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Black Power 1970

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Breaking down the walls of Westminster

...breaching Parliament’s dress code
from Best to Yetming

Yetming in center
Gerald Yetming in the House with Camille Robinson Regis (left)
Ken Valley and Opposition Leader Patrick Manning

January 31, 2001
By Raffique Shah

DAYS before he was appointed Minister of Finance in the new UNC Government, Gerald Yetming, a key back-room player in the party’s election campaign, surfaced as an identifiable member of Prime Minister Basdeo Panday’s "inner Cabinet", even though the constitutionally recognised Cabinet was yet to be named. His elevation from the UNC's electoral "engine room" to being one of the select few around the PM was hardly a novelty: in the aftermath of the party's 17-17 draw in the 1995 election, ex-PNM minister Brian Kuei Tung was similarly paraded by the UNC, and he, too, went on to hold the finance portfolio.

What was different, though, was Yetming's mode of dress. Instead of the trademark business suit, the ex-banker chose to wear elegant business shirts designed and made by Meiling, no less. I watched that aspect of his personality with interest, especially after he was sworn in as Minister of Finance. He wore suits when he was sworn in as a minister at President's House and as a senator at the formal opening of Parliament. But thereafter he turned up in the House of Representatives (and later in the Senate and at public functions) I sensed that someone would raise objections to his unconventional dress in the House, but I expected that to come from the Speaker. But then I had cut my parliamentary teeth under the watchful, neo-colonial eyes of one Arnold Thomasos, a stickler for British conventions, a Speaker who saw his House (yes, he did act as though he owned Parliament) as an extension of the Westminster Chamber. Dr Rupert Griffith, Panday's choice for Speaker for the current session of Parliament, is clearly no Thomasos. Frankly, he looks quite lost sitting in the chair: he operates as a "UNC Speaker", putting the hurt on his one-time PNM colleagues for their outbursts or heckling and ignoring those from the Government's benches.

It was not the Speaker, though, who brought Yetming's dress to the attention of the senator and the House. It was Colm Imbert, the irrepressible PNM MP for Diego Martin East, who drew the issue to the Speaker's attention. According to Imbert, Yetming's deviation from what was considered official parliamentary wear, the business suit, left room for the decline in "standards" in the House. And in the Senate, Imbert's colleague, Senator Danny Montano, was delegated to raise the issue.

I am not surprised that it was the PNM members who made an issue of Yetming's dress in Parliament. The party that held power from back in 1956 has remained steeped in British colonial traditions hammered into its members by its founder and first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams. Williams, like most of his contemporaries in the Third World, stoutly resisted colonialism in its many manifestations—except for its dress codes. As a consequence, he insisted that the suit be standard dress for all occasions on which the British would have used it. It certainly became the code for the parliamentary chamber and it was adopted by the opposition until sometime in the 1971-76 session.

The first break came with Roy Richardson, one of the 36 PNMites who had won their seats by default in the opposition's no-vote campaign during the 1971 election. Richardson, the MP for Point Fortin, broke with the PNM and went on to form a one-man opposition. He was then entitled to name six senators, and among those he chose was Basdeo Panday who needed no prompting in adopting the business suit. Later though, in changing around his senators, he selected the Tapia quartet of Lloyd Best, Denis Solomon, Ivan Laughlin and Hamlet Joseph. It was they who made the first break with the colonial tradition.

Denis recalls they had decided to opt for the "guayabera", a Cuban-style dress shirt that is eminently suited to our tropical climactic conditions. But they needed to negotiate with the president of the Senate, Dr Wahid Ali. Eventually, a compromise was arrived at: the Tapia members wore what were then known as "Nehru suits", the main deviation here being a collar-less jacket. So it was not the ULF team of 1976 that made the first break with the colonial suit.

When our turn came in 1976 to take up our seats in the House as the duly elected opposition, there was no question of me wearing a suit: I had long rid myself of that mode of wear, having donated my few jackets to some vagrants after I came out of prison. George Weekes, Joe Young, Clive Nunez and the rest of the ULF frontline members who were part of the Black Power revolution of 1970, held similar positions regarding suits. And although some, like Allan Alexander and Lennox Pierre, were forced to wear suits in court, they eschewed that dress outside its precincts. So we held talks on what dress we thought we should wear and settled for the shirt-jac. We held no consultations with Speaker Thomasos. We simply did our thing.

I recall well the day we were sworn in at the first sitting of the parliament of the newly-proclaimed republic. I wore a kakhi shirt-jac suit and my army boots (it was the only occasion on which I did that; thereafter, I wore normal shoes). I can never forget the expression on Williams' face when I was sworn in by Clerk of the House, Eammon Carter. I took the affirmation with a clenched fist (Black Power symbol) and Williams looked repulsed almost beyond control. Kamaluddin Mohammed, leader of government business at the time, was also a picture of grave concern. The rebels had stormed parliament, only they used the ballot, not bullets!

