Mitchell De Silva, President AMCHAM T&T
I begin my inaugural speech to you by expressing sincere thanks and appreciation to the Board of Directors of AMCHAM T&T and you, the membership, for having the confidence in me to lead this organization. That said it would be remiss of me to not also acknowledge the many persons and experiences within different organizations that have led me to this latest adventure. My parents, wife, family, friends the Fatima Old Boys Association, colleagues across three financial institutions, Citi, Scotia and RBC, all of whom and which afforded me guidance, encouragement and key learnings. I owe you all a deep sense of gratitude and it is my hope that my performance in this office will fully reflect all that you have instilled in me.
I have been actively involved with AMCHAM T&T for quite a few years, with this being my second and longest stint. Over the years I have seen the organization steadfastly represent you the membership on many different fronts, whether it be regional, hemispheric or domestic our voice has been raised and our presence felt. Testimony to that is evidenced by the fact that our very own former President Nicholas Galt, held the post of Chairman for our regional body, AACCLA, and our immediate Past President Ravi Suryadevara now serves on its Board. I highlight this, not only out of pride and admiration for these distinguished gentlemen, but to emphasize the point that the lobby voice of this Chamber has a depth and breadth to it that few, if any, can lay claim to. All of your past Presidents have been persons who excelled in their respective fields, where they served and in most instances continue to serve with distinction.
Priority 1 - Diversity
This brings me to what I view as one of my priorities as I assume the Presidency, as I look back at previous holders of this office, there appears to be only one instance where a woman was at the helm. In keeping with one of the key goals of the United Nations on Sustainable Development, the organisation’s philosophy and indeed, my own personal beliefs, it is my hope that when I demit office that the Board and you the membership will see it fit to transition the leadership of this Chamber to one of the eminently qualified women who serve on our Board. Like the Presidents of the past, the women on our Board are leaders in their respective fields and are capable and competent as any to assume the Presidency. Forgive this seeming digression as it may seem odd to speak of leaving office when I have just assumed it, but I see this as a priority and a natural fit in the context of the Women in Leadership event that we have successfully hosted for a number of years. AMCHAM T&T must be a standard bearer and an exemplar in evidencing the diversity we promote and while we have achieved same at a Board level the time has come for us to take the next step.
Priority 2- Continued advocacy
As I have highlighted above, we will continue to remain relevant in conversations that affect you the membership, that said, and as another critical priority for my time in office I intend to continue the heightened engagement with Government and critical stakeholders in our economy that characterized Ravi’s Presidency. Our views must and will continue to be tethered to logic, sound judgement and reasoned objectivity. It is only with these values will we remain credible in the eyes of those whom we seek to sway as we work on influencing how as a country we navigate these most turbulent times.
Successive credit downgrades, one firmly entrenched in junk status, rampant violent crime, an untenable Fx situation and a widening of the divide between labour and business together with multiple other threats to our country and wellbeing must be boldly tackled and remedied with urgency.
AMCHAM T&T’s push, as part of the Private Sector / Civil Society Group’s initiative, for the operationalizing of Procurement legislation and the bringing into effect and staffing of the office of the Procurement Regulator is one of a series of critical steps that we believe assists in treating with some of the issues mentioned above. This legislation, once appropriately brought into force, has the potential to radically change the expenditure patterns of the State and significantly improve accountability and oversight on Public spend. Achieving this objective should allow for more efficiency and transparency, thereby limiting instances of artificially inflated project costs and questionable disposal of State assets.
Indeed, the passage and implementation of adequate public procurement legislation is critical to reducing a significant portion of white collar crime.
Our unfortunate reality today is that the surge in crime is evident at all levels, from corruption to widespread violence. Talk of the death penalty and a need for swift justice and a reboot of our judicial and penal systems are spoken of daily. The latter points are indeed needed, however seemingly absent from the national conversation is a focus on what brought us to this juncture and what is required to move us back from it. If we agree the view of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their book Freakonomics, we would have to concede that the solution to our current problems will not happen overnight. In their analysis of crime riddled New York of the 1970s and 80s and its seeming return to sanity in the 1990s and early 2000s, they do not attribute the resurgence to then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but rather to a series of policies and steps taken in the years and decades before that culminated in the significant reduction in crime levels and criminality. Yes, the leadership at the time was in fact a major contributor to the improvements noted, but it was not solely their doing rather a collaborative effort that took years. We need this type of long term vision and planning in our country, the patience to persevere and the will to have seemingly small changes take root. Let me be clear the need for immediate firm action is necessary, but more arrests and prosecutions will not stem the problem on their own, we need a more holistic approach to an issue that is out of control.
