By Raffique Shah
March 29, 2018
I was writing last week’s column when Madam Justice Paula-Mae Weekes’s inauguration as President of the Republic was underway at the Queen’s Park Savannah, so I missed out on most of the pomp and pageantry. No disrespect was intended: President Paula (well, we did have President Max) will understand my absence, what with a deadline to meet, and with Parkinson’s affecting the pace at which I write, though not the speed at which I think or the sharpness of my memory and mind.
I later read her full speech that won rave reviews across the political divide, and saw and listened to her delivery as featured on television. She was eloquent, concise and relevant, raising issues that citizens could identify with, hence the applauses that punctuated the address.
However, she said nothing that had not been articulated before in speech or writing by many politicians, patriots and commentators. That she received rousing rounds of applause for stating the obvious—the tentacles of crime touching us all, a health system that fails those who need it most, a work ethic that is shameful—signalled to me that people are yearning for robust leadership, and they see hope in a presidency that is essentially powerless.
My columnist colleague Martin Daly aptly described President Paula’s impact as “replenishing the reservoirs of hope”. He reminded those who see her as “an agent of change” that the President has no executive power, and suggested that “we embrace and individually implement her prescriptions for civic turnaround”.
If I may crudely reduce one of her appeals to the citizenry to common street language, Her Excellency said that most of us are too damn lazy, that we have jobs but hardly work, and if we changed that characteristic we could see the economic turnaround that we believe would happen magically only when energy prices are buoyant.
I have said or written, ad nauseam, and this from way back when I was a trade union leader, that if every able-bodied citizen were to function on his or her job at, say, 50 percent of her productive capacity, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) would remain at respectable levels that, in turn, would improve our standards of living, once the nation’s wealth is equitably distributed.
But over the decades, we have grown so accustomed to out-doing The Mighty Dougla’s “Lazy Man” so much so that “like we blind we cyah see/or we too dumb to agree/we too lazy to be lazy”. Entire communities of young, strong men and women spend their lives “lahaying on a wall”, claiming to be jobless even as those who are employed cannot find household helpers whom they are willing to pay decent wages, and manufacturers post permanent “vacancies” signs.
I shan’t dwell on those who have jobs that pay very well, but who refuse to perform anywhere close to optimum levels because they are unionised, hence untouchable. Nor will I waste column-centimetres on public sector employees who are so secure in their non-productive environments that they believe they are doing you, members of the public, a favour when they attend to you. And I won’t focus on managers and sundry bosses who have lowered the productivity bar such that our best limbo dancers cannot wiggle under it.
Her Excellency cited her victimhood to illustrate that none of us are immune to the deleterious mal-effects of crime, and she lamented the decline in human compassion that, once upon a time, was considered normal in the society. In a succinct manner, she identified many of the ills that bedevil the country. But she also identified a few shining stars who illuminate the darkest corners of this cussed country, giving hope that all is not lost…at least not yet.
Having kindled great expectations among the populace, but also noting that she alone cannot do the “heavy lifting”, the President advised those who wish to speak with her on the sad state of the nation to “walk with a plan”. With such an open invitation in a nation where most people, from the intelligentsia to crackpots, have solutions for just about every problem, I fear the cottage that is currently the presidential “digs” will be inadequate to accommodate every man-with-a-plan.
If I may offer my two cents advice, I suggest that she continue an initiative started by ex-President Anthony Carmona, by conversing with students at the secondary and tertiary levels. However, in moulding these young minds, do not laud offices and institutions that have failed the nation, among them Parliament and, sadly, the judiciary in which President Paula served.
Take the conversations to another level, to stripping and re-assembling representation of the people such that the dominance of greed and corruption, as has been historically embedded in our parliamentary systems, and the notion that justice is skewed in favour of the powerful and the wealthy, not balanced as its symbol depicts, be restructured.
Make no mistake about it: the younger generations will not tolerate the mess we did. Witness what’s happening in America…millions of young people are rising up against the old order, demanding a more humane, less violent society. It can happen here. I saw it, lived it, was part of it in the 1970’s.
President Paula has few powers. But she has the popular support and moral authority to guide the reformation of our institutions before the youths, disgusted with their elders and frustrated over their future, resort to revolution.