The latest political developments have created a new reality in our community which has increased the cynicism with which many view politics and politicians. In my own case, they have forced me to look back at my reasons for entering the political arena, and weigh if those reasons are still valid today.
Of course, you are all familiar with remarks such as "politics is a dirty game"; or "politicians are only for themselves." For many of our people, "politicians only make promises they know they can't keep" and our calypsonians have reinforced the perception that politicians are a bunch of corrupt, self-serving, greedy, power-hungry people whose trademark is to fool the people, especially at election time.
In fact, our own Philosopher of Humor, Fernando Clark, who was recently crowned the King of MCs by the St. Maarten Carnival Development Foundation, in one of his most memorable shows, Raw, described politics as the profession you enter after having tried everything else and failed. I can't wait to see how he will depict the recent developments in his next show!
Apparently to save politics from this pervasive negative image, someone coined the word, "politrics" to describe the dishonest and immoral nature of what Bismarck in his classic definition called "the art of the possible."
After 19 months in office, I have come to the conclusion that politics is indeed the art or science of making the impossible possible. It is not a career for the faint-hearted or the thin-skinned; it is not conducive to higher spiritual ideals or morals. Indeed, taking the events of the last few weeks into consideration, Ambrose Bierce might be right in describing politics in his Devil's Dictionary, "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage."
This was certainly not why I entered politics on the platform of the UP Party just about a couple of years ago. I was driven by idealism, by a burning passion to make a difference in the field of education where I have worked as a professional for a whole generation. My motivation then, as it still remains now, was the belief that, as President Barack Obama said, "we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular." That is why I joined the UP party and that is why I am honored to still remain a member of the party with a better balance of experience and fresh blood and of males and females.
I expected that the vast range in backgrounds of people on the list would surely mean that a range of views would be represented, and coming from the world of academia where students are encouraged to present varying views, I was encouraged in the potential of the team. After I took office, I have come to respect the team even more because of this wide range of views on the issues.
I want to thank the people of St. Martin, our beloved island, for the privilege and honor to serve you in the last year and a half. I am eternally grateful to my party, and especially its leader, deputy Prime Minister Theodore Heyliger, for the confidence bestowed in me and the opportunity given me to serve as St. Martin's first Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs.
We came in with a clear vision of the direction our education system should take. We came in with a mission to elevate the quality of education on St. Martin in every aspect and at every level. We may have been too ambitious, and possibly too overzealous to believe we could have achieved all the lofty goals we set for ourselves in the four years we thought we would have had to do so. That term has been cut short by more than a half. But as I look back, I have no regrets. It is a blessing to have had this unique opportunity to serve my island.
We reached for the skies and plucked a few stars in terms of what we can consider a new direction for education, culture, sports and youth affairs. The common thread that links all four portfolios I have been responsible for is the youth. The youth of St. Martin form the base of our party. They are not just the leaders of tomorrow, they are not just the future of our island, they are a very real and present reality we must address to secure that future and make it a glorious one.
From day one of this administration, we have been building a brand new Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, block by block, with an unambiguous plan, and specific goals. It is the first time our island would have its own Ministry, and we wanted to make it reflect and be responsive to our own realities and our collective aspirations of excellence, efficiency and professionalism that would become the cornerstone of this new St. Martin nation we are building together.
Permit me to highlight a few of our accomplishments in the last 19 months.
Education - Highlights
In Education, we began with the continued implementation of Compulsory Education. We embarked on a successful, town-hall style campaign with active participation of the stakeholders and today, we can safely say that, despite all the challenges, there is no turning back anymore: compulsory education is the law!
And speaking of laws, the draft laws on Foundation Based Education (FBE), Higher Education, and amendments to the Compulsory Education Law, which we've spent weeks just revising are now virtually ready to begin the prescribed legislative course. A lot of progress has been made in revising the curriculum of vocational education. The Ministry or Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs has sent out invitations for persons to be on the Committee responsible for installing a management team, teachers, etc. for the new vocational school, which should also offer adult educational courses. The SBO Center has also been working on curriculum development for more courses and at the same time, DERPI, the Department of Education and the Ministry have been investigating the possibilities for integrating TVET courses (Technical Vocational Education and Training for all) – a UNESCO supported effort for life-long learning and sustainable development – with SBO course.
Right now, there are various draft documents for a comprehensive curriculum. These need to be consolidated in a program that fits the vision and the reality for vocational education and the labour market on St. Martin while the Teacher Education Program (TEP) curriculum that would be used at the University of St. Martin will be ready by the end of the week.