Our decision to move away from the suit, born in the anti-colonial struggle of the 1960s, had two facets that need to be noted. Firstly, we felt that in order to truly break from the European traditions that we had inherited from centuries of colonialism, we needed to break with the forms of dress they had decreed as informal, formal, etc.. It should be noted here that the very Englishmen who had decreed the business suit as formal wear also wore short pants, a kind of shirt-jac and "cork" hats when they were doing regular work. That held true especially for those who worked in industries as opposed to those who worked in the commercial sector or in offices.

Secondly, since unlike other colonials—Indians, Africans, Malaysians, and others—we had no identifiable national dress, we needed to invent one. Based on our climactic conditions, it was clear that even light suits weren't the best wear for the tropics. Too, common sense indicated that cotton, a fabric that breathes and absorbs sweat, was what was most suitable for the tropics. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru, that country's first Prime Minister, had adopted what would later be known as the "Nehru suit". It was similar in many respects to what Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, among other African leaders, chose as their formal national wear. In Cuba, besides his "battle fatigues", Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries had adopted the cotton "guayabera": Cheddi Jagan and Michael Manley were two Caricom leaders who also made their anti-colonial statements via the "guayabera".

Here, however, with no national dress and the PNM, the DLP and their predecessor parties and members of the legislature sticking to the dress codes defined by the British, it took the "rebels of 1976" to break down the walls of Westminster.

That day in September 1976 when we marched into Parliament with our varied shirt-jacs, was an historic one, even moreso than when Best and his "Tapiamen" did a few years earlier. It ought to have been the beginning of the end of the colonial suit not only in Parliament, but in boardrooms and at other formal occasions across the country.

Sadly, that was not the case. Shortly after the ULF split in 1977/78, Panday and his MPs (Kelvin Ramnath and Nizam Mohammed) reverted to the suit. Those who remained in my faction of the party stuck to the shirt-jac throughout our term of office. By the time the members of a new Parliament were sworn in1981, the suit had returned on the opposition benches. Only John Humphrey, as I remember, wore the "Nehru suit". Later, when the NAR routed the PNM, there was quite a mixture of attire on the government benches. Prime Minister Arthur NR Robinson stuck to the suit (although he wore the shirt-jac on less formal occasions) as did most of his ministers, including Panday. But others like Lincoln Myers chose unconventional wear. Later, with the UNC co-opting one-time Marxists like Wade Mark into the Senate, we again saw the presence of the "Nehru suit".

Yetming, however, has challenged the parliamentary dress code one step further. He wears a white cotton shirt outside his pants (I used to wear denim, and if I may blow my own trumpet, the pants/shirt-jacs were always clean, neatly pressed, and elegant). While Yetming's style clearly breaches the established norms in the House and Senate, I don't believe the Finance Minister should be booted out of the chamber, nor should he be forced to conform. If anything, Parliament, not Yetming, needs to revisit its dress code. Those who choose to wear suits should continue to do so, although I often wonder how it feels wearing these thick garments in the broiling heat.

But those who wish to be more comfortable ought not to be denied their seats in the House based purely on their modes of dress. As I told Speaker Thomasos when he once confronted me about my denim shirt-jacs, "Speaker, watch how neat and clean I look. Now, go into the chamber and sniff the suits of any member you choose, then tell me who smells better, cleaner!" Thomasos, who seemed to be someone who slept in suits, was not impressed. But it was the truth: suits are worn for weeks before they are laundered, and in our climactic conditions, they must begin to smell musty, if not downright stink, after one has sweated in them.

The PNM is on soft ground on this issue. The party has not altered its own dress code for 45 years: maybe it needs to do that now to keep up with the times. It is true that some young people who enter the professions continue to wear suits, as do insurance salesmen. But most nationals of this country no longer own or wear suits. And if the PNM, or any other party, is to attract youth to its ranks, it must change—or die. I am not suggesting that Parliament be reduced to a Carnival band, a riot of colours and styles. But there is nothing wrong with Yetming's dress.

In fact, I admire and respect the minister for his less-than-formal attire at various functions, including those at which the hosts wear suits even as the guest of honour chooses cotton shirts.

In any event, we do not need to go to war over what a man wears. There are issues that are infinitely more important than Yetming's attire, and I want to suggest to the PNM MPs and senators that they focus of these rather than on Yetming. But now that he has brought the Parliamentary dress code under scrutiny, maybe Senate President Ganace Ramdial, someone who is often seen in "guayaberas" and shirt-jacs, can use his influence to relax the strict colonial dress codes that we carry like leftover Union Jacks 39 years after independence. And for the records, we must remember it was Lloyd Best and his Tapia colleagues who first broke down the walls of Westminster as they extended into our Parliament.

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Copyright © Raffique Shah