Wed | Nov 20, 2019

Singapore, Jamaica: development and happiness

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry

Not being able to achieve peace on earth or to get people to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, the United Nations has turned its hand to something else, designating March 20 as an annual International Day of Happiness.

Singapore is now mourning the loss of its Great Leader, Lee Kuan Yew, at age 91. And Jamaica is mourning what might have been. But both countries, with vastly different levels of wealth and conditions of life, have scored highly on various happiness indices.

We've missed the boat that Lee-led Singapore rode to its current state of advanced development. And the boat metaphor is particularly apt.

There won't be a Singapore 2 and Jamaica certainly is not qualified to even try at this stage. Battleaxe emailer John Anthony reminded us why in his attack mail in response to Lloyd B. Smith's piece in the Observer last Wednesday, 'Does Jamaica need a Lee Kuan Yew?' A dozen Lee Kuan Yews won't make us Singapore 2. But good, strong consistent leadership would certainly help us to do better both with development and with happiness.

The Jamaican social fabric, Anthony points out, is far too weak as a basis for strong and sustained development. Opposition Leader Andrew Holness raised in his Budget Debate contribution the need for a re-engineering of values and attitudes, something we have long talked about. Single-parent families are almost unknown in Singapore, with annually less than 1,000 out-of-wedlock births. Here it is in the order of 85 per cent with weak and shifting family structures. Vast differentials in levels of education and levels of productivity rule out catch-up.

Lee Kuan Yew caged the unions and flung Singapore open to a flood of foreign direct investments. To spread work and help alleviate the effects of unemployment, overtime was limited and the compulsory retirement age was set at 55. Lee's actions, which the militant unions opposed but could do little about, were part of the government's efforts to create in Singapore the conditions and laissez-faire atmosphere that had enabled Hong Kong to prosper. Such measures, in the government's view, were necessary to draw business to the port. And business did come - massively.

At the start of the 1960s, the colony Jamaica had far more advantages than colony Singapore. Jamaica, just under 11,000 square kilometres, had agriculture, bauxite, a growing tourism industry, budding manufacturing and services, and a settled, peaceful society. Singapore, a group of small islands adding up to a mere 697 square kilometres, smaller than most Jamaican parishes, was basically the main British naval base in East Asia and having the largest dry dock in the world then.

When Singapore became independent from Britain in 1963, most of the new Singaporean citizens were uneducated labourers from Malaysia, China and India. The GDP per capita was around US$500, much like ours then.

Singapore now has 5.4 million people packed into an area a little larger than our parish of St Mary. With no natural resources, except its harbour - and fish - and one of the highest population densities in the world, Singapore has become one of the world's most prosperous countries with strong international trading links. Its port is one of the world's busiest. Per-capita GDP matches that of the developed countries of Western Europe.

Singapore is the 14th-largest exporter in the world and the 15th-largest importer with a positive balance of trade. In 2012, exports stood at US$435.8 billion and imports at US$374.9 billion. This has helped the country to hold the 11th-largest foreign reserves in the world. The country is the world's fourth-leading financial services centre. The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Singapore the second-freest economy in the world after Hong Kong.

On the Corruption Perception Index put out by Transparency International, Singapore consistently ranks as one of the least corrupt countries.

Good governance

Foreign direct investments have loved Singapore because of the low-corruption environment, low tax rates, advanced infrastructure, skilled workforce, and, of course, its location. The country has an AAA credit rating from all three major credit-rating agencies.

Sustained good governance was a critical factor in the Singapore success story. One political party, the People's Action Party, has won every election since self-government in 1959, and there have only been three prime ministers, with the first, the great Lee Kuan Yew, serving for the first quarter century between 1965 and 1990.

Singapore, under Lee, was engineered into a highly regimented society, a stiff price for advanced development most Jamaicans would argue. Flogging is a routine punishment in Singapore. The death penalty is mandatory not only for murder but for drug trafficking and certain firearm offences.

Social behaviour is highly regulated and deviations ruthlessly punished. In a recent year, there were only 18 murders in a population of 5.4 million, and all cases, except one, solved. The Singapore prison population is high: some 16,000 in 5.4 million, compared to about 4,000 in our 2.7 million, or twice ours per 100,000.

Singaporean media have been criticised for being too regulated and lacking in freedom by press-freedom groups such as Freedom House, with much of the ownership tied to the government. Reporters Without Borders, in 2010, ranked Singapore 136th out of 178 in its Press Freedom Index.

Against the glowing Singapore story, the CIA Fact Book tells the whole world that for Jamaica, "deteriorating economic conditions during the 1970s led to recurrent violence as rival gangs affiliated with the major political parties evolved into powerful organised crime networks involved in international drug smuggling and money laundering. Violent crime, drug trafficking, and poverty pose significant challenges to the government today ... ."

Joblessness in Singapore is 1.9 per cent. Officially, we are at 14 per cent, not counting the high level of underemployment and those who have dropped out of the job market altogether.

The workweek in Singapore is 44 hours long. Vacation leave runs from seven to only 14 days.

But even the soundest economic policy, such as the minister of finance is wrestling to formulate under IMF supervision, will not flourish in an environment of high social disorder, lawlessness and high levels of crime, poor family structure, poor work attitudes, and high levels of corruption.

But we have learned how to forget our troubles and dance. Lee made an issue of this after his visit here in 1975. He wrote condescendingly in his memoirs, "The people were full of song and dance, spoke eloquently, danced vigorously and drank copiously. Hard work they had left behind with slavery."

Bhutan asked the United Nations to declare an annual International Day of Happiness, much as how freshly independent Jamaica had asked the UN to declare an International Year of Human Rights, which was 1968.

The people of Bhutan are considered to be some of the happiest people in the world. The Himalayan Kingdom has championed an alternative measure of national social prosperity, the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). The GNH rejects the sole use of economic and material wealth as an indicator of development, and instead adopts a more holistic outlook, where the spiritual well-being of citizens and communities is given as much importance as their material well-being.

But what makes people happy? GDP helps - up to a point. The UN is proposing the GREAT DREAM 10 keys to happier living: Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying out. Direction, Resilience, Emotion (positive), Acceptance (of self), and Meaning.

I have very good reasons to be happy today. It is my fine son's birthday and he will use the occasion to pop the question to his lady love, which, expectantly, will be the launch of a strong Jamaican family living the GREAT DREAM and contributing to the happiness of the world.

- Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and