By Dr. Patrick Dallas
This year’s Annual Bishop Gibson Lecture was delivered by prominent KC old boy, Professor Basil “Bagga” Wilson, in the St. Augustine Chapel on the North Street Campus of Kingston College on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Prof. Wilson, retired Provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and current Dean of the Graduate Program in Criminal Justice at Monroe College, presented on the topic: “The Contribution of Kingston College to Leadership in Jamaica since 1962”.
At the very outset, Wilson gave notice that he had appropriated poetic licence to broaden his presentation from just looking at KC’s contribution to leadership in Jamaica to a more holistic discourse on “leadership and the development experience in Jamaica”. He noted that KC is part of a much larger society, and it therefore behoves us be concerned about those dynamics that shape social order on that larger platform. Having taken cognizance of this, he adumbrated the structure of his presentation as comprising discussions on leadership and social capital, analysis of some success stories, putting Jamaica under the microscope, before rounding off with thoughts on KC’s contribution to Jamaica going forward. Perhaps by way of providing early insight on his thoughts on the leadership situation Jamaica, Prof. Wilson then made poignant recall of KC stalwart Sidney “Foggy” Burrowes once telling him: “The problem with Jamaica is there is a dearth of Big people in small places and an abundance of small people in Big places.” With this introduction, the 2012 Bishop Gibson Guest Lecturer had prepared his wicket for batting.
As he continued to play his shots, Wilson did not pull any punches in laying the blame for Jamaica’s underperformance in the quest for post-Independence development. He was quite forthright in stating that one of the weaknesses of Jamaican society since Independence has been the lack of extraordinary leadership. Extraordinary leaders, he noted, are capable of understanding the particularities of their society, defining the ills of the society and proposing solutions. Sadly, in Wilson’s opinion, Jamaica had not had the good fortune of being able to benefit – certainly not on any sustained basis - from extraordinary leadership.
Social capital, in Wilson’s view, is indispensable to the process of development. For the purposes of discussions pertinent to the lecture, Wilson chose to rely on Fukuyama’s assessment of social capital in the developmental process. Social capital à la Francis Fukuyama refers to a certain level of value consensus, trust, honest, family stability, etc. that is necessary if a society is going to be cohesive and contribute to development. Every society has some level of social deviance – the antithesis of social capital - but it becomes dangerous when social deviance exercises hegemony. This leads to decapitalisation, social disarray and the development process becomes more difficult. It is obvious to conclude that such a circumstance requires extraordinary leadership to chart and lead a path out of the abyss.
Prof. Wilson gave two examples of extraordinary leadership, viz.:
- China: Beginning in 1979, Deng Xiaoping developed and promoted a system connected to the particularity of China; it was centralised politically yet encouraged foreign direct investment (FDI) and entrepreneurship, renouncing the Maoist economy for a market-based one. As a result, within 30 years, China was transformed, becoming a world leader in economic growth. Today, China is a creditor nation, while the USA has moved in the opposite direction to be a debtor nation.
- Singapore: A small country with no abundance of resources, gained Independence in 1965. Like Jamaica, it was then described as a developing country. Its leader, Lee Kwan Yew, linked development of human capital to FDI while maintaining social capital. Under him, Singapore built an outstanding education system, emphasizing the importance of Mathematics, Science and Technology; and in the next 10 years, according to the predictions, Singapore’s will be the most outstanding education system in the world. In addition, ninety per cent (90%) of Singaporeans own their own homes; a social safety net is in place and both the family structure and body politic remain intact. Today, Singapore is defined as a developed country, occupying seventh position in the Human Development Index (HDI). Importantly, the system he put in place will continue to function after his passing.
In the case of China, Wilson was careful to point out that the transformation has been accompanied by some important negatives. The free market adoption has seen accelerated rural to urban migration, a widening wealth gap and a serious increase in property crime and other manifestations of social deviance.
On putting Jamaica under the development microscope, Prof. Wilson found that Jamaica can indeed take pride in several significant accomplishments achieved over the last 50 years. These include universal access to secondary school education, eighty-six per cent (86%) literacy, music and entertainment and track and field athletics dominance. Sadly, though, there have been too many failures, and these have outstripped the successes. Wilson pointed an admonishing finger at the poor outcomes of our high school system, identified by him as a failure which impacts the social order very negatively. This has resulted in Jamaica reaping a whirlwind of an enormous national debt, suffocated by the world’s slowest growing economy - a dilemma further exacerbated by the attainment of very high positions on the international rankings for homicide and extra judicial killings. Our alarming erosion of social capital is manifested in lack of trust, a brutish culture, the ubiquity of burglar bars on our buildings and the sordid beheadings that has marred our more recent history. These, Wilson lamented, are, indeed, great hurdles. How do we find extraordinary leadership (not just at the top), in order to rebuild social capital and create a more compassionate society?
