Her Excellency Paula-Mae Weekes became the sixth President of the Republic on Monday last. She gave an inaugural speech that was universally well received.
Her central theme was the question of what are we to do when “in the state of the State, we might see every reason to despair.”
President Weekes recommended that every citizen “be light and see light” and advised that “being a light does not necessitate grand schemes or accomplishments.”
She encouraged us each to be a light in the home, the community, and the workplace by being examples of good behaviour, discipline, politeness, punctuality, honesty, tolerance and other virtues.
In a firm manner, she reminded us of our individual civic responsibilities “to turn our beloved nation into what it ought to have been and still can be.”
All of this was punctuated by applause during delivery of the speech. However, in keeping with her realistic appraisal of our society, the President made an observation that struck at the core of our endemic laissez-faire, leave-it-to-others attitude: “I am always amazed at the way many of us behave as if the National Anthem is for our entertainment rather than an opportunity to express afresh our national identity. We don’t sing and then, at the end, we applaud.”
There is a likelihood, therefore, that the inaugural speech of President Weekes was simply received as the headline act of entertainment on the occasion of a ‘feel good’ day; but listening to many of the comments on her election and her speech, one could see clearly that, paradoxically, many of those applauding also believed that it was the task of President Weekes to relieve the crime, violence and injustice with which the society is now riddled.
As a result, within the rest of the inauguration week, persons were describing the new President as an agent of change, calling on her to probe things and indicating they will be sending matters to her to take action—their frustration with our sorry state driving them to forget that the President has no executive power.
What we need to do in response to the President’s replenishing of the reservoirs of hope is embrace and individually implement her prescriptions for civic turnaround.
Sixteen years ago, in a column entitled “Where’s the hope,” I referenced a statement of the differently abled (hearing and vision absent) but great humanitarian, Helen Keller: “The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of heroes but also by the aggregate of the tiny shoves of each honest worker.”
I extrapolated that statement, in the context of “the dark greed ethic that has poisoned the land continuously” to warn that “it will be a long journey back from the arrogance of the oil and gas money, and from the divisive battering that we have suffered and are still suffering; but we can do it with each little shove.”
Helen Keller also asserted that “until the great mass of people shall be filled with a sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”
The theme of being lights for each other is a common theme running through the thoughts of great humanitarians and the speech of President Weekes. She has pledged “to work tirelessly night and day to do my best, by word and deed, both to be a light and to spread the light of others.” The challenge is whether we will heed her and each play a part to build on that theme and work towards a more civilised society.
Worthy of admiration also was the opening salutation of President Weekes: “Fellow citizens, from the least among you to the greatest and other distinguished guests.”
Can we also hope this example will lead to diminishing the practice of adulatory greetings of our rulers? Can we equally diminish the strutting entourages that ruthlessly sweep away the least among us?
Is there also a case to be made for confining fanfares to formal occasions such as the opening of Parliament and the official Independence Day celebrations, including the National Awards, Independence Day being the date to which many citizens hope that the awards ceremony will be returned?