Since 1968, the world has changed a lot. Globalisation has proceeded apace overturning a number of the concepts and limitations that usually thwarted progress. Mauritius has embarked on this movement of irresistible changing environments the world over instead of getting trapped into things like internal conflicts. It has taken advantage of some of the international openings made over the past four decades for uplifting the welfare of its citizens. Evidently, more could have been done to consolidate society and the economy. This has not always happened because of dithering, wrong decisions taken, poor planning, etc. It is the translation of great intentions into the reality that actually often fails governing regimes. This is why it is a far better thing to set out rather what one proposes to execute as a plan of action for the future instead of dwelling on reminiscences of past glory. We set down below seven priorities which we believe the government should attend to as a matter of urgency to put the country on a confident sustainable future course.
Protection of the Environment. It is observed that the more people talk about preserving a safe environment, the more there are risks of side slipping. Can it be honestly said that a city like Port Louis is becoming cleaner and more salubrious by the day? And for that matter, other urban and rural centres? It is obvious that this factor has been getting out of hands.
Waste is littered all over and regard for maintaining the pristine lush and greenery stops at the level of intentions. Characteristic of some other third world countries, there appears to be a never-ending action to pave the country with cement works all over without a clear plan as to how the bigger picture will look like when all this has been done. At the level of individuals, there is a display of growing carelessness. People throw their litter everywhere, on the roads as their vehicles move on, on the pavements as they finish off their road lunches or breakfasts, in the rivers when nobody is watching and on unoccupied plots of land. Every day, people swim into more and more plastics and no one has an idea as to how the electrical and electronic gadgets shoppers keep buying will be correctly disposed of without harming the environment. At the level of firms, the drive for profit appears to overwhelm all other considerations; so firms go on supplying a lot of non-bio-degradable containers about which consumers don’t have the least clue on how they will eventually be disposed of without harming the environment enduringly. No need to add about the carbon pollution which our fuming vehicles are delivering on the highways and residential roads daily as the fleet of all sorts of vehicles goes on increasing uninterruptedly, short of an alternative more efficient system of transportation.
Unless this laissez-faire attitude is dealt with, a serious environment management problem is profiling itself for us on the horizon for the past so many years and will no doubt continue. Action is needed to give all this a sense of direction before it is too late to reverse the environmental damage being caused, it being given that this factor is critical not only for our daily living but equally well for a major economic activity like the hospitality sector.
Implement Solutions rather than allowing problems to jam up. We have been experiencing all sorts of bottlenecks in different spheres of activities. One of these is the problem of infrastructure failing to match up with the scale of economic activity undertaken. In the past month only, the country was facing a situation of drastic water shortage; today, there are several cases of flooding without an appreciable improvement in our water storage capacity. Our electricity supply has been under a similar threat and it is hoped that the recent action taken to increase production capacity, irrespective of considerations of cost-effectiveness, will ward off the danger of power shedding we were potentially facing. The most well known in this category is road congestion, a problem that has been amplifying from year to year.
Proliferation of crime and lawlessness is another scourge, the tackling of which we have been trying to catch up with for long enough now. A concrete reversal of trend is not in sight. Food prices have shot up in the past month and more food price increases are in the offing because of a global imbalance between foreseeable supply and demand. There is no index to show that we would have acted to address this major vulnerability in terms of food self-sufficiency in any significant manner.
There are several other areas where similar jamming up has been taking place. The problem is that, unattended to, there is an intensification of each issue making it even more intractable to deal with effectively with the passage of time. The solution is to deal with all of them at once as a priority before they assume unmanageable proportions.
A reaffirmation of the rule of law, respect for meritocracy, etc. Governance has been a principal factor behind our past economic and social uplift, although it is less talked about than others. It will remain a key indicator of our future progress. There is a growing perception that certain people can take the law in their own hands. It is the worst thing that can happen to democracy. The system of short cuts is prevalent in authoritarian regimes the sorts of which have been coming under serious challenge in the Middle East the past month. We can go down this road at high cost because indiscipline will make business shy away from our shores. Our public institutions, the police and judiciary in particular, should continue to remain the repositories of ultimate trust that our country will abide by the rule of law in all circumstances.
The perceived deficit in this area should be dealt with rapidly as a way of restoring confidence in the good working of our institutions, irrespective of affiliations of any kind of the wrong-doers. Moreover, the respect for meritocracy is not a relative measure, i.e., that if it is not respected in one sector of activity, the others could afford to follow suit. It is rather an absolute measure of commitment to unflinching high standards of practice whoever happens to be concerned. It is a system which guarantees value-for-money across the board and there is no reason why steps should not be taken to put this kind of universal practices into action immediately. Once enforcement of such a system is put at par for all, it will immediately dismiss doubts and suspicions of wrong-doing according to ethnic and similar discriminations. Replacing the word ‘sympathy’ in the old song: “confidence is what you need, my friend…”
Freedom of Information. Where information does not flow freely between decision-makers and the people, or where it is selectively filtered through official lenses to give a desired perception about those who rule, as it was being done in the Middle Eastern countries, exasperation gets bottled up ready to blow off at the least provocation. Forward-looking countries have given force of law to freedom of information legislations. This disposition permits citizens to have their questions about public decisions answered in a timely manner rather than allowing all sorts of rumours to have unrestricted publicity. In Mauritius, the system has gone so far as to make a dichotomy of views along religious, ethnic and other less respectable classifications of the population in the media and in private quarters. It helps raise a lot of, sometimes unjustified, pent-up feelings which lead to dangerous generalisations of false perceptions. If the Med Point Hospital transaction, for example, is still a major preoccupation for the population, it is because whatever information has been supplied to justify it has been below expectations.
