Fellow citizens, numerous poets and other wordsmiths have composed clever and profound ways of describing the anticipation of a new year. Among my favourites are the words of English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier.’”

But I suspect that we can whisper ‘it will be happier’ until we are blue in the face and still not realise our hopes, dreams and aspirations for Trinidad and Tobago in 2021. And so the question is “How do we translate our yearnings into achievable certainty?” During the course of a year, I receive countless letters from citizens. Some are philosophical, commentative or side-splitting, like Robert who just this week emailed me with the subject line: A Date, inviting me to have dinner with him. Of greater concern however, are the plaintive, angry or desperate letters, whose writers are sometimes incoherent in their pain. Invariably, they are asking me to provide them with relief from adversity, ranging from the perennial issues of crime, racism and joblessness, to the new challenges on the block—illegal immigration, stranding abroad, and closure of businesses.

In such cases, I am generally unable to supply a solution to their problems, given the constitutional limitations and conventional restrictions of my office. I cannot direct the Minister of National Security to open the borders, nor instruct the HDC to supply housing for a single mother with six children. I cannot unilaterally pardon a convict and Commander-in-Chief or not, I cannot give anyone a job in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force. I empathise with the authors, for which many express their gratitude, inform them of my constraints and let them know that I will forward their correspondence to the relevant authority with a request for due consideration. Some communicate their disappointment at the impotence of the office.

Constitutional and legal functions aside, one power, and duty, of the President is to keep the people’s problems front and centre of the national agenda, using appropriate occasions and events to deliver a word fitly spoken, a word to the wise. In this context, I do not consider the office a soapbox for my personal views as much as a platform from which to speak truth to power.

This New Year’s Day message affords me such an opportunity to speak for and on behalf of the citizenry, of which I am a part, and to communicate the people’s concerns, which are many, varied and entirely reasonable. While the government of the day may well have some of these matters in its sights, those in the kitchen are feeling the heat daily and are not sympathetic to hackneyed excuses, promises of action and sob stories of doing one’s best, which they have heard ad nauseum, with nothing to show for it.

Tennyson’s assurances, like Stalin’s ‘Better Days are Coming’, ring hollow without some demonstrable proof that those who are charged with the responsibility of improving our lives and addressing our issues are on the job, working assiduously to formulate and execute plans, policies and programmes that redound to our benefit in the short, medium and long terms. Open communication and total transparency are integral to any such approach.

Public officials have to stop being so secretive (except in the interest of national security), paranoid, and dismissive of the anxieties of our citizens. They make decisions and take action under our authority and on our behalf, and we are therefore entitled to be kept in the loop about relevant developments.

Those in authority must, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion and reproach in all their dealings. The vast majority of Trinbagonians are naturally given to optimism, and it is only as a result of repeated distractions, obfuscation and outright lies by successive administrations, that they have become jaded and sceptical about matters in the public domain. Procurement, border security and the exemption policy in respect of nationals abroad are only some examples of the subjects about which our citizens clamour for clarity.

The term ‘talking turkey’ means engaging in honest and frank discussion and now that the season of eating turkey is past, it is time to ‘talk turkey’ as we move into 2021, dragging our problems behind us. We would all like to have cause to be optimistic, even if cautiously so, about our fortunes in the new year.

Let us with urgency have those national conversations followed by the necessary action, or else although from today the dates on our diaries and cheques read 2021, we will still be haunted by the ghosts of 2020.
Can we make good on our national pledge to work together with our fellowmen of every creed and race, for the greater happiness of all? The new year can indeed be happier with its promise, not only of a vaccine against Covid-19, but also of the opportunity to have learnt from the mistakes of the year past and to change for the better.

The wisdom of American author William E. Vaughan is that, “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves”. Perhaps we can all benefit from being a little bit of each. I encourage all citizens, including those who find themselves in challenging circumstances, to stay the course. There is the possibility of better in every tomorrow. There is a reason that hope springs eternal in the human breast.

As we ring out the old, ring in the new, we raise an optimistic toast to a safe, healthy and happy New Year.

May God bless our nation.