“Change is coming; it is no more a matter of ‘if’ but rather of ‘when’”

Interview: Kugan Parapen, Economics Spokesperson

‘Real change demands courage. Now is the time for Mauritians, especially the youth, to root for a new
vision for our society’

  ‘50 years after independence, a true Mauritian society, which caters for the many and not the few, is
still to emerge’

Quite some people feel that the way politics has been done the past so many years in Mauritius fails to attend to the real interest of the majority of the people, that the way national policy-making is oriented needs to change, with dire social and economic consequences which are surfacing up already. We asked Kugan Parapen, a young economist and currently a Fund Manager with AXYS Group, who is to be fielded as a candidate of Resistans ek Alternativ in the event of a by-election in No 18, about what can be done to stop this drift. His answers are direct and the message is unambiguous: something needs to change fundamentally in the way of political management and addressing correctly several national issues at the risk of slippage of the country into ungovernable territory…

Mauritius Times: It’s quite rare to see a University of Warwick-trained economist and Fund Manager juggling with millions falling into the political cauldron. How does that happen?

Kugan Parapen: As a young economist returning to Mauritius straight after my undergraduate studies in the United Kingdom in 2008, I craved for a job opening which would allow me to be exposed to the world economy. That was my idea of getting the best of two worlds – living the life of an islander while keeping in touch with the global happenings. In all truth, I could have been a Londoner, I nearly was…

But if I were to introspect on my short life, I believe that one noun which could characterise my life path so far would definitely be unorthodoxy. I like treading on the challenging side of life. Most individuals dread failure, I don’t. I’d much rather fail than not try. I was better at accounting than economics at school but yet I chose the latter because it has no boundaries and offers so many possibilities. While I can pick a good financial investment, there is nothing that would make me happier than shaping sound and progressive economic policies for my people. I’m not falling into the political cauldron, I’m jumping into it with full knowledge of the facts…

* This is not to cast a slur on the younger generation of politicians, but we have heard so often from a number of young professionals advocating the need to break free from the way politics has been practised in Mauritius these last decades and even making public their strong commitment to ‘do politics differently’. However, a reading of the Hansard covering debates during the last two years, and what’s coming out from the present Commission of inquiry on drug trafficking tell us a different story. Disappointing, isn’t it?

Youth is no guarantee of betterment and this is exactly why Rezistans ek Alternativ has been advocating ‘system change’ and not ‘people change’. One of the slogans for the campaign is ‘Napa Soutir Pouritir’ and the message could not be any clearer. The people of Mauritius need to turn their back on all those who have in a way or the other given a helping hand to maintain our rotten society. But doing so will only take us halfway.

Choosing the right alternative is crucial and the general elections held in 2014 are a timely reminder. Today, some are claiming to represent the ‘alternance’ and as far as we are concerned, that is equivalent to ‘people change’. We take the old guard and replace them with the new kids on the block. Is it really what we are looking for when we talk about change? Real change demands courage. Now is the time for Mauritians, especially the youth, to root for a new vision for our society, for ourselves. Nearly 50 years after ‘independence’, Mauritius should evolve.

* The debasement of politics here and in much of the world has been the subject of long and lengthy debates, but there is also the nagging question of whether the people really want change from the status quo. What does your exposure to the ground realities in Constituency No. 18 inform you about the mindset of the electorate in today’s Mauritius?

In a nutshell, those who would tend to benefit the most from a change in the status-quo are the ones most likely to side with forces advocating the status-quo. This paradox is the biggest stumbling block on the road to a societal paradigm shift. And this is where the importance of a pedagogical dimension to politics should not be underestimated.

For the oppressing class, it is essential that the population does not question its state nor its future. But with the emergence of social media, this is proving to be a tough ask. Change is coming; it is no more a matter of ‘if’ but rather of ‘when’, and that is what our exposure to the ground realities tells us. Many sons and daughters, with the help of technology, are influencing their parents to look at the world in a different perspective and that is ringing the bells of change everywhere. Will it be loud enough for the by-election in Constituency 18? I hope so. One thing is certain though and that is that every minute that passes by brings us closer to Mauritius 2.0, the emergence of a new Mauritian society.

* A former politician, also an economist by training, holds the view that Mauritians do not care about the “big issues” that affect the country: the “bétonnage” of the country in the wake of the Smart Cities or the galloping public debt, climate change, etc., despite all the words of caution voiced out in different quarters — so long that they get their piece of the cake, however small, and the freebies. We are living in a dream world, he says, adding that Mauritius is on the way to bankruptcy. What’s your opinion?

We are not educated to have a critical mind and to be a free thinker. Instead, we are programmed to compete rather than cooperate. Success, for most of us, is oblivious to the state of our natural habitat or even our society. Individualism is our new mantra, consumption our new God. Our society is in decadence and we get the impression we are in free fall mode with only a few among the population realising that the economic and political elite have got parachutes.

