Could Bim have been Singapore?
Barbados and Singapore have quite a lot in common. Both are small island states of relatively similar size, though Singapore is slightly larger than Barbados. They share the same British colonial background and proceeded to Independence in the mid-1960s, one year apart, after their participation in a political federation with neighbouring countries did not turn out as they expected.
Barbados and Singapore are also resource-poor countries. They have no natural resources, to speak of, to tap for development purposes. As a result, developing their people through education was given high priority.
Both countries were led into Independence by founding fathers Errol Barrow and Lee Kuan Yew, who were towering political figures, British-trained lawyers and personal friends.
Though their economies have achieved different levels of development, both countries are held up as success stories for other developing countries. Yet there are some among us who repeatedly argue that Barbados’ development story could have easily mirrored Singapore’s. Is this a realistic proposition? Finding out requires a dispassionate examination of key factors which influenced the development process in each instance.
Singapore’s 50th Independence anniversary, celebrated in grand style last weekend, provides an ideal opportunity to test the validity of this thesis. Given our historical tendency to be a copycat society, it is understandably tempting to say that we can take a foreign success story and easily replicate it in our situation. Developing an economy, however, is not so simple and straightforward.
If it were so, there would be no more poor, underdeveloped countries around. Developing an economy is a complex process that goes beyond the mere application of the four basic factors of production –– land, labour, capital, and entrepreneurship –– to generate growth. At a deeper level, economic development is dictated, more than anything else, by prevailing circumstances.
This environment results from a convergence of several factors, including a country’s history, politics, culture and the general disposition of its people. What the successful experience of one country offers to another are general lessons. It is up to the country to determine the relevance of these lessons, especially relating to best practices, and whether they can be realistically applied in its environment.
Though it shares many similarities with Barbados, Singapore pursued economic development in a fundamentally different environment. Indeed, it is debatable whether Barbadians would have countenanced some of what Singaporeans endured for the sake of economic development.
To begin with, Singapore is not a democracy in the true sense, despite having regular elections. The approach of founding father Lee, who died earlier this year at age 91, was basically dictatorial.
Serving as prime minister from 1959 until 1990, Lee, or Uncle Harry, as he was popularly known, tolerated no opposition. Citing a communist threat which was a reason used by many autocratic leaders during the Cold War era, he cracked down on political rivals, many of whom either spent years in detention without trial or were jailed by a compliant court system which stopped jury trials.
Lee restricted certain basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, to the point where open criticism of the government became impossible. He adopted a hard line on crime, introducing hefty fines for simple offences like spitting on the ground or chewing gum. Caning became a form of punishment in some cases and the death penalty was applied not only for murder but also corruption and drug trafficking, which are capital offences.
As a result, Singapore today, under the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong, son of the elder Lee, is a highly regimented society, with a population that basically toes the line, and is a de facto one-party state since the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has governed for more than 50 years. However, in sharp contrast to these many political negatives, are many positives on the economic side.
With a per capita income of US$56,500, compared with US$12,000 for Barbados in 2012, Singapore is up there in the league of First World nations. Touting a 90 per cent home ownership as another major achievement since Independence, Singapore offers its cohesive, multi-ethnic population of five million one of the highest living standards and one of the safest places in the world to live. For investors, it is one of the most stable places to do business.
Could Singapore’s success have been easily replicated in Barbados? The answer, realistically speaking, is no. With a history of slavery that was characterized by brutal oppression, it is unlikely that Barbadians, who are quick to say “Massa day done”, would have accepted the kind of inconveniences to achieve what Singapore did.
“Massa day done” means we love our freedom and will allow no one to push us around.
However, this was possible in Singapore because Lee pursued economic development based on an understanding of local culture anchored in traditional Asian values. This concept of “Asian values” became the ideology of modernization not only in Singapore, but also other Asian “tiger economies” such as Taiwan and South Korea which are also considered success stories of post-World War II economic development. Among other things, Asian values emphasize community before self, order, harmony, thriftiness, hard work, and respect for leaders.
Perhaps a major Barbados failing was not pursuing economic development based on an understanding of local culture reflected in Barbadian values. Singapore’s experience also shows that having a large population to provide a sizeable market is required to support economic development on the scale it has achieved. Singapore achieved this through a liberal immigration policy. A 280,000 population places obvious constraints on Barbados’ prospects.
It was the state, not private enterprise, which played the leading role in Singapore’s economic success story. It was, however, a highly efficient state, generally free of corruption, because Lee practised honesty and promoted a political culture where persons sought office to serve country instead of self. Given the wastage and recurring corruption allegations in our public sector, this lesson provides valuable food for thought.
The elder Lee had a clear vision for Singapore, just as Errol Barrow had for Barbados. Lee said the choice for Singapore was choosing whether it wanted to be another Palestine (poor) or another Switzerland (wealthy). He was able to rally the country around this vision. Are we clear what the current vision for Barbados is? Has it been clearly spelt out? I truly cannot say. Can you?
Lee practised meritocracy, meaning government jobs went to the most suitably qualified persons instead of basing such appointments on political connections, friendship and other considerations. Doesn’t the latter happen here in some instances? Such practices promote corruption which, arguably, is the single biggest contributor to economic underperformance in many countries.
Just as Singapore is proud of its model, we can be equally proud of ours, despite recent setbacks. Singapore’s experience offers some valuable lessons which we can use to improve our model. With strong commitment to a renewed vision of the future and more inspiring leadership, we can surmount existing hurdles and start writing, with confidence, the next exciting chapter of the Barbados success story.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)