Where the smartman is king


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Category: Trinidad Politics Date: 21 Jan 01

Going to social functions did not appeal to me personally. I remember my repugnance and abhorrence at a banquet held at what has now become President’s House. It should have been over by midnight.


At about 2 am the next morning some of the women began opening their purses and bags and stuffing into them as much as they could fill of the delicacies and sweets remaining on the long banquet tables. “Behold,” I said to my husband, “our new elite!”


Every time I went to one of these lavish occasions and saw the pomp and splendour paid for with taxpayers money I would think of how many children in nearby John John or rural back-waters like Caroni, had gone to bed without a square meal for the day. That spectre would arise in my mind’s eye. To me all the glitter and show by the nouveaux riches who replaced “Massa” were revolting.


Extract from Untold Tales of Politics and Politicians by Balgobin Ramdeen, former MP in T&T (1961-1966), author and attorney.


I didn’t know who he was until I found a review copy of his book dated January 2000 under some old papers. Reading his unassuming but absorbing book shed light on the politics of the late 1950s and early 1960s: cut throat, back stabbing, tribal, self-serving, with intrigue, peppered with “favours” of foreign travel and safe parliamentary seats for the highest bidder among wealthy businessmen.


The wives of politicians stealing food in President’s House in 1962 and Dhanraj Singh the former Government Minister who has been granted bail of $150,000 for 27 alleged crimes of corruption in 2001, are products of a society that makes up rules as it goes along.


It has its advantages. It makes us ideally equipped to operate in the new economy where flexibility, lateral thinking and the pursuit of wealth are playmates and the “smartman” who may not necessarily be respected, is king.


New Economy


The social contract in developed countries is this: you follow the rules, pay your taxes, stand in queues, fasten your seatbelt, stay on the right side of the law. In return, the State looks after you and protects your interests, in all areas of your life: health, transport, security, pension, police protection, education with efficient well-run public institutions. Quid pro quo.


Our social contract is embryonic and in danger of being aborted altogether. Consider our rules in the context of our history and culture. In Trinidad in 1970, unless you were white or “white looking” you couldn’t get a job in a bank or top-notch firm. You had to convert cynically to Christianity if you were Hindu or Muslim to get into a prestige school. You realised that talent had nothing to do with getting ahead. Contacts, colour and class did. Unless you were exceptional academically and won an island scholarship, you had no opportunities to progress. The rest of the country had to survive. Survive it did.


Apart from the regular criminals, you got the genteel ones - those in public office and in the business world who bribe and commit fraud and siphon public funds. While their wives were filching doggie bags, they were, with a blank Government chequebook in hand, siphoning the people’s money into their Swiss accounts.


Once before in the 1960s, Government has brought in businessmen who are ultimately “able to get the job done”. Remember Johnny O? Got the job done all right, and a lot more besides. But who’s checking?


We’ve created a society that has no problem with the idea of opportunism in the age of expedience, a land of no conviction, of juggling party loyalties - anything to be on the winning side.


The average citizen looks around him. He is working hard, catching his royal to pay his mortgage, in debt, watching mounting bills. He looks around at the men in high office with no greater talent than him, smartmen play with their stolen spoils and thinks, well, I would do the same if I get the opportunity, and does.


So we laud the smartman our hero, our king, because he’s done what most would like to do. Get rich fast, anyhow, anyway.


Combine that with the African and Indian traditions, of the big man, the man of patronage who maintains his power not just with wealth and support, but also by his ability to grant favours.




Pointing Fingers


Put it all together and suddenly you understand the creation of some of the politicians amidst us. Anybody who has heard of Bhadase Maraj the gun-toting politician, of the 1960s a dispenser of favours, will know.


We haven’t learned from Bhadase Maraj and we haven’t learned from Johnny O, and we haven’t learned that Abu Bakr is not a celebrity, and we haven’t learned that it’s not OK to fiddle our taxes while pointing fingers at Dhanraj Singh.


We better learn about the quid pro quo. If we want Government Ministers to stop being corrupt, if we want a well-oiled Public Service, we need to keep our part of the bargain by becoming law-abiding citizens.


But for God’s sake, let’s first give ourselves a chance by forcing the smartmen to step down from their thrones by recognising them for who they are.                    

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur