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Editorial: Lee Kuan Yew and the Budget Debate

Published:Tuesday | March 24, 2015 | 12:00 AM

When Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller speaks in the Budget Debate today, she will, hopefully, keep at the back of her mind Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, who died on Sunday, aged 91, and to whom she will likely pay tribute during her introductory remarks.

The timing of Mr Lee's death should provide the PM, and Jamaica, with a reference to what might have been, what may still be possible, and the raison d'Ítre for maintaining the economic course upon which her Government is embarked. In that regard, she will, hopefully, resist any temptation to populist wavering he might have entertained.

The paths of two countries are unlikely to have been compared and contrasted, both of which started out as independent countries at roughly the same time and with similar levels of development, as Jamaica and Singapore. It's popular lore in Jamaica that Mr Lee intended Jamaica as the early model for Singapore's economic programme.

Half a century later, one, Singapore is rich, with annual output of goods and services valuing in the region of US$300 billion and a per-capita GDP of more than US$56,000. Jamaica, on the other hand, has marked time and remained poor. Its per-capita GDP, under US$6,000, lags Singapore's 10 times.

It is true that analyses of Singapore's spectacular transformation often gloss over much of the admitted "nasty things" , including "locking up fellows without trial", the suppression of the opposition, and muzzling of the press, to which Mr Lee resorted in his effort to manufacture consensus in the country. Indeed, while they maintained a veneer of democracy, not even Mr Lee denied he oversaw a regime of soft autocracy. As he told The New York Times: "Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle dusters and catch you in a cul de sac ... ."

That's not the rough-and- tumble competitive politics that Jamaica embraced, but Singaporeans accepted Mr Lee's brand of paternalistic authoritarianism because he promised, and delivered, something that they valued: efficient government, little public corruption and economic policies that delivered growth - plenty and fast. Indeed, it is on the basis of that expectation 40 years ago, Mr Lee sneered at what he saw as Michael Manley's "quixotic" ideas of attempting to redistribute the world's wealth rather than leading Jamaica to creating its own.


post-Independence wrong turns


This, of course, is hardly the whole explanation for Jamaica's underdevelopment and persistent poverty, but it is among, we believe, what Peter Phillips, the finance minister, brands as the "wrong turns" Jamaica has made in its post-Independence period. The upshot is a crisis of debt and stagnation, whose reversal he is at the forefront of leading with admittedly painful, but necessary, IMF-backed economic adjustment policies.

Gains are being made. For instance, the current account deficit, as a proportion of GDP, has declined nearly 60 per cent in three years. The Government is close to balancing its budget; the national debt, as a ratio of economic output, is declining; and inflation is getting close to that of international trading partners. These are important prerequisites for sustainable investment and growth.

Mrs Simpson Miller must ensure the acceleration of these projects even as she focuses on delivering on, for Jamaica, the other worthy element of the Mr Lee's strategy: an efficient bureaucracy and clean government. Another Singapore leader, then, won't sneer be able to sneer at Jamaica.