Trinidad and Tobago stands at a crossroads, and the man directing traffic is Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Kazim Hosein. It’s a straight choice between two directions: rudeness and civility.
Mr Hosein has brought into the open the fact, which we all knew anyway, that public servants in this country lack basic manners and either have no grasp of customer service or know about it but refuse to behave in the way they know is right.
In this even-handed world it is relatively rare to find an issue on which there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, but this is such a case. And although Mr Hosein is pointing the finger at government employees, he might justifiably be widening the criticism to take in all those dealing with the public. That means everyone from the poor, harassed individual whose ball and chain in life is issuing drivers’ licenses to the disgruntled-from-birth young woman who clearly doesn’t want to put a few fillings in a sandwich for you because doing that small thing makes her feel subservient.
But first the good news: it’s not just this country. People with bad attitudes exist everywhere. You can be ignored in Ecuador, fobbed off in Frankfurt, dissed in Istanbul and sneered at in San Francisco.
But the bad news: in most places it’s just isolated instances, discontented individuals taking it out on the world for specific reasons. In Trinidad and Tobago, I’m afraid, it’s a way of life. It’s not absolutely everybody, but it’s standard. It’s the way things are done. This is a country of proud people who are very aware of their heritage, and unfortunately that includes an inherited attitude of resentment and mean spiritedness.
Of course the tourism industry will claim that this is a place where the sun shines as brightly as the smiles of the people, but they claim that everywhere. And in most places that is true of the way the locals treat each other, if not the way they treat visitors. But there lies the problem: if you’re antagonistic to your own people – as the minister asserts – it is bound to influence the way you are with the rest of the world.
Mr Hosein is also on the warpath against the closely-related areas of laziness and corruption, and again this is hardly a TT-specific issue. It’s a worldwide problem but a regional phenomenon in this part of the world. If you want to get something done around here, unless you have friends in the relevant places you’re shown the door to the chasm of inaction, where nothing will happen in the foreseeable future unless money leaves your pocket and enters that of the official you’re dealing with, over and above what the service is supposed to cost anyway.
It is the kind of world where it pays to keep your head down, and the worst thing you can do is involve the authorities. An entrepreneurial friend on an island in the northern Caribbean advised me that any time you did anything official it would cost money, and not for a good reason involving safety or responsibility. Charges would be levied because the people in charge had the ability to do so.
He was setting up a ginger beer brewery, and the smart thing to do, he had found, was to just go ahead and build what you wanted to build or install what you wanted to install and hope no one noticed – or could be bothered to do something about it.
That means criminals creating more criminals – it encourages law-abiding citizens to break the law to avoid being ripped off.
But if you do go through the official channels, just when you think they have no idea, no safeguards and no genuine regulations, they’ll come up with something in the name of health and safety or security that seems illogical, but appears to be a rule introduced for the benefit of the public. However, you’re so wary of being taken for a ride that you’ll use your intuition rather than accepting their “expertise.”
Public officials (in this day and age we can’t call them “servants”: it’s too demeaning) are part of the same group as police officers: we should look up to them and trust them.
But in the current climate, rather than feeling protected, looked after by the powers-that-be, we’re wary, not convinced that their intentions are honourable.
If Trinidad and Tobago is to reverse the trend and become a place of mutual respect and proud efficiency, it’s going to mean a sea change in attitudes. But it presents the opportunity to revolutionise the country’s image and steal a march on all the other unhelpful, sullen, devious societies that lurk in beautiful places, trading on a misleading public image.