Our smallness could have been a definite advantage. We had the conditions and resources to create one of the best societies on earth. But we never defined what “best” ought to mean for us. Instead, our leaders imitated development, destroying uniqueness and heritage, employing a paradigm that never led to self-discovery and empowerment but instead shackled a nation that was brimming with possibility at Independence.
So 52 years later, it is no accident that it took the shameless profiteering, the despicable piracy of First Citizens shares, to bring recognition of the utterly anomalous situation that produced it. A clear conflict of interest was allowed to hide in open daylight until its corrupt fruit revealed how still unprepared we are for governing ourselves.
Not having defined development, we honed no instrument for shaping our society. We never discerned our purpose and so never understood the role of government in our sovereign democracy. Again leaders mimicked, never even going to the fundamentals to appreciate that the sole purpose of government is to create the economic, social and physical infrastructure for efficiency, creativity and productivity in the society; with the state then moving out of the way to let the people pursue their individual dreams and in the process contribute to the stability and sustainability of the country.
With the devoted application of that single concept, we would have been so beautiful and free, creative and certain, capable and responsible. We would have become a true society instead of a country of sectors within sectors with no community, no nationhood. We would never have allowed the country to deteriorate, lacking coherence after 50 years.
But we took the wrong route. Imitating from the start, we grew a bureaucracy outlandishly huge for this small nation. We created a system wasteful and inefficient and which suffocated individual initiative. Worst of all, it created a dependence on political masters who were obsessed with power and the opportunities for adulation and their enrichment.
Unsurprisingly, few politicians have been committed to reducing the size of government and liberating the power of the people. And so habituated has become the citizenry to the status quo that even today, after many decades of an increasingly discredited political class, we keep looking for the leader as deliverer, not knowing we must fashion a system that makes us our own deliverance.
The result is that after 50 years and endless billions of dollars, government remains the problem rather than the solution to the fullest possible development of Trinidad and Tobago. This country is nowhere near its full potential, our people nowhere near their power and glory. Indeed the enlightened see the precipice nearing all the time.
Yet possibilities still abound. Our citizens keep striving and achieving. The majority of the people are disciplined, productive in their homes, jobs and places of learning, heroic in their sacrifices to measure up to the responsibilities that life has allotted. It is they who keep this society afloat, but they are the ones constantly cheated by a system that denies them genuine opportunity for fulfilment.
They constitute the bulwark of stability in this society, pushing the country forward. Think what a great nation this could be if these people are allowed to always do their best in their several spheres. Think of the leap in productivity and creativity. But impediments persist in their path, from failed policies to wastage and thievery; traffic jams and bureaucracy; lawlessness, incompetencies and inadequate public-service delivery; all and more preventing the flowering of the people and the glory of the nation.
Therefore instead of reaching for greatness, we have had a steady decline in civilised living in this country since Independence. Life has become increasingly harsh; society more disjointed. People know something is terribly wrong, that this place is not really working as it should; that love and neighbourliness are diminishing; justice disappearing in the courts, the law, economy and the availability of opportunity.
It is now quaint to talk of service or inner fulfilment. You must be greedy, gung-ho and materialistic. But yet the country has not been delivering for large sections of the population at the middle and lower levels. It is a constant struggle for the vast majority, who see the few creaming off everything at the top and almost always through corrupt means.
Corruption constitutes acute psychological violence on this nation and its people. There is a deep inner hurt, accompanied by a desperation to get ahead in a society that does not protect you and where the future is dim. A grimness grows, carved huge in the facelessness of the urban landscape.
Politics worsens the national plight, keeping the nation in elementariness while the people want to emerge as they demonstrated in 1986 and 2010. But our politicians always fail to heed when the people lead.
The glory of Trinidad and Tobago has been undoubtedly denied. All we needed to do was develop a caring, compassionate culture in this country; to have the civilising influence of a society refined in tastes, values, ideals and aspirations, where there is justice and equality, care for the downtrodden and the infirm, careful nurturing of the children, protection of history and heritage so we are able to draw inspiration from the heroic struggles of our forebears.
As I write, I remember Nicholas Seucharan, 26 years old, who gave his life trying to save two children whom he did not even know and who were drowning at Mayaro last Carnival Monday. The children were saved, but Nicholas swallowed a lot of water and collapsed. I never knew him, but he will remain a symbol of the glory of which we remain capable as individuals and society.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former cabinet minister.