Focus on substance, not fluff

By Raffique Shah
March 17, 2012

Raffique ShahOVER the past two weeks or so, public attention has focused on two issues, with the concomitant raging debates in the media and online. The first surfaced when it was disclosed in Parliament that the State had met expenses for Prime Minsiter Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s sister to accompany her on official visits to Australia, India and elsewhere. The second pertained to Tobago Affairs Minister Vernella Alleyne-Toppin incurring private expenses on a Government-issued credit card that is intended for use by officials when they travel abroad.

In the midst of war of words that erupted—the PM defending her sister, the minister saying that she made a mistake, party supporters of one hue or other taking adversarial positions—I stood in my sneakers and wondered. While the two matters are important from the perspective of integrity in public life, aren’t there issues of greater public importance that the nation should be concerned about? Why are we focusing on fluff, not on substance?

Only in this country do peripheral issues take precedence over what really matter. It’s not that the Prime Minister’s decision to have her sister as an unpaid chaperone whose expenses are met from state funds might be irregular, even questionable. Or that ‘Shoppin’ Toppin’ has joined the ranks of officials who cannot differentiate between their public lives and private affairs. Really, though, these are side issues that we choose to debate at the national level even as the country burns, quite literally, in instances.

Take the fiery protests across rural Trinidad where roads have deteriorated over decades, becoming impassable in instances. Some time ago, addressing Government’s decision to proceed with the $7 billion Point Fortin highway, I raised the question of priorities. Sure, we need the highway; it has been a project-in-the-making for some 50 years. But is it a priority item at a time when resources are limited and when existing roads, many of them main arteries, fall into serious disrepair?

The wise people in government think not. They are going ahead with the new highway, all of it, not in sections, because they want to have something to boast about when the next elections come around in 2015. Meanwhile, the Moruga Road, a main artery, is falling apart and the affected communities protest for the umpteenth time. The main road in Tabaquite is almost impassable. The Toco-Matelot Road is in a dangerous condition. We can multiply these problem roads by 100 or more, across the length and breadth of the country, and I’m sure other communities would want theirs added to the list.

It is true that the woeful state of these roads (and many bridges) did not crop up overnight. They are the result of decades of neglect by successive governments. Bear in mind that in the 50 years we have been an independent nation, the economy enjoyed several oil and gas booms during which hundreds of billions of dollars were flushed down the hatch like the proverbial dose of salts, as the late Michael Manley crudely but correctly put it.

Imagine in a country with a per capita income of around US$15,000, there are still numerous wooden bridges, relics of underdevelopment during the colonial era, that only the intrepid residents who live beyond them dare to negotiate on a daily basis. That is scandalous. Yet the current Government chooses to spend $7 billion on the Point Fortin highway. Mr Manning, in his oil-windfall-stupor of 2003-2010, opted to spend even more to make the Port of Spain skyline look like New York’s, even as the city’s sidewalks remained hazardous eyesores.

I repeat, for the benefit of those who believe that I am against progress: I have no problem with government building the new highway. I strongly believe, though, it should be done on a phased basis to allow resources to be diverted to existing communities that are under infrastructural stress. I need add that I focus on roads and bridges only because of the fiery protests that erupted over the past few months. I could have chosen the health system in which there are shortages of beds, equipment, medication and staff. Or environmental degradation—a curse that we have lived with as governments pronounce otherwise. I wonder if the board at the Asa Wright Centre had not highlighted the atrocity in their backyard, what might have happened, or not happen.

These are the real issues—economic stagnation, rising unemployment, unbridled crime, woefully inadequate housing, stinking drains, casual flouting of building codes and drainage regulations that bring harm to communities, and more, much more.

So while State funding for the PM’s sister, in the absence of regularising her position, is a concern, I do not think it warrants national debate. It’s a position I held when, during the Carnival season, the PM’s designer boots made the news. These are politicians’ personal choices, and as long as they do not breach any law or convention, let them be. Harking back a bit, none of us could tell Mr Manning that his choice of “prophetess” was right or wrong-that was his call. He defended having the mystery woman as a spiritual adviser. Given the fate that befell him afterwards, I don’t know if he had any regrets.

