Marina Salandy-Brown writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
Christmas was wonderful but I heard sad, new TT tales that made me recall the biblical story of Jesus Christ’s visit to Jerusalem at Passover. The corrupting of the Temple by the vendors and the usury of the money-changers angered him. Jesus overturned their tables, scattered their coins and drove them and the animals all out.
Unfortunately, too many Christmas conversations were laments for our lost TT, with succinct stories of how corruption has eroded our hearts and threatens governance. It makes me wish for an upheaval such as the one in the Temple. Jesus used a whip to chase the greedy men conducting their business there. I remember classroom discussions about why Jesus got angry when we should try to be rational, never emotional. The lesson was about justifying His anger. Doing wrong wilfully and protractedly takes a person beyond reason, since s/he has already made a decision to act in that way. Reason only works to explain why an action is undesirable and once the action is repeated it becomes reprehensible. It is why we lose patience with children who drive us to distraction by persisting in unsociable behaviour. A slap on the hand may be justified to bring a speedy end to the trouble.
Being judged and making amends for one’s wrongs are critical in maintaining order in a society but, as we know, that modus operandi is under severe strain in TT. Apart from the countless uncaught murderers, those who can, and there are lots of them, are getting away with the most dishonest and corrupt behaviour intended only to profit themselves.
Transparency International defines corruption as the “abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.” TT is awash with all. At the petty level, almost everyone has experienced interactions with low-level officials who present unexpected hurdles, making access to goods and services difficult. I first understood endemic petty corruption in Egypt when, despite complying with regulations, my visa extension would not materialise. A fellow student later explained that the missing trick was “baksheesh”: a small payment for a favour; and the word is almost the first a visitor learns on arrival there. It was just the system. That is increasingly how things work in all of TT. Corruption has become systemic.
A friend of mine who had applied for TT residency had a hellish time for almost 12 years, during which her papers were “lost” and she was spun endless stories by a stream of corrupt officials and dishonest lawyers. I attended inexplicably useless meetings with her and neither of us understood, until too late, that they were opportunities to hand over TT baksheesh. This level of corruption is an open secret in the public service and ministries, but correction is very slow. Eventually those individuals are moved sideways, but almost never pay the proper price for their part in ruining the fabric of our society.
Our Government seems genuinely to want to curb corruption, but cynical citizens believe the corruption goes right to the top. Maybe we need a more high-profile approach such as the very successful three-pronged strategy devised by Hong Kong and now adopted by the Chinese government, of enforcement, prevention and education. They created an independent anti-corruption agency with the power to investigate all public officials, including party members, civil servants, judges and prosecutors, and state-owned organisations. In the last four to five years exemplar cases of strict enforcement have led to a massive reduction in corruption. In 2015, luxury goods companies exporting Prada fashion items, Remy Martin and Hennessy cognac, Mount Gay rum, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker, high-end cars and watches reported sales collapsing in China when the bribery of officials stopped.
Transparency International has found that the best way to fight corruption is through non-confrontational methods, getting people to the negotiating table, and developing partnerships and anti-corruption methods. The Chinese experience and the biblical story of Jesus’ violent reaction suggest a carrot-and-stick approach might be best, as we need to be brought up short and realise the great danger we face.
I wish us all a new year in which we move closer to realising the ambition that many TT citizens have for this country: that we come to see that the difference between where we are now and becoming a complete basket case is scarily slight and that we can each play a vital part in putting us on a better path.