Breach of Trust

Breach of trust in both the public and private sectors is one of the serious structural challenges facing the country on the way forward

Those who are placed in a position of trust have a duty to act with responsibility. The greater the amount of trust placed on them, the more responsibly are they expected to behave during their mandate. It is unfortunately the case in many instances that this duty of trust is easily breached for private pursuits at the cost of the public interest. Most of the time, the abuse is out of the sight of the public.

Some local examples

Several years back, it came out in public that funds in the several millions from Air Mauritius were being diverted away for unlawful “donations” to several third parties. This came like a wakeup call that an institution which had looked very smooth on the surface was actually frayed by malpractice, involving some of the most respected beneficiary institutions of the country. It was a clear case of excessive concentration of executive power in a few dominant hands. The court case has morphed into the forgotten realm.

Another example. At the time cooperatives started being formed in the country (in the 1950s), they were looked upon as clean institutions run by members of high integrity for the benefit of members, some sort of liberation from a capitalist system that did not allow small units to thrive in business. Cooperatives actually lived up to the promise of better days to numerous families caught in repeating cycles of poverty. In past years, some cooperatives have come in the limelight for misgovernance of funds having resulted in significant losses for contributing members. The noble ideal of altruistic social service with which cooperatives were started seemed to have been overtaken by those placed in positions of trust.

Public officers occupied positions in the public service in the hope of leaving behind a rich legacy of achievements, an enduring culture of high disciplined conduct for their successors to continue building upon them. Some were remembered at the end of their careers for having improved public health services to a standard comparable with what obtained in developed countries. Others lifted the education system to international levels, despite the limited resources available. Still others made their mark in the judicial system, their principled decisions being lauded in higher courts of appeal. Our agricultural research received very high international regards.

Today, we hear about public officers having allegedly employed their positions to facilitate the entry of drugs into the country. Others have taken decisions, such as in the Betamax and BAI cases, which have exposed the country to several billions of rupees in damages for not having followed due process. Even if they step out of office – being no longer held directly accountable – the liability will have to be borne by the country once it is established. It is the reason why when offices involving public trust were given to certain individuals, those individuals were vetted for the necessary character and abilities to be able to “deliver the goods”. Once officers started seeing their offices more as private dens for self-gratification and for the exercise of oppressive power – and not for the public good — the element of public trust was seriously undermined.

Another example may be taken from the political field. From independence, we’ve seen several alternations of political parties in power. Some have credited these alternations of power as the accepted play of democracy. In reality, political parties, having messed it up in the course of a mandate or not delivered on electoral promises, have come back to power in new disguises with new alliances of political parties. Voters have trusted these new alliances each time believing that “things will now change for the better”. Sometimes, the situation has ended up becoming worse than before. It is only after the event that voters have realised that they had again misplaced their trust.

Breach of trust may therefore be seen to be playing out at different levels in various spheres in the country – in the public as well as in the private sector. Instances of breach of trust are many in the latter sector as well. It is one of the serious structural challenges facing the country on the way forward. Those who have committed the breach of trust have usually walked away after “committing the crime”. Others have been whitewashed after change of government. Mauritius has fallen short of being decisive enough to overturn this aggravating situation by dealing with it once and for all in an exemplary manner.

If one were looking to a fundamental reason why we haven’t been adequately re-inventing our political, administrative and business outlooks in a more sustainable manner, this national passivity in the face of abuse could be one of the principal reasons for the observed lack – in the past decade at least – of breakthroughs significant enough to put the country on a higher track.

Examples from outside

Mauritius is not alone in suffering from breach of trust in upholding the public interest. There are people in the UK who made up false stories about how hugely Britain was paying up for continuing to be an EU member. This ended up with the Brexit win in the 2016 referendum. Today, in the perspective of finding Britain isolated after leaving the EU, Mrs May is frenetically looking for possible alternative trade partners. She was on such a visit to China last week. Is Britain no longer trusting the “special relationship” the US President has promised it after it exits the EU?

Consider, by contrast, how Singapore has dealt with a relatively small case which caught public attention over there. It is the City Harvest Church case which came to a close last week. The founder of the church and five other church leaders were investigated some years back in a case involving falsifying and misrepresenting financial accounts, with diversion and personal misappropriation of S$ 50 million of church funds. The six of them were originally sentenced to jail terms from 21 months to 8 years under a specific section of the Penal Code. They appealed and were delivered reduced sentences between 7 months and 3 ½ years under a different section of the Penal Code.

The government is unhappy with the reduced sentences, having asked for up to 15 years in jail. While complying with the court’s decision, Singapore’s Attorney General is contemplating to change the law to provide for higher penalties. He said:

“The Government’s policy is clear: If you are a senior officer, director in the organisation, you are in a position of greater trust. You have considerable authority to make decisions in relation to the organisation’s assets. If you abuse that trust, you should be more culpable, and you should be liable for more severe punishments, compared with an ordinary employee. That’s really common sense, and there can be no question about that.”

Company directors and other persons in similar positions of responsibility are warned that they should take no risks to trespass the law. Punishment could be exemplary. The effect is to boost the public international image of the jurisdiction that it will not brook any breach of trust without it being severely punished.

There may be several cases of breach of trust in this jurisdiction which may not have surfaced up. What is noteworthy however is the public stand taken: the government will neither associate itself with nor condone cases of breach of trust by those who are expected to uphold it, religious institutions not excepted.

 

* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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