Stealing the soul of the nation

By Raffique Shah
Jun 05, 2011

Raffique ShahBRIBERY and corruption are a global phenomena that permeate almost every country in the world. The only variant is the level or intensity of such malpractices, and the amounts of money involved, as they vary from country to country. Forget Transparency International’s Corruption Index, which addresses the perception of corruption, not the reality. Think real. Think Trinidad and Tobago, where from the ordinary citizen seeking to get a driver’s permit or a job, to a big contractor making a legitimate bid for a contract with a government agency.

In both cases, even if the decision makers do not hint at, or openly ask for, bribes, people feel they are duty-bound to offer an “inducement”.

What is worse in our case is that corrupt officials and conmen are seen as folk heroes. In the late 1950s, an American singer named Sam Cooke was topping the music charts with hit song after hit. A Trini “smartman” named Valmond “Fatman” Jones saw an opportunity to cash in on Cooke’s popularity here. He announced that he was bringing Cooke to stage a show at the Globe cinema (I think), and with promotional posters plastered across the city, not to add ample media coverage, “Fatman” sold tickets aplenty.

Of course, Cooke knew nothing about any appearance in Trinidad. But in those days there was no Internet or Facebook, so he was unaware that “Fatman” was running a scam in his name. Predictably, Valmond fled the country, boarding a boat headed for England—where he would end up staying until around 1970. When people realised they had been scammed, instead of calling for Fatman’s head, they virtually applauded Valmond. In fact, one music band (I think it was Cyril Ramdeo’s orchestra) made a hit song, “Bring Back The Fatman”.

There would be many scams before and after the Fatman-caper. PNM minister John O’Halloran stole public funds almost from the moment he joined the Eric Williams government. Francis “Boysie” Prevatt, PNM chairman, was another who dipped his hands in the till. Bhadase Maharaj, leader of the Maha Sabha, the opposition PDP and the sugar workers’ union, was steeped in corruption (I have proof—yes, I do!).

All these men, and hundreds more like them, were heroes in this country where corruption is part of our culture, much the way Carnival and Phagwa are. And the corruption “gene” knows no race, much like Black Stalin’s “Sufferers”.

Shortly after I started organising cane farmers in 1973, and my meetings grew in numbers, I had a rather disturbing encounter—for me, anyway—with an older farmer. After a meeting in Barrackpore, when the crowd began dispersing and small groups engaged in discussions, this man took me aside. “Beta (son),” he said, “I know you could help we. I also know you would take money like Girwar…but leave something for we, nah!”

I was stunned. I was all of 27 years young, full of idealism coming out of the Black Power Revolution of 1970. In my defence speech at the Court Martial I had faced in 1971, I condemned corruption in the Regiment and in government. I dreamed of a new, non-corrupt society, nourished by the lofty ideals those of us from that glorious period held. But here was this man, accustomed to having leaders who were inherently corrupt, assuming that I, too, would be like those who went before me.

Sadly, my idealism, and those of others like me, meant nothing in a society driven by bribery and corruption. I would see it thrive when I became an MP…in my own party, too! One day at the Red House, a PNM minister and I found ourselves on the balcony overlooking Knox Street. We struck up a conversation, in the course of which he said to me: “Raffique, now that you are an MP, make sure you take care of yourself and your family!”

Again, I was stunned. That he had the gall to suggest I seek my personal interest was an affront to all I stood for. I said nothing in response. I just felt saddened. And I realised Parliament was no place for me. I would end up living in a wooden shack, bringing two children into the world, and subjecting my wife and them to harrowing conditions until I was age 55. It was only then I was able to afford to build and own a reasonably good dwelling. I refused to bend, to bow—or to be corrupt.

I reflect on this darker side of the country and society I live in and will love to my dying day as I look around and see no change in the hero-worshipping of dubious characters. While a few high-profiled persons have been brought before the courts to face charges of corruption, not one has been jailed or made to pay for his or her sins. If anything, they wear their transgressions like halos above their hero-heads.

