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Changing the face of power

By Raffique Shah

SOMETIMES the eternal optimist in me is severely challenged by a nagging pessimism in my mind, and I ask myself, is there any hope that this country would become the paradise so many think it could be, or are we condemned to the purgatory of mediocrity or worse? The thought that we might remain trapped in the netherworld of the latter depresses me.

It is said that a people get the government they deserve. If that's a truism, then the people of this country have been a cussed lot, or plain stupid, for a damn long time. Think about it: if we were honest, we would admit that we have criticised or condemned every government, from Dr Eric Williams and the PNM in 1956 to Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her People's Partnership administration that holds office fifty-six years later.

Bear in mind that during that half-century, it was we the people, or at least the majority of us, who voted one party or other, or combination of parties, into office. We did it with our eyes wide open. Thus far, our democracy has held good to the extent that no one can claim that he or she voted under duress. And while there have been allegations of gerrymandering, our elections have been free and fair.

Why we voted in particular ways, I suggest, was based on subjunctive considerations. Many fell for the charisma, the oratory of leaders. Many more were motivated primarily by race, a factor that has been most dominant for however many years, even as we proclaimed, "All ah we is one family". Others were wooed by survival: if dey win, ah go get ah ten-days, or mih chile go get in de police or de army. And an increasing number, members of the "eat ah food" assault force, are driven by pure greed, since mostly they are well off, but they would do anything to fare even better.

Few voters ever bother to read parties' policies and programmes, or their manifestos. They however pay close attention to platform promises, especially those that might bring monetary rewards to sections of the electorate. In essence, we vote on the basis of self-interest rather than the national interest. To put it crudely, most of us, politicians and voters, are political whores: we sell our votes for personal or group aggrandisement, never for what is best in the national interest, if that is at all on offer.

Which is why, for all the resources this country is endowed with, we lag behind others less fortunate than us, and signally, we have failed to achieve anything close to our full potential. I never envisaged Trinidad and Tobago as the Singapore of the West, certainly not driven to material success under the yoke of draconian laws by a people devoid of cultural mores. That said, I strongly believe that with good, visionary leadership, we could have achieved far, far more than we have done since we were granted self-government.

The rampant lawlessness that has become part of our culture did not happen overnight. Oh, we always had deviants and criminals in the society; but they were miniscule, outcasts in their own communities and contained by the watchful eyes of the law (yes, the police once enjoyed community support, hence "eyes").

Over the years, under the watch of our eminent leaders, lawlessness was tolerated, even encouraged. Today it straddles all strata of society, from the enclaves of the wealthy through the nation's schools, from ghettoes to Parliament. We voted for that, over and again.

There is no work ethic in this country—among managers, menial labourers and everything in-between. The few diligent workers in the system must feel like aliens or traitors that their "regular" colleagues brand them. Why work for pay when the government will pay you not to work? "Larhaying" is embedded in our psyche and "lochos" abound in the society. I have long argued that if 75 per cent of our people maintain a productivity level of 75 per cent of their capacity, we would leap past Singapore and similar success stories. But say what? We voted for that.

High officials and politicians have always stolen from the public purse. All that has changed from the "Lockjoint" era is that the thieves have grown bolder, the loot got bigger, and their safety net more secure. Covered in and by the cloak of officialdom, they must have stolen 10 to 20 per cent of GDP over 50 years on independence. You try to work out that sum because you voted for that.

Under the guise of democracy, we have given near-dictatorial powers to prime ministers and cabinets to rub it in our faces. Our only right is to vote them in or out once every five years. What happens in-between is their business, not ours. Instead of insisting on radically reviewing the constitutions that have imposed on us slavery-light, we praise the damn documents, hold them as models others should emulate. So we elect maximum leaders and dictators who preside over eunuchs that carry ministerial titles, and together they shaft us...and all we do is march, or mark time, until the opportunity arises to install and empower a new Caesar. We look for that.

I know all the ills and evils I have noted above, and hundreds more, apply to or exist in most countries. I am not looking for the perfect society—that is an elusive dream. What I expect is that my fellow citizens would realise as much as the politicians, we have been part of the problem. We have helped create this unholy mess. Now, we must be part of the solution. We must change not just the faces in power, but more powerfully, the face of power.

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