MANY years ago, when I was a student at UWI in Jamaica, there were widespread and often violent conflicts throughout the country largely due to intense political rivalry. On one side there was the People’s National Party led by the charismatic Michael Manley and the other, the Jamaica Labour Party led by Edward Seaga. The violence became so severe that even the great Bob Marley fell victim when he was shot at his home on Hope Road in Kingston. He eventually fled the country but returned triumphantly for a marvellous performance at the famous One Love Peace Concert in the National Stadium. Unfortunately “tribal war inna Babylon” resurfaced after the concert, fuelled by a potent mix of gangs, guns and drugs.
The cleavage was deep and everyone was expected to pick a side, even non-Jamaicans. Despite pleading that I was from Trinidad and Tobago and could not vote, the question was still asked on campus, “Trini, wha’ you defend?” There was also the clash of ideologies, Manley’s Democratic Socialism versus Seaga’s free-market capitalism and you were asked to choose or “defend” a political philosophy. A broader interpretation of the question was, “Trini, what do you stand for?”
A similar question is relevant to us in T&T today. What values and principles do we defend? Do we stand for honesty and integrity or do we believe that anything goes and corruption is no big thing? Do we believe that public officials must adhere to high ethical standards or do we think that they should be allowed to “t’ief” once we are getting a piece of the action?
Do we believe in social justice and that all citizens regardless of race or economic circumstances are entitled to equality before the law? Do we believe in a meritocracy or do we think that friends, family and supporters must always get preference and that expertise and competence are irrelevant. The recent upheaval at CAL underscores the heavy price taxpayers pay when cronyism takes precedence.
And what about crime? Do we understand that the drug trade and money laundering are aided and abetted by powerful forces in both the public and private sectors? And do we believe that these “big fish” should be caught and held accountable for their illegal activities? In an Express article earlier this year attorney David West, a certified anti-money laundering specialist, indicated that white collar crime remains “unchecked”.
According to the article, West believed that “money laundering is fuelling the increase in crime and that the increase in criminality must be looked at from the perspectives of white-collar crime as well”. He emphasised that ”it is not just about the poor man in Laventille with a gun but about the money laundering which is taking place”. It seems that VS Naipaul’s description of T&T as a “picaroon society” may be even more valid today than at the time of writing.
A picaroon society not only provides a safe haven for conmen and thieves but it often gives them celebrity status and elevates them to positions of authority and public acclaim.
And what about sport and culture and the achievements of our musicians, artistes, writers, sportsmen and women? Do we truly value their talent or do we only provide token support and dismiss their contribution to society?
Do we understand their role in national development and the possibilities for greatness they represent? In a previous article I referred to a recent speech by Raf Robertson , one of the country’s outstanding musicians. His words are worth repeating.... “we don’t know how great we can be because we are drowning in a sea of mediocrity”. In a few simple words Robertson’s keen insight and creative mind have vividly captured our current dilemma. There are indeed great possibilities and tremendous potential but these are stymied by the easy acceptance of poor performance and a warped sense of right and wrong.
President Carmona delivered a simple message during his inaugural address when he said ”do the right thing because it is the right thing to do”. Some may consider it a naive statement that ignores the reality of life in the 21st century. After all politics now has “a morality of its own”. But the President has a point and when you listen to the convoluted explanations given by persons who have been publicly accused of wrongdoing it is clear that they knew right from wrong and simply refused to “do the right thing”.
Just recently an Express article highlighted a speech by Justice Frank Seepersad at the 20th anniversary of the Princes Town Rotary Club. The learned judge told his audience, “as a people our moral compass seems to be badly broken, there is no respect for life, for property. We no longer operate as we have been, there seems to be no longer a clear divide between what is right and wrong.” Justice Seepersad continued, “the time has come when we must stand up, when we must address where we are and determine our future plans for ourselves and for our children”.
Meanwhile T&T continues to sail further and further into uncharted waters, buffeted by waves of greed, social injustice and “smartmanism’’. It may be difficult to navigate successfully through the murky waters but it is not impossible. It requires courage and our safe passage begins with an answer to the question.... “Trini, wha’ you defend?”
• Richard Braithwaite is a