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Raffique Shah


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Play mas with your medals

By Raffique Shah
Jan 01, 2012

A few weeks ago, Dr Brinsley Samaroo telephoned me. After we exchanged pleasantries, he got down to stating the purpose of his call. House Speaker Wade Mark had asked him to make contact with a number of ex-parliamentarians whom he (Mark) wanted to recognise for their service to Parliament, and, presumably, to country. Brinsley informed me that I was among those selected, and he wanted to inform me and to gather some biographical data from me.

“Brinsley, you must be joking!” I exclaimed. “I served for only one term, and during that short time I do not think I distinguished myself in any way. So what’s with this recognition thing? I’m sorry, but I must decline.”

I went on to say that if the Speaker wanted to pay tribute to those who served, he should select only MPs and senators who made sterling contributions. Brinsley said he agreed with my reasoning, and there our conversation ended.

Sometime later, when this country hosted a convention of Commonwealth Speakers at NAPA, I saw on television where Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar presented a plaque to Basdeo Panday. I imagine others—ex-speakers and presidents of the Senate, as well as MPs and senators, may have been honoured. But my media colleagues, with more than a hint of mischief, focused only on Kamla and Bas.

I should add that Panday, who served as an elected member for 34 years as both Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister, was more than deserving of the highest award Parliament could bestow. This holds true for Patrick Manning too, who has an amazing 40 years service to his credit. Whatever Panday and Manning may have done to incur the ire of citizens within recent times, we must admit that they made significant contributions to the development of our nation.

On the other hand, there were many parliamentarians who simply warmed their seats, enjoyed the perks (tax-free vehicles, special passports), and flushed themselves through the system for as long as their parties or the electors tolerated them. In my time, there was a PNM MP who did not make a single intervention in debates in five years! Panday quipped (of him), “Mr Speaker, he would not open his mouth even to yawn!” And he was not solo as a non-performer.

I make these observations as we enter 2012, the year in which we celebrate 50 years as an independent nation. We have much to be thankful for; maybe our greatest achievement is that we have not imploded along ethnic or religious fault lines, however unkind we may have been to each other. Also, for all our shortcomings, we have not descended into a “failed state”, a fate that befell many one-time colonies.

There will be enough time over the next 12 months to discuss and debate our achievements and failures, post-independence. However, today I shall focus on the issue of recognition and awards, of which there will be a surfeit in 2012. Whenever Independence Day comes around, people scan the list of awardees to see if they know the recipients, and if they believe they are deserving of the awards bestowed on them. Personally, I have long felt that successive governments have devalued our awards by distributing them like Christmas hampers.

Surely, the nation’s highest award (the Trinity Cross, now the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago) should be bestowed only on citizens who have distinguished themselves way above their peers. Or those who have given immense service to the nation.

But that’s just my thinking. Others may feel that every Tom, Dick and Harrilal who shouts “Trini-to-de-bone!” from a street corner deserves national recognition. If that’s the will of the majority, who am I to gripe?

Still, I cannot help but comment on Government’s decision to award medals to all personnel who worked during the recent State of Emergency. Note, I wrote “worked”, not “served”. Because what the soldiers, sailors, and police, prisons and fire officers did during the SoE was little different to what they do in the normal course of duty. They would have worked extra hours—for which all but members of the Defence Force would have earned generous overtime payments.

They fought no war, unless they view fighting crime and criminals as “war”. Law enforcement agencies across the world do this routinely. It’s their job. If we take Mexico’s police officers and soldiers as an example, they can claim to be involved in a “war”, since the drug cartels there are violent in the extreme. Many officers and their families have been wiped out as they tried to restore normalcy to a nation under siege.

I do not know that the Mexican government has awarded medals, except, perhaps, in instances when law officers acted with valour, or otherwise distinguished themselves. So what do we make of our Government sharing out around 15,000 medals to our uniformed personnel? I certainly think it’s ill conceived, even stupid.

Think of the logistics. It would take about a week if each officer is to be presented with his medal personally! Madness! Look, I come from a military generation and tradition in which awards were scarce like gold. Most British soldiers who earned the Victoria Cross, won it posthumously! Even lesser awards—MC, MM, DSC, DSM—meant the loss of a limb in action, or a wound.

In other words, an award to service personnel must have meaning. Service during a State of Emergency simply does not count. But we live in our own synthetic cocoon, steeped in a Carnival culture. I suppose the awardees can take their medals and play mas.

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