Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Promises and performance

Published:Sunday | February 12, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Mark Ricketts

"At least a quarter of our population live on captured land, almost one-third of the population steal their electricity, while almost two-thirds of the water supplied by the National Water Commission is lost or stolen, which means many children are raised in households where theft is normal." - Gleaner editorial, September 21, 2016

Read the quote above and sometimes I wonder whether we should not cry for Jamaica. A Jamaica where junior doctors, nurses, farmers, policemen, security guards, journalists, bank tellers, hotel workers, teachers bemoan the fact that housing is not affordable. Yet we have a National Housing Trust (NHT) that is owed $59 billion from uncollected deductions from companies, and has now become a source of funding for both governments to prop up the Budget.

Last week, a Gleaner headline reported that this Government may be looking to raid the coffers of the NHT to cover its budget shortfall. As long as governments can do this, they never have to make the really tough adjustments and establish the proper ordering of priorities to move the economy forward in an inclusive and sustainable way.

Governments talk the talk all right, but execution is bypassed, given the absence of efficiency and serious management of state institutions and public-sector bodies, ongoing corruption, waste, a slavish commitment to election promises that cannot be justified given the continued sluggishness of the economy, and patronage, which has reached heights of shameless vulgarity.

If the NHT and the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) had functioned like their counterparts in Singapore, they would have provided sufficient financing and added to the housing stock over the years to the point of retarding the escalation in house prices. This would have reduced the drive to illegal settlements. But ask the hotel worker in our major resort towns whether, with the growth that has been taking place in the tourism sector, there has been a corresponding increase in accommodation for their work?

In Singapore, meanwhile, the Housing Development Board builds lots of housing units (one million in the last 20 years in a country the size of the parish of St James) and subscribers to the Central Property Fund (CPF) secure financing to purchase a home, as well as retain sufficient savings in the Fund to live reasonably well during retirement. The Government, by twinning policies on housing with retirement security, allows people to enter retirement with a place to live and their own savings to live on.

 

THE CASE OF SINGAPORE

 

With our high crime and inadequate response to housing solutions and our interlocking social, economic, political and cultural problems, we are going to have to accept that, while we might not replicate the Singaporean model, our leaders might have to adopt the vision and hard-edged tenacity of the late Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore.

Thirty-five years ago when I lectured at the College of Arts Science and Technology (now the University of Technology), I gave my students in economics, banking and finance an overview of Singapore's economic success. I would then ask if they would like us to become a Singapore (clean, orderly, highly disciplined, crime free, and an economic powerhouse).

Each of my classes, in amplified chorus, shouted, "No, sir, no way, we could never go down that road. They are too serious, too regimented, there is no fun."

The Singaporeans, whose education is part of a wider talent pool geared towards entrepreneurship, will stay home, earn an internationally competitive salary, while building their country.

In a recent column, I wrote that I wished for Jamaica to become a Singapore. Based on readers' responses by emails, phone calls, my being buttonholed at events and in shopping malls, it will never happen. The responses from many readers were somewhat similar to my students decades ago, except for some variations highlighting the difficulty of running Jamaica.

It was felt that not even Lee Kuan Yew himself, if he were alive today, or his son, Lee Hsein Loong, the current prime minister, could impact or manage Jamaica. In fact, they would be retired early. They couldn't last two years, a point amplified by the very brilliant and successful guitarist Seretse Small, whose music school Avant Academy recently won the Innovators Reality Show Award.

Says Small, "My own personal relationship with Eastern culture and having been to Japan quite a few times let me understand the impact of centuries-old philosophies on behaviour, identity, self-discipline, coherence, and conformity. That being the case, it was easier for Lee to tap into those modalities, as he sought to regulate social behaviour as well as engineer a highly regimented society.

Sharing a somewhat similar viewpoint is a fellow guitarist who was a former managing director of NCB, and is now a director of the Sagicor Group, Jeffrey Cobham. He believes cultural and class rigidities and our firm commitment to democracy would provide a strong pushback to wholesale application of the Singaporean model where trade unions were reigned in and opposition parties constantly undermined.

Others with a different point of view argued that great leadership is about success and that is achieved by no-nonsense visionaries like a Lee Kuan Yew. In their minds, our prime minister is not tough enough to set the bar higher for Jamaicans and make the kind of sweeping changes necessary for a society that has had anaemic growth for many years.

 

HONOURING COMMITMENTS

 

For example, Andrew promised tax refunds to those in a particular income bracket. He honoured 50 per cent of his commitment last year, and from all indications, he is going to pay out the final amounts this year. He also made inexcusable, non-budgeted commitments as far as auxiliary fees and additions to the school feeding programme. The cost to the treasury is forecast to be $42 billion and counting.

Andrew knows the crime figures and the praedial larceny numbers and is aware of how much they are impediments to growth. Faced with a similar situation, Lee, or his son, would have taken at least $30 billion of the $42-billion figure mentioned above to address social dysfunction and restructure the law enforcement infrastructure, including reforming the criminal justice system. They would have re-engineered, as well, the Ministry of Education.

In Singapore, education has been a powerful lever to transform the society and one thing is sure Lee would never accept what we are doing, or more accurately, what we are not doing, as far as education goes in ensuring the appropriate and relevant talent pool for the country.

With our country's problems and the major shifts of our two major trading partners in governance, immigration, and economic plans, our prime minister might have to move quickly in mirroring Lee's bold vision, anti-corruption stance, and tough decision-making skills.

- Mark Ricketts, economist, author, and lecturer living in California, was chief economist of the Vancouver Board of Trade in Canada; deputy chairman of the Jamaica Stock Exchange; assistant editor of the Financial Post, Canada's largest financial newspaper. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com andrckttsmrk@yahoo.com.