The current PM will also have to live with the consequences of her actions and choices. What distresses me is the way people have turned relative trivia into a national debate, or more accurately, into a partisan war. Her detractors condemn her every move. For her diehard supporters, she could do no wrong. She has been elevated to deity status, something that Basdeo Panday once enjoyed. Today, Panday is a fallen god who is subjected to derision. Therein lies a lesson for those whom the gods would one day destroy.

9 thoughts on “Focus on substance, not fluff”

  1. And now, the news of a highway across the hills to connect the LAdy Young Road to Chag. What madness! Think of the flooding this will help. We are protesting the qurrying in the Blanchiseusse(sp?) area, what will a highway across the western hills do to the Northern Range? After fifty years we cannot manage the landslides on the LAdy Young Road. I have driven that Tabaquite road many times twenty years ago, when every effort was made, even slinging bags of rocks togther with wire mesh to hold the land together, but that too was temporary relief. The island slides slowly towards La Brea.

    Infrastructure in a civilized country incudes passable roads, hospitals that deliver clean, prompt service, school places for all the children, attention to the needs of the differently abled and the elderly, and a defence and protective service that defends and protects. It includes reliable sorces of water and electricity, as well as gas for cooking. I think we have the last two, in most areas. It includes a judiciary that is informed and deals with crimes and other legal matters in a prompt and efficient manner.These things are not happening, but Jack’s highway, maybe to be called the Jackass Express Route, is going ahead. I would strongly suggest that we do something about the Maraval and Diego Martin Rivers to control flood, before we go breaking up the soil of the Northern Range to put a road to nowhere. There is already a road across the Maraval hills from POS to Diego, and one can get from Diego to Chag by going over the hills at Rich Plain Road. The soldiers and revolutionares used it in 1970. If a strategic alternative route is needed, there is already one. Repave them and secure the bridges. We have to stop building memorials to folly, and do some serious planning. We need dams to hold the overflow of the Caroni in the flood season, that could then be tapped for agriculture. We are doing nonsense with the national purse, including paying millions of dollars to a forensic auditor, who drops dead in a restaurant. I hope we did not continue paying him after he died. It would have made sense to pay 1/3 up front one third six months into the project nd the fial 1/3 when the report was completed. We could have put those savings to good use. The squandermania of the present goernment is full of “never see come see ” foolishness as they try to big up themselves.

    1. “The squandermania of the present government is full of “never see come see ” foolishness as they try to big up themselves”.

      Your last statement spoiled what could have been a list of excellent suggestions.
      Do you really believe that the deficiencies which you mentioned above suddenly appeared in the last two years under the watch of this new government?

  2. Reply specifically to TMAn:Of course not, but based on their make-up, they seem to have to outdo the previous occupants of office in every possible way. Did I ever report on the houses in Louis Street in Arima, where two competing neighbours began adding second storeys to their houses? First the African man with dreadlocks, added a second story. Immediately after that, his Indian neighbour began adding a second storey also. When he was done, the African man added a third storey that looked like a bell tower on his house, at that point, the Indian man gave up because the structure of his foundation could not hold another level. He did not want to have an African man looking down on him. If you are in TnT, you could go check out the two houses. They are on the odd numbered side of the street.
    That’s never see come see. The comment did not lesson anything previously said. When else have we had problems of ministers using state issued credit cards, en masse, as their personal visas or Mastercards? When else did we have an assistant relative going along on these expenssive rides to faraway places? When else did we hire unqualifies pretty famales to major descision making positions, because they were apparently the paramours of powerful ministers holding basket for the PM. When else did we have a blustery loudmouth of n AG claiming that major items fom a household were missing when they were in storage? They had never done a handover from one set of ministers to another, so they did not know that it was to be a formal procedurewith sign-off’s on a checklist. All of this reeks of never see come see.

