Fly flag at half-mast

By Raffique Shah
September 5, 2018

Raffique ShahIf I’d had a national flag that I hoisted on important occasions, I would have been sorely tempted to fly it at half-mast on Independence Day last Friday.

I don’t own one, so the temptation to display my shame over our inability to attain some achievements during 56 years of nationhood did not arise. I must confess though that the major electricity outage that struck large parts of Central Trinidad just when the military parade got underway relieved me of rendering my patriotic duty that has been an annual ritual for as far back as I can recall.

The most recent insult to our dignity was the announcement by Government that it had decided to shut down the Petrotrin oil refinery because it is no longer a viable enterprise. I cannot imagine Trinidad and Tobago, which has been in the oil industry longer than most countries in the world, and which once boasted of having the biggest oil refinery in the British Commonwealth (it processed as many as 355,000 barrels of oil per day), being without that mass of steel tanks, hissing contraptions spewing steam, gas flares lighting up the landscape, and that smell of petroleum assaulting the olfactory senses as generations of nationals and visitors drove through the refinery en route to the south-west of the country.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that if the principal stakeholders could not agree on measures to restore the refinery to profitability, then “shut the damn thing down”, I didn’t think they would take my prescription literally. But they have. In so doing, they will spend more billions of dollars in generous “separation packages” for the said managers and other employees who brought the behemoth to ruin.

And in rewarding recklessness, corruption and laziness, they leave us citizens burdened by an additional $15 billion-or-more in debt, and a number of petroleum plants that would deteriorate rapidly when not in use.

That singular act of stupidity warrants weeks of national mourning, hence my inclination to fly the flag at half-mast or no mast at all. I can’t recall experiencing such overwhelming shame in my life.

What angers me is that besides being a pioneer in the petroleum business, this country’s finest technological minds were able to persuade the politicians in government to venture into the then uncharted waters of petrochemicals, blazing an exemplary, not to add very profitable trail in the production of ammonia, urea, methanol and liquefied natural gas. Up to a few years ago, T&T was the global leader in exporting ammonia and methanol. And we all but taught Qatar and Australia the science and economics of LNG.

All of these sterling achievements we can boast of, but we could not get a relatively simple oil refinery right. Every plant upgrade, from the gas-optimisation plant to the ultra-low-sulphur diesel complex and the gas-to-liquids plant experienced massive cost overruns that reeked of gross mismanagement if not outright corruption, and timelines that were incomprehensible. And not a single culprit has been held accountable.

In China, hundreds of them, from thieving managers and contractors to complicit workers would be held in dank dungeons wearing leg-irons and eating from and defecating in slop pails.

Here, they are rewarded, promoted, or retired in relative luxury.

At the very least, all of them who brought such shame to the nation in our 56th year of independence should be formed up in front of the refinery and shot—with “goat pills”!

Look, I am not among the nihilists who moan and gripe that we have not achieved anything since independence, that we are the worst country in the world, and so on.

They who don’t know their history might be surprised to learn that fewer than 20 percent of secondary-school-age students enjoyed free education in 1962: mostly, parents paid for their often bright children to attain “O” and “A-level” schooling. Free secondary education was one of the legacies of Dr Eric Williams as the country’s first prime minister.

When the first “oil shock” triggered windfall revenues from 1973, secondary schools mushroomed across the country. State housing settlements sprung up, private housing estates emerged with government-led low-interest mortgage-financing facilities. Primary health care facilities were established or upgraded. There were improvements in electricity and potable water supplies, the former more successfully than the latter. And one can only try to imagine North-South commuting before what are now the Butler and Hochoy highways, and the dualling of other main arteries in the East-West corridor.

Of course not everything worked according to plan, and in pursuing lofty goals, Dr Williams sowed the seeds of some of the worst social and economic maladies that would haunt modern T&T with a vengeance. Corruption ballooned from the favoured few to “all ah we t’ief”, the work ethic of colonial times all but collapsed, the dependency syndrome expanded to include all classes (think fuel subsidy), crime grew exponentially, from being endemic to epidemic proportions…shall I continue?

But for all our problems, we can be thankful for some mercies: there are still many decent human beings in the country, people who are kind, generous and patriotic. More than that, we know we have evolved when the divisive few have failed to trigger racial or religious wars in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

If only for that, we can take a bow. Then go outside, gather “goat pills” and prepare to fire on those who have misled Petrotrin into ruin.

12 Responses to “Fly flag at half-mast”


  • i was expecting, ex military that you are, some mention of the the small but important role of the refinery during WW2.

  • I concur with your submission Raff and although Eric Williams stated money is no problem then, today Rowley is stating money is a problem now. With respect to the crime rate we are currently confronted with, are the bandits more productive than we; sweating in the daily labour market?

    I saw a comprehensive article by Wayne Kublalsingh who gave a synopsis on some of our problems transportation (re-trains), Caroni (1975) Ltd. etc. and he put forward a suggestion with regards to PETROTRIN:
    “A 30% cut in salaries across the board, for those collectively responsible: the Cabinet and Parliament, the board, the executive, the managers, the union. This is a patriot tax, enforceable until all current debts are paid off. Government must acknowledge its historical and abysmal failures.”
    Thought provoking would you say from a man who was on hunger strike for a worthy cause?

