In the 1970s and early 1980s when Singapore and the rest of the so-called Asian Tigers were roaring their way to robust economic growth, we manufactured comfort in our stagnation by pointing to the supposedly high social price they were paying for success.
So, we claimed higher standards of political freedoms, revelled in our intensely competitive two-party system and waved with abandon our labour market rigidities and the muscular power of a trade-union movement that was lost in its emerging anachronism. And we nit-picked at every perceived faults of the leadership of those emerging economies. Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, was the tyrant who did not entertain dissent and whose policies were the anathema of liberal democracy.
We maintained a healthy scepticism of the private sector and embraced the idea of an activist welfare state, but on a shallow pocket. Singapore wanted an enabling state that gave wide rein to the entrepreneurial zeal. Nearly four decades on, Jamaica’s per capita income has hobbled to under US$5,000, while Singapore’s is over six times more at US$31,500.
There have in recent years been some shifts in attitudes in Jamaica. At least, we have talked about new policy directions and the inefficacy of the road so far travelled. But while there are intellectual concessions, there remains great difficulty in breaking free from outmoded, atrophying notions.
Attitudes towards a flexible workweek, which has engaged the minds of Jamaica’s leaders for more than a decade, without resolution, is a case in point. Social fossils remain impervious to change.
At present, Jamaica, with some exceptions, adheres to a 40-hour, five-day workweek. Which is to say that employees have their 40 hours of work spread from Monday to Friday. Work on Saturday and Sunday, in most cases, attract premium pay.
The idea is to change this to a flexi week in which workers and their employers can agree to structure the workweek over the seven days without payment differentials for work on Saturdays and Sundays.
The idea makes sense. It would remove the element of rigidity of the labour market and remove unnecessary wage costs from firms. Such a flexible work environment would help to drive labour productivity and therefore cost efficiency in firms. The bottom line is that it would help to make Jamaica more globally competitive. This is good at any time, but is certainly better at this time of recession where thousands of jobs are being lost in the economy.
There is an added bonus: a flexible workweek would be liberating to workers. They would have greater ability to organise their work around their social lives.
However, there are the whingeing religious fundamentalists – from traditional and other churches – was well as the anti-business complainers who are resistant to any form of change, who in their proselytising shimmy their arguments as to suggest that the existing ways are of great value to the secularists.
But strip away the façade, and their position is back to the old days, with claims that the drive for efficiency and economic growth is at the expense of freedoms. Listen to them and the result will be persistent underdevelopment.