As if it were not enough to stay locked up under the threat of Covid-19 and having to reconcile with the prospect of seeing the erstwhile jewel in the country’s crown – Air Mauritius – almost going under, we have now been served with yet another depressing piece of news: the current predicament of the State Bank Group following the publication of its financial statements for the year ended 31 December 2019. The Bank has seen its profit going down year after year (from Rs 2.6 billion in 2017 to Rs 1.2 billion in 2018, to Rs 15 million in 2019) for different reasons, but mostly due to non-performing loans running into hundreds of millions of rupees granted in past years to dubious businessmen, based locally and abroad.
All this has been happening under different governments with their appointees on the board of the Bank in different capacities, with its payroll increasing by Rs 1 billion from 2018 to 2019. There’s no citizen who wouldn’t recoil in shame at the Bank’s profit of Rs 15 million compared to what allegedly has been pocketed by the board members: Rs 32 million. The poor performance of yet another profitable State enterprise might send another signal that public enterprises eventually are bound to fail – when this need not be so – thereby defeating the purpose for which they had been set up.
It must be reckoned that the absence of state enterprises in certain strategic areas of activity has led to the emergence of private monopolies on the hooks of ultra-liberalism to the detriment of the ‘public interest’. The state enterprise, it was thought at the time of their inception, was to serve the ‘public interest’ by breaking the hold of monopolies on the local economy whilst also running on commercially sound lines. It is deplorable that most of these institutions have been unable to live up to their mission – either due to political interference in their running, or because latterly their top brass have been wanting in the moral and mental fibre that occupants in such positions are expected to possess. As a result, there has been a clear failure on their part to fulfil their duty of protecting the national interest as it ought to have been done.
It is practically self-evident that having or not having efficiently functioning institutions can make the difference between a country which achieves and one which does not. We need go no further than the favourite and oft-quoted, by our leaders themselves, of the example of Singapore, which has derived a lot more strength and thus acquired a much more trustworthy image on the international stage because of the efficient operation of its institutions. Alas, we can’t even begin to compare our own country with it. Regardless of whether their institutions belong to the public or private domain, Singapore and a few others have consistently and successfully aimed to pitch themselves to the highest and very best levels of performance, not forgetting the ethical dimension. The outcome is a Singapore that can justly vaunt the image of a reliable place wherein to do business, which in turn has contributed to lift the country to the level of the top rankers of the world. Can we say of Mauritius that it has been benefiting from this kind of drive and efficiency from all its institutions?
The downfall of what were considered these two jewels in the crown gives a damning answer.
And yet they did have their years of glory, when they were headed by professionals motivated with a sense of national purpose, supported by political leadership that would not meddle in their running.
Unfortunately, that era was followed by one where gradually political interference became the norm, and despite regime change down the years and promises to the contrary it appears that the rot was too deep for the trend to be halted. It now falls to the present dispensation to take a call that confronts it squarely: what is the legacy, let alone image, that it wants to leave? If that is clear in its long term view, the next query is whether it can rise to the challenge of turning these institutions around and restore the trust that they have once been associated with, so that the gain made by the so far successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic is enhanced rather than being diminished. Will it, won’t it?
* Published in print edition on 5 May 2020
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