Imani Duncan-Price | Singapore nights and possibilities for Jamaica
Walking from dinner in Singapore at about 1 a.m. last November, I was struck by the amazing freedom I felt. I was simultaneously sad and angry, knowing I could never do that in Jamaica. Instead, so many of us live behind grilles and watch our rear-view mirrors as we drive home late at night.
I kept looking for reasons for the different outcomes for both countries as they started out with a similar economic baseline with just over US$500 GDP per capita in 1965. Today, Singapore has a GDP per capita of US$53,000, while Jamaica stands at US$4,900.
A fellow Young Global Leader (YGL), Penny Low, who was also member of parliament in Singapore, recently wrote a book naming the 'Top 20 Social Innovations of Singapore'. I believe that some have relevance for Jamaica. This is the first in a three-part series in which I'll share some relevant policy innovations.
No place like home
Lee Kuan Yew, like Norman Manley and Michael Manley, was absolutely clear that to build a nation, the people must have a stake in their country. They were right. Today, it is now understood that home ownership is the largest and most enduring vehicle for the accumulation of family wealth and a good proxy for citizen commitment.
Singapore, just after its independence, was an accumulation of mudlands. A few wealthy families owned much of the land, while ordinary Singaporeans lived in racial enclaves (Chinese, Malay, and Indian), and, unable to afford a home, rented from landlords. The lack of belonging was further frustrated by the simmering racial tensions that broke out in two major riots in the 1960s.
The Housing Development Board (HDB) Policy was integral in building homes and fostering a national identity for the newly independent Singaporean state. Lee Kuan Yew's goal was 100 per cent home ownership for all Singaporeans. Consequently, the Government pursued a definitive land-reclamation and redistribution policy. Indeed, as they used the number of fruit trees per acre to determine compensation, they incurred the wrath of the landowners. This is where having one dominant political party and a compelling leader that drives state capitalism was fundamental to Singapore's success. Such policy continuity and commitment poses a challenge to the Jamaican political process but ought not be insurmountable.
Today, 50 years later, 85 per cent of the population lives in HDB-built housing with a range of amenities for persons who are working class, middle class, and high-earning professionals. All make affordable payments towards home ownership and have title to an asset they can then leverage for their families and themselves.
Initially, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was all cheap housing to be affordable to the majority of Singaporeans. As the country grew through the pursuit of economic policies and the population's skills were upgraded to keep pace with, and drive, the expansion of the economy, those high-rise housing units were torn down and built again and again, with better and better amenities.
To top it off, the Government also used housing policy to increase racial integration and social harmony. These high-rise units and communities were built in a way so that children of different social classes would go to nearby quality schools together. Residents would use parks and common community spaces together and interact with each other daily, thus blurring social and racial lines and building trust. Indeed, the Government even established ethnic quotas based on the overall population to ensure a better mix in HDB communities.
Reading about the efforts of Norman Manley and Michael Manley to buck the system and address Jamaica's systemic inequality as manifested in land and housing is heartbreaking. Think where Jamaica would be today without the active resistance of the landed classes in the mid-1950s, or without the violence and fearmongering by Edward Seaga and those seeking to retain the status quo in the 1970s. Jamaica suffered intense turmoil for six years on this core basis.
No more tinkering
While some progress has been made, the breakthrough required for a significant shift for ordinary Jamaicans to own their piece of Jamaica is yet to be realised. Dr Peter Phillips was spot on in the recent Budget Debate in naming land and home ownership as critical issues to unlock the economic inequality in Jamaica and hit at the colour and class inequality that persists. There is no more time for tinkering.
It is good that the JLP Government has also adopted land ownership as a critical area. With alignment, Jamaica may really have a chance for significant advancement in this area. However, it is imperative to keenly observe the modality of the policy. Singapore was clear and consistent in its policy shaping a particular kind of society.
Here in Jamaica, who are the intended and actual beneficiaries of the policy? Who will build the homes, and will they be affordable to young professionals, the middle class, the working class, and the poor? Will there be a real opening up or a further consolidation of oligarchies in Jamaica like with our banks? Will we build communities with good schools, parks, and other amenities instead of just housing schemes or apartment buildings?
Are we ready to do the work of building integrated communities in Jamaica with different social classes living together? The latter would require a unique and robust support system as we transform behaviours. That doesn't happen overnight. Singapore made rules and enforced them, no matter what or who. Is Jamaica ready to do that?
This type of social cohesion is a pillar for sustainable growth in Singapore. If Jamaica doesn't get that and other key elements right, we will remain stuck with a low-wage, low-growth economy. Isn't it time to be bold?
- Imani Duncan-Price is chief of staff for the leader of the Opposition, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Eisenhower Fellow, and former senator. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.