  • In a column in the Guardian, Hamid Ghany on Sept 2, 2018, claimed that the PNM was “ending the Williams model” by closing Petrotrin. Many are asking for a public debate on the closure of Petrotrin but such a debate should address the fundamental issues and not be just politicking and using this issue to advance their political cause. Some have seen the Rowley plan as a mere exercise in bookkeeping, as a neo-liberal prescription as David Abdullah puts it where the concerns are with the profit margins and not with the broader socio-economic issues. The “Williams model” as Ghany calls it, was a widespread global model for development at that time – the government should occupy the commanding heights of the economy and place priority on development (for example the industrial sector, infrastructure, education, etc.); the private sector would not carry out those tasks, it would be unprofitable for them to do so. But we should acknowledge ending the “Williams model” was carried out by the NAR government in 1986, where the IMF and the Washington Consensus and the NAR’s own economic program forced the government to move away from occupying the commanding heights to being a facilitator of business. It was the NAR who did this, a party made up of the same forces that we see trying to align themselves together today – the unions, the ancestors of the UNC, and particular corporate media. The reason for this is that the NAR was a conglomeration of particular interests rather than a party of national interest. The demise of the NAR showed this. We have the same conglomeration of particular interests aligning themselves together today against the national interest. So let us indeed have a public debate, but let us deal rationally with the fundamental issues and ask ourselves what economic ideology should carry the day when dealing with Petrotrin. Because our actions vis a vis Petrotrin would be informed by that economic ideology.

  • Lt Shah your article is spot on. Trinidadiand and Tobagonians has destroyed all the institutions, companies which were left when the colonial master left. (WASA,Train company, Caroni LTD, T&TEC, Police Service,etc) I remember clearly when the OWTU painted a football with TEXACO had its workers kick the ball around. We are incapable of managing anything as shown with the state of the most valuable company in Trinidad; Petrotrin. When the British left the people who took over placed themselves as the new masters, living in the homes of the expatriates, taking salaries and perks equal to and even more than the British technocrats. However these new masters were not willing and ready to manage these industries but to live high. Trinidad’s problem arise from dishonest politicians, trade unionist, managers and to a lesser extent workers. Everyone want to ride the gravy train. I had the fortunate (or unfortunate) experience of heading a state enterprise which was the worst time in my managerial life. The new norm in Trinidad is for workers to arrive at work and to have breakfast or go out to buy breakfast before they begin their daily work. Managers cruising in one to two hours after official office hours. Unions obstructing management in carrying out its function. There is also a major problem in the appointment of Directors. Many directors do not know their roles and responsibilities and in some cases are incompetent. These directors seem to think that they are appointed to run the day to day affairs of the companies. Harass the CEO and in come cases undermine the authority of the CEO. Nothing gets achieved but money being spent. I have had meetings with several managers of Petrotrin and I must say they were very weak and sounded as though they did not have a clue of the subject being discussed. I can go on and on about the lack of commitment and skills of the manager of these companies. Well the gravy train has ended and the high paying workers of Petrotrin must accept reality and live as the normal Trinidadian.

  • Unions in Trinidad and Tobago are a peculiar species. Around the world membership in Unions is falling, in T&T the trend continues. The peculiar thing about T&T unions is that they are comprised mostly of workers employed the state. OWTU, WASA, Port Authority, Teachers Union, etc., their employer is mostly the state. There are hundreds of thousands of workers in T&T who work for private companies, they are generally not unionized, their wages (and I am not talking about the managerial level) are much lower than the members of the big state unions such as OWTU, WASA etc. I am sure that you have never heard the big unions fighting on behalf of workers of private companies, and yet you would think that unions should see a connection with all workers, with the working class. Not here in T&T. What we have is the big money salaries of the big government employee unions and the small money salaries of the private industries (think of the service industries for example). So the enemy of the big unions is the state, the government, they must put pressure of all kinds on the government so that they can maximize their wages, even to the detriment of the national interest. You never see unions putting pressure on big business; in fact they are in collusion with big business against the common enemy – the government. You never see the big unions agitating on behalf of the small man working in private business. So the peculiarity of T&T unions is that they have no connection to the thousands of working class people in private business, they are never fighting for them; instead they continually put pressure on the government, to maximize their salaries without a thought for the hundreds of thousands of working class people in private companies. That is why they can collude with big business and political parties that are essentially pro-big business. That’s the peculiarity of unions in T&T.

  • The debt is due next year. Rowley don’t want to go to the IMF. So in order to borrow money on the open market he needs to keep the credit rating up or the interest on borrowing go be high. If we can’t afford private market interest rate, we go face IMF. What options allyuh have for Rowley?

