By Raffique Shah
December 14, 2015
Last Wednesday, amidst much ceremony but little pomp, Major-General Kenrick Maharaj took his last parade as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and proceeded into retirement, one month short of his 56th birthday.
Brigadier Rodney Smart was named as the new CDS.
Presumably, some other adjustments were made, or will soon be made, in the upper echelons of the command structure.
At the end of the proceedings, which were presided over by Commander-in-Chief President Anthony Carmona, there may have been the customary cocktails in the Officers’ Mess, lots of laughter and banter, and everyone seemed to be happy.
But all was not what it seemed to be on the surface.
There was a man missing from the parade-Brigadier Anthony Spencer. He is, as far as I’m aware, the substantive assistant CDS, still on active duty. He may be on pre-retirement leave, preparing to ride off into the sunset a disappointed career officer, although the military ethos dictates that he says nothing, that he bears his travails like an officer and gentleman.
You see, last January, when Maharaj reached the compulsory retirement age of 55 and should have made way for Spencer to succeed him as CDS, the Government intervened, extending Maharaj’s service by one year.
The then Minister of National Security, Captain Gary Griffith, who is supposed to be versed in military affairs, Sandhurst graduate that he is, said the Government intended to enact legislation that would see the compulsory retirement ages for all personnel (47 years to 55 years, depending on rank attained) revised upwards.
He argued that sending fit, experienced soldiers and sailors into retirement so early in their lives robbed the country of their expertise from the training and experience they garnered during service.
By extending their careers to, say, age 60, they and the country would benefit.
Thing is, after making these lofty pronouncements, the Government did nothing. No bill was ever drafted, the issue was never again discussed.
When Maharaj’s extra year expired, he simply marched out of the military. The man who should have enjoyed at least one year as CDS, Spencer, was denied that honour as a consequence of politicians interfering in the armed forces in a way they ought never to have done.
If they wanted to extend the service-life of military personnel, as some countries have done, they should have allowed Maharaj to retire a year ago, promoted Spencer, and make the legislative changes afterwards.
As it stands, what they did comes across as a favour granted to Maharaj, which is unfair to the man, and a grave injustice to Spencer, who must remain a stoic soldier, grinning and bearing his burden.
All of what I have written here may seem unimportant, irrelevant to the wider population.
I argue otherwise.
First, once the country has armed forces, we must make provisions for their terms of service, and more importantly, their retirement ages and benefits. Given changing life-expectancy, more people living longer and staying relatively healthy, why should military personnel, in whom the State invests considerable sums via training, be sent on retirement, on average, by age 50?
With 26 years’ service required for pension, and that payable immediately on retirement (not at age 60 or 65), the Defence Force quite likely pays more to its pensioners than to personnel on active service. Such is the case in the USA and the UK, both of which are making major adjustments to a clearly untenable system.
A critical factor in extending their terms of active service is whatever their ages or ranks, all personnel must pass the annual fitness tests. These include age-adjusted numbers of sit-ups and press-ups in two minutes, running 1.5 miles (up to 15 minutes) and forced-marching nine miles with 25-kilo packs/weapons in two hours and ten minutes (probably extended for older troops).
There must be no compromise on this latter requirement: physical fitness is the distinguishing feature of all serving soldiers.
The second relevance of this political tampering with retirement extends to other services and public servants. Buying out the leave of senior police officers when they reach retirement age, or that of permanent secretaries, creates blockages in the system.
Persons next in line are denied promotions. Besides being unjust, such tampering may even negatively impact their retirement benefits, including pensions.
This does not mean that once trained and experienced professionals reach age 60, they be put to pasture. What can be done is retain them on contract with full remuneration, but with no enhanced pensions.
While I’m at it, when the economy recovers, we need to find creative ways to index pensions to the cost of living. Too many people who have served the country well are barely surviving on pittances.
This is an injustice that needs to be rectified.