In my article of last week I pointed out that we should be thankful that we live in a country which has a robust democratic tradition and that, despite its limited resources, has yet maintained from the very beginning of its autonomous political status all the features of a progressive welfare state such as universal pension, free health care, free education, many other social benefits for the elderly, widows and orphans, the disabled and so on.
And that, on this and other counts too, the country compares favourably not only with others in the vicinity but even with some of the developed ones if we were to look at the socio-economic indices and indicators, when we make allowance for size and resources.
By no means did I imply that we are, therefore, a perfect or an ideal country – for ‘all that glitters is not gold’ as the saying goes. When we look at the larger picture, we seem to have many of the systems and structures in place for things to run smoothly, and yet we know that this not always the case. There is always the obverse of the coin, a flip side to all that on the surface appears to be fine. From the economic point of view, we have to face the reality captured in the expression ‘there is no free lunch’. On the other hand, in social terms, we know that whatever is provided free is not only not always appreciated at its just value, but is open to abuse as well, as I explained in relation to claims for medical disability in my article.
Going further, it is when we take a more critical look at various sectors that we come to know about the dysfunctions and ills that afflict all of them to a lesser or a greater degree. These are uncovered and exposed in the media and other forums, either through individual complaints, in different social forums or even more loudly at the very centre of the democratic set-up, namely the Parliament when it is in session, as is currently the case. Elected representatives crossing swords with each other across the divide over, for example, misappropriation of State lands, that held the attention of the National Assembly on Tuesday last, amongst other matters that were debated amidst expletives that would normally belong to more mundane levels. They do not do honour to the augustness of the House. But there you are, that’s also democracy that allows freedom of expression.
This sends the concept of democracy and liberalism to the drawing board, as it were, as it also then engages the probity, responsibility and quality of the individuals who intervene at such levels, where refinement ought to be the overriding characteristic. And that would depend on that very important dimension called character, which is to an extent innate, the remainder being part of one’s upbringing, of one’s culture and nurture. Starting from the family and the community, a mix of values imparted – or not imparted! – during one’s education and/or professional or vocational pathway. That is why we need philosophers and thinkers to show us the way, and they have indeed but because those who ought to do not heed their insights and admonitions, the image of the country gets tarnished by the waywardness that instead follows.
Since the example must always come from the top, and it doesn’t, the malady filters down to all levels down to the very bottom, the street and the gutter. When we look around, therefore, we cannot help to find something amiss almost everywhere. There are wrongs and contradictions that follow from decisions taken as well as deficiencies in procedures and processes. To these can be added social ills that arise from individual acts and systemic factors in the highly stressed environment that characterizes our modern society.
True enough, when we consider such deviations in statistical terms sector by sector, e.g. criminal offences, number of road accidents and the associated mortality and morbidity, complaints about health care, incidents involving students, etc., we may find that the ratios of ‘abnormal’ to ‘normal’ are low. As a result, we may conclude that they are not alarming, and that the ‘system’ is in any case dealing with the problems, as part of what we could call the ‘natural order’ of things.
But we all know that statistics do not tell the whole story: one gruesome crime of passion, for example, as happened at the beginning of this week, is enough to shake the conscience of the whole country. One ‘telescoping’ accident on the motorway caused by a rash driver at peak hours can cause widespread major disruptions. And we could multiply these examples several fold.
We have had our share of financial scams and corruption scandals. More laws and more regulations seem to take us further and further away from any permanence in the resolution of these events that turn the country upside down with all their ramifications, even to other shores, pitching us to a sort of perverted Ivy League status almost. Citizens are powerless witnesses to these scandals even as they are struggling to make ends meet, what with costs and prices ever on the rise. The glib talk about not millions, but hundreds of millions and even billions that is now almost commonplace when it comes to all kinds of transactions, public and private, is definitely not music to their ears. The rising inequalities can only accentuate the pains of living for the common man.
Decades down the line, we are still going back and forth about an efficient, sustainable and clean transport system that would do justice to a country that boasts of being in the upper middle income category. Meanwhile, the fleet of vehicles is expanding at such a rate, with a proliferation of ‘auto-points’ at every nook and corner, that it looks likely that in a foreseeable future there will be more vehicles than people on the island. We are already choking on both the highways and the byways, not to speak of the mayhem that takes place whenever there is heavy rain even for a short period. When, if ever, are we going to resolve this public transport issue to national satisfaction? How many more expert teams and reports will we need?
We can get very pessimistic for our country when we get down to the details, and we have to be very brave to keep our heads high and absorb the shocks that keep repeating and shaking the polity. Hope for the future lies in only one fundamental: that each one of us plays our assigned role and perform our duty as best we can, with sincerity and purpose. In this way, like the drops that go to make the ocean, our individual efforts may coalesce to make the wheel of the country turn without a hitch. The alternative is too painful to contemplate, an iterative derailment at every stop on the way to the future. As our rector at the RCC used to say in the morning assembly, ‘Let us pray’.
* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016