We have worked intensively with the Ujima Foundation to establish an experimental project that was expected to begin in the coming school year. Funding for this project has been committed in the budget amendment of the 2012 budget.
We have signed two cooperation protocols, one with the Dutch Minister of Education, van Bijsterveldt-Vliegenhart to promote studying in the region, while the other was signed between the Ministers of St. Martin, Curaçao, Aruba and the Netherlands to work together in areas of mutual interest as it pertains to Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Emancipation.
We have also signed MOUs with Monroe College and Johnson & Wales University, allowing our students to attend these institutions at affordable fees.
With regards to Study Financing, we received a total of 237 applications for the 2012 – 2013 academic year, out of which a total of 203 were granted, or 85%. Our students applied to study in places as near as Anguilla and as far away as The Philipines/Thailand.
Out of this total number of successful applicants, 38 have been awarded scholarships to attend USM. Of these, 16 who had initially applied to go elsewhere were referred to USM to start their studies. These students will have the possibility to transfer after 2 years to one of the institutions with which we have signed an MOU.
A further breakdown of the scholarships shows that 88 were granted for Holland, 46 for the USA, 14 for Curacao, 6 for Canada, 5 for Aruba and 6 for other islands in the region (including St. Croix, The Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica).
In total, we can see that a total of 63 students were granted study financing to study here at home (USM) and in the Caribbean region. This is the second largest group of study financing recipients, and reflects the emphasis we have placed on studying in the region as much as possible. Europe (including Belgium, Scotland and England) continues to be the largest group. The Netherlands, with 43% of the study financing granted, tops the whole list.
A study financing research project which will determine our return on investment (ROI) has already begun. JS Consulting services was commissioned to carry out this study, and we have just received a first summary report of the focus group sessions carried out recently in The Netherlands.
UNESCO Associate Membership
One of the highlights of our stewardship was without doubt getting St. Martin to be admitted to UNESCO as an associate member. I am confident that the island stands to benefit immensely in future from its membership of this world body that has an admirable track record in assisting its members with projects in the areas of education, science and culture.
Under Culture, our single most important achievement has been getting the Emancipation Day legislation to the point where on Monday, May 14, 2012, Parliament will debate and hopefully approve it, thus making July 1, a national public holiday. As you know, the draft legislation passed the Central Committee this week with unanimous support of all the members of parliament present. St. Martin, as far as I know, will be the first territory in the Kingdom of the Netherlands that would have such legislation, and this could not come at a more appropriate time seeing that next year, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
We have established a Cultural Awards, given for the first time during the celebration of St. Martin Day last year, to recognize the work and talent of some of our most outstanding artists and performers. The largely symbolic award is supposed to be a St. Martin Day feature.
Children's Carnival Troupe
This year, we have presented a Children's Troupe in the Children's Carnival Parade consisting mainly of students attending our public schools. In conjunction with the SCDF, the idea is to make this an annual activity that can be incorporated into the school curriculum.
Preservation of Monuments
In terms of preservation of our monuments, we have been able to recommend two important national monuments for funding by the Dutch Monuments Preservation Fund. The Methodist Church and the Passangrahann Royal Guest House are the two monuments in consideration for said funding.
When we assumed office, we met a Department of Youth and Sports, which was not only understaffed but which the way it was structured did not permit adequate attention to be granted to each of these two important areas. We therefore decided to split it into two autonomous departments, each with its own head and staff. That process in its final stages of implementations as we have received applications from candidates to head the two departments. The selection process needs to continue so that more focus can be given to each.
Draft Sports Policy
In terms of Sports, you will recall that just recently, I received a draft Sports Policy from the Technical Committee I had set up for this purpose. The document was promptly handed over to the National Sports Institute, a foundation we established to implement the policies set forth by the Department of Sports. Part of the task of the National Sports Institute is the preparation of our athletes, trainers and coaches for the Kingdom Games 2013. The total overhaul and reorganization of Sports is still a work in progress.
However, we can point to several outstanding performances of St. Martin sports men and women, particularly in tae-kwan-do, in track and field, where we were able to support and sponsor, albeit partially, the recent highly successful 6th edition of the International Track and Field Meet held at the Alberic Richards Stadium in Marigot last weekend. Two track records and one French national record were set at that meet.
Work was being intensified to establish a St. Martin Youth Football Camp this July which was intended to introduce American Football to our youth, complete with cheerleading. The initiative is an inter-ministerial one, including three ministries – Sports, Tourism and Finance. Members of the Toni James Group, with links to the Washington Redskins, have already conducted two site visits to the island and are expected to come in this Monday for a third, during which they will continue with the arrangements and preparations for this Youth Football Camp. You will recall that we held a press conference with the principals of the group right here during their first site visit to St. Martin.
