Following is an edited version of the address given by Archbishop Jason Gordon at the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute’s 22nd annual general meeting on Thursday, December 22, 2022.
In the corruption perception index, the lower the rank, the more corrupt. Trinidad ranks 82 of 180 nations. This does not look too bad until you realise that Barbados is ranked 29, Bahamas 30, St Vincent 36, St Lucia 42, Dominica 45, Grenada 52, and Jamaica 70. So, among the newly independent Caribbean, we rank very poorly.
It is, therefore, not surprising that in an article on business transactions (Trinidad Guardian, March 6, 2021) Gail Alexander claims: “A total of 1,831 Suspicious Transaction and Suspicious Activity reports worth $27 billion were received over 2019 to 2020 by the Financial Intelligence Unit of Trinidad and Tobago—the most it has received in its 10-year history.”
On the other side of this, I know that trying to get anything done here is practically impossible.
Planning permissions is a nightmare. Many businesspeople, I know, have gone to other Caribbean countries as a result. This time lapse is either corruption or incompetence or both.
But, everything—from getting a driver’s license for a young person, to building permission—is a major drama. This is reflected in the Ease of Doing Business index, where T&T is ranked 105 out of 190.
In his 1996 Calypso, ‘Another Day in Paradise’, David Rudder says: “but den forged is the first word of the anthem, you see we so damn corrupt that is the problem”.
In his poetic best, Rudder names the challenge facing our nation. Things have only gotten worst since then. When a nation is corrupt and there is no ease of doing business, the citizen is being denied a fundamental right—justice. This is the basic expectation of fairness in society.
VS Naipaul, in The Middle Passage, described Trinidad as a picaroon society. The picaroon, the ‘Trickidadian’ feature is at the heart of the national psyche. Psychologically, the picaroon is incapable of accepting boundaries and limits. This is the hustler who uses wit to survive. He says: “Slavery, the mixed population, the absence of national pride and the closed colonial system have to a remarkable degree re-created the attitudes of the Spanish picaroon world.”
On a note of redemption Naipaul says: “To bring political organisation to the picaroon society with its taste for corruption and violence and its lack of respect for the person, has its dangers. Such a society cannot immediately become responsible, but it can be re-educated only through responsibility. Change must come from the top” (80).
If Naipaul is right, then we need to hold the elites and the politicians to a growth path of responsibility. This change in operation will be painful, at best. In the short term, it will be a very difficult uphill battle. In the long term, we do not have a choice if we want to live in this twin-island republic.
In his Republic, Plato explores the notion of justice. He argues convincingly that it is in each person’s best interest to be just. This argument is done in both an ethical and a political context. Without justice there can be no republic. It is the one ingredient that is indispensable for good order.
If the citizens of the republic cannot trust each other to act justly, there is no social cohesion, no bond that holds the individuals into a collective, no trust of neighbour and, ultimately, no real community, no real family, and no integrity. Change, Naipaul tells us must come from the top.
As a young republic, we need to face our truth very consciously. It is my considered view that the core challenge facing our nation is that we the citizens have not committed to justice on the individual level or the level of the organisation, or the nation.
This lack of commitment of the citizen to justice has become a cancer eating the body politic of our beloved Trinidad and Tobago. It makes no sense. As Rudder says: “this is not a fete in here – it is madness!”
Every good citizen wants a commissioner of police, minister of national security and prime minister to solve the murder problem. They cannot solve it until we the citizens are willing to recognise that “the murder problem” has its roots in a more fundamental challenge—injustice that pervades the whole of our nation.
This is a WE problem. And WE need to commit to solve it while holding office holders to very high standards.
Whether we look at the work of the Integrity Commission or the lack of resources that frustrates the Sentencing Commission, or the number of people in remand, or the fact that successive governments have broken the law, we need a proactive and timely Judiciary that ensures justice for all our citizens.
If we want transparency, we also need whistle-blower legislation that allows for corruption to be exposed with a sense of safety. Also, effective procurement legislation to ensure transparency and integrity in all State procurements would go a long way.
We do not have, however, an adequate legal framework for transparency and integrity, because we do not have sufficient citizens who demand justice, transparency, and integrity from all citizens of this republic.
There is one root to this web of challenges facing our nation: We the citizens have not committed ourselves to living justice. Integrity is the fruit of a commitment to justice. Institutional unfairness is what happens when there is only a commitment to self.
D R Bhandari, in a paper on Plato’s concept of justice says: “Plato contended that justice is the quality of soul, in virtue of which men set aside the irrational desire to taste every pleasure and to get a selfish satisfaction out of every object and accommodate themselves to the discharge of a single function for the general benefit.” (D R Bhandari, Plato’s Concept of Justice: An Analysis https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Anci/AnciBhan.htm)
Justice is not a mathematical formula measuring equality; it is a virtue, a habit of the soul. It is the bond that joins the citizens together to form a nation. It is the harmony of the parts that make a whole. It is to the soul as health is to the body.
It is a spiritual quality that we all must cultivate, regardless of our religious persuasion. Without the cultivation of an appreciation of justice, at every level of our society, we will continue to accelerate into the mire of lawlessness that we are witnessing.
In his 35th message for World Day of Peace, Saint Pope John Paul II said: “There is no peace without justice.” We want peace in T&T but we are unwilling to make the basic commitment incumbent upon every citizen—justice.
To achieve justice in the republic, according to Plato, we need (1) just laws that are (2) strengthened by the institutions and resources that are needed for them to work, and (3) citizens formed with sound character.
I need us to hear this very clearly and carefully: we need a national campaign to promote justice as a virtue lived by every citizen. If TT Transparency Institute intends to achieve its goal, then it needs to work with all people, groups, and institutions. We need this to be led by the example of the elites of our society.
We must think of these islands as our home for four generations. Then we need to ask, what do we need to do today if our children and their children’s children are to stay and make T&T their home?
I believe a national campaign of education for justice that transforms the minds, hearts, and actions of the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago would be a great first step. Nah we better than dat!