Some exceptional achievers must emerge from the ranks of our public service
This article is inspired by last week’s moving and well-grounded article my good friend Radha Gopee wrote for this paper (‘Will Tablets Replace Teachers?’ MT, 18 April 2014).
It aroused in me reminiscences of lucky encounters I myself had in my own path with certain remarkable teachers, confident and towering archetypes who were carefully laying down foundations of lucid thinking in our young minds, both at school and in the Univ.
Those teachers appeared to have the power to simplify and make ordinary a previously dreaded subject. Much after they had done their part, the mind was set working on the paths they had unravelled to us with disconcerting ease, finesse and clarity on so many subjects. They were, as it were, opening up a whole new world to us, giving everybody character enough and the fundamental equipment to remain focussed in whatever we undertook.
Why did Mauritius not foil its chances?
In the 1950s and 1960s, a wave of independence swept across several erstwhile colonies. Most of the countries were decolonized 40-55 years ago. Mauritius is 46 years old. Right after the onset of independence, Mauritius set itself up on a sound trajectory of social and economic advancement, free of the power struggles which pester to this day the lives of populations in various former colonies.
We did not tear ourselves apart but went ahead on the development agenda, with whatever modest means we had at our command in the emergent post-independence era. There was a system of public accountability which was respected. But what must have really made a difference in our favour was undoubtedly the rigour and attention-to-detail with which our first batches of public servants attended to the task. The public servants then in charge – who dominated the scene by their intellect and problem-solving capabilities – had the kind of training and adherence to duty from the manner education was imparted to them in our local schools and at the University.
Decision-makers of that critical period of our uptake as a national entity had been groomed by the kind of dedicated, disciplined and insightful teaching which Dr Gopee refers to. They had benefited unsparingly and indiscriminately from teachers coming from whichever ethnic background. Like the latter, they could “see” much above their personal concerns or limited interests. The ideas of development they pursued were bigger than themselves. This is what became all-important, not the self-seeking, self-dealing for personal aggrandizement that we saw in several other liberated colonies. In our case, the self-imposed rigour in the administration of the country’s affairs applied to both our key civil servants and our top politicians alike. They bowed down to reason and objective decisions even if that did not fit into the aspirations of their immediate followers, their families or their personal wealth.
The dogged pursuit of whatever goal they had set for the country led them to open up roads and carry the water supply to the remotest parts of a country that was barely connected up with infrastructure at the time. Their pioneering work led to the country being supplied with electrical power supply almost anywhere the electric lines could be fielded to. They took care, in turn, to carry the education which had emancipated them in the first place to as many parts of the country, as quickly, as possible. The same goes for the national healthcare system. Had it not been for this strong foundation, we might have tottered like other unfortunate countries.
This thrust to get to objectives, despite severe resource constraints, made it possible for us to ply our own ships and to set up a national airline. Local business (trade and manufacturing) and other types of leadership (cooperatives, small planters, fishing, handicrafts, and retail shops) sprang up out of this process. Sufficient substance was thereby created to keep our minds engaged on this forward lookout. Politicians groomed up in the same educational tradition also saw the bigger picture and did not get mired up in futile quests for power.
What should we aim for?
Despite many setbacks in past years, we have consolidated our position. We have diversified the economy and achieved an average high standard of living. Much as we broke away from under-development of the past, we have to reckon today with an ever-increasing global competition. We need to grapple with it to pull ourselves out of potential isolation in a fast-integrating global economy.
We can take on the oncoming challenges provided we adopt the same objective detachment and piercing insight which accompanied our development in the post-independence period. Leaders today could achieve as much, if not more, than what was done in the past given the amount of momentum the country has already acquired in the meantime. Once again, the development agenda for the future should be within our reach if decision-makers can abstract from self-seeking, self-dealing and personal aggrandizement to build up on the stock of our existing achievements.
That kind of brilliant future cannot be constructed on a series of recriminations. Those who turn things around for the better don’t care for what has gone wrong in the past. They find out the solution and apply it immediately without creating fuss or making a lot of “sound and fury”. Clearly, this thrust-forward cannot happen if numbers of our key public decision-makers were focussed on having their employment contracts renewed.
The public service managed to raise up exceptionally good drivers from its own fold in the past, implementing durable solutions despite resource constraints: it should be able to do the same today if it is not held down by a perpetual feeling of personal insecurity. More than at any time before, we are confronted with the requirement to raise fresh local talent that goes beyond personal seeking. We’ll need to arouse once again this urge to dare, to make new inroads and to have a clear sight of loftier pursuits to go for.
* Published in print edition on 25 April 2014