and I walked out of the barbed-wired enclosure around the hotels used for the conference to see the city on foot, a passing car came to a halt with the driver shouting, 'Mr Lee, Mr Lee, wait for me!'

"A Chinese Jamaican, speaking Caribbean English, came up. 'You mustn't forget us. We are having a very difficult time.' He gave me his card. He was a real estate agent. Many professionals and business people had left for America and Canada and had given him their homes and offices to sell. He had seen me on Jamaican television and was anxious to speak to me. Chinese, Indians and even black Jamaican professionals felt there was no future under the left-wing socialist government of Michael Manley. The policies of the government were ruinous... Thereafter, I read the news of Jamaica with greater understanding." That was what Mr Lee wrote about Jamaica in his book, From Third World To First.

Yes, there were serious social disparities throughout Jamaica, as was the case in Singapore in the 1960s. In Singapore, the social inequalities were tackled through improvements in the economy, development of human resources and national infrastructural reconfigurations. In Jamaica, we adopted a crazy approach grounded in envy and "bad-mindednesses", predicated upon a redistribution of income patterned on the buffoonery of Fabian Socialist principles. The disastrous effect of Mr Manley's rendezvous with democratic socialism is the capital reason for the failure of Jamaica to be where Singapore is today. What is democratic socialism? This expression best encapsulates both communism and socialism: A cow of many, well milked and badly fed. This single-handedly destroyed our economic trajectory and development momentum and planted seeds of long-lasting discord among Jamaicans.

Mr Edward Seaga rescued the fortunes of a fledgling economy in the 1980s and brought back real growth. The process of economic downturn was continued by Mr P. J. Patterson and Mr Omar Davies in the 1990s. Singapore, on the other hand, capitalised on its natural advantages and united its people.

Talent played a big part

SINGAPORE'S port is still among the world's top three today. In the 1960s, it really tapped on its location, along the Strait of Malacca, where most US and Europe trading ships had to stop to refuel to get to Asia. Singapore was the Suez Canal of Asia, without all the politics of the former.

"Talent played a big part too. Lee Kuan Yew aka LKY (despot, some might say) was an earlier version of Steve Jobs, with a keen eye for intellectual excellence and zero patience for mediocrity.

"A fresh lawyer out of Cambridge, LKY had this amazing Dutch adviser to lean on for experience." (Bjorn Lee, Singaporean journalist, Oct 11, 2012.)

"When Dutch economist Albert Winsemius arrived in Singapore in 1960, tasked by the United Nations with salvaging the struggling island economy, he gloomily remarked upon 'this poor little market in a dark corner of Asia'. Over five decades later, Singapore's market is neither poor nor little. The country sports the world's seventh-largest GDP per capita and more than one in six households has US$1 million in cash savings. In the past decade alone, the number of Singaporeans running their own business has doubled, giving the city-state the world's second-most entrepreneurs per capita, behind only the US." (Forbes Magazine, July 10, 2014.)

"Plugging into global trade as a high-income country requires high-level skills and that's what the Government has achieved by upgrading the skills of the workforce through investing in expanding higher education and training. Singapore has some of the top secondary schools in the world, and the Government has recently targeted teaching design to imbue every profession, such as engineering, with some element of creativity. It helps to increase the skill base.

"Manufacturing accounts for more than one-fifth of the economy, which is a larger share than in Britain. But, how does a rich country remain integral to a cost-competitive global production chain? The answer is by producing at the high end: Half of its exports are high-tech goods. Singapore started at the low end of manufacturing but managed to upgrade its skills so that it didn't fall out of the regional production chain as its incomes rose." (Linda Yueh, BBC's chief business correspondent, Oct 21, 2013.)

A former colonial outpost now has the third-highest average income in the world. A country where the official languages are English, Tamil, Malay and Chinese is rather useful for global business. It is not accidental.

Today, Singapore has an average per capita income of US$50,000 (S$69,500) - Jamaica's is under US$6,000 - compulsory voting, a highly educated citizenry and its people enjoy First World living standards.

Of course, not all is perfect in Singapore. Press freedom is scarce and many governmental systems are semi-autocratic, some might even say repressive. There are concerns over congestion in public transport and housing.

I anticipate that some will say, "Well, you could not write this article in Singapore." My response to that is simple: I would have no need to, since Singapore does not have an incompetent administration such as ours, with chronic underdevelopment.

Jamaica could have been the Singapore of the Caribbean. With visionary leadership, we can still achieve that. But as Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

I would add "with the same people".

This article was first published in the Jamaica Observer.

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