Editorial

Zero-Sum Games 

There was a lot of sound and fury during the whole of last week in the wake of certain statements made by Minister Choonee at a social function at D’Epinay. There was a row in the media as well as in the political class around the pronouncement he had made, allegedly to the effect that the persons who had convened him to the function would be having a prior right over others for having voted the Prime Minister and the incumbent government to power. His statement was interpreted by part of the media as having a caste colouring. The entire week was consumed by the passions aroused by this event. The rumour so created is now in the process of dying out. It is not quite clear however whether the incremental dose of bad blood this incident added to the already tense relationship between politicians in power and the concerned part of the media is dying out any time soon. One thing is certain: incidents like this may give temporary advantage to either the politicians or the relevant media but, as far as the nation is concerned, it keeps distilling one more dose of the poison into an already not-so-healthy situation.

If one were observing the scene which took place over here in this regard from a removed position, one would not hold a people which indulge in this sort of palaver for one week in too high an esteem. We must however hasten to add that many who have received a rigorous training in dispassion and do actually put it into practice, did not get entangled into this heated and degenerating debate. Given the importance of the media in a country like Mauritius, however, the removed observer would pass a general judgment, from what was going on, that the denizens of Mauritius do not have enough of serious matters to be pre-occupied with. While debate is healthy, it has to be on a subject which can conclusively lead to some positive outcome. In our case, this particular issue has been about: which of the forces in opposition to each other in this episode is more to be blamed than the other? The answer has been: we’ll play up the match again and we will see who is winning ultimately! Briefly, it was yet another one of the zero-sum-games frequently played on our public turfs. Underlying this kind of futile debate is a deep element of mistrust, with each side accusing the other of unduly favouring particular interests. Understood: to the detriment of all those who are excluded.

The risks from situations like this are two at least. One, people will start believing that the administration of the affairs of the country is actually centred on futile partisan pursuits rather than on strict non-partisan standards and criteria for the good of the country applicable to one and all. Two, there exists a layer of responsible citizens of the country who have for long cultivated a strong sense of values about the res publica which they stick to. The latter may lose heart and let go of those values if equivocation is given a field day. This will be a tragedy. It would be in the interest of one and all not to feed into the generalisation of misperceptions of the sort, with the result that certain wrong perceptions could displace our core values for good and thus undermine the foundation of a strong society without which we cannot make sound progress.

Suspicion and mistrust of the public administration is deep rooted in our society, going back to the colonial days. Some of our top “grands commis de l’Etat” of the colonial days found expression of their talent in the public sector not because they would have been incompetent in the private sector. That they were able to prove their mettle at the highest levels when dealing with affairs of state shows that social prejudices had forced them to make their marks in places where they were free from private sector administrative ostracism, of which they were the victims. The social prejudices did not necessarily operate in their cases due to their distinct religious appurtenance. In fact the religion was shared. So there must have been other factors for discriminating against them. In the same vein, it may be said that in those days, getting a job in the public sector by certain other categories from the rest of the population, notably those of Asian descent, or, where one was able to secure one such job, getting promoted beyond some junior level, was foreclosed by the operation of some “invisible hands”. Thus, a feeling of injustice being meted out due to social differentiation has solidified in people’s psyche. This is not being said with malice. The eyes of history have to be pitiless when thrashing out wheat from the chaff.

Suspicion and fears that one group among the population would impose itself on others were distilled during the electoral campaign for independence in 1967; this kind of false belief has unfortunately taken roots again and been held to be axiomatic. It is untrue, of course, as successive Presidents of the Public Service Commission would no doubt testify. The misdemeanour of a small bunch of misfits placed in positions of authority from time to time has unfortunately not helped to dispel this misperception about the operation of an otherwise broader level-playing-field, especially in the public sector. Blatant manipulations of some key positions by a minority of notorious political power-brokers have poisoned the chalice from time to time. This has been the case irrespective of which political configuration of forces has held the reins of power during the past several decades. The question is: would it be productive at all to keep engaging in a cheap debate about the privileges of ethnic appurtenance as happened last week and as will happen in the future, no doubt, if matters are allowed to drift just the same? The answer should be obvious. The pursuit of futility has never raised the operating platform or the business culture of any nation.

What then needs to be done to consolidate best practices in public life to overhaul the system for the better? If only the best according to merits and ability to deliver are placed in every public and private sector job; if public education ceases to be dispensed on the basis of religious selection and subsidies were to be paid instead on a pro-rata basis of the numbers pulled up from among the most desperate cases in society, education itself being re-aligned with an impeccable result-oriented pragmatic curriculum of international distinction backed by sufficient numbers of excellent teaching staff; if access to facilities accorded by the State, including timely decisions, licences, authorisations, allocation of state lands, granting of business opportunities, public contracts, etc., were given on the basis of what contributes the most to the advancement of Mauritius rather than that of the private interests of well-affiliated politically connected persons; if only optimal allocation of scarce resources (e.g. land, including privately owned land) among competing uses were incentivised on the basis of a priority-based objective test system open to the public; we would then be making some progress not only towards entrenching the fundamental notion of meritocracy across the board and adoption of a system based on an absolute respect for the rule of law. We will also be demystifying politicians from the perception the public have of them as being their be-all-end-all and a necessary channel to gain advantages over others.

It requires exceptional courage to change over to this platform as it will deprive the very politicians making this decision of the vicarious pleasure they derive when pulling around the strings of power. Its benefits will be many to all else than the politicians. A new era of across-the-board unimpeachable integrity will then sweep both the private and public sectors who will work together rather than at cross purposes against each other, in contrast to the current practice of using the media to wage proxy wars against politicians. A high level of assurance will beam up on the faces of our people, workers, entrepreneurs and our youth. We will make breakthroughs in new areas of unsuspected future potential. All of those who will come up on stage under the new paradigm will then realize how ridiculous it was when we were playing zero-sum-games with trivia as outcomes, as happened during the last week.

This new platform calls for meritocracy to be respected in all cases in the open market. Everybody needs to operate as well by rules that cannot be bent. Integrity in all our dealings will not be a mere lip-service; it will be constantly put into practice. By abiding according to this kind of discipline, we will set aside futile appeals to caste and ethnic belongings. Thanks to it, the atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion which occasionally envelopes us in a thick mist of misunderstanding will also disappear. This new direction will cost politicians some amount of autonomous decision-making but it will be worth its weight in gold. It is time we stop being distracted by political sub-plots staged by politicians and the media. Let someone take the initiative to make politics more productive by dealing with real life issues. Let the population live for something more ennobling than scheming with acrimony around castes and ethnicity. Let the new social pact begin by shedding away useless burdens we would otherwise have to carry to the detriment of one and all. Let us remove the useless bone of contention so as to employ our energies to tackle real problems facing the country. 

M.K.

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