  3. Raffique

    Excellent piece!!
    The country has lived without clarity of development priorities and proper planning for 50 years plus. Our development has taken a backseat to ‘ole talk’ and race based talk and tribalism, while our life expectancy decreases, our infrastructure falls apart etc. What is even sadder is that there is no solution in sight. Both parties are bankrupt (ethically and morally), vacuous and without a plan. It is sad that a country of our size that provides so many thinkers in the US and European societies cannot produce thinkers at home.

  4. My dear Brent, at home, serious thought is stifled by some inane questions, posed as serious by the power brokers. Who is your father, again? What school you went to? Where you get that accent? What church you does attend? and other such nonsense. I was advising a friend a few years back, who was redoing his resume after a massive layoff by his former company, that he did not have to start from where he went to secondary school.At 55 with thirty years work experience under your belt, employers want to know what was the dollar value of the biggest project you managed in the last ten years.How many employees did you supervise. How profitable was your last venture with the company’s money.
    He finally agreed to go the route I was suggesting. He was hired within two weeks. He thought he should start back from high school, because he was a trini, whose people never really, let you leave elementary school. People migrate and become senior staff at the UN and other big international agencies, because those groups focus on thinking and planning, and need staff fluent in English who could get along with the world’s peoples. e are that.

  5. I understand you points and I agree that Trinis “major in minors”. Raffique’s poits about lackign in development priorities is a fact tha twe have not addressed historically. The PNM did not do a good job of it being around more than 50 years. When I left secondary school in the early 80’s in TT I felt that I will never return because there was nothign being done to say that the future of the country was in the hands of thinkers. Nothings has changed. This current government has not done much either but they have only been there two years. I do not excuse them because they made lots of promises and I expected some delivery. The malaise and apathy in TT today is a historical thing. We NEVER had leaders who saw development as a holistic pursuit. It was always a matter of big projects and big building (now bgi roads) to win over votes. Where I live in Europe many of the buildings look small compared to the New Yory ksyline we created in TT – BUT my healthcare works, my water works, my electricity works, the farmers work for half the year but their produce gets to market on time and proper storage is provided, my arts and entertainment works and i enjoyable and high quality. These are the basic elements tha tsustain populations. The PNM squandered several energy booms and this government is squandering our future without a vialble and sustainable plan. Pettiness is the rule of the day – because there is nothing substantive to fill the void. We are not a “global” community and still see the world in narrow and myopic lenses. Sad but true.

  6. Sometimes I wonder if we all live in the same country. There are many things happening. And everyone will say what and point to the things that they see as important and say nothing is being done. ASnd I accept that. We hope that if this PM falls ill she could be treated at home in T&T. We hope that the roads and other infrastructure will be there to get her to hospital – ambulance, emergency tenders in the ambulance, doctors, electricity, water, nurses. Many things are being worked on. I am seeing changes and not just big buildings.
    “These are the real issues—economic stagnation, rising unemployment, unbridled crime, woefully inadequate housing, stinking drains, casual flouting of building codes and drainage regulations that bring harm to communities, and more, much more.” I agree that these are only some of the problems, and I wonder why the present government wanted to be in power.

    But you know we are T&T and everyone wants to know someone in power so that they can get something done. This attitude has to change. We really do need policies and procedures and make a serious attempt to change the culture otherwise we need to just accept what we have as the norm.

  7. When we settle for accepting the mediocre as the norm, we have settles for less as a people, a nation and ourselves.

  8. there are so many things that need our undivided attention ,like tcl the only supplier of cement in our country no competion so they charge whatever they like,,, our water supply it needs attention big time our law enforcement need help,,,,when we look at out needs they out weight a lot of the fluff,,for fluff can be sold on the open market an our country can benefit from all the though of our people if only they stop the fluff…

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