He is fairly new on the political block.
But when you speak to him, Symon de Nobriga is a regular type of guy, pleasant, unassuming, down to earth, fun, with an entrepreneurial spirit.
As he makes the transition from a former chairman of the Diego Martin Regional Corporation to Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Communications, he is in it to learn, to grow, and to do his part in ensuring that the public of Trinidad and Tobago receives information consistently on the decisions and activities of this Government.
A relative unknown to the public of Trinidad and Tobago, the 45-year-old divorcee and father of two is a former St Monica’s Prep pupil and a “proud” Fatima College old boy.
He admits he was not academically driven.
“I enjoyed my time in school. I don’t purport to be any scholar,” he said.
At Fatima, he met Darryl Smith, whom he was to succeed as Diego Martin Regional Corporation chairman and Diego Martin Central MP.
Smith had come to Fatima in Form Five from St Mary’s College, to repeat GCE O-Levels.
De Nobriga went on to do his A-Levels at Sixth Form Government School and one week after exams, entered the world of work.
“I wasn’t born with a gold spoon in my mouth... I didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship and I didn’t have the money to pay for university,” he said.
His first job was at a pet store.
“My father always told me—if you don’t have a job, you take the first thing that you get,” he said matter-of-factly.
From there, he went to work at Republic Bank “for a number of years”, and “became a little more serious about life”.
He worked in the Trustee Division and interacted with older clientele, “business types”, which allowed him to shape a vision of where he wanted to go.
He eventually sold his Republic Bank shares, acquired through profit-sharing, and bought into a computer business with a friend, at a time when the business of building computers was picking up.
He later took over the business from his partner and changed the dynamic to IT infrastructure development, which involved running fibre and network cables.
The business transitioned into de Nobriga joining one of the large IT companies as a project coordinator.
He then entered a different line of business when he was then head-hunted by a company involved in the speciality coating field and the fire-proofing of buildings, such as the Government Campus.
He moved from marketing manager to becoming a shareholder and CEO of this business, De Freitas Consulting Services.
The firm was a contractor with the Petrotrin refinery, a company with which he dealt for almost ten years, as well as in companies in Point Lisas and Point Fortin.
Asked what held him after all these years working in various businesses to get into politics, de Nobriga said: “I have always been intrigued by the best part of power, that is, the ability to effect change. If you want to change anything you have to be part of the system that gives it that life. If you want change in the country, the best place to do that is through politics.”
He said his four years in local government as a representative for the Morne Coco/Alyce Glen electoral district had brought a certain awareness.
“As politicians, no matter where you sit, you should always think about the effect of your actions on the man on the ground. Very often you can get caught up with what is directly in front of you, but unless your constituents and the national community understand that what you are doing affects them and the other way around—you understand what you are doing affects them, then you are missing the mark,” he said.
When Smith was making his bid in 2015 to become an MP, de Nobriga became his operations manager, going on the campaign trail with him.
“I was bitten by the political bug during those walkabouts, hearing people talking to him and asking questions and expressing their views on what was,” de Nobriga said.
He joined the PNM formally in 2015 and contested the 2016 local government election and then again in 2019, when he became chairman of the corporation.
Local government provided a training ground, teaching him that “government is like a big ship—if it is on a path to change, it takes a while to change the course. Change has to be driven and worked at, and if you are not committed to the process of the change and to staying the course, you could lose heart”.
Why join PNM?
Asked why the PNM and not Congress of the People (COP) or United National Congress (UNC), de Nobriga said: “That is a weird question. There was never a choice for me other than the PNM. No other party ever resonated with me.”
He admits that his mother, a former secretary at T&TEC, was an Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) and then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) advocate.
But his father, a former data processing manager who “has been my absolute hero”, is a PNM.
“I define myself as a man by my father and the voice in my head that tells me what is right and what is wrong, is my father’s voice,” he said, adding that his grandfather was also his hero.
De Nobriga lived in St Ann’s between the ages of seven and 17, before his family moved to Woodbrook to be close to his grandfather, who had become ill.
He has one brother.
And, as someone who saw migration as an option, de Nobriga said he felt he had to take an active role in the political life of the country to help shape his future and his children’s future.
“My spirit has always been with the PNM,” he said.
In response to a question on his vision, de Nobriga was tentative.
“While I think personality has a role in any management scenario, nothing beats policy and procedure... I have had very productive meetings with TTT and Nalis. And I am trying, through full immersion, to understand all the different divisions and the bodies over which I have jurisdiction and their mandates,” he said.
De Nobriga talked about facilitating lifelong learning using Nalis.
“How do Nalis, TTT and the Ministry of Communications affect cultural awareness, impact on cultural identity and create a modern society that understands where we came from,” he said.
He is aware of generational differences and the way that the digital information age has changed the information landscape.
“I am very driven... and my conversations with the Prime Minister on what he feels reinforces that drive. We sit on a treasure trove of information,” he said.
He said he was clear that local content has to be presented in a palatable way, and he was very encouraged after he met with the chairman and the CEO of TTT.
De Nobriga noted that the pandemic had heightened the use of the virtual platform for outreach and for information sharing.
“Covid-19 has pushed us faster and further down the path of a digital presence, not just as a Government but as a people,” he said.
He noted that people tuned into the Ministry of Health news conferences and the conferences hosted by the Prime Minister; and that the Government, and even the media, were getting critiqued in real time.
“So you have to be very aware of what you are saying and how you are saying it because your viewership is larger, they are sitting patiently, and they have access to express their opinions in real time,” he said.
Timely communication is indeed the lifeblood of a government, he said, adding that during the pandemic people received the information needed to save their lives, their livelihoods and to access the financial support from the Government needed to sustain themselves.
De Nobriga also pointed out that Covid-19 helped people to understand the leadership qualities of the Prime Minister, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and the excellent professionals in the public health sector led by Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram, especially against the backdrop of what was happening globally.
He said he hopes that by ensuring stakeholders see and know the work the Government is doing, “fake news”, which happens more frequently in a vacuum, can be minimised.
‘I will be available’
Asked whether he will make himself available to the media at all times, de Nobriga said: “I will be available, as long as reporters understand that if I am not in a position to answer a question, my answer is going to be ‘I cannot answer this question right now, let me try and get the information and get back to you’.
“And if you don’t get through to me, it may be that I am away from my phone, or that whatever that issue is, has taken me somewhere where I am not in a position to answer the call. (In such circumstances) leave a message, a WhatsApp, a text.
“But what I will not do is run to give somebody a headline. I will speak to things that I have the information on, and if I don’t, I will have to get back to you. You know they say, politicians shouldn’t make promises, but I don’t think this is a promise, it is a function of the job (to make myself available) and if I take the job, that is one of the things that I have to do,” he said.