“We will only be able to start celebrating when all Mauritians are enabled to pursue their dreams of happiness”

Interview: Mrinal ROY

“It is time to have a paradigm shift in the manner in which parties chose their candidates for election and eventually for Cabinet posts”

“In a country feeding on gossip and rumours, the local Goebbels have a field day. Thank goodness we have the simple option as free citizens to shun this hype”


Our guest this week is Mr Mrinal Roy, who has served as Director of the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate, but has a lifetime of experience at national, regional and international levels. From these vantage points he has acquired a broad sweep of knowledge about societies, cultures, politics, international relations and so forth. He is a keen observer of the local scene, and in this interview he makes some very candid comments about the realities of media reporting, which tends more towards the negative rather than the positive. He concedes that all is not rosy but that one need not be alarmist either, if all stakeholders and the political decision makers play the game together, according to agreed rules and in a spirit of distributive justice as the island goes about creating its wealth.

Mauritius Times: Let’s start with the bad news: newspapers headlines in Mauritius, these days, paint a rather depressing image of a country beset by all manner of alleged “affairs”, malpractices… It’s as if there’s nothing positive happening in this country. Is that indeed the case?

Mrinal Roy: The daily headlines carried by the polarized partisan media are part of the grim political battle between the Opposition and the Government. These headlines have become an intrinsic part of the local political scene. They have been fuelled by various allegations, recent tragic events and presumably information leaked by insider whistleblowers. Is the simple game plan aimed at sapping the Government to the point of provoking anticipated elections before the end of the five-year term in 2015?

The democratic process is anchored on having general elections at established frequencies on the basis of electoral programmes and policies providing a free choice to the electorate. Once the outcome of the elections is known, it is axiomatic that as democrats the losing side respects the verdict of vox populi and carries out its opposition mandate of being a vigilant watchdog of Government policies and actions, providing whenever necessary potent criticisms and constructive suggestions. In mature democracies such as the USA, the Republicans are not hell-bent on wresting power from President Obama during his term of office after his victory in November 2012. Similarly Labour is not insidiously undermining the Tory-LibDem coalition Government in power in the UK. In the US there are more and more bipartisan agreements to promote policies in the interests of the larger good of America especially in the context of the international financial crisis. Is it not time for us to move away from this power-obsessed mindset so reminiscent of shallow third world political shenanigans and stratagems?

Regrettably this is far from being the case in Mauritius. We are daily afflicted by the sorry picture of the mano a mano between the Opposition and Government and the parallel acrimonious proxy fight between the partisan press lobbies. ‘On fait feu de tout bois’ to show the Government in a bad light. Any incident is cynically exploited and skilfully amplified. In a country feeding on gossip and rumours, the local Goebbels have a field day. Thank goodness we have the simple option as free citizens to shun this hype by stopping to buy the newspapers or switