Friday, December 15, 2017

The making of a nation


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Part II

Last week I began a two-part series into what it means to be a nation, and questioned whether or not Trinidad and Tobago was heading toward greater unity or was falling apart at the seams. The stellar performance of our athletes at the London Olympic Games and the subsequent national euphoria and patriotism may be signs that buried deep in our psyche there is pride in our nation. This pride, however, cannot surface only during special occasions and when there is something to celebrate. It does, however, offer hope for our country and the promise of something better to come if we just work hard and put aside our differences.

The kind of nation we should be endeavouring to build should have at its core equality and social justice. Equality should be the guiding principle in everything we do. There needs to be equality in the distribution of resources. At present, too much money and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few, while many are left in abject poverty and hunger. There needs to be equality in opportunity in terms of access to education, health care, justice, etc. We are still living in a country where wealth buys one special treatment and access, and those who are most vulnerable and in need of help are given the least access to aid.

Education is an example of one such area, where our outdated curriculum and colonial-style education system produces very few brilliant students from middle-class and privileged backgrounds and, at the same time, neglects poorer students. In the educational sector, there is a glaring gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" and though there is "free education", there is an entire political, economic and cultural barrier to equal access.

Furthermore, our narrow education system, which relies on teaching students to take tests and not how to think and to explore their talents, fails many students who may be artistically inclined, etc, but are regarded as "dumb" since they fail verbal and numerical tests. An education system modelled along the Finnish system would be more suitable, where students are encouraged to develop individually and utilise their talents. This educational system has put the Finns at the top of international test scores, beating out all other nations.

Social justice should also form the backbone of the nation in which we wish to live. We are always told we need to achieve developed-nation status, but this a dangerous term and should not be the be-all and end-all. Material advancement is indeed a worthy goal, as it can have the spillover effect of better health care, better and more income distribution, rising standards of living, more consumer choice, etc. One can have all of these things, however, and live in a very selfish and unjust society.

We should instead strive to live in a just and caring society where, as we advance economically, we continue to care for each other. We should seek to develop a society where we use our wealth to fight poverty and abuse. We should aim to live in a society where no child goes hungry, where no elderly people are mistreated and where no pain and ill-treatment are meted out to animals.

We should seek to keep our humanity intact and create a nation where we help each other, and not look upon each other with suspicion or scorn. If we lose our capacity to care and to empathise, it does not matter how much money we have or how many tall buildings we put up; we would be poorer as a nation.

The Trinidad and Tobago that we need to build is one where true democratic power is held by the people, where it belongs, and politicians are made to account to the people. In such a nation the political class would be the servants of the populace and not rule us as slaves and plebs. It is neither utopian nor impossible for us to build such a political system. What it will take is much more than constitutional reform. It requires an active and aware populace who are willing and ready to hold the politicians to account and, if need be, bring down government after government until we get the right one.

These are just a few sketches of the nation that we should try to build as we reflect on 50 years of Independence. So far we have done a half-decent job. There is still too much division between the two major races, fostered and exploited by unscrupulous people. There is still too much selfishness in our nation and, of course, there is still too much crime.

But remember, crime does not exist in a vacuum and it may be that the crime we are being plagued with now is the fruit of seeds that were sown decades ago.

There are of course economic and social dimensions of crime that need to be addressed and corrected. There are also cultural and social factors that must be grappled with. Our nation has had too many negative experiences with hyper-sexuality, aggression, domestic violence, child abuse, alcohol abuse and a culture of silence. These are powerful forces and issues that are debilitating and often are the cause of violence and even more crime.

Building a nation is not an easy task. The liberal, progressive nations of Western Europe were born out of war and bloodbaths and formed after the deaths of millions. Our twin-island nation was formed by exploited peoples who were yanked from their homes and cast into slavery and servitude. We should look to build a nation that does justice to our ancestors, that secures a good future for our children, one where everyone is equal, where "every creed and race find an equal race".

• Rajiv Gopie won the President's

Medal in 2006 for business/modern

studies. He is an MSc candidate in

international relations at the

London School of Economics.