WHILE historically there has always been debate about the nature of fiscal policy, it is now generally accepted that, in a modern globalised economy, reducing debt and stimulating growth should be the goals of most governments. This is important in The Bahamas because we are dependent on the international ratings agencies for our sovereign credit rating on which our reputation as a desirable destination for foreign direct investment depends, and invariably we are judged on our public sector policies, fiscal consolidation measures and economic growth.
In these columns, we have consistently welcomed the FNM government’s policy of economic reform to include modernisation, deregulation, liberalisation and diversity, together with its commitment to reduce the national debt, limit fiscal deficits and bring transparency to the management of its own financial affairs. These reforms have to take account of the need to comply with international anti-money laundering and counter terror financing standards. But, if they can be implemented successfully, they could bring about sustainable long-term prosperity for our nation.
It is therefore risible to read recent criticism of the reforms by the PLP chairman who either does not grasp what is happening or is simply politicking in a manner no longer tolerated by the new wave of young voters.
Against this background, the debate about our nation becoming ‘another Singapore’ has once again come to the fore.
The Bahamas possesses significant advantages like proximity to the world’s largest economy, a high level of wealth and good existing infrastructure, an equable climate and plenty of land spread over some 25 inhabited islands, with our main island of New Providence only marginally smaller than the landmass of Singapore. But we should take note of how Lee Kuan Yee, Singapore’s first and longest-serving prime minister, dramatically transformed his country from a poor island in the 1960s with no natural resources into a powerful and wealthy financial centre and a logistics, shipping and aviation regional hub.
He made it an attractive place for investment through an efficient bureaucracy, a low and transparent tax regime, a strong regulatory framework, an emphasis on growth, zero tolerance of corruption and development of state-of-the-art infrastructure – and, above all, he realised that he had to create a top-flight educational system and welcome immigrants in order to attract high-calibre people with skills and to secure the integration of foreign and home-grown talent.
It is claimed Lee Kuan Yew managed to alter the mindset of his people. For his achievements to be emulated in this country, a fundamental cultural change would be needed and most people think that is unattainable. The dose of authoritarianism imposed in Singapore might not work here. Nonetheless, the need for more order and discipline in our society is widely recognised - whether it is personal accountability in honouring commitments and obligations and good timekeeping or honesty and a refusal at every level to offer and accept bribes, or even driving more responsibly on our overcrowded roads.
So many Bahamians remain inward-looking, suspicious and resentful of outsiders and foreign involvement in what they regard as their exclusive domain and it is unrealistic to expect a change of attitude among today’s older generation. But younger people, exposed to the internet and social media, are more savvy and less inclined to accept entrenched attitudes they regard as out of touch with the modern age.
To benefit fully from globalisation, we need a fresh approach. We should, for example, welcome controlled immigration as a potential boost to our economy and society and we need to improve the work ethic of government officials through a mix of incentives and sanctions for poor performance. The government is already committed to greater transparency and is tackling corruption by uncovering the worst excesses of the last PLP administration and letting the law take its course. However, before attempting to achieve meaningful change, it must also be seen to be treating all Bahamians and visitors fairly and responsibly, from meeting its international human rights obligations - for example, most recently, stopping the abuses at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre – to taking serious steps to tackle the massive gap between the rich and the poor in our country where in some areas people are still forced to make do with outside bathrooms.
It has required authority and commitment to launch this FNM government’s economic reforms. Could this be extended to bring about a broader fundamental change of attitude and thinking in our country?
That would be a tall order and it would need visionary and determined political leadership. But, if as a country we genuinely believe we possess the potential to become the ‘Singapore of the Americas’ and we commit ourselves to a peaceful social revolution involving real cultural change, such an aspiration should never be entirely ruled out.