November 2009

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Our time to stand and deliver

This is an abbreviated excerpt of Honorary Graduate, Robert Riley’s address to the Graduation Ceremony, Faculties of Engineering and Law, The UWI, St. Augustine, October 31, 2009.

I came from very humble beginnings and I must thank my parents for the sacrifices they made to ensure that I had a proper education. It is not just about the material contributions: the fee and books, but about the values they instilled in me and the interest they showed in my development. They took some hard-earned money, scarce as it was then, to enrol me in a speed-reading course, which I did—a skill which I have used every day and one which has given me a distinct advantage in a world with an evergrowing pace of change and proliferation of information and opinion....

I can clearly recall that time 28 years ago when I first graduated from this campus with an honours Degree in Agriculture, convinced in my heart that I was going to change life in Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps the world, forever. … I believed then, and I still do now, that a country that could grow its own food and feed itself would have a true experience of independence.

My first job was that of plant pathologist at the Ministry of Agriculture Lands and Fisheries and somewhere in that Ministry I lost my dream. I lost the dream, but I did not lose the passion for development and independence, not just in the country but in the region.

I have since been a lawyer in private practice and then in the field of energy—oil and gas—moving forward always with this passion for people and the dream that we can in this region create a society that is sustainable through integration, high moral and ethical standards and the intellectual and artistic contribution that enables all citizens a better standard of life in an increasingly difficult world.

I have been very fortunate in the opportunity to lead the largest and most successful petroleum company in this country since the 1970s—fortunate in that I have always had great mentors and great support from every level in the company. When I was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BP Trinidad and Tobago 2001, I became the first national of this country to lead such a large multinational energy company in Trinidad and Tobago. I have merely had the privilege to guide, challenge, support, and serve a wonderful team of great individuals who all believe in the vision that in delivering extra-ordinary performance we would be pioneers in BP that would be part of the development of this country and the wider world and that we would positively affect the lives of every citizen.

…[As] graduates about to launch careers, there is an immediacy in your destiny that is of critical importance to the future of this region—a region in great challenge without a clear vision and without, at this time, the broad cohesive force of leadership to chart a sustainable future.

When you belong to this elite group, you must be prepared to give at least as much to society as you must give to yourself if you want to see society progress. Among you are people destined for leadership roles in this country.

To move forward beyond the doldrums of stagnation and decay that we find ourselves in as a region, we have to look for new solutions and approaches to problems. We even have to describe and interpret those challenges differently, in a way which creates forward momentum, rather than intellectual description without real action and results. We must begin to change the ordinary into the extraordinary. To do this, leadership in this region must become less self-seeking with greater emphasis on service to country.

The sort of performance that I am hoping for from you is the kind that was so easily becoming of people like Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, who is one of the most formidable heroes of Trinidad and Tobago. Buzz Butler did not think twice about putting his own liberty at stake in order to champion the nobility of the notion that all men are equal and all men are entitled to fair and equal treatment. Butler is undeniably one of the founding fathers of nationhood in this country, and personally, I have always regarded him as the true father of the Nation.

I am not proposing that there is a need for you all to become sacrificial lambs; it is more about the need to move away from selfishness, self-seeking and narrow-mindedness. Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean as well, now suffer from a failure of leadership and the failure of leaders to lead with the interest of people in mind rather than their own personal interests. And my reference to leadership crosses into every sphere of leadership in this country. Change is required now—this is urgent—we have to get past debate into action or we perish. Climate change, energy shortages, viral terrorism, biological and man-made, together with no real sustainable earning capacity save our talent, point us to the challenges and the solution: fix ourselves and our way of thinking and being.

We have to accept that it is not going to be fixed for us. We have to stand and declare that we are going to be the ones to make the difference. To do this will take courage, deep skill and reflection, a commitment to the vision and a lot less to ourselves, but with the intellectual logic that we will only succeed if we pull together and work for the scale effect of the good of all.

I have referred to you more than once as an elite group. I do believe you are, but you must be mindful that true elites are not “elitist” in disposition or behaviour....

We really have no excuses for our failures. This institution produces people who are world class. I share with you now some news that I coincidentally received two days ago that speaks with pride about the outstanding quality of the UWI graduate: BP Trinidad and Tobago’s engineers received the most commendations and awards among engineers from around the world at a recent BP group world-wide engineering conference. The vast majority of engineers at bpTT are UWI graduates. Does this not underscore the elitism of the UWI graduate considering that the BP group is the world’s fifth largest energy company?

…Leadership is but one of your many challenges: the challenge of changing the leadership model in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. Our university graduates must be part of the vanguard of the elites for positive change in our society; an elite group that must serve and reshape the region.

Perhaps one of the unrecognised failures of our education system today is that we are almost by default, teaching our students to be selfish in their chosen professions and their style of leadership and the end result is that people are looking after themselves and not their country. I urge you now to break that mould.