It pains me when I see my brothers of yesteryear condone today what we all condemned at another time, in other places. It makes a mockery of what we shouted from the rooftops. Then, we slammed Eric Williams and subsequent PNM governments for engaging in corruption of the worst kind. Eric was a black man.

So, too, was Prevatt. Their colour of skin did not matter. It was what they did that mattered.

Has this nation lost its soul? Do decent values count for nothing? Dare we point fingers at the generation that’s haunting us today at gunpoint?

26 thoughts on “Stealing the soul of the nation”

  1. Ah, Raf, I feel your sadness. I too was an idealist, and as a result, I left the country. My fault was that I failed to include someone on a payroll for a US Govt. project I was working on when I was 27-28.No one said anything to me about why was so and so not included,or what was in it for the PS, whose permission I needed; but they spoke aloud about it to others. Many of the principals are dead now, so I’d let that be. Again, in 1987 I ran afoul of a State Agency’s heads, because they wanted to use an instrument I had designed for staff evaluations, for firing a person, and I had the temerity to point out that the Job Planning and Review Document, for which my team had won the outstanding employee award, was not for that purpose, but for helping the employee to improve. I had to leave, and the person who engineered that, is now an Independent Senator, and I a US citizen/ resident with all the perks appertaining thereto. You are right about corruption on both sides. It is the way of doing business in all cultures, but now in the US, there are laws to protect the whistle blower when they expose the most flagrant forms. In TnT they fire them with impunity.
    The Industrial Court, however, can stand up to the system. It did in my case, although it was a slow process.I have a law on the books named after me.
    I am reminded of a delegate from the Dominican Republic to the Caribbean Conference of Churches, when I was on the board saying that our political system at the time-late 1980’s lent itself to corruption as an MP who lost his seat, lost everything. Now I believe there are pensions, but as long as man’s greed exceeds his need, there will be corruption.
    One can stand away from the fray, in poverty, solitude and standing on the high road, look down in increasing disgust at the feeding frenzy at the national trough, until it gets so bad, that even the jaded will pick up arms against the corrupt. It is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, long the most corrupt of countries.There is a man fasting to the death in India, against corruption, and recently at US universities, there were support groups stading up for him. The police in India , however, are shooting those who go to show their support for him. There is hope.Do not give up. Evil wins when good people remain silent(Mandela, I believe)

    1. A very interesting contribution.However,evil “appears” to be victorious.Good always has,and always will conquer evil.Although,sometimes the inevitable question arises..why do bad things happen to good people? After almost fifty years I can recall vividly the “fatman” scam.I am from San Fernando,and there was a “second” show scheduled for the Empire cinema.Thanks Raf for a “trip” down memory lane.

    2. While we may sit and lament and philosophize about corruption the remedy to such loop holes in a democratic government is possible and practical – frequent public audits by a Public Comptroller (choosen by the people) and limits of two terms of being in power …. we are all subject to the ills of absolute power and we are all human .. So it is easy to call judgement but when you are in the position you just never know .. So set up transparent and auditable systems of accountability and scrutiny and limit the terms of rule for public enterprises as well …

  2. “All these men, and hundreds more like them, were heroes in this country where corruption is part of our culture, much the way Carnival and Phagwa are. And the corruption “gene” knows no race, much like Black Stalin’s “Sufferers”.

    Let me say corruption is not restricted to Trinidad and in particular politicians. Corruption eats into every culture all across the world. The problem stems arises because who is going to guard the guard. In some of the developed nation they have had inquiries after inquiries to determine where the corruption started and how laws can be put in place to prevent such corruption. In the process of these inquiries politicians are given immunity in exchange for testimony.

    The most that any government can do is to put in place better safe-guards to the incredible temptation to become corrupt. A minister handling billions in contracts can be influenced to accept some kinda “kick-backs” for service rendered to the people. Once an individual falls into that cesspool it is difficult to come out. As the President of Satyam firm in India said “once I got on the tiger it became harder and harder to dismount”. Bernie Madoff is another example of how corruption can be protected and advanced. Despite warnings from several sources of Madoff’s mad scheme his multi-billion dollars ripoff continued, because he was a notable figure on Wall street.

