Stop comparing Jamaica with Singapore
Lee Kuan Yew's best-seller, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

In Jamaica it is common to hear lamentations about how Jamaica and Singapore had similar levels of income per person in 1960 and decades later Singapore has an income per person that is more than 10 times that of Jamaica.

In 2020 Jamaica's income per person was US$4,664 while that of Singapore stood at US$ 59,797. Income per person, or per capita income, is a simple proxy for a country's level of economic development. I cringe at these lamentations and find them to be incomplete and specious.

It is also repeatedly said that a Singaporean delegation visited Jamaica in 1967 and obtained insights on how to manage a small newly independent country. As the story goes, some of those insights were used to develop Singapore into the highly developed country it is today. While the visit is true, I find the rest of the story to be a fabrication that has been repeated so often it has become truth.

In his best-selling book, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, didn't offer any comment to support this story. Surely, if Jamaica stood out in his mind relative to the other countries his delegation might very well have visited and/or studied, then his caustic comments on Michael Manley's Jamaica would have been tempered by an appreciation for Jamaica's achievements in the 1960s; he offered none in his famous book.

Michael Manley (Photo: SCOTT APPLEWHITE)

In this, its 60th year of Independence, Jamaica has a lot to be proud of and need not compare itself with Singapore, a country which is quite frankly an outlier. Students of statistics are taught very early not to be distracted by outliers. I hasten to say that those who offer up lamentations rightly note that Singapore is not a bastion of democracy and lacks the freedoms which we take for granted here in Jamaica. Some argue, too, that cultural differences are crucial to explaining the differences between the two islands.

To better understand why we should not waste anymore time lamenting Jamaica's underdevelopment vis-à-vis Singapore's stellar economic achievements, we need to contextualise Singapore's rise within a historical and geographical framework.

Singapore has a land mass that is 15 times smaller than Jamaica's — 729 square kilometres vs 10,991 square kilometres.

Jamaica is better endowed with natural resources, such as arable land and bauxite. Singapore currently has a population of about 6 million as opposed to Jamaica's approximately 3 million; this works out to Singapore having a population density of 8,230 people per square kilometre, while Jamaica's density stands at a "comfortable" 273 people per square kilometre.

Lee Kuan Yew

In the 14th century Singapore was a key trading post and part of what was called the Maritime Silk Road, providing the shortest route between Guangzhou (Canton) and the Bay of Bengal. Modern Singapore was founded in the 19th century by Sir Stamford Raffles. Incidentally, Raffles was born on a ship off the coast of Port Morant, Jamaica.

Singapore's small size and the fact that it is an island made it easier to protect, and its geographical position in the Malacca Strait continues to make it an ideal place for international trade. According to a 2015 estimate by The Economist, about 40 per cent of world maritime trade passes through the Malacca Strait. Over the years, Singapore would have leveraged its ideal location as a trade hub to become an international financial centre. As of March 2022, Singapore is the world's sixth-leading financial centre behind New York, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Los Angeles.

The question remains, however: Notwithstanding its excellent location, how did Singapore, a tiny island without significant natural resources, become a global financial and economic powerhouse while Jamaica, the land of wood and water, remains underdeveloped?

Readers should note that, while location is important to Singapore's prowess, there is much more to the story. To be sure, Indonesia and Malaysia share the Malacca Strait with Singapore and are much larger countries, but tiny Singapore was able to emerge as a financial powerhouse.

It is the historical relationships which Jamaica and Singapore have had with foreign nations, near and far, and the events which define those relationships which allow us to better understand the vast differences between the economic performances of the two islands.

Singapore's role in the global economic superstructure is different from Jamaica's. Jamaica, with its greater endowment of natural resources, serves the interests of international capital by way of the extraction of raw materials, the exploitation and exportation of human capital (the period of enslavement), and a paradise for relaxation. Singapore also serves the interests of international capital, but without any notable endowment of natural resources it plays a different role — a key role in what is the world's largest manufacturing region.

Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Cayman Islands are small but prosperous islands due to their historical connections to the British. To pay for the tea and other goods from China, the British turned to the opium trade, the Chinese fought back as addiction levels quickly rose. A key result of the Opium Wars is that the British took Hong Kong. Is it any wonder that Hong Kong became a global financial powerhouse?

The current war in the Ukraine has shed more light on the sordid details of money laundering through London, the financial centre which has earned the monikers Londongrad and Moscow-on-Thames. The Cayman Islands is one location through which money is moved. The opium trade and wars, the enslavement of Africans, and money laundering through the Caribbean are examples of how some Britons have done, and continue to do, their dirty work abroad to fund their lifestyles at home, projecting a veneer of civility and class, complete with top hats and fascinators.

Singapore is also historically deeply connected to Britain. Singapore was a key strategic military location for the British in its Far East campaign during World War II, housing Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB), Singapore, which was nicknamed the Gibraltar of the East. The British built HMNB to counter the rapid naval expansion of the Japanese in East Asia.

Lee Kuan Yew, like other Singaporeans, obtained excellent university training in the UK. His British legal training, his respect for the rule of law and property rights served Singapore well. Foreign capital need not worry about their investments. The British, and by extension the Americans, were therefore confident in doing business in Singapore.

Britain aside, when Mao Zedong embarked on his cultural revolution the capitalist class packed up and left China. Singapore was one of the beneficiaries of that capital flight.

Additionally, Singapore was expelled from its tenuous merger with Malaysia, a merger fraught with political, economic, and ethnic tensions. There is a famous video clip of Lee Kuan Yew crying on TV after the "expulsion" of Singapore on August 9, 1965. In hindsight, that expulsion was a blessing to Singapore.

While these historical events and geographical considerations are noteworthy to Singapore's rise, they are not meant to diminish the work of Lee Kuan Yew, who worked hard to promote social cohesion among Singapore's diverse ethnic groups and prioritised education and home ownership, to name a few. He must take much credit for moving Singapore 'From Third World to First'.

Samuel Braithwaite

Dr Samuel Braithwaite is a lecturer in Department of Economics at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Samuel Braithwaite

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