Apples and oranges?
Comapring Jamaica to Singapore is akin to comapring apples to oranges.

"Got to have kaya now,

Got to have kaya now,

For the rain is falling"

— Bob Marley, Kaya

Recently there was a viral video circulating of a young man who deliberately left his laptop in an internet café unattended for an hour as he went out to lunch. The gentleman wanted to show the world an example of how that particular country had no fear of crime, petty or otherwise. Many were amazed that he would take such a chance and even more surprised that he returned to find the equipment unmolested.

The country was Singapore.

A generation or two of Jamaicans have been keenly aware of this Asian tiger called Singapore. One of the leading proponents of Singapore was Jamaica's now-deceased premier talk show host Wilmot "Mutty" Perkins. Mutty was exceptional. He was intellectual with excellent debating skills, extremely opinionated, and full of wit and humour. I agreed with many of Mutty's conclusive deliberations. However, I also disagreed with several.

Mostly, I disagreed with his constant promotion of Singapore and his comparison of that country to Jamaica. Mutty's indoctrination reached a broad cross section of Jamaicans, and as such, Singapore was readily accepted as a measuring stick to be compared economically to Jamaica.

Lee Kuan Yew

But why compare such an Asian giant to our small Caribbean paradise?

This is mainly as a result of the Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew's visit to post-Independent Jamaica in the mid-1960s. Lee Kuan Yew had just become the prime minister of his then-impoverished island. He wanted to see the progress of Independence in Jamaica.

On his visit he remarked: "If only I had a country this size so near to the USA…" At the time he never imagined the Asian hemisphere would blossom into mega economic and population centres easily surpassing that of the US.


In 1867 the British established a trading post and later a colony on the tiny island of Singapore at the tip of the Malayan peninsular. Britain lost control in 1963 and Singapore transitioned into Independence in 1965. The country was dirt poor in the 1960s. Its leaders initiated a modernisation programme to tap into the emerging markets of economic globalisation trends. The programme was directed at certain economic and social pillars: promoting industrialisation and improving education, housing, and infrastructure development.

This thrust was led by Singapore's first prime minister, a Cambridge-trained lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, who, although a product of British education, was not a fan of Western-styled liberal democracy. According to him, Western democracies were characterised by "Law and order out of control, multiculturalism, drugs, weapons, abductions and crimes, poverty amidst wealth, and excessive rights of the individual at the expense of the community".

Norman Manley

Kuan Yew pointed out that society did not naturally obtain social order and economic progress; instead, it had to be enforced by a strong Government. So Kuan Yew ruled Singapore with an iron fist. His People's Action Party has won landslide elections in Singapore for decades, rendering the country almost a one-party State, which suited his autocratic governing style.

So he curtailed many of the freedoms once enjoyed by its citizens. Political and media spheres were regulated and a quasi-police State emerged. Drugs were illegal and trafficking was punishable by execution. Trade union leaders were imprisoned, freedom of speech was limited, and excesses were punishable by incarceration. This was further exacerbated by the thin line separating the Government from the judicial system.

Freedom to criticise the Government was not tolerated, and freedom of religion and social media access faced restrictions. For example, Jehova Witnesses are outlawed in Singapore, one is not allowed to chew gum, and there are plans to soon present the island as a smoke-free country.


Firstly, the context needs to be defined regarding the aforementioned video, which attempted to present the crime-free environment in Singapore. Leaving a laptop unattended in public in a country where most people have laptops is not a good measure of crime or the lack thereof. Furthermore, in what type of neighbourhood was the internet café located? Would he have left it in the slum areas of Singapore? Probably not.

Wilmot "Mutty" Perkins

Similarly, Mutty must be chastised for misleading a generation of Jamaicans about our mistake in not adopting the Singaporean political model. Mutty never mentioned the downside of autocratic rule, limited freedom of speech, regulated religious liberty, etc. He must have known that his constant criticism of the Government would not be tolerated if he lived in Singapore. He would have been imprisoned, faced defamatory lawsuits, or thrown off the radio, yet he continued to heap praise on Singapore's authoritarian Government. I know that Mutty is not around to defend himself, and I mean no harm in calling him out. On the contrary, I respect his contribution to Jamaican nationhood.

We are all fascinated by the country's prosperity, but how many of us would want to live in a police State. We want to be rich, but we also want to be free. Remember, we still have the psychological DNA of once-enslaved people.

