Interview / Sir John Swan
We're gambling with our future
People are tired of having race shoved in their faces, says Sir John Swan. And in the digital age, highly mobile international firms have no need to endure a climate of fear and intimidation
Friday, November 23, 2007 11:22 AM
While the island should be aggressively planning for the future, it is instead obsessing about the past. "It's like the Titanic is sinking," says Sir John Swan. "We know it, and all we're doing is running around re-arranging the deck chairs.
"In this climate, a lot of black people feel guilty too, because they feel they've put a lot of effort in to improve race relations, and now a lot of that feels worthless."
Sir John Swan
"We have the most successful black-run country in the world, the most successful black and white middle-class economy in the world, and the most travelled people in the world; all that could evaporate overnight."
Sir John, who during his 13 years as Premier signed the tax treaty in 1986 that paved the way for Bermuda to become the country it is today, said that in this digital age - when talented staff can live anywhere in the world - Bermuda has to work harder than ever to maintain its advantage.
Instead, he says, the country has become obsessed with "race baiting" and "Gestapo approach" affirmative action proposals that are making the island unwelcoming to top executives.
"So am I concerned about Bermuda? The answer is 'yes,' I am deeply concerned about Bermuda. I talk to everyone: black and white, rich and poor, Government and Opposition, and I think we have a bigger problem than we realize."
He continued: "If you are a special diamond, everyone wants to see you. If you are an ordinary diamond, people might think: cut you up, take the pieces elsewhere, make some money from you."
He said: "I don't want it to look like I am pushing the panic button. But if they decided to cut up the diamond then overnight construction closes down, unemployment in Bermuda increases - lots of educated people without jobs - mortgages fail, rents start to fall."
Raising the spectre of an island littered with empty office blocks and disused infrastructure, Sir John said: "People think: 'that's just a threat. They [big business] have investments here. But the capital has been paid off for a long time. They would leave the buildings there and walk away."
He continued: "Back in the 1960s the Bahamas was a big player [in the financial services market]. One bad political decision and business got up and left. The same thing in Antigua: white landowners were treated with no respect so white landowners got up and left; as was the case in Guyana. History offers us all these lessons."
He said: "People will say: 'Swan doesn't understand, he has his.' Well, I'm telling you, yeah, I have mine, but mine will sink the same as yours. I have always worked for mine; I continue to work for it, even at my age.
"My wife and I, whatever happens, we are not leaving Bermuda. We made a decision long ago to invest only here. We are not seeking other options - we live and die by Bermuda. If we have to go back and start all over again - putting bread on the table - that's fine. We've done that before and we'd do it again."
He continued: "[Bermuda's] business is American and British. If we become so arrogant - and we have become so arrogant - that we are telling them what to do, they will pack up and leave. And they will not come back.
"I spend my days talking to these people [top executives]. They are private people and don't talk to just anybody. They contribute 80 per cent of our GDP, they pay taxes, but we ask them not to get involved in our politics, not to give their opinions, because their opinions will be white and capital and as soon as they speak they are accused of being racist.
"So, they would rather sit quietly and think about what they are going to do next. I think they could do something next."
Sir John reserves particular criticism for the recently-proposed affirmative action laws. On proposed laws that would allow the Government to investigate businesses to check they are employing enough black workers, he says: "This is damaging not just internally, but also damages how companies from the wider world view us.
"What we are saying to the business people - that gets headlines around the world. By even suggesting this we are suggesting that these businesses have some guilt: that they are practising discrimination.
"Who the hell do we think we are? To do this [to enforce quotas on black employees] with Bermudian businesses is one thing - although I still have big reservations - but to turn round and do it to international business, is disastrous.
"We are taking this Gestapo approach that we can walk into your business, demand that you hand over these details, and we are going to investigate you."
"[With affirmative action] You may be attacking the white Bermudian, but don't think that the white foreigner doesn't feel pushed into the same category."
Sir John said that a top executive friend of his recently told him that his son got home from school and asked: "Dad, am I racist?"
