‘Pray for the country’

We can choose to ape the divisive trends that are shaking some societies violently. Or we consciously decide that we’d rather not shipwreck like the MV Wakashio but instead stay afloat

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Edward Everett Hale was a prodigious child who joined Harvard University at the age of 13. He rose to become a minister, a writer and historian. In 1903 he became chaplain of the US Senate. Once somebody asked him, ‘Dr Hale, do you pray for the senators?’ He replied, ‘No. I look at the Senators and pray for the country.’

“There are a few realities that we should reckon with as we construct this common future. To start with, all of us on this island are here by an accident of history, and all of us are descendants of migrants who originate from outside – Europe, Africa, India, China. And we need not be ashamed of our origins – like the guy who told me he was proud to belong to a line of erstwhile corsairs. None of us is a native or has any more claim to the land than his fellow citizen. We have gone through rough times but the advent of independence and the farsightedness of our leaders made us put them behind us and look ahead instead…”


If he were to be looking at the current turmoil in several cities across the US, he would probably have said, ‘I look at the senators and the people and pray for the country.’

In fact, what with Covid-19 still spreading, the unrest in so many countries and regions in the world no doubt calls for all world citizens to pray not only for their respective countries but for the whole world. However, even if this were to happen, there is no guarantee that the prayers would be as effective as optimists would wish them to be. After all, humanity has been praying for centuries altogether, but that hasn’t prevented successive hordes from preying on others both within and outside their borders, perhaps an indication of the relative failure of the appeal to the divine.

Part of the reason for this could probably be because the sincere prayers emanating from cultures and traditions which seek the health and well-being of everyone irrespectively suffer some neutralization by the solicitations to the divine of other believers who focus on their own welfare rather than that of the world at large.

Whatever be, we must still hope against hope and continue to direct our collective endeavours towards the restoration of sanity and security the world over. If we want humanity not only to survive but to prosper, that’s the only way forward – our existential choice is indeed very limited. And this applies to our country too.

We can choose to ape the divisive trends that are shaking some societies violently with loss of lives and public or personal assets, what in the case of the US President Donald Trump has called ‘domestic terror’, which only a few days ago erupted – yet again – in Sweden and Norway. Or we consciously decide that we’d rather not shipwreck like the MV Wakashio but instead stay afloat and make our way in the world to destinations of our choosing: safe ones where we can put our shoulders together and build the future that we would like to leave to our children and grandchildren. This means pooling our individual strengths and talents and putting them at the service of the nation for, as the cliché goes, unity is strength.

There are a few realities that we should reckon with as we construct this common future. To start with, all of us on this island are here by an accident of history, and all of us are descendants of migrants who originate from outside – Europe, Africa, India, China. And we need not be ashamed of our origins – like the guy who told me he was proud to belong to a line of erstwhile corsairs. None of us is a native or has any more claim to the land than his fellow citizen. We have gone through rough times but the advent of independence and the farsightedness of our leaders made us put them behind us and look ahead instead. As a result we managed to avert the predicament – becoming a basket case — that was predicted to be our fate according to the Titmuss-Meade Report around the time of independence.

On the contrary, maintaining the welfare state that granted us universal health care, a universal pension scheme with various social benefits, free education among others, along with consolidating or setting up the institutional infrastructure needed – together with deft diplomatic negotiations such as the Lome Convention – to sustain and propel forward our developing new country, we hitched ourselves further higher to be cited as a model of democracy in Sub Saharan Africa and with matching human development indices that we could justifiably be proud of.

By leaps and bounds we made the transition from being a monocrop economy to industrialise and to diversify into tourism and services. We would be dishonest if we were to deny that there has been a marked improvement in the general standard of living of the people that has taken place in the five decades since independence, with the state guaranteeing equal opportunities and equal human rights to all its citizens as provided for in the Constitution.

By the same token we would be fooling ourselves to aver that everything is perfect – especially at a time when even the largest and richest democracies are being convulsed, their underbelly of yawning inequalities and vulnerabilities literally exploding in the face in the wake of the Covid pandemic – which we, tiny island with limited resources, have managed to control. We too have inequalities and pockets of poverty, as even the most advanced countries have, despite their vast riches and other resources, whereas we have no natural resources – our only resource being our people.

We now add up to about 1.2 million in population, in a territory of 720 sq. miles. This compares with the over 5 million people in Singapore which is about 250 sq. miles. Theoretically therefore we could accommodate a good few millions more. In other words, there is plenty of space to go around for everybody who is here, and nobody is pushing anybody out! For, aside from those who have already migrated elsewhere – something which happens to all countries – Covid-19 has changed all the parameters. Instead of going away, people are coming back now, and so much the better. We need all our people, for there is enough land space for all of us. What is required is to expand further scopes and opportunities already rolled out to keep all the able-bodied occupied and gainfully employed in order to meet individual and family needs.

Irrational and impulsive actions based on prejudices and the darker and baser instincts will only put us back, and they must be avoided at all cost. 20 years ago, in 2000, shortly after the MMM-MSM alliance came to power, we prepared the first PRSP – Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, which was a complement to the UNDAF, the United Nations Development Assistance Framework, in both of which I was involved as I was then at the WHO, leaving at the end of 2000.

What happened to the PRSP and the UNDAF – and any updates brought about thereafter? Why does poverty persist despite so much work done and so many actionable recommendations made? It was around the same time, at the turn of the century that the drugs epidemic began to rear its ugly head anew and corruption became a byword in our daily life. These are the two major plagues that as a country we must address over and above tackling all the ongoing issues and challenges that the pandemic is forcing upon us. This means joining in a national effort in which all parties assume their responsibilities and play a constructive role, where there is no place for the blame game and scapegoating which will lead us nowhere.


* Published in print edition on 4 September 2020

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