This decadence is a proper trickle-down syndrome which would make right leaning economists jealous – if those with power can get away with murder (or the threat of murder), why not ‘us’? The only way to salvage our society from this decadent mindset is to install a strong and independent government at the helm of the country to replace the sell-outs and the corrupted while setting the right example. With respect to our public finances, we are dangerously approaching a critical zone but we are not there yet. Mauritius is at the crossroads and its population will decide its destiny in the forthcoming elections.

* Another “big issue” debated locally relates to the declaration of ethnic identity for electoral purposes. Anthropologist Thomas Eriksen, speaking at the UOM conference ‘Mauritius After 50 Years’ in June this year that the Best Loser system will die a slow death only if discrimination and unequal opportunities are perceived by “minorities” to be fading by “minorities”. One could argue that identity politics (that exists not only in the form of ethnicity/religion solely, but also comes in the form of gender, social class, increasingly sexual/unorthodox orientation…) is bound to stay everywhere, and we should more effectively provide resistance against its vile instrumentalisation rather than wallow in quixotism. What do you think?

If any form of identity, be it women or LGBT members, for example, feel that its rights are being trampled, then it is totally conceivable and acceptable that such an identity would regroup to demand a fairer treatment. However, in the absence of such abuse, such identity groups are irrelevant to the sound running of public affairs. That, to some extent, echoes Eriksen’s position on the Best Loser System.

A democratic system cannot be held hostage by racial apprehensions of the past. There is no valid justification for parliamentary seats to be reserved on ethnic grounds in a secular society. One should not forget that the abolition of the Best Loser System is not a stand-alone project because its demise shall coincide with the establishment of a Proportional Representation (PR) system or a variant of it. Should an ethnic minority believe that it should be represented in Parliament because its rights are being trampled, would it be able to do so under the PR system? Absolutely, especially if the threshold for eligibility is 5%. If such voices exist, it is to the benefit of our vibrant society that such voices are given an avenue to express themselves in Parliament rather than being suppressed.

After all, our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to each and every citizen. The Mauritian society is in dire need of an electoral system that accurately reflects the diversity of political opinions and that allows all political parties to stand on their own in elections without compelling them to form pre-electoral alliances.

* Let’s take up another “big issue” – one of interest to the common man: Metro Express. A majority of respondents to a survey conducted by DCDM said their intention was to travel by the metro. What does this mean to you? Common sense and pragmatism prevailing over demagoguery – from wherever it comes? Would it not have been more productive to battle for transparency than throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Politicians and demagoguery have always been a perfect match in Mauritius. And with the Metro Express, it has reached new heights. Bhadain has used its existence as a camouflage for the by-election when the real intention is to boost the appeal of his newly created party.

Nevertheless, this Metro Express is an expensive toy which we cannot afford. The country has so many other developmental priorities to cater for at this moment in time that it seems surreal that they have been relegated behind the Metro Express project.

One does not need to be a magician to understand the real motivations behind getting on with this expensive project. How can a government which campaigned strongly against the Metro Express become the staunchest supporter of the project while the opposition parties which were the godfathers of the project are now openly criticising the project? Something similar happened with respect to the Biometric Card, another multibillion mega project.

Mauritian politics is in complete disarray and it is imperative to stop this rape of democratic principles sooner rather than later. Who’s the fall-guy if not us?

* Things do not look good on the social front with the almost daily occurrence of all manner of violence and crimes at home and in the streets, accidents, etc., and that besides what we get to learn from the Drug Commission. It looks like we are getting from bad to worse on that front. What’s happening and why is it so, according to you?

Many single out criminals as vile individuals who should rot in prisons. However, criminals are the apex of a system gone wrong. How is it then that many developed countries around the world are having to close down prisons for lack of prisoners? They must surely be doing something right.

A crime free society is probably utopic but we can definitely improve on that side of things. In my opinion, there is an anomaly in the perception of crimes in Mauritius. We, as a society, tend to severely judge those committing ‘physical’ crimes such as murders and rapes but are a bit more lenient when it comes to ‘white-collar’ crimes involving fraud and corruption. Bernard Madoff, the one biggest – the biggest – Ponzi scheme the world has ever known, was sentenced to 150 years in prison. In Mauritius, such fraudsters sue the State. Ironic, isn’t it? The perception that some are above the law also does not help and in its own way, promotes a culture of lawlessness among the population.

With respect to drugs, Slowly but surely government is heading in the wrong direction. The war waged on drugs worldwide since the mid of the 20th century has been a complete and utter failure. That is what the United Nations say, based on all kind of irrefutable evidence and field analysis from experts across continents. But here, the authorities refuse to face up to this reality and prefer adopting the head-in-the-sand posture. Anyone who believes that this Drug Commission will bring tangible results is delusional. Drug addiction, like prostitution, is driven by demand and focussing exclusively on supply side policies can only result in utter failure.

We prefer to side with the progressive view of NGOs – Support, Don’t Punish! Many drug users require medical assistance and as such, they should be catered by our health system. Criminalisation of the drug industry will produce the same results over and over again – that is a black market for drugs operated by mobs with the collusion of corrupt cops and avid lawyers, under the benediction of politicians. Who would finance the electoral campaigns of our politicians, otherwise?

* There might not be any correlation between inequality and crime rate, but clearly the prevailing situation whereby almost half of the 427,700 persons employed in 2016, according to Statistics Mauritius, that is some 208,000 earned up to Rs 12,000 per month, cannot be sustainable for other reasons as well. Will that not explode in our face one of these days?

If you were to ask Mauritians if they have experienced an improvement in their standard of living over the past twenty years or so, more likely than not, the answer would be a resounding yes. So, where will the explosion you are referring to come from?

Islands like Mauritius with a colonial past have yet to emerge from the shackles of colonialism. In many ways, we are in a state of neo-colonialism where the economic elite still majorly influences the political decision-making but this is somewhat hidden under the premise of what we could term as a pseudo-democracy where the people believe that power is in their hands but, in reality, it has long been confiscated from them.

Power belongs to those who finance the political parties in power. Have you, as a citizen, ever contributed to the funding of your traditional party? How do you then expect those in that party to work in your interest? Selflessness is an exception, not the rule!

Rezistans ek Alternativ aims to change the rules of the game and transform our economy and society. We do not collect a single rupee from the economic elite, we rely on grassroots funding – citizens funding citizens. Right now, Mauritius is being run as Mauritius Inc., a private company, highly geared towards exports and which only cares about profit maximisation at the expense of the labour force and our natural habitat. We propose a shift towards welfare maximisation of the population instead and that is still compatible with profit maximisation but with certain constraints like a minimum wage, a fairer tax system, adoption of nature rights and so on.

50 years after independence, a true Mauritian society, which caters for the many and not the few, is still to emerge…

* You have been quite critical lately of happenings at the level of the Stock Exchange and some of the big shots operating within the private sector as well as the institutions which are supposed to police the sector. It does not seem that things have improved on that front, and this begs the question: Why would financial regulators not do what they are expected to do?

We believe that Soodhun should have been arrested in the midst of the death threats he uttered. But he was not. And we all know why. It is for the exact same reasons that financial regulators do not do what they are expected to do. The concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister in our democracy is dangerous and leads to all kind of abuses.

As a society, we should not rely on individuals but rather on a rock-solid system. This is why Rezistans ek Alternativ always talks of systemic changes. We need to improve and solidify our governance and executive systems. Separation of powers is an urgent necessity – regulatory bodies should operate in total independence. Today, more than half of the members of the Financial Services Commission (FSC) have resigned – why? There are ample reasons to believe that they did not want to be associated with the decisions being imposed on the FSC.

Political interference is the root cause of much dysfunctionality in our island and that has got to change. Again, only a force like Rezistans ek Alternativ can credibly aim to address that.

* Do you have the feeling that our private sector is giving capitalism a bad name for its excessive dependence on rents and for not playing the game as it should in spite of so many concessions dished out to them by successive governments down the years, with their investments in productive sectors going down and going instead for the quick bucks in real estate development?

Crony capitalism! That is the name of the economic system in which we find ourselves. It is the worst kind of capitalism in that it does not operate within the parameters of traditional capitalism. It relies essentially on a form of ‘copinage’ with those holding the political power to ensure that the agenda of the capitalist elite become the agenda of the country at all times. Crony capitalism results more often than not in an inefficient allocation of resources and certainly does not produce an environment for equal opportunities for all and hence, by extension, is also responsible for the brain drain plaguing contemporary Mauritius.

My understanding of capitalism is that profits are a reward for risk-taking but when you analyse what has been going on in this country over the years, you often find that the crony capitalists are complete rent seekers – that is seeking investment returns without taking much risk. When we assess the profitability of the banking sector, we see that as much as half of their profits emanates from fees and charges on their clients. And that happens with the benediction of the Central Bank. A government formed by Rezistans ek Alternativ will definitely address such excesses.

Once again, we get the impression that the powerful of the private and public sectors feast themselves at the same table at the expense of the population. The boom in Real Estate has now lasted long enough to be considered as a trend and we believe that this is an integral part of the planned gentrification process currently underway. With the demise of the sugar and textile industries, the working population employed by these former key sectors are now considered redundant and hence surplus to requirements.

Slowly but surely, there is an ongoing repopulation of the island with super rich millionaires arriving and members of the working class emigrating. This same twist has happened all over the Caribbean islands in the past and this is a bis-repetita. Never forget that this is being done with the benediction of those in power – they were supposed to protect our interests…

* Rajiv Servansingh, writing in this paper, says that ‘only radical changes in governance processes and structures can provide the necessary conditions for a break from the present vicious circle of destruction. The question remains: where are the political forces which are ready to so fundamentally change the way of doing politics as well as reconstruct the foundations of socio-economic growth?’ How do you react to that?

Mr Servansingh is correct in his assertion and such transformation can only be brought by a transformative and progressive political movement. Rezistans ek Alternativ is ready to walk the talk and pave the way for such change to happen. Many in Mauritius are awakening to this new reality and in due time will contribute, each in their own way, to the construction of Mauritius 2.0.

In 1968, our independence was a mere transfer of power from a monarch to a new one. Now, we need to gain our real independence – where power is held by the people for the people. The clock is ticking…

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