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Revisiting Corruption

By Selwyn Ryan

 High Court Judge, Mr Frank Seepersad, recently told Rotarians in Penal that corruption is becoming more pervasive and embedded in our social and institutional fabric. 

Notwithstanding the promise made by the Prime Minister to deal unequivocally with the problem wherever it reared its head, the impression we get is that the social disease continues to flourish unchecked. Justice Rampersad sees a link between galloping corruption and the national scramble for quick wealth. As he told his audience, “In our quest, greed and desire to acquire individual wealth, we have compromised our principles, and this has resulted in a culture that accepts corruption. The outcome is that every facet of the fabric of our national life seems to be tattered. Allegations of impropriety in public life are rife  and a general sense of lawlessness prevails.”

One question that our society needs to answer urgently is whether there is more  grand corruption (as opposed to petty corruption which will always be with us) now than there was during the PNM years, and if so, what is responsible for the increase?  

Is it that the media is more vigilant, polemical, investigative,  aggressive, ubiquitous and more sophisticated? Has the new media served to bring civil society into the maw of corruption more readily than was the case before. The media are indeed more inquisitorial, but other factors are at work. Ethnic and cultural factors are also very much at work. Many supporters of the People’s Partnership assert that there is a great deal less corruption under the present administration than there was under the PNM. Supporters of the PNM believe otherwise.

Among the sharpest critics of the People’s Partnership on this issue is the leader of the Independent  Liberal Party  and former minister of national security, Jack Warner, who has himself been accused of gross impropriety. Warner wrote the Prime Minister an open letter  in which he told her that her Government was corrupt. To quote him: “Your Government is perceived as the most corrupt ever in the political history of Trinidad and Tobago. Your Government is perceived as the most immoral. 

The cabal in your Government is perceived as vulgar; your Ministers lack integrity and while the promise that all would rise seemed to have been genuinely intended, the reality is that whether by design or error, you have permitted a gang to rape our Treasury.” Remarkably, Warner claimed to have witnessed meetings taking place after a political meeting in Fyzabad between the Prime Minister alone and contractors and to have photographic evidence of such activities. Presumably, the PM was seeking campaign funds.

Many would regard these allegations as ironic, since  Warner himself has been accused of having been involved in similar activities. Was the pot calling the kettle black? Incredibly, he  claimed that he only became aware of these activities  after he left the Government. To quote him: I did not know then what I know now. That is what pains me with Dookeran and Ramadhar because they know now, but choose to stay there and take that stench even today. I blame them for that.

Warner knowingly warned voters that corruption is linked to campaign financing. 

“If we as a nation fail to address the problem of corruption, sooner rather than later we will be selecting governments whose loyalty would no longer be to citizens who elected them, but rather to the donors who provided financing to their party. The party who provided food to feed the ground will stand a better chance of winning the elections.”

Party politics and the costs of campaigning are not the only or even the main factors responsible for the growth of the corruption phenomenon.There are many exogenous and endogenous explanations for what is being witnessed. One is that the new global  economic order has made it  much easier to move money around electronically. Corruption thus finds it easier to become a global default norm. Some analysts however believe that such a  claim is much too wide, and that there are many exceptions are to be found in Scandinavia, Singapore, Indonesia, Barbados and a few other places. 

Yet another controversial view is that there is in fact no more corruption now than  was evident when the PNM was in office and that the various ethnic groups merely see each other’s behaviour differently.  What we have, therefore, is a perception that things have changed for the worse. The argument is that in Trinidad and Tobago the various ethnic groups see what is going on through ethnic lens. The two “creole” groups see more corruption  than actually exists because they are no longer the principal beneficiaries of the state generated patronage   which they once controlled. 

That hegemony has passed. What is at issue then is that they actually see more and not that there actually is more. When newly empowered ethnic groups come to power, and begin to craze ostentatiously, they are seen as outsiders, pariahs, and are scapegoated. The scapegoat is seen as being the demonised target group for all that defames the society. 

All of the triggers indicated above are relevant. My own opinion is that the incidence is   much worse now than it ever has been, and that a complex of factors is responsible. I share the widely held view that there is a change in the ethnic power structure and that the Indo-Trinidadian group is taking full advantage of the investment and other opportunities available as is their entitlement. The Hindus in particular are culturally driven to the accumulation of  wealth and a concurrent  obligation to look after kin and persons with whom they may be in a praja (reciprocal) relationship.

What serves to augment what is taking place is that the Indo business elite already had in place the experience and the platforms to operationalise business opportunity. They  also have  better entrepreneurial skill sets for doing trade and commerce and are thus better positioned to grab the many opportunities, (old and new) that have become available in the state owned sector. They are also facilitated by a regime which desperately wants their supporters to get ahead and thus is rarely critical of entrepreneurial promiscuity.

Questions have arisen as to whether the Prime Minister is herself doing much to deal with the exhaust that emerges from this free-for-all scramble. The widespread view is that she is not doing enough. My own view is that even if she was trying harder, her success rate would not have been much higher. 

Cabal or no cabal, the social and cultural  forces working against the creation of a  “republic of virtue” are much too concentrated and too powerful. The Institutional forces and fabric  are too weak and uncoordinated. Realistically, they can’t prevail, at least not in the short run.

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