By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 20, 2019
One cannot help but be amazed by the indigestible piffle that emanates from the mouths of our politicians when they speak about issues concerning the society. We hear their speeches and read their statements, yet we wonder if they understand what they are saying and the implications of their actions.
Take, for example, the prime minister’s response to the concern that most of the students who were selected for the national mentorship program in energy are Indo-Trinidadians. After fierce criticism about this imbalance, he replied with self-evident pride: “I initiated this program by sending out personnel to find our national scholars…trained in areas of expertise useful to the Ministry of Energy. We decided that those who had done extremely well, with first class honors, should be gathered to rebuild the pool of expertise in the ministry and enable the country to cope with the requirements of the energy sector….
“There were 35 young people at that function….Thirty-three of them were Indo-Trinidadians. That didn’t make the news. In fact, people looking from the outside would have thought that we ignored Afro-Trinidadians.”
Why was the PM happy with that picture? “Indo-Trinidadians can mount no successful argument of ethnic under-representation or of being discriminated against on any sector of the society since the factual evidence is to the contrary….Given that recruitment is done on the basis of education and entrepreneurship, Afro-Trinidadians need to do some more introspection” (Express, September 8).
Such statements, coming from an Afro-Trinbagonian prime minister, elected primarily by Afro-Trinbagonians presumably to advance their well-being, deserve closer scrutiny since the selection committee ignored Afro-Trinidadians.
First. The classification system upon which the PM based his judgment is deeply flawed. It speaks largely to a student’s academic achievements “under examination conditions” rather than an unambiguous demonstration of his or her depth of knowledge and original thinking. The difference between First-Class honors (70 percent or higher) is only a percentage point from second-class honors (60 to 69 percent).
Many academics question the reliability of making major educational decisions upon this minuscule difference in grade points. Kat Lay, a correspondent at the London Times, reported: “First class honours from Cambridge [University] could become a thing of the past as the university considers an overhaul of its degree classifications.”
She continued: “Graham Virgo, pro-vice-chancellor at Cambridge, said the university was looking at alternatives to the ‘blunt tool’ of the classification system.” Professor Virgo said that the review was prompted by the fact “that a largely binary classification system does not reflect the range of academic performance.” (The Times, London, January 29, 2018.)
The classification system that differentiates between first- and second-class honors does not tell us everything we need to know about a student’s academic ability to perform and his/her capacity to make future contributions to his or her field of endeavor. The PM should not be so infatuated with “first-class” honors, since many other factors should be considered when one tries to gauge a student’s capacity to perform in future educational or employment activities.
Second. The fear of Indo-Trinidadians saying that the government is racist should not be a major rationale for selecting students to participate in one of our most vital economic industries. Students should be selected on three major considerations: how well it allows us to achieve our economic objectives, develop a balanced workforce, and conduce to social harmony. It is not socially desirable for 90 percent of our physicians to be Indo- or Afro-Trinbagonians no matter how good they are.
Placing Indo-Trinidadians into this vital sector of the economy shall not prevent them from painting government actions with a racial brush. The Nigel Henry poll suggests that Indo-Trinidadians have little faith in the PM (79 percent do not) and fewer still have confidence in the government. Ninety percent of Indo-Trinbagonians have no confidence in the even-handedness of the government. This is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.
In his interview, Ria Taitt told the PM that some traditional PNM (supporters) felt they were not benefitting from his government in ways that “non-traditional supporters” do. He responded: “If they believe that the benefit will come simply by being PNM, they are sadly mistaken. Because the country ought not to be run by the largesse being given to one group because of their political persuasion or ethnic complexion.”
Does the PM mean to suggest that when Afro-Trinbagonians vote for PNM that they are voting primarily for the benefit of the country and secondarily for their own advancement as a people, and that they ought not to expect anything favorable from the government? If this is true, why should they vote for PNM?
This way of thinking belies how human beings behave. Some philosophers believe that altruism (the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others) reflects a heightened form of self-interest. So that even when people act in their own enlightened self-interest they also act on the behalf of others.
It is legitimate that Afro-Trinbagonians should expect, nay demand that a PNM government look after their interests. It’s part of what it means to vote for the PNM. Promoting the group’s interest is not necessarily incompatible with promoting the national interest. If the PNM is unwilling or unable to look after Afro-Trinbagonian interests, they should look to others who are willing to do so.
It took Ronald Reagan, the most cold-blooded US warrior, to make an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR to eliminate intermediary and short-range ground-based nuclear weapons from their arsenal. Perhaps, it may take an Indo-Trinidadian woman, who is not afraid of being called racist by her Indian compatriots, to deal with the challenges that face Afro-Trinidadians.