  • I think that there is a big difference between “what we want” and “what we get”. What we want is a well oiled infrastructural design of governance to manage national affairs, border security, national debt, management of our welfare system and a good economic system of handling our economic affairs. There is hardly any dissent in wanting to attain such a state of affairs.
    The question of how “do we get there?” is where failure begins and continue into perpetuity. We are a people who “like to have things – our way”. While we understand the word “change”, it takes on personal, racial, ethnic and habitual behaviors to implement it and that is why “failure” becomes more of a likely outcome than “progress”.

    It can be well noted that the colonial masters left us an infrastructure that worked very well under their leadership. BUT in order for that infrastructure to work under local leadership, there must be tenets of understanding what progress means and how we go about in achieving the goals we need IN ORDER TO MAKE PROGRESS IN OUR SOCIETY. Our failures lie in the fact that we are NOT an enlightened society. CHANGE is a fixture that each and everyone of us should be programmed to understand and accept.
    BUT the stumbling block of race, ethnicity, religion, class, politics and wealth lie as the factors that will PREVENT us from moving forward to forming basic tenets of societal developments.

    Infrastructural changes must respond to changing times, habits, technology and needs but our behavior leads us to want to “keep a good thing going as long as it fits our personal needs”. Yes, the refinery stands as one of our great institutions of economic development. The question is “what have we done to keep it economically viable and productive?”. Our politics made sure that we always “forget” how to be relevant and productive. So the arguments that government is wrong to close down the refinery is shallow at best, because the times in which we live and compete does not give is the edge in competing internationally. Labour is one of our worst characteristics. How we produce anything is too costly. We want to have more holidays and fete than any other country in the world. We put in less hours and efforts into the products we want to sell, yet we want competitive returns. WE LIVE IN COMPETITIVE TIMES AND WE MUST BE MATURE ON HOW WE WANT TO GO FORWARD IN PROMOTING WHAT WE HAVE. If we don’t heed the inevitable changes we WILL ALWAys be left behind.

  • Kian——You are SPOT ON. One of the First Balance posting that I have read, in some time. But, really, Who are you talking too.? If one speak to someone, that their Head is in 1930/40.And Body in 2018. You have a problem. And that is related to MOST Trinis.

    • Interesting comment which defines Rowley inviting Padmore who is 86yrs. old to throw his hat in the ring for Education Officer of the Party. The youth of yesterday is still considered the youth of today! Failure of leadership – I would say or ‘change’ interchanges easily with ‘progress.’

  • BUT the stumbling block of race, ethnicity, religion, class, politics and wealth lie as the factors that will PREVENT us from moving forward to forming basic tenets of societal developments.(KIAN)

    Since the PNM has been in power in T&T for almost all of the years since Independence, thank you for admitting that their politics is a major stumbling block to the development of T&T.
    The major stumbling block however, was not mentioned in your well written and accurate account of the affairs of the nation. That stumbling block is INCOMPETENCE at every level. And what we are experiencing today is one stumbling block after the next. Just look at the ferry fiasco as one example.
    I am hoping that the closing of Petrotrin is just a threat which would result in breaking the union to accept lower wages. The ripple effects of closing Petrotrin would have disastrous consequences for the South in particular, as well as throughout the island. No sensible leader would make this decision without exploring a multitude of alternatives including serious consultations with the union.

  • “No sensible leader would make this decision without exploring a multitude of alternatives including serious consultations with the union.” …..TMan

    While there is some plausibility in that statement, it does not in itself amount to much without the Unions acceding to some degree of responsibility and willingness to add contributory economic incentives for growth. The Unions have no MONEY to invest in the future of Petrotrin. They have NO EXPERTISE to surrender to a brighter future of Petrotrin. They offer no experience in solving the problems of Petrotrin. They have no assets to withstand the tide of a retrofitted Petrotrin. They only offer one concession – they workers they represent. Business does not exist without capital, expertise, re-investment, know-how, commitment and proper staffing. The idea that Petrotrin is a fixture, that will naturally provide the nation with the desired income, regardless of how it is managed and staffed is a misguided fallacy. While communications with the unions is important for stability, it is NOT necessary if that is all the unions offer.

    I wish to emphasize my point of ‘change’ by stating (or re-stating) that ‘change’ requires studied accounts of ‘how will it affect me/we/us/them’. When we follow trends in place of change we are doing a disservice to ourselves and the nation as a whole.
    Most of what we respond to is ‘trends’ in the name of change. When you respond to trends, we are in effect operating not to our needs but to that of the trend-setters. Petrotrin is a dinosaur in terms of how well the up-keep and management of the institution has fared throughout the years (especially under local management). We have not kept up with refinery technology since the British left us, nor have we used technological management to our advantage. What we are left with today is a high payroll, expensive executive management staffing, heavy debts, old equipments, loaded pension commitments and after all this – low productivity. How can we defend this?

    It is unfortunate when all people can see is politics in the decision to close, when reality deserves a better understanding of the situation. In view of the aforesaid, it is my contention that closing the refinery and re-designing a more cost-effective approach to refining the oil is to our advantage, than allowing the failing system to continue.

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