FORMER Prime Minister PJ Paterson yesterday challenged critics who have been suggesting that Jamaica has achieved nothing since Independence, even as he admitted that there have been setbacks and failures over the last five decades.
His assertion comes one week before Jamaicans observe the country’s 50th year of Independence from Britain, and amidst intense discussions and introspection regarding the nation’s achievements since August 6, 1962.
Some commentators, including several who have capitalised on opportunities provided through print and electronic media, have been contending that the country was better off prior to Independence.
Addressing the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange earlier this month, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga in his assessment of the country’s progress since Independence said gains have been made in only a few areas, and bemoaned the poor state of the economy.
Asked whether Jamaica had much to celebrate as a nation after 50 years, the outspoken Seaga was forthright in his response. “ I’m the worst person for you to ask that, because I have spoken on this particular topic so many times, and written on it, that we made one step forward and taken one step backward,” he stated.
However, Patterson, who was a guest at yesterday’s special sitting of the Monday Exchange, insisted that Jamaicans have achieved much over the period. “I must tell you, when I hear some of this talk about whether we are better off in Independence, I find it very jolting. Not because we have reached a state of perfection, but how far we have come along the journey,” said the former prime minister who in 1992 took over the reins of the People’s National Party (PNP) Administration from an ailing Michael Manley.
“There have been failures, there have been problems, there have been disappointments, there have been setbacks, and there have been areas of underachievement,” Patterson admitted.
In his analysis of Jamaica’s progress since 1962, the former prime minister asserted that it would be unfair to conduct an evaluation of the country’s progress without taking into consideration the history of preindependent Jamaica.
“The balance sheet for Jamaica as a nation cannot begin with a zero on both sides of the ledger at midnight, August 6, 1962,” he argued. “It has to start with the assets and liabilities we inherited. The process, leading to Independence, was triggered by the revolt of our people in 1938 against the inequities of the plantation system, the dehumanising legacy of slavery, and the exploitative nature of colonial rule.
“Most of those who decry the state of affairs today have no idea what life was really like in the days when Britannia ruled the waves. An elite class enjoyed peace and prosperity, while the vast voiceless majority lived in penury and despair,” Patterson emphasised.
In his effort to bolster his argument, Patterson made reference to the period in Jamaica’s past when members of the black masses were denied certain jobs because of their skin colour. He made specific reference to a case in which former principal and founder of Kingston College, Bishop Percival Gibson, sent a young past student, who had excelled in Mathematics, to enquire about a job opening at a prominent Kingston bank. According to Patterson, the bank’s response to the youngster infuriated Bishop Gibson, as instead of offering the young man a job at the bank, the institution’s management made arrangements for him to work at a soap factory.
While outlining the country’s successes, the former prime minister emphasised that he was not saying that things have been “hunky dory”, and listed sluggish economic growth, unemployment and high levels of crime as major challenges.
“We have an intolerable level of crime and we have, of course, a high mountain of national debt. And then, particularly in this time, the adverse effects of exogenous factors in a period of immense economic turbulence worldwide leave us very vulnerable and exposed,” he said.
“There are poor social conditions in areas which deny a significant portion of our population respectable standards of living in a modern society; and the failure to adopt the practices and values that will enable our country to become a just, secure, prosperous and equitable society,” he explained.
But Patterson argued that Jamaicans should not dwell on what had gone wrong. “It’s no point spending all the time on the negatives, if we do that we are engaging in self-flagellation; we’re beating ourselves to death. If we feel that nothing good has come out of Jamaica it is stultifying, and indeed it fails to recognise that in some areas we have made progress,” said Patterson as he highlighted some of what he maintains have been tremendous achievements over the 50 years.
“There has been an improved standard of living throughout Jamaica. Places where the only light at night was that of the moon or from peenie wally (firefly), those places have electricity,” he pointed out. “Jamaicans have access to more running water than ever before. There are complaints about the state of our roads, especially our rural roads; the truth is Jamaica has more roads per square mile than any other country apart from Japan, and some of these roads were just tracks in days gone by.”
In highlighting other indicators of development Patterson made reference to improvements in the country’s housing stock, improvements in access to quality health care and the fact that many more Jamaicans own their own vehicles and have access to information communication technologies.
“I remember the time when it was only the pastor and the head teacher and the sanitary inspector who could own a motor car, that reality has changed dramatically,” said Patterson as he made reference to the fact that Jamaicans no longer rely on telegrams to inform relatives of deaths.
The former prime minister also heaped praises on successive Administrations which have presided over the passage of legislation that have improved the lives of many Jamaicans.
“The whole question of law as a tool for social engineering, to change the relationship between our people — children born out of wedlock, who are no longer subject to both the stigma and the legal impediments of that, who are equal in the sight of God and in the sight of law. Women having equal pay, access to maternity leave, the change in relationships between master and servant to one between employer and employee,” said Patterson as he made reference to the establishment of institutions such as the Office of the Children’s Advocate, the Office of the Political Ombudsman, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica and the Independent Commission of Investigations.
He also emphasised that Jamaicans enjoy religious and press freedom. “Say what you like, Jamaica enjoys press freedom. If we didn’t enjoy press freedom I wouldn’t be here today, ’cause you all give me some hard blows,” said Patterson amidst much laughter from Observer reporters and editors who assured him that the Jamaica Observer’s cartoonist, Clovis, was not in the room.
Patterson also articulated the achievements in the area of education. “Nobody can dispute that we require higher levels of investment in education to move the nation forward, but let us reject any suggestion that we had a better system of education in colonial times,” he said. “Those who so contend ignore the stark realty which the comparative data reveal. When I went to the University College of the West Indies, it was the only campus. Eighty Jamaicans entered that year and it was the biggest intake. Now we have 70,000 students enjoying tertiary education which is over 30 per cent of the cohort,” said Patterson.