We had also begun preparations for a Schools Sports Festival scheduled for August this year. Those plans are on the front-burner and hopefully will be completed by our successors.
Finally, it goes without saying that the flagship project where it concerns Youth Affairs, was the Get off the Block, Get on the Bus, Get Busy or GB3 project. The pilot project which ran for three months was an overwhelming success in terms of participation, motivation and awareness. However, we have had to take stock of the adjustments necessary to make it an ongoing project. For this purpose, we were in the process of project writing and staff recruitment. NAFls 200,000 has been allocated to it in the 2012 budget.
Of course, there are many more projects and policies in the proverbial pipeline. They were not clogged; they were making their way through the normal channels before they could surface as finished products. The new administration will have to decide what to do with them.
We have given it our best shot in the short time we have been privileged to serve. I stress "WE" because this has been a team effort. The real team, TEAM MECSY, did not need a calypsonian to first blast it and then present it to the people as the saviours of St. Martin on a Carnival stage.
Team MECSY consists of ALL members of the staff of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, from the Secretary General to the janitor; from the section and division heads to the secretaries and receptionists. In 19 months, we held two retreats to regroup, rebuild, and replenish our spirits, while refocusing on our mission. We were energized, excited, and extremely driven by our passion to make our Ministry relevant to the needs and aspirations of our people. I cannot thank each and every one of these industrious workers enough. Nothing we achieved could have been done without your exemplary dedication, and commitment.
Personally, I will never forget this experience. Mrs. Claudette Forsythe-Labega, the Secretary General of the Ministry, thank you. I am proud to have been your student and even more proud to have had the privilege of working with you. I hope and pray that your knowledge and experience, your rekindled passion and excitement will continue to inspire the whole Ministry to reach for higher heights.
Mr. Quincy Harrigan, Mrs. Patricia Lourens, Mrs. Shermina Powell-Richardson and all the other pillars of the Ministry, I will continue to cherish your professionalism, your wisdom, and your unreserved cooperation during these last 19 months.
I want to express my gratitude to the WITU and its leadership, particularly its President, Mrs. Claire Elschot. As rough as we have had it at times, I firmly believe that a strong teachers union is the most reliable partner of the Ministry of Education. There is a lot of work to be done to improve teachers' welfare and professionalism, and I am confident that you will not relent in your efforts to make an effective contribution to the all-round improvement of education on St. Martin.
I also want to express my sincerest appreciation to the various school boards. Your enlightened leadership is a pre-requisite for the achievement of the lofty goals we have set for education on the island.
I have saved the best for last. My cabinet: Fabian, Calvin, Maria, Morenika, Gina, Natasha and Chesley, you were the wind beneath my sails throughout this unprecedented journey. I am grateful for your unconditional support, your tireless efforts, and your bright ideas. Above all, I cherish your candour and have the utmost respect for your professionalism. I am blessed to be able to count each of you as a true friend.
In closing, let me say I fully endorse the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Minister Franklin Meyers at his press conference yesterday. There was never any serious problem among the seven members of the Council of Ministers. Personally, I want to thank the three DP ministers I have had the honor to work with in the Council: Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams; former Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus and Minister of Labor, Mr. Cornelius de Weever, both of whom served as my substitute whenever I was off island. I want to also thank Minister Roland Duncan, my former boss and of course, my UP colleague ministers, the Honorable Theodore Heyliger, Franklin Meyers and Hiroshi Shigemoto. It was great being the only female among a bunch of special guys.
I want to also thank my family, especially my mother, ma, thank you. My brothers, my children, all my friends and relatives who sometimes wanted to go out and defend me when the media was against me, thank you. There was no need for it then, and there is no need for it now.
Today you're down, tomorrow you're up; what goes down, must come UP: the UP party is certainly not out. We will continue to represent the people and provide alternative and real solutions to the challenges we face as a freedom-loving people. There is a time to come; and there is a time to go. Let me therefore leave you with two quotes I believe are appropriate in the present circumstances.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: "In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way." That is what happened with the so-called "Carnival Coup."
US Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, a role model as a female politician for me, said this: "At present, our country needs women's idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else." I couldn't agree more with her.
This has been a learning experience for me and the media has been a critical ally in that process that has kept me on my toes. A new sheriff is riding into town and I hope you will give her your fullest cooperation as you did with me.
I thank you all.
I will now take your questions.