Another business leader's wife was reduced to tears because she was made to feel like a racist.
Sir John said: "Already, executives are coming to Bermuda but not bringing their families. They would rather commute back to the States at weekends.
"They are getting the message that they are unwelcome. In turn they are sending us [Bermuda] a message but we are not listening.
"Because condominiums are going up, people on the street think everything is okay. But believe me, a lot of those condominiums will be empty because the executives are staying away."
He continued: "In this climate, a lot of black people feel guilty too, because they feel they've put a lot of effort in to improve race relations, and now a lot of that feels worthless. An awful lot of people are asking: 'Where do I fit into Bermuda? Why am I here?"
On the law that restricts Bermudians married to non-nationals from buying a second house, he says: "We are saying to Bermudians married to non-nationals: 'you do not have a legitimate right to raise a family and to invest in that family.' If they want to own anything more than they have they will have to own it in another country. They cannot invest in their family here.
"I don't know another country, except communist countries, that have done this before, and that includes countries that we look upon as draconian."
He continued: "We have produced a monster. And not just for white people - plenty of black people are married to non-Bermudians, and they too are being told: 'You are Bermudian, but in the future your family will not have the same benefits as other Bermudians have now.'"
Sir John said that even before the laws are passed, by even raising them as a possibility the Government had created an atmosphere of enforced guilt.
Continued "race-bating" by public figures is adding to that feeling. "People are tired of having race shoved in their faces," he says. Mistakes had been made by the current administration and now they are looking for people to blame.
Referring to white oppression in the island's past, he said: "Most of those people are dead. We are now living with their grandchildren. I know what their grandfathers did but we are now trying to hold the grandchildren accountable. South Africa, in many ways, has not gone as far as Bermuda.
"Mistakes have been made in the way Bermuda is run - some cracked policies have been introduced - and now we are looking for someone else to blame for that. And it will come back and haunt us."
He continued: "It is almost what Karl Marx tried to do: take control, blame others, extract capital [from big business] without taking any responsibility or paying any respect."
Sir John said that the Bermuda Housing Corporation (BHC) saga was also hurting the image of Bermuda on the world stage.
Earlier this year, the media reported details of a police investigation into alleged corruption at the BHC. The details came from a leaked dossier that named Dr. Ewart Brown, among other top political figures.
Sir John stressed that he was not implying any of those named were guilty. But, he said the document should have been sent away to an independent country so that it could be objectively studied and all traces of doubt removed.
"What's worse is that people know something is there [the dossier] and yet they don't know quite what it is. So there is this perception in the community that something has taken place that matters to the country but there has not been total transparency."
He said the BHC saga would also make businesses question the "legitimacy" of Bermuda and question whether they should be operating here.
"Thirty years ago you could make noises on your island and nobody heard you. Now, [in the digital age] everybody hears you. We sit here and pass judgment on the leadership of the U.S., of China, of Australia. You can be sure that they sit there and pass judgment on us."
Sir John concluded that because of all these recent events, international executives believe "the jury is still out on Burmuda." He said they will be watching the election to see if Bermudians endorse the direction the country is headed in.
He said: "It [big business] has not yet made up its mind. It is waiting for the public to make up its mind first. Business is saying: 'Bermuda, what's your view? You have the information, you have seen what is happening in your country. Now, send us a message. If you want to endorse a continuation then we will see what we want to do. You make the decision. We have been asked to stay out of it, stay away from it, and we are happy to do that. We pay our taxes and stay out of it. We are happy; providing you are respectful of us as we are respectful of you'."
Many people will question the timing of Sir John's comments, coming as they do in the build up to an election. Despite his close friendship with Dr. Ewart Brown, he makes no secret of the fact that he is "UBP until the day I die."
However, he says what he has been talking about goes beyond politics. "The Government of a country is the country," he says. "But I am talking about Bermuda, the Bermudian people. Elections are major turning points; they can have a huge impact on history. Which way do we want Bermuda to go?"