Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Why Jamaica is no Singapore

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2015 | 12:00 AMAkshai Mansingh

I was pleased to read John Rapley's wrap-up ('Jamaica awaiting our Lee Kuan Yew', March 30, 2015) of the legacy and funeral of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, especially since I was sitting in Singapore, having arrived at the time of his funeral.

It was quite a send-off, with a smattering of regional heads of state or prime ministers, and orderly crowds lining the rainy streets for just as long as they had to. The farewell was fitting not only because of the affection and warmth displayed by his people, but also because the next day the top news story was of the prosecution of a young man who had posted derogatory comments about the leader on social media. That, perhaps, summed up why I regard him as a benevolent dictator rather than a great leader.

But it would be remiss of me to leave his achievements as just that. While we have spent the last five decades lamenting how similar we were to Singapore then, and so dissimilar now, very little has been said as to why we are where we are now and they are where they are, as they celebrate 50 years of creation this year.

I recall my first visit there almost 15 years ago when I spent sleepless nights trying to figure out why they succeeded with much fewer resources than what Jamaica enjoyed. The Sunday Straight Times then printed a full centre spread with articles such as 'Why Jamaica Failed' and 'Lessons Jamaica Could Learn', which was actually in response to an article published in The Gleaner by Delroy Chuck on Lee Kuan Yew's recently published book.

Seeing their development, it is no surprise why the government warned Standard and Poor's against tampering with the triple-A status of their state-owned investment company and risk "lumping them with riskier countries like Greece and Jamaica" in February this year.

So what lessons could be learnt? A great part of Singapore's success was having a clear plan, which they followed unwaveringly. The law applied to everyone without exception. I recall being told of a government minister being publicly punished for accepting a bribe, just as a common man would have.




Draconian as many would have been, all the laws were designed for the improvement of society and the betterment of the people; and nobody, absolutely nobody, was bigger than the law. They also realised that to compete in anything on the world stage, they had to have the best people performing these tasks. If they were Singaporean, then well and good, but if not, they would get the best to ensure a quality product at competitive prices.

Maybe it meant an influx of foreigners who brought high skills and expertise, but the time spent on hiring foreigners was spent on educating their own to take over these jobs. Unfortunately, this was not the case locally, and perhaps still is not so. Many of our jobs that require high level of management or skill are occupied by people that are underqualified or undertrained, but they occupy the job because of their nationality, or political allegiance, rather than skill set.

Many jobs that require a minimum qualification in many developed countries are occupied by undereducated substitutes. That may have sufficed 50 years ago, but now has a new minimum job description the world over.

This is not a formula used by Singapore alone, but just about every developed country. Where would Canada and the USA have been if they did not rely heavily on foreign expertise? What did the UK and Europe have to do once their captive markets disappeared?

The trick of good governance is not filling available slots with local underqualified personnel, but to create an environment that would allow incoming expertise to create enough jobs to employ local workers, and create an education system that will allow the local workforce to take over in a generation.

Had we stuck to these principles at Independence, we may have been rivals to Singapore now. And though the trade unions did great work in ensuring basic rights for workers, if we all shared a common goal and outlook, I am sure things would have been as rosy as Singapore now. But it's never too late.

We remain fixated on the deprivation of rights, lack of true democracy, and lack of human rights that have been the dark side of where Singapore is now. And indeed, were it not for a benevolent dictator, Singapore could have descended into the abyss that most other countries with those attributes have fallen into.

But 50 years on, the major right that most Singaporeans lack is the right to work menial jobs, as they have been educated and qualified for jobs of

far greater prominence and complexity. And what have we done in comparison over this period? Industry has almost been decimated, productivity marginalised, wages frozen, competitiveness non-existent, and education standards - well, you decide for yourself.




Discipline was the other attribute that was non-negotiable while Singapore moved from poverty to prosperity over the last 50 years. Discipline as basic as queuing up, driving in lanes, maintaining public order in noise control, pollution control, and other things that are associated with an orderly First World society took precedence over 'looking out for the little man' or 'loving the poor', to the benefit of all - little man and poor.

All are assured decent housing, health and education, while foreigners from all countries now flock to live in Singapore. Good governance and management have made Singapore Airlines one of the top airlines in the world, which has put it in a position to bid for our ports. One needn't mention what happened to our airline and our ability to invest outside.

Jamaica, too, punches above its weight in many aspects, especially sports and culture. I recall walking Clarks Cay in Singapore many years ago. This stretch, akin to Edgewater, is frequented by locals and tourists as it is lined by eating joints. The first two I passed were playing music by Bob Marley, and the third had a live band singing Bob's songs! But the truth is that they play to almost 10 times as many tourists than Jamaica, many of them extremely high end. In spite of talk, we just have not been able to leverage or capitalise our sports genius and cultural richness to their full potential.

And by no means am I suggesting we go down the route taken by Singapore wholesale. We have a lot to be proud of in 53 years as well. But there are many things that can be adopted that are not beyond us. And that includes one law for all, expeditious trials and just punishments.

Corruption can be rooted out if desired. It is amazing how Singapore achieved this. Comprising predominantly ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, all of whose native homelands are inherently corrupt, Lee Kuan Yew was able to convince them that lack of corruption would ultimately benefit all. And this was done by installing one law for all.

There is no doubt that both political parties wish what's best for Jamaica. I don't believe there is even much ideological difference left in how to achieve it. The question is who has the will to implement it. What is required is a transparent, structured approach into which all can buy in.

- Dr Akshai Mansingh is an orthopaedic surgeon and head of sports medicine at the UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and