    The fact is corruption can only be dealt with when exposed to the public eye. In Canada for instance there was the e-health scheme where billions were paid to consultants for little or no work. The point is that corruption does not discriminate and so safe-guards must always be put in place to prevent this type of behaviour. The greatest safe-guard though is honest people. My wife where she works can create a fake company and release funds to a particular account. Her’s is a position of great trust. She said to me ” I will never do that because what goes around comes around”. And I agree with her 100%. Besides hard work and honesty is indespensible for a clear conscience!!!. Which is to be treasured above ill-gotten gain. Honesty is still the best policy.

  3. Escellenr article Raffique. I share your sentiments and your sadness. Corruption in our beautiful twin island country is endemic. Indeed………”has our nation lost its soul?”

  4. Let the truth be told Raff. And don’t hesitate to call more names – especially those of Abdulah and Mc Leod and the other brown-nosed working class leaders of your era who are now towing the line of support for corruption.

  5. Thank you, Raf, for your timely and incisive article. Keep it up, brother, even though you’ll be “a voice in the wilderness”
    I assure you that Trinis here in America and in TNT are behind you and are becoming taking heed.
    Be stong and brave.

    1. Chong wrote “I assure you that Trinis here in America and in TNT are behind you and are becoming taking heed..”

      Mr. Chong there are no “silver bullets” in this article. Raf was having a bellache the day he wrote this article and simply released some of his past experiences with corruption. O Halloran twin towers still stand proudly in Toronto Canada as a symbol of PNM theifry. It is the greatest monument to a by-gone era of PNM corruption.

      Badhase despite what may be said about him, he had the courage to build 50 schools and did more for rural education than he would be given credit for..

      As for you Mr. Chong, America is amongst the most corrupt on the planet. How else can anyone explain 12 trillion dollars in debt, Obama alone rose the debt to half of what it is today. Of course he had the housing, bank, and car problems left to deal with from the Bush era.

      Trinidad have little or no debt problems and is one of the most prosperous nation in the Western Hemisphere. Gone are days of Calder and billion dollar “boondoggles” such as the Toruba Statium and Scarborough Hospital, just to name few. Uncle Jack is bringing in projects on time and at a much lower cost. The PNM costing of many projects was way out of line eg. the Nariva water line.

      So Mr. Chong how can anyone in America explain to the world a nation that spends money that it does not have? And will not have anytime in the future… Long live the American “dream” opps nightmare.

  6. What an incisive and hearfelt article and I’m sure it reverberates strongly with some hardworking souls here in T&T. The destruction of Caroni(1975) Ltd. is because of immense corruption starting at the helm. A former Managing Director making 23 trips to the UK in a year and the exceedingly posh living on the compounds speaks of greed exceeding need, compared to the cane cutter having a sip of puncheon to clear the burnt ashes settling in his throat to upkeep his son studying in the UK speaks of basic need and thrift.

  7. “Parliament was no place for me…”
    So then WHY did you waste time with canvassing in -and winning with vastly more than 4000-odd votes- the 1976 General Elections?? Additionally, what is the further implication in that / your reasoning? That Parliament is the purview only for conmen / crooks?? So ‘I’ put you dey (in 1976; and in the din of your ULF crew screaming, ‘Dem is capitaliss, dem is capataliss, dem is capataliss…,’ about the DAC and other parties), so that you could come and tell me (now) that Parliament is / was not for you and your ‘…idealism??’
    So your entire presence then, bolstered by the vast majority of the Indian electorate of the Siparia Constituency in 1976, was just a waste of time (and helped to cement and foster the PNM, along with their greatest ally to date, Basdeo Panday, in power)!!

    Thusly, your 1976 presence PREVENTED from ‘reaching’ Parliament, the vastly more experienced and competent other individuals who wanted to help and further develop this country.

    You are also implying that poverty, aka, your, ‘harrowing conditions,’ is the wont of those who refuse to be corrupted?
    So there are NO people who started off without a cent, started off in poverty, who are now MILLIONAIRES, and who became so, not because they, “took bribe,” “fix up dey self,” etc, but because of their hard work and wit and perseverance, ‘[refusal] to bend –or to be [corrupted]??’

