By Raffique Shah
November 01, 2023
I know, I know: the words principles and politics hardly go together. They are more like an oxymoron. But fool that I am, until the day I breathe my last, I shall strive, in whatever way I can, to have politicians and their publics see the wisdom of insisting that they find ways, making principles an imperative for those who seek high public office, and for those who put them there.
I do not pretend to be a symbol of moral rectitude, nor will I expect politicians to take oaths the way members of the clergy do in some religions. Only recently, I was thinking about the many laws, commissions, and other institutions and measures, that constantly remind all citizens of their obligations to help forge a society that can stand the scrutiny that follows misbehaviour in public office.
I chuckled when I remembered an incident that forced me to drive through early-morning traffic to Port of Spain to be interviewed—so I was told—by a senior official of the Integrity Commission, whose name I shall not disclose. I had been appointed as a director on a State enterprise board and duly complied with filling in and submitting my declaration of assets, few as they were. The forms are repetitive to the point where writing information on them made me feel as if I were being interrogated by some fraud squad.
As I walked towards the entry door, there, standing grinning at me was the man who had signed the letter. I wondered if he was crass to the point of confronting me in public over what ought to be a private matter. “Mr Shah,” he said loudly, “I am so happy you have come to sort out the little mess you have made.”
I stopped laughing and coldly asked him, “What the hell have I done or not done, to run afoul of the commission?” Long story short, I had made an error that was common-place among those who were eager to stay clean. To wit, I had duplicated my declaration of assets, one part being on a form that the public could access, which was wrong.
Mr Integrity explained that I was being compliant in the extreme, I should not expose my assets to the public that way. For the few years I was on that board, I thereafter submitted my declaration. I later learned that most directors never bothered with the commission and its regulations. No one, as far as I know, has been arrested for what, I am told, is a serious offence. So much for staying clean.
We have so many laws that are meant to keep us on the proverbial “straight and narrow”, yet fraud and theft are rampant. Enforcement is a hollow word, as meaningless as armed robbers facing long terms of imprisonment, when in fact few of them are arrested and charged, and even fewer fined or jailed.
In this unholy mess, public officials involved in corruption are as plentiful as the pholourie you encounter every day on the streets. Where do we begin formulation strategies for upliftment of moral standards that we should aim for?
In our faces every day in the media and in public spaces, you see thieves, bandits and sundry criminals liming and enjoying the spoils of their “hard work”. We know them. They know we know them. But they also know that we will say or do nothing to stop them, since they assume that all of us are “on the take”.
In so many communities across the country, gamblers take time out from their work places to hunt for legitimate money from gambling. Children carry “marks” from their parents to place bets. Police patrols are frequent but useless since they, too, must gamble or buy stolen car parts to keep their vehicles on the roads and the crime industry ticking along.
And, here am I, as I noted at the beginning of this column, thinking of intervening to inject principles and standards. Who am I fooling? Why don’t I keep my ol’ a$$ quiet and allow the people to live their lives as they have been doing all along?
I sense that the world has chosen the path to easy money being the driver of economies, that laziness is the new standard, not just locally but in diverse countries spanning rich to poor, all of us having surrendered to what Indians would call korhi-ness.
Ironically, I feel it’s the same Indians, except now in hundreds of millions, who must work to put their economy back on track in India, and, ironically also, the African people spanning the continent need to stake their claim on their rare earth metals and use those to help bring them out of persistent poverty.