Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Jamaica awaiting our Lee Kuan Yew?

Published:Monday | March 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The death of Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew has revived one of Jamaica's old what-if debates. The facts are well-known. At Independence, Jamaica and Singapore stood shoulder-to-shoulder in per-capita income. Today, we've lost sight of them.

Then, Singapore was a backwater and Jamaica a dynamic new country at the heart of global currents. Today, Singapore is one of the world's major financial capitals, whereas Jamaica exports workers.

The debate is equally well-rehearsed. Lined up on one side are the 'miss' crowd - Jamaica, they say, misled and mismanaged, missed the boat that Singapore caught 50 years ago. On the other are those who ask, 'Would you really want to live in Singapore?' The country did not get its development for free, after all. It built a repressive state that permits none of the free-flowing vitality that most Jamaicans would never want to lose.

But I think both sides overlook the key point. On one hand, the detractors are right: there's now little question that good leadership separates national success from failure. For decades, Jamaican intellectuals attributed the country's poor performance to factors beyond its control - slavery, a hostile world economy, Cold War meddling, and so forth.

 

Jamaica Economy Project

 

Though these factors are not without significance, the evidence in support of any of them as primary variables is limited. Nearly 10 years ago, I was involved with the Jamaica Economy Project, an ambitious research programme based at the University of the West Indies, Mona, which tried to assess the key determinants of the country's poor economic performance. Time and again, we found that key turning points, for better or worse, could be attributed to decisions our leaders took.

But, on the other hand, Jamaica's defenders are right to point out that the Singaporean model could not have been so easily transplanted to Jamaica. We love to blame our leaders for the country's mismanagement, but who put them there? Like any country that wants to accelerate its growth rate, Singapore repressed consumption in order to steer resources to investment. But promising such bitter medicine has never been a vote-getter in Jamaica.

Don't put all the blame on voters for this. The country's business class is equally notorious for defending its turf in the face of any attempt to reform policy to make it more competitive. Jamaican leaders and intellectuals will often say that what the country needs to do is gather in a room all the key players - unions, businesses, intellectuals, public servants - and then hammer out an agreement on the way forward. But this is not how the Singaporean model, or other so-called developmental states, actually operated.

 

better analogy

 

A better analogy would be to say everyone assembled in two separate rooms joined by a narrow door. In one room are all the social actors, in the other, a technocratic elite. Moving between them is a strong leader who relays communication between them, but who insulates the bureaucracy to take whatever action, popular or not, it deems necessary to development.

Being a country in which ministers can't help meddling in their departments, Jamaica would almost certainly make hash of this model. Not for want of trying. But as a Cabinet minister once memorably told me, picking winners in Jamaica has usually involved taking a well-connected loser then showering it with cash in the hopes it becomes a winner.

Singapore showed that picking winners necessarily entails picking losers, and ushering them out of business. But even though that technique probably would never work in Jamaica, its insights remain valid. Leadership decisions matter immensely. In this regard, a better model is Mauritius, a small island democracy like ours, which was also once a plantation colony.

We rightly salute the tremendous achievement of Lee Kuan Yew. But we may learn more from studying the life of Paul Berenger. And it may turn out that some of our leaders over the last few years, who have been roundly decried for their unpopular acts and decisions, may yet one day turn out to have been our biggest winners.

- John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.