"Dumas warns of social unrest in T&T."
—(Express front-page headline,
March 22, 1989)
"One would have expected maturity, balance and responsibility from someone at such a high level.... What we have (instead) received from Mr Dumas is a scenario of insecurity and disturbance.... A more obvious call for divisiveness and mutual dislike would be hard to find."
—(Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent, April 2, 1989)
"It didn't take Mr Reginald Dumas to tell us what we already know."
—(Correspondent, T and T Mirror, April 11, 1989, in reply to the SG Special Correspondent.)
"Now Dumas warns of social unrest."
—(Trinidad Guardian headline, May 9, 2012)
"The messages coming from Deosaran and Dumas are quite troubling. They are messengers of doom and gloom, sending out not-so-subliminal messages that they expect in time the people to riot and create chaos."
—(Trinidad Guardian web chat column, May 10, 2012)
"Reginald Dumas' comments have merit and are far from misleading as suggested by some commentators. If we continue to be afraid to speak out for fear of criticism, then corrective measures cannot be taken."
—(Trinidad Guardian web chat column, May 10, 2012)
Newspaper headlines apart, what did I actually say in 1989 and 2012?
On the first occasion, March 21, 1989, I was addressing a Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers' Association (TTMA) luncheon. I had only a few months earlier become permanent secretary to the prime minister and head of the Public Service, but made it clear at the beginning of my remarks that I would be speaking in my personal capacity. (The prime minister and I had previously agreed on this approach, so that the government could, if it wished, distance itself from anything I said. Not everyone appreciated and accepted the distinction.)
My theme that day was "Some issues in Public Service reform in Trinidad and Tobago". At the time , the government, with the private sector as its fervent cheerleader, was implementing a cost-reduction, revenue-raising policy which affected the entire population. In this context, it had introduced in the Public Service a voluntary termination of employment programme (VTEP), with the aim of downsizing the Service (confidently stated by its detractors to be 15,000 persons too many, though as I had already discovered, no one had ever bothered to carry out an exact, or even approximate, body count in the first place.)
In part, I told the TTMA that "reform must not mean merely reducing numbers in order to save money.... (T)hrowing large numbers of people into the street in mere furtherance of what is seen to be a cost-cutting exercise could lead to social unrest and a severe disruption of social services, including health and education, and political instability.... (E)conomic adjustment is not simply a matter of firing people".
I was of course clobbered for saying what I had; Special Correspondent was not alone. At least two Cabinet ministers called for my head (and perhaps other body parts as well). Conversely, I don't think I've ever received so many kudos and congratulations from ordinary people, not only public servants. I had clearly struck a chord. July 27, 1990 was yet to come.
Now, in May 2012, I was giving evidence before the 1990 commission of enquiry. The relevant part of my testimony reads: "(I)f people felt on a continuing basis that they had a continuing stake in the running and...development of the country, you would not be having all the protests we are having all over the place.... (The people) know they are not going to make the final decision but at least consult me.... How is it I have a point of view only when you want my vote? And if this foolishness, this absurd attitude to government and governance continues, which I see a continuation of in this Government from other governments in the past, if the absurdity continues, there may well be some difficulty that we would prefer not to have."
As you see, it was the newspaper, not I, that used the phrase "social unrest". But I was of course hinting in that direction. A major aspect of good governance is serious, continuing attention by a government to the opinions of the people. Unfortunately, administrations and their supporters, not only in the Caribbean, tend to see things differently: they rapidly come to believe that election or appointment to office gives them carte blanche to take decisions on behalf of the very people who were thought wise enough to put them there but not wise enough to think for themselves thereafter. Consultation and empathy, solemnly promised on the election platform, appear only spasmodically, if at all.
Thus, in 1989, I said I had not observed that any heed was being paid by the cost-cutters to the fate of terminated public servants; it was as if such persons were merely objects, the dispensable victims of a statistical offensive deemed obligatory. In 2012, I was being entirely consistent, criticising what has struck me as the same "absurd attitude (of non-consultation) to government and governance" as has characterised past governments.
I suppose that for the Government's camp followers, David Abdulah, too, is a "messenger of doom and gloom". I certainly don't wish to be a bearer of such news, and I cannot imagine that Abdulah thinks differently. But I say things as I see them. Unlike the ostrich, I confront the inconvenient, and these days, I perceive rising societal inconvenience. By all means, disagree with me; let's then talk and try to make T&T a better place. But for that to happen, the discussion must be on issues, not personalities. It must focus on the message, not the messenger. That is how we will make progress.
• Selwyn Ryan's column returns next week.