    Even houses are not untouched by your implied reasoning? So a 14-bedroom big house, achieved before age 35, because it is better than a, ‘reasonably good dwelling,’ was built by the owner ‘bending’, ‘bowing,’ and being ‘corrupt?’

    What was / is the difference between you and those millionaires (mentioned above)? What CHOICES did they make in life, which you didn’t, which allowed THEM to be (monetarily) better off than you?

    Oh, wait a minute: ‘all T&T millionaires have no souls’; ‘all T&T millionaires have no decent values…’

    If the nation now has, “…lost its soul,” then the acceleration towards that loss was also as a direct result of the incorrect choices made by the T&T voting population as far back as 1976!
    Of course I can, ‘point fingers…!’


  8. Mamoo,you ere born yesterday, not so? OHallorn Towers were sold and the money returned to the coffers of the TT government, around the time that TELCO successfully sued AT&T and won. Now, you laud and magnify Bhadase. You know something? He stole material from the American BAse at Waller Field where he used to work as a grass cutter when the base was opened. All those who went there to “bust concrete” and steal electrical wire, sold the stuff to Bhadase. When “belly Boom” was electrocuted trying to steal electrical cable, that wa show people knew the govenrment had put current back in those wires. this was about 1952. His body hung on those wires for about three days.

    So what if badase built a series of substandard schools in rural trinidad. He was doing it off of stolen stuff, and doing it because the government paid two thirds of the teachers’ salaries, if you built a school. The Hindus had rejcted going to school with Afro-trinis wherever possible. YThe records of the Canadian Mission To The indians(the Presbyterians) and other official reports show this. So Bhadase was stealing to promote recial division. In Cumuto, there was a Presbyterian school near the village and a Catholic school thre miles up the road towards Tamana. The Hindus an dMuslims went to those schools. That is where Dr.Raymond Paltoo got his elementary education, as did Dr. Neville Chai. Bhadase did not build any schoolin my villahe and the Hindu children got an excellent educatio. The CAatholic school employed teachers who were fFrench Creole, Indian- Mr. Mathura, and African- Mr jones Harrow, and Mr. telesford, or great principal.
    I write all this down, because its part of the record that few know or care to know. I lived it. Mrs. Emmanuel, who was my elementary teacher, and whom I saw last year at 96, taught there for many years, reting all children, as far as I can remember, well.
    Now, we have lost our soul, and celebrate the achievements of an illiterate thief, who did some good. An oxymoron is honour rooted in dishonour. Bhadase as an oxymoron.

    1. “So what if badase built a series of substandard schools in rural trinidad..”

      I happen to attend one of those so called “substandard” schools. Eric called it “cowsheds”. The school I attended did much to improve the lives of those who were students there. In our school we had muslims, christians, Africans and everybody else. It was call a Hindu school but in reality it benefitted the community at large.

      When I attended Secondary school I met my African brothers and sisters. Social integration was achieved at that level. I was one of the top students in my class, so I cannot forget the benefits of attending one of those “substandard” schools built by Badase. Students from the same “substandard school” I attended went on to become police officers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other valuable professionals. The school provided a springboard for us and those who entered and worked hard did very well in life. The carriculum was the same carriculum used by the Ministry of Education across the nation, so I fail to see how the word “substandard” fits into your thinking Linda, unless your “inbuilt” prejudice for Hindus and others is your motivation.

      Linda, instead of raising all your negative self indulgent ideas on this board, I would “adjure” you to think beyond your hair and skin color.(for you that would be nigh impossible). Your writing is racist and very subjective when dealing with those who contributed to the national health… Please spare us your diatribe.

  9. When I go back to correct the typos on a long piece, trinicenter frequently cancels is. So use the last post as an exercise in proofreading please. The facts are correct.