Needless to say, the suspicions of wrong-doing, corruption, etc., that sub-standard information systems generate disrupt the smooth working of democracies. They can lead to sudden irrational reactions that can put a country’s clock back by several years. The title of the book was: ‘Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ We can ask: ‘Who is afraid of free flow of information?’ The answer: ‘those who always have something important to hide’. This kind of perception should not be allowed to travel much further in an information age where you gain credibility by being ever more transparent and making yourself accountable for all your acts and omissions. It is high time to act.
Financing of Political parties. There has been for quite some time a demand to carry out some manner of electoral reform. Considerations of ethnic representation, on the one hand, and potentially stronger oppositions that the electoral college might produce under proportional representation, on the other hand, have held decisions in this respect in abeyance. In this manner, lopsided representations of people are continuing; it will take twice as many or even more voters in some constituencies to elect the same number of deputies as in others; elections will continue to throw up a number of elected members on either side of the house vastly disproportionate to the number of votes cast for each side. This ram shackled electoral system has finally ended up perpetuating coalition politics to the point that no political party is highly distinguishable from the other in terms of its social project. Both voters and deputies have for long been prisoner of an obsolete voting system and no one is willing to make the first move except at the periphery which will not make damaging inroads on the core votership of each major party and the communal interests they have come to represent.
This fundamental shortcoming of the election system is compounded by another major flaw. It relates to the financing of election campaigns of the parties. Top business firms provide financial support to the different parties engaged in the fray at election time, depending on which one of them is expected to gratify their post-electoral demands or pass laws which are more compliant with their business pursuits. In other words, a pre-electoral agenda is set for the parties which is not necessarily co-terminous with the official manifesto of each party or the public interest. For all practical purposes, it forms part of the party’s hidden agenda and is highly destructive of democratic values.
The time has come to dismiss this kind of covert financing if only to remove the doubt it casts on the government’s real power to act in favour of the people. The state should step in to give political parties a reasonable allocation of funds for the election campaign and it should ban all other forms of financing, let alone having the effective power, with the support of the judiciary if necessary, to ban for life those who trespass limits established by law. Going in this direction will shift power from richly endowed political parties and represent a move towards real representation of the people on personal merits of candidates and their parties which is a more desirable outcome for the public.
Arrest the general loss of Sense of Values. We have been hearing about degrading values among school-going children. Crime involving adolescents is another phenomenon plaguing our society. Reckless driving and pedestrian carelessness are costing lives almost every day on our roads. Violence has taken extreme forms in different milieu. Expectations of easy, effortless gains are so high that long queues are formed at the Lotto selling points on the last day. In places like Singapore and Macau, a good amount of state revenues is derived from the running of casinos. The idea of making the necessary effort to achieve something worthwhile has been taking the back seat. The social arrangement of the past that acted to recuperate adults before they drifted out has been sorely missing. An essential social safety net has given way and needs to be brought back in place urgently.
If culture in the deeper sense of the word is being substituted for by frivolities, it is because certain people (perhaps numbers are increasing by the day) think that being on the right side of the fence will bring them safeguards and benefits however much they under-perform or not perform at all. Instead of attending to this grave problem that has the potential to destabilise our society with serious consequences, some of our so-called social leaders have been encouraging sub-standard misbehaviour. Institutions have lost their sense of gravitas because they are swayed not by the good of society as a whole but rather by sectional self-seeking. Encouraging this kind of sub-culture has been showing up in serial explosions in other societies around the world; surely, we don’t want to go down to that extent?
It is time to arrest this trend. It cannot be done by everyone acting in isolation. Decision-makers should bring up the coalition of common interest to get back a minimum sense of values in society all around.
A meaningful Economic Orientation. In the face of the international economic crisis, individual countries have kept themselves busy on how best to pull themselves out of the morass. By depreciating currency or making private trade arrangements, they have been making every possible effort to keep their heads above water. We should have been doing the same. We should have concentrated on adopting an enduring economic model and equipping our workforce to position it better on the markets. The urgency of the moment is to bring about structural changes in our economic model so that if we cannot do certain things on our own, in view of our technical deficits, we could pair up with other countries to move ahead. For this, you need an enterprising private sector that, like those of the 1970s, will bring fresh ideas on the table on how to act more efficiently on those changing global markets.
We cannot do this unless we succeed to empower a proactive private sector coming out of the beaten tracks to identify our strengths and put them to effective use in the conquest of rather more difficult international markets today. The private sector needs to be empowered to “seek out” rather than seek government funding to finance its managerial failures when the sun is about to set. For this, we need a Civil Service as well which is of the highest calibre. Short of proceeding along these lines, we will end up becoming a nation of property developers and rent seekers. On this trend, when the tide that has been holding up well so far were to turn, our natural joie-de-vivre will have taken the exit as it happened not very many years ago.
Let us take a more serious bet on the future.
* Published in print edition on 11 March 2011