Fellow Citizens, birth usually occasions great joy, celebration and optimism. Those who bear witness to the happy event, whether present or afar, visualise a bright and promising future for the newborn, even if they harbour well-founded concerns and anxieties about its wellbeing in the years to come. The birth of a nation is no different. When on 31st August 1962, the newly independent Trinidad and Tobago took its first tentative steps into the world, citizens were bursting with abundant hope for blessings of prosperity, stability and harmony, though conscious of the potential for challenges and obstacles along the way. In his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams outlined his vision and expectation for Trinidad and Tobago as it embarked on its life as a nation and his sentiments were wholeheartedly embraced by the ecstatic population, and older heads still remember the content and tenor of his speech. Over the ensuing years, various pearls of wisdom have assumed particular relevance in given contexts. On this our 59th birthday, I invite the nation to reflect upon the following excerpts: “You are on your own in a big world, in which you are one of many nations, some small, some medium size, some large.” “The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy…Democracy means recognition of the rights of others. Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in the public service, and in private employment.” “Democracy, finally, rests on a higher power than Parliament. It rests on an informed and cultivated and alert public opinion. The Members of Parliament are only representatives of the citizens. They cannot represent apathy and indifference. They can play the part allotted to them only if they represent intelligence and public spiritness (sic).” “Whatever the challenge that faces you, from whatever quarter, place always first that national interest and the national cause. The strength of the Nation depends on the strength of its citizens.” Our journey towards the fulfilment of these goals and aspirations has been replete with highs and lows, not unlike the ebb and flow of human life. We have achieved laudable milestones, including Republican status in 1976, enjoying the oil boom, offering free education at all levels, revelling in Olympic glory, and distinguishing ourselves in sport, the arts, international beauty pageants and other notable endeavours. We have also had experiences which can be likened to mid-life crises, among them, the 1990 attempted coup d’état, rampant and increasing criminal activity, overt racism, states of emergency, periods of economic downturn, and recently perhaps the most deleterious of all, the Covid-19 pandemic. It cannot be gainsaid that the national psyche has taken a battering over the past year and a half. As we grapple with the multifarious issues arising from the pandemic, for example, shocks to our education system, vaccine hesitancy, economic fallout in the public and private sector, social isolation and the curtailment of some of our constitutional freedoms, we are reminded that as a nation we are on our own during this pandemic, solely responsible for our welfare and, that even as we operate under a state of emergency, the protection and promotion of our democracy is paramount. We cannot lose sight of the fact that democracy champions both our individual rights and the rights of others and that a necessary safeguard is a knowledgeable and aware public, making decisions premised on reliable and evidence-based information. Those listening to Dr. Williams’s Independence address might have assumed that by now we would have put our teething problems, together with our colonial past, well behind us. However, we have learned that national development is a never-ending task and positive results cannot be attained or retained without the ongoing commitment of the citizenry. It is dispiriting that as we mark our 59th anniversary, we must still clamour for sound infrastructure, smooth roads, a steady water supply, functional social services, a manageable cost of living, security for person and property, justice on time, fair wages and accountability in public affairs, and in these calamitous times, quality healthcare. These fair and reasonable expectations may even seem to be moving further away rather than getting closer, causing us to wonder if instead of the nation moving forward, it is regressing. These developmental adversities, the equivalent of human growing pains, are part and parcel of the journey to full adult nationhood and our independent status and ambitions require that we stay the course. We have some ways to go before we can consider ourselves to be full-grown, but we are at an appropriate juncture to take a collective deep breath and refocus on the Independence project initiated in 1962. Dr. Williams was clear in his determination of Trinidad and Tobago: we are nobody’s boss and nobody is our boss. Inherent in that is that the success of our ongoing Independence venture lies solely at our doorstep. We often look at developed countries and covet their progress and successes without considering their history, hardship and challenges in arriving at their present status. They did not mature overnight, and neither will we. If we are to reach their stage of development, we have to be prepared to work together, make the sacrifices, rally through the difficult times, and learn from our mistakes. Discipline, Production and Tolerance must become more than our national watchwords; they must be etched into our individual psyches and attitudes. As we celebrate our 59th anniversary, let us make every effort to tap into the dedication, aspiration and civic mindedness exercised so boldly by the witnesses to our nation’s birth, to rekindle the fires of hope and prayer that burned brightly in the hearts of every citizen on the eve of our Independence and to stand confident in the knowledge that, even as manifold challenges abound, if ‘together we aspire, together we achieve’. I extend best wishes for a safe and happy Independence Day to every member of the national community. Happy Birthday! May God Bless Our Nation.
January 10, 2020
August 27, 2019