  10. Mamoo, the schools were substadard, but they were better than no schools at all. I have taught students who were taught by substandard teachers in substandard schools, they all mispronounced, and misspelled the same words. The teacher did not know, so he could not correct. By today’s standards, Cumuto R.C. School would also have been substandard. No running water, we lugged bottles of water to school to be able to drink, or we went to a well a quarter of a mile from school. If we were lucky we got a drink from the cistern in the Works Dept. facility next to the school. The pit latrines stank, and some students who had no newspringt at home to use instead of toilet paper, used blacksage bush. In the dry season, they came back to class with stinking fingers. some students had lice, which they shared generously if you were unlucky enough to sit next to them.

    The classrooms were clean-we swept them, the floor was a wooden one-it was a church on weekends, and we got an integrated education which was the norm. Lazeena Ali, Neville Chai and I were best friends and top of our class. We all got to listen in to Roman Catholic religious education, which I did while reading a magazine called Commonwealth Today. How our school got a subscription in that remote village beats me, but we got them. The Library van came one every two weeks. We bought our own books, and I walked three and three quarters of a mile one way, for this. It was the best there was at the time, but it was substandard. My cousins who lived in Woodbrook had a very different experience.They got music lessons! They had a piano in their house. My great aunt who lived in Barataria subscribed to English magazines, which she saved for us.(Her husband was a school principal).
    We at Cumuto did not get music lessons,we got to sing off key, and every now and then, a play; but we learned to dance the Maypole.We followed behind Hindu women going to the river to do something before a wedding,(we were not allowed to go down to the bank, that was private I still don’t know what they bury there; and experienced Muslim funerals where they stopped and prayed along the way, with the body wrapped in a white sheet, carried between two bamboo poles. we learnt that when a boy came to school with his head shaved, just leaving one plait in the middle of the back, his father had died.(The Chinese also do that). For Hosay, we got home fast, dancing behind the tadjas in the street. That education, now that I have improved on it, I would not exchange for anything.
    This education left me free to read every book in the school library- one bookcase ,kept mostly locked, but the new principal, seeing that I was an avid reader, allowed me to read every one. When the inspectors came to ask questions, he could count on me to know the answers.I loved every minute of it, but, it was substandard, the best they could do, but substandard.

    1. The school I attended was well built. Concrete floors and wall with good desk and chairs. As for the teachers some of them did need some more training on how to deal with children. In my school some of them went to teachers training college and came back almost “reborn” (lol). Pedagogy was a skill that many of them needed and the social equality treatment of children was something to be desired. However, learning was really good given that most of the students were like “dry clay” that needed to be paitently watered and molded. At the Standard 5 level we recieved a new teacher and he would repeat things as much as possible so that all students can learn.

      As for running water we suffered at times, the only pipe stand down the hill was most of the times dry. We had the basic laterine which was common at the time, thanks to Eric’s sanitation speech. Today most would not survive these things(lol) But we made it do. Was it perfect? Absolutely not, but I suppose all other schools had the same imperfections.

      The point is that most schools had the basics and should not have been frowned upon as being substandard because it was simply the “norm” during that era for most denominational schools. They had small budgets and willing hands. The work they did should be applauded because they set the stage for children to aspire and achieve higher education. My nephew who attended the same school went on the pass 7″O levels and achieve distinctions in some of his subjects. Myself went to obtain my degree in education. My neighbour son became a school teacher. And all kids who applied themselves did very well in life. I could go on… the fact is it was mainly due to someone’s willingness to give us all a start in life… Everytime a child gets an education, it means one less drug dealer, criminal or crook.

      1. Linda you must remember that T&T only became an independent nation in 1962. Saying schools were sub standard means that there was already a higher standard in place. When the British gave T&T independence they did not build toilets or put in place pipes for running water across the nation. Roads, water, toilets all had to be developed. Of course were you lived, you must have enjoyed such great privileges. Most school that Bhadase built were in rural communities.

  11. There are a number of contributors on this website you often express prejudical views in attempts to “put down” Indians. Linda Williams is one of them.

  12. To say Bhadase was a thief is not being racist, its being factual. Same could be said for Valmond Jones, and Cyril Duprey.

