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Baby Talk

By Terry Joseph
October 05, 2002

By way of contrasting increasingly rare incidence of good news in Trinidad and Tobago, the current political campaign ends tomorrow.

After weeks of platform posturing, nothing substantial may be found in the campaign residue, except proof of the theory that, like babies, politicians talk a language adults find singularly humourous.

We're not just here musing on the obvious fun-stuff like Hazel Manning's "breakfusses," that juicy slice of malapropism rendered both inedible and indelible; coming from our Education Minister.

As is widely known, Mrs Manning's plural misadventure cannot even be scored for originality, having emanated from an office of already tainted precedent, where a female forerunner publicly gushed about her preference in "pipe."

Gaffes from the sanctified seat of education are not gender-specific either. Well before Mrs Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Dr Adesh Nanan (aka The Tabaquite Tiger) stunned a group of graduating teachers, with an irretrievable mispronunciation of the word "paradigm."

Nor is it all history. In a full-colour advertisement covering page two of Tuesday's Trinidad Guardian, the UNC mis-spelt its very motto, omitting the letter "r" from "Strong Leadership for a Safe T&T" which, given popular perception, led a couple of pseudo-comedians to speculate about: "Who gone with the 'R' already?"

Nonetheless, those picong-friendly foibles might easily be laughed away on both sides of the major political divide but UNC leader Basdeo Panday's most recent promise, a plan to pay for making babies cannot, under any pretext, qualify for such protection.

According to Mr Panday, beginning New Year's Day, each baby born will earn $1,500 worth of Unit Trust certificates. This thoroughly reckless proposal has been quantified as $29 million per year at current rates, a figure destined to rise exponentially if we start paying for "whoopee."

Apart from risking interpretation of the scheme as a signal to Indian Trinidadians to lawfully "enhance" the electoral list, Mr Panday's plan could really backfire if massive "Douglarisation" occurs instead.

Even if taken seriously, Mr Panday's latest sweetener has evidently not considered the real cost of bringing up children. He can, of course, be forgiven for forgetting how few share his luck at getting kids comfortably through school, or the even smaller number able to accord them luxury apartments at any stage of matriculation.

The only immediate temptation offered by the plan at first hearing, therefore, is the attraction of putting to doubly-productive use, the election-day mandatory two hours' leave from work. Even so, it may be useful for early-bird "investors" to remember that if Mr Panday's UNC does not win Monday's election, it is not he who will be left holding the baby.

The plan reads suspiciously similar to a recent upgrade of the Singaporean 1980's model, announced in August 2000 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Even more interesting is the closeness of their US$250 per child bribe to Mr Panday's offer of TT$1,500.

In fact, Mr Panday should rush to distance his proposal from that of Goh Chok Tong's predecessor Lee Kuan Yew, whose original concept favoured first-born, an idea that smacked of eugenics by emphasising the role of intellectuals and a certain tribe in "balancing" his society's births.

With Singapore's population set to shrink from 3.2 million to 2.7 million by 2045, a situation that could impact on the prosperity of what is one of the world's richest countries, there may be some justification for awarding cash bonuses to parents who generate more than one offspring.

But in the absence of presenting equally critical local ratios, Mr Panday merely sounds more interested in women earning $1,500 apiece - as it were - than stabilising the fertility rate at the recommended 2.1 figure needed for a population to perpetuate itself.

Information from the Central Statistical Office shows 17,942 births last year, down from 19,258 in 1995. This hardly constitutes a worrying trend, given growing HIV/Aids awareness, a rise in gay lifestyles and migratory patterns of women of childbearing age.

But perhaps this level of analysis is far too conservative an approach to the topic. In his first response to the Panday plan PNM political leader Patrick Manning deflected, saying he would like to hear what the Family Planning Association (FPA) thought of it.

For those who came in late, it was the very PNM that, some 20 years ago, cut off State-subventions to the FPA and on a basis similar to that currently being argued by the UNC, causing the Association to invent the annual telethon as a way of financing continuance.

Mr Manning has since described the plan as "obscene," saying the proposal was designed to encourage irresponsible sexual behaviour and worse,intended merely to attract votes; suggesting by his tone in the latter illation that the PNM's many promises had some deeper or more significant purpose.

Fact is, of the 875,260 persons eligible to vote in Monday's general election, many have grown weary of puerile political exchange and are again likely to demonstrate disgust by declining from the polling process, as more than 35,000 electors did between 2000 and 2001.

But lest defaulters appear irresponsible or ungrateful let me, on behalf of our growing number, thank local politicians for bringing us to this sorry pass, because those of us who can interpret baby talk have at least learnt what to not do.

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