Interview: Professor Singfat Chu, National University of Singapore
Mauritius at 50
“If we can liberate ourselves from myths and taboos,
which rest on fear rather than substance, we can only become a better country”
Singfat Chu was born some nine months after the infamous Cyclone Carol. He grew up in a “l’hôtel mine”. He attended Notre Dame de La Visitation RCA and Royal College Curepipe. After working for two years as a secondary school maths teacher, he left for university studies in Canada. Since 1991, he has been a Professor of Business Analytics at the Business School, National University of Singapore. He has penned many articles in the local media on the analytics of electoral reform in Mauritius. In the context of the 50th year of our Independence we have asked Singfat Chu, one of thousands of Mauritians who for various reasons have chosen to pursue their professional careers outside of Mauritius, why they left and what it would take to bring them back. Read on:
* The University of Mauritius organised, this week, the Mauritian Academic Diaspora Conference to mark the 50th Independence anniversary. What is striking when one goes through the list of participating academics is the expertise that can be tapped amongst overseas Mauritians. If given a choice, many might probably choose to come back, but would you say that Mauritius has reached that stage in its development that would allow it to provide the incentives for that to happen?
Mauritius has yet to reach that stage. We simply do not have the resources to entice especially the pool of top young talent back home. The University of Mauritius (UoM), for instance, has some 400 academic staff, 12,000 students and its annual operating budget is Rs1 billion. By comparison, the National University of Singapore (NUS), where I have worked for the past 26 years, currently has more than 5000 academic staff, 38,000 students and its 2017 operating budget was about 40 times higher than that of UOM.
In this globalized world, talents go where the resources are. Singapore, China and India are actively bringing their top academic talents back home by providing them international market pay and generous research budgets. That is not happening in Mauritius.
* What about yourself personally? Was it “good fortune” which brought you to Singapore or was it lack of opportunities back “home”?
When I was at Royal College Curepipe, many classmates and I shared the dream of serving the Motherland. But life’s realities shattered most of our dreams. When I got my PhD in 1991, I was 31 years old. My small family had till then sacrificed everything for my education. It was my duty to give back so that it could also achieve social mobility.
A job at UoM would not have enabled that. When I looked at the world map then and considered where I could get a good job and yet be close to my family, Singapore emerged top of the list. NUS was considered a teaching university in 1991, but in a mere 26 years, I have partaken in its transformation into a top global research University. This experience would not have happened at UoM.
I have been privileged to come back every year. I’ve never forgotten my debt to the Motherland. I have given back substantially to various education causes. These also would not have been possible had I returned to Mauritius.
In short, I have contributed more to Mauritius from overseas.
* Mauritian politicians are less vocal these days about their ambition to transform Mauritius into the “Singapore of the Indian Ocean”. One wonders whether we should have harboured such an ambition in the first place given Mauritius’ distinctive characteristics – quite unlike those of Singapore. What do you think?
What is so distinctive about Mauritius compared to Singapore? Both countries are multi-racial and bereft of natural resources. Both countries rely on their people to create wealth. Are we less smart than Singaporeans? I for one teach Singaporeans, some of whom come to consult in Mauritius.
Singapore has set the gold standard in the area of country development due to its rigorous culture of vision, discipline, perseverance and maintenance. Vision is about knowing what you want to be and how you plan holistically rather than piecemeal to achieve it with maximum probability. For example, Singapore decided a few years ago to become an Analytics hub. It set up a masterplan starting with how many graduates are needed, what incentives to provide to students to undertake such studies (it is the hottest and most competitive area for University admission nowadays, even above Business!) and for consulting firms to set up shop, etc.
With discipline, everyone walks in a straight line which is obviously the shortest path to any goal rather than “en désordre”, as we tend to do in Mauritius. Perseverance is about pursuing the goal relentlessly and not be constrained to a 9 am-4 pm work schedule. In Singapore, overtime is rarely paid but workers get to partake in handsome bonuses at the end of the year.
Too often, we build and forget about maintenance in Mauritius. The plight of the “Hôtel de Ville” in Curepipe illustrates. This would not happen in Singapore where the “patrimoine” is cherished. Many tourists visiting Singapore are amazed by the quality of its public apartments which house 80% of its population. Imagine the best condominium in Mauritius minus the pool. This is how public housing is in Singapore due to strict maintenance regulations like daily sweeping of the corridors, repainting of the exterior walls every 5 years, etc. This maintenance culture is sorely lacking in Mauritius.
