Tue | Sep 18, 2018

Politicians must pay a price

Published:Wednesday | April 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica does not have a distinguished record of accountability. As a society, too many of us have tended to focus on 'intent' rather than 'outcome' as the primary factor in our assessment of actions that impact our people. Thus, if we can point to what we meant to do, we can absolve ourselves from the results of our actions - when the results are contrary to what we set out to do. The fault is never ours.

At the same time, many of us in civil society work ourselves up into a rage about particular malfeasances - but often only for the length of time that the issue remains in the headlines. The smart politician or public-sector official knows that if only he or she can keep his or her head down for a week or so, the pressure will blow over - and it will be business as usual again.

In my view, this has been a significant contributor to our anaemic economic performance over the course of our many decades as an independent nation. To my knowledge, no administration has come to power over this period claiming other than that if they are elected to office, their policies would result in economic growth and social development.

Our political leaders (and some of our key public officials) have never paid much of a price for subpar performance, because, by and large, they have had the cushion of a social environment where their ascent to power has had very little to do with past performance.

This may go some way to explaining what I would describe as somewhat muted praise emanating from our political leadership in response to the recent passing of one of the world's most transformative - and at the same time one of the most pragmatic - leaders of the past half-century, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

It is worth noting that while many of our political leaders, not just here in Jamaica, but throughout many of the countries that achieved independence in the 1960s, would give lip service to the accomplishments of a city state that so dramatically transformed itself over the course of two generations, there would always be a caveat: those accomplishments resulted from autocratic rule characterised by an absence of political freedom, limitations to civil society action, and nanny-state restrictions on use of chewing gum or urinating on the sidewalks. Jamaicans, or persons of any other nationality, it would be asserted, would not tolerate such restrictions.

Is culture a factor? Possibly - to an extent. I am no sociologist, but I find it very difficult to contemplate that some very basic human values are foreign territory to the vast majority of Jamaicans who want to live in a nation that is peaceful, to see their children and grandchildren grow to achieve their potential, to see their country of birth achieve international prominence not only for our athletes and musicians, but for our industry, productivity and integrity.


Jamaica and Singapore


What is the relationship between Jamaica's accountability gap and Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore? One of the key things I have learnt over the many years that I have been paying attention to Singapore is its intolerance - an intolerance regarding shoddy performance, corruption, crime.

Its leaders set out to build a meritocracy where every citizen could rise if he or she had the ability - not if he or she had the political patronage. It acknowledged that no society was ever likely to be corruption-free, but it dispensed sanctions with such severity and without favour that the country is today acknowledged to be one of the least corrupt worldwide. Singapore recognised that its public sector must be a top-notch facilitator for private enterprise to the point where salaries throughout the top private and public sector entities are on par.

The country's leaders promised a lot - and went on to deliver on their promise.

Jamaica, on the other hand, has endured repeated cycles of economic stringencies without much to show. Today, we have the same message - endure today's sacrifices and we will be better off tomorrow.

In all fairness, we all want to believe that this time around we will break out of our traditional cycle of underperformance, and many of the objective indicators suggest that this time around there is a determination that the outcomes will be different.

Yet we, civil society, must always be vigilant that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and that today's sacrifices are not being made in vain. And that means we must insist on accountability.

- Warren McDonald is president of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.