Wilson presented Kingston College as a shining example in terms of building social capital. At its inception KC was fortunate to have Percival Gibson and Douglas Forrest to solidify its commitment to excellence. This culture of excellence and self-belief has provided the platform on which KC has continued to achieve greatness. This, Wilson noted, is a tremendous tribute to the staff. Critically, Gibson and Forrest saw great capital in building and developing a very strong second tier of leadership, which has provided the basis for continuity.
But how might KC contribute to alleviating the current development crisis in Jamaica? In addressing this question, Wilson turned first to citing the dignity of the KC students, who, he noted, function in an institution where a certain kind of behaviour is expected. The attention paid to maintaining this level of discipline and comportment is well worth the effort as this is actually an investment in social capital. Not just KC, but Jamaica as a country, stands to benefit here. In addition, the Fortis culture is one that has built a legacy of loyalty, dedication, the finest principles and a sense of achievement. Over the years, too, the Fortis fraternity has also led with great vision and displayed incredible innovativeness. Examples include the construction of a cricket nursery to hone skills, and being leaders in introducing modern training techniques in the Jamaican high school track and field programmes.
Prof. Wilson was very keen to highlight the critical role that innovation plays in development, and he sees this as pivotal in any serious effort at growing the economy and expanding the export market to take Jamaica out of the economic hole in which it finds itself. In a very direct address to the Sixth Formers present, Wilson pointed out that they have access to a wealth of knowledge, which equips them to play a major role in the development process. He exhorted them to be committed to building KC and the larger society. Painting KC as an oasis in the desert, Wilson challenged KC to see it as its mission – and one that KC should accept - to retract the desert. In closing, he noted that Sixth Formers are an educated elite who must take a scientific approach to inquiry and contribute to returning Jamaica to a wholesome society.
Professor Wilson’s formal presentation was preceded by notable contributions from Chairman of the Board of Governors, Professor Stephen Vasciannie; President of the Kingston College Old Boys Association (KCOBA), Dr. Ray Fraser; and Mr. Errol “Jiggs” Ennis, who introduced the Guest Lecturer.
In his welcoming remarks Dr. Fraser referred to the History of Kingston College by Anthony Johnson, making special mention of the fact that KC was founded in 1925 out of concern for the majority of Jamaicans who, at that time, had no Jamaican role models. Fraser paid tribute to founder and first headmaster Percival Gibson, who, Johnson wrote, “founded Kingston College as an institution which would produce men to tackle Jamaica’s problems through the thorough and systematic application of all the academic disciplines”. The topic of the 2012 Gibson Lecture was thus contextualized as most pertinent to KC’s raison d’être.
Professor Vasciannie, in his remarks, bemoaned the fact that KC is currently performing at an average level in academic affairs. He was very strident in stating his view that this was certainly not good enough and that it was essential that we make a concerted effort to improve those indices. He was equally clear in making the case that balance is important and that academic excellence can still be achieved at KC without a weakening in our prowess in sports. Vasciannie was very generous in his thanks to the KCOBA for hosting a series of lectures, including the Annual Bishop Gibson Lecture, and cited this as an initiative that provides balance.
Errol Ennis’s introduction of the Guest Lecturer provided much mirth as well as insight into the phylogenic begetting of the nickname “Bagga”. According to Ennis, “Bagga” is abbreviation for “bag of bones”, which was most apposite to a young Basil Wilson who had the temerity to turn out for the Manning Cup team. Ennis also drew much laughter when he, an erstwhile minister in a previous PNP government, expressed his great pleasure that his good friend Anthony Johnson – a former JLP senator and Jamaica’s High Commissioner to the UK during the recent JLP tenure in government – was back in Jamaica. (Unconfirmed rumour has it that Johnson then had a Sheridan moment, and, in response, was overheard muttering, "The gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts.") Still, Ennis did find the space to assume a serious posture when he called for the establishment at Kingston College of a Hall of Fame to encompass the various disciplines, so as to cherish the history of KC, while being a source of pride and encouragement to the aspirations of KC students.