Singapore is mega-rich, but no one realises the high levels of inequalities in the country as it is camouflaged by its incredible per-capita gross domestic product of US$60,000. However, a recent study showed that the poverty level is between 10 and 14 per cent. As a result, some Singaporeans cannot afford the cost of food and primary needs. In contrast, Jamaica's poverty rate was 11 per cent in 2018.

There is constant but hidden tension between the predominantly Chinese populations, darker-skinned Indians, and Malayans. So poverty and racism, although wallpapered, do exist in Singapore. Housing solutions are adequate, but living conditions reflect the depravation in depressed communities.

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Kuan Yew once said the following about Jamaica: "Theirs is a relaxed culture. The people are full of song and dance, spoke eloquently, danced vigorously, and drank copiously. Hard work they had left behind with slavery."

This comes from a person who doesn't know the horrors of being a slave.

Singaporeans were never enslaved. The two countries have distinct cultures. One is a culture based on the plantation system of slavery, while the other consisted of a predominantly migrant Chinese population with a penchant for commerce and a good work attitude.

But therein lies one of the significant differences between Singapore and Jamaica. While Singapore broke with the tenets of Western democracy, Jamaica embraced the Westminster model of our colonial masters. Britain was no longer concerned with Singapore but would not have tolerated the creation of an authoritarian regime in Jamaica. So Jamaica didn't miss the Singaporean boat. The model was probably unattainable under British supervision.

To his credit, Kuan Yew seemingly adopted some Jamaican policies. He forced the trade unions to consolidate into a government-run organisation called the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), reminiscent of Norman Manley's Trade Union Congress (TUC). In this way he was able to control labour unrests. Can you imagine this happening in Jamaica? Alexander Bustamante would have burst a blood vessel! Like Norman Manley, Kuan Yew also promoted the idea of a federation with neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, like Manley, these aspirations were short-lived.

Kuan Yew initiated a national service similar to the principles of Michael Manley's National Youth Service. He also instituted a compulsory housing savings scheme, much like the National Housing Trust. He used this as a medium to provide housing solutions to his entire citizenry and embraced primary education, like Manley's Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) to increase literacy among arriving immigrants. He also prioritised skills training institutions similar to Edward Seaga's HEART/NSTA Trust.

So would Jamaicans swap their freedom for life under an autocratic regime?

Well the Bob Marley song I introduced at the beginning of this article, in which he is yearning for kaya, would certainly not have seen the light of day. In fact, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Toots Hibbert would have either been imprisoned or executed for their affection for the ganja plant. Not to mention the many small ganja planters whose crops sent their children to universities. These farmers would all have been put to death.

Singapore is not big on athleticism, so there goes our Usain Bolt, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce et al. Also, there would be no World Cup football teams, no culture, and no Brand Jamaica. So to ensure Singaporean-type prosperity, Jamaicans would have to:

• Endure limited freedom of speech and movement

• Limit political criticism

Accept a sole government-controlled trade union

• Exist as almost a one-party State

• Accept regulated internet and social media

• Support regulation of religious groups

• Support banning of some Christian religions

• Exist in a quasi-police State

• Do without their beloved kaya (ganja)

• Do away with reggae, Rastafari, and dancehall

• Reduce partying and drinking

• Stop smoking

• Stop chewing gum

I could go on and on, but the point has been made. Is this the type of political system that Jamaicans are clamouring for? What would be the result of a referendum on this subject?

But wait. All is not lost.

We can make small steps as a country to achieve economic success by tweaking or adopting aspects of the Singaporean model, such as:

*Getting "deadly" about combatting crime

• Stamping out corruption in high and low places

• Focusing on skills training applicable to the modern world

• Slaying the dragon of indiscipline

• Letting loose our industry captains to pursue ventures in offshore banking, oil refinery, industrial projects, infrastructure, business process outsourcing, tourism, casinos, etc.

We can take on these things, as well as others, without impeding the freedom of our citizens, and investors would flock to the island. Now over to the politicians.

So there it is. To each his own.

In conclusion, the choice is prosperity versus our world-branded culture. However, prosperity comes with a cost tag. Are we willing to pay the price?

As for me, I would sell my soul for a crime-free Jamaica. But I also love chewing gum.

Word of warning. As we look at the greener pastures of Singapore, remember what old-time Jamaican people would always say: "Si mi an come live wid mi a two different things."

Rohan M Budhai

Rohan M Budhai is a tax consultant, writer, and history enthusiast. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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