We have to make choices in life. If these four basic ethos — vision, discipline, perseverance and maintenance –, necessary for progress and its sustainability are too much for us, we should not lament our fate.
* We have not heard of Vietnam aspiring to emulate Singapore into becoming the ‘Singapore of South East Asia’. Nor of Malaysia or Indonesia for that matter… Yet they are doing well. What’s your take on that?
Despite huge differences in land area, population size and political governance, all these four countries share an affinity through being members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which actively promotes socio-economic integration. The success of one country eventually rubs on the others.
Singapore is a city-state with a hub service economy orientation. Its economic strategies are not transferable to these countries. However, I have been very impressed by the commonality of hard work and “débrouillardise” within the ASEAN countries. We will gain in emulating them in Mauritius.
* For one, Mauritians might not be comfortable with the ‘dictatorship’ – undoubtedly benevolent — which has, amongst others, contributed to Singapore’s success. How do you and other expats live with that?
In my 26 years in Singapore, I have never felt like I am living under a dictatorship. Every Singaporean citizen above 21 years must vote. If about 70% vote for a party “ki pa fine faner” and which has delivered the goods, this is neither dictatorship nor electoral system rigging.
I read the major global media outlets daily. Where is the dictatorship? The rule of the law is enforced. “Ou pa capav coz n’importe”. If you defame and you cannot back your words with evidence, you must pay a price. Is this dictatorship? Lee Kuan Yew for one never passed the prime minister’s post to his son “lor ene plato”.
Almost everyone I talk to in Mauritius would welcome this “benevolent dictatorship” if, as in Singapore, it promotes meritocracy, severely sanctions corruption, incompetence or irresponsibility, hangs drug traffickers, keeps the streets safe at all times and provides a roof to all – i.e. our social shortcomings right now.
* Economists have been saying that Mauritius is presently caught in the middle-income trap. The government’s ambition is to turn Mauritius into a high income economy by the year 2020. One wonders if we are really moving towards that status. Viewed from outside, do you see that happening any time soon?
With a per capita GNI of almost US$10K in 2016, Mauritius is ranked as an upper middle-income country together with Malaysia, Russian Federation, Mexico, Maldives, etc. This is decent company.
To achieve high-income status by 2020, per capita GNI in Mauritius will have to grow at an average annual rate of at least 6%. However per capita GNI has stagnated at near zero growth since 2013 (Reference: https://data.worldbank.org/country/mauritius).
A significant disruption from the current inert economic model, much beyond Metro Express and its downstream developments, is needed to achieve high-income status.
* What does your exposure down the years to the way the Singapore government operates inform you about how its leadership would have approached this challenge?
An interesting observation is that per capita GNI in Mauritius also stagnated in 1978-1985 and 1997-2002. Which measures implemented since these episodes led to subsequent growth? This is an obvious starting point for policy makers.
In Singapore, a Ministerial Committee would have also been urgently formed and tasked to come up with concrete proposals to give the economy a growth spurt. Ministers in Singapore spend more of their time planning the future rather than putting out bush fires, which Ministers in Mauritius appear to be doing. A recent example is the Committee on the Future Economy set up in January 2016. Its report in February 2017 enunciated 7 intertwined strategies to maximise the chances of Singapore’s success (Reference: https://www.gov.sg/~/media/cfe/downloads/cfe%20report.pdf?la=en).
* Here we’re stuck with the same politicians vying for power every five years, as well as the same “rent-based economy”, etc. Not much has really changed. If we truly want to move ahead, what would this require in terms of reform?
Reform pertains more to the mindset of voters rather than institutions or politicians. Voters fundamentally decide the way the country will be run. Each one of us should look in the mirror and assess our responsibility in the political morass we moan so much about these days.
Our panachage “Vote any 3 candidates” in a Mauritius constituency is a good idea for diversity in representation.
Let’s stop being seduced by “bouttes” or myopic interests and vote instead for the 3 best candidates across parties, etc.
The political agenda over the next 50 years of Independence should be to build “Mauritianism” and a true nation. We must disrupt our political system and boldly eradicate the Best Loser System. I’ve always wondered why BLS is only implemented for National Assembly seats and nowhere else, for example the allocation of laureates. Are we not all proud of the diversity in the current crop of laureates?
If we can liberate ourselves from myths and taboos, which rest on fear rather than substance, we can only become a better country.
* Published in print edition on 23 February 2018