    1. As one PNM Minister said “all ah we tief” So why Bhadase was singled out for thiefry, when he simply used the materials to build education centers, something that could not done without these materials…

  13. Correction, Lawrence Duprey, not Cyril. I personally may want to put a lien on one of his many houses in Florida.

  14. Sir/Madam:

    Around the 5th or 6th of June’2011 Selwyn Ryan of the “Express” published an article on “coalition Governments” in which he mentioned “such governments” in Canada.Please,direct me as to how I can enlighten,or educate this journalist on two political parties (Liberal)and (Progressive Conservative)parties who have alternately governed Canada since 1867.


  15. About schools Mamoo if you read my piece, you would see that I sidthere were schools at a higher standard., even before 1956. I wish you could have visitedsome of them to compare.
    Its too late now. Even the “cowsheds” have improved.Your tried to make Bhadase a saint. He had feet of clay. I simply pointed that out. Incidentally, I am interested in his story because he worked with my father in Waller Field. My father drove the grass-cutting tractor, and Bhadase walked behind with his “swiper” getting the areas that were too sloped for the tractor to cut. My father also signed for BAhadase’s pay every two weeks because he could not sign his name.My father witnessed his thumprint.
    When you are inclined to think racist, remember, that is the man that raised me, and all my brothers and sisters, to live multiculturally. He spoke Hindi as well as English. The people to whom we rented land in Williamsville sometimes spoke no English.

    1. Linda wrote “Its too late now. Even the “cowsheds” have improved.Your tried to make Bhadase a saint. He had feet of clay.”

      Let me say the schools were not “cowsheds”. It was an insulting term used by the nation’s first Prime Minister. Our family actually owned cows and we built a cow shed. I know the difference.
      As for making Bhadase a saint, I prefer to see him as a man with little means who achieved great things. The fact that he used his “thumbprint” to validate documents shows that he was indeed a man to be admired for wanting others to use their hands to sign documents. Maybe he saw the limitations of using his “thumbprint” and that motivated him to build the schools.

      It can be said that this man who used his thumbprint to validate documents achieve more for T&T than those who choose to use their mouth to bray. For many rural Trinis Bhadase built schools in areas where there were no schools and no plans to build schools. He took children from illiteracy to literacy. Now how could that be a bad thing??? Only the stupid, ignorant and unlearn will think that this was a bad thing…hmmm

  16. Can we say that Eric Williams was a big thief also? After the 1957 elections he realized that the Indians would be a force, so what did he do? He allowed thousands of Grenadians and Vincies to slip into the country. He then built new houses for them in Beetham estates and further up the EW corridor to to tip the electoral scales in his favor. Remember the voting machine scams and the stuffed ballot boxes? POS was chopped up into many tiny constituencies – look at the voting records – total votes 10K, whereas the avg total votes in central and south is 25K. Manning continued this scam by providing nearly free housing in Caroni lands to Grenadians and their decendents in their voter padding schemes – so much so that they are surrounding Raffique Shah’s house in central.
    Although Badase was a badjohn, he can be considered a robin hood. He made himself rich by dubious means but he gave back to the people. He should have been commended – all because Williams couldn’t get a professorship in India and the Trini Indians stopped him from being the WI federation premier.
    Right now the Badhase family has lost many acres of land in Enterprise because of the Williams Grenadian squatters on that land. Hence the highest crime rate in TT after Laventille/Morvant.
    Eat that Linda!

  17. Looks like I stunned allyou! Those same cowsheds would be churning out the best scholars in the country! So much so that Manning was contemplating a bussing program (like 70’s Boston) to bus students from Laventille/Morvant to the central schools. Remember the Doc disparagingly calling Presentation Chaguanas a Catholic school for Hindu Boys? And those Central and South students that have taken over UWI. Thank you – Father of the Nation for alerting us not to expect any handouts and favours from government. Which group has taken “Discipline, Tolerance & Production” to heart?

  18. First, I want to thank Mamoo for his response to my comments. Mamoo, I want to advise you that I am free to have my view and so do you. When someone like Linda Edwards presents a different view it does not make her a racist. We should move beyond pettiness and be magnanimous. We are all ‘trinis to the bone.’ Let us agree to disagree and live in harmony not hate. One love Mamoo!

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