Clearly, the problems that confront us are many and our desire for rapid change and course correction is significant. Years of seeming indifference, buoyed by unprecedented growth in our energy sector, as we all well know, masked the inefficiencies and shortcomings of our institutions, systems and tragically undermined our productivity as a people. The entitlement mentality is pervasive across our society, not only at the level of labour, where a day’s pay is exchanged for three hours of work, but even in the very private sector that we hold in such high esteem. Far too often we as a sector cry out to the Government to solve our problems as opposed to creating the solutions on our own. A difficult task yes, impossible, no. I know this point may be difficult to accept, but in this current crisis the Private Sector must take up the challenge to cede from the Government the position of being the main driver of our economy. Again, this will be incremental, as it is foolhardy to believe that we will become the main driver in the short term. In the immediate term however, we must engage the Government in adopting and accepting that its main role in the economy is not that of actor, but rather facilitator. As President of AMCHAM T&T, I recommit the organisation to this process and I appeal to the Government to engage meaningfully as it is only through real collaboration that we can return our country to growth.
As I mentioned previously we see Procurement Legislation and its being brought into effect as an apt example of our efforts to get Government to embrace its role as facilitator. Sadly, we have not achieved complete implementation of the legislation, nor is its roll out occurring as contemplated and advised by the civil society group, nevertheless we continue to press on multiple fronts to have this landmark piece of legislation enacted and operationalized in the best interest of all concerned.
Our efforts will not stop at Procurement as we intend to press the Government to adopt fiscal rules, as many countries have done, Grenada and Jamaica being two regional examples. We see implementation of codified and legislated fiscal rules as a necessary step to follow from Procurement as the two will work in tandem. One, broadly speaking, designed to ensure efficiency in expenditure and the other intended to preserve or one might say establish a strong correlation between what we spend and what we earn. Fiscal rules and Procurement are not a panacea for what ails us, but they form the basis for creating a more accountable and responsible form of Governance, not only at the political level but across the entire society.
Priority 3- Enhanced relationship with labour
In the crisis that we face as country today, the already tense relationship between business and labour is more likely to deteriorate than it is to improve. That is of course, if we both continue to wed ourselves to our seemingly entrenched positions. In my view it is time to change how we engage with labour, as Barack Obama noted in his inaugural speech in 2008,
“…if you unclench your fist, we will extend our hand…” that statement rings true on both sides. If we are true to ourselves we will see that our fists, on key issues, are just as tightly clenched as we view labour’s on matters of importance to us. The question that has vexed and plagued many before me, is how do we bridge the divide. I recognize that a degree of tension between the forces is necessary and a requisite for a healthy industrial relations climate, but what I do believe and what I do foresee, is that to continue as is will only lead to a further fracturing of our society.
Now is not a time for unyielding commitment to ideology but to find new ideology to fit our reality. I am not advocating that we abandon our core principles but that, as we discuss the future, we incorporate these into a shared sense of purpose for the benefit of all. We have no choice but to search for a better way. In this regard, it is my hope that the unions will see it fit to return National Tripartite Advisory Council and that Government Business and Labour come together on some key initiatives to drive our socio-economic recovery.
Assuming office in the year that marks AMCHAM T&T’s 25th anniversary as a Chamber, coming in after so many Presidents who have provided invaluable service to the Chamber and by extension to you the membership; at a juncture where our economy is delicately balanced on a razor’s edge; is daunting to say the least. All that said and acknowledged I take up this challenge with full confidence in the capacity that has been built in the Chamber over those many years:
All of these reasons clearly say to me that I am not alone, the support, guidance and counsel that all I have mentioned above will remain and I will rely on them to ensure that I execute on this critical mandate in keeping with those that have gone before me.
In closing permit me to especially recognize our outgoing President, Ravi Suryadevara, those of you who would have had the privilege of interacting with Ravi I am sure, like me are the better for it. Ravi, your commitment, passion and dedication to the Chamber and your values as an individual are not only worthy of praise but emulation; on behalf of the membership and the Board I thank you and more importantly, I salute you.
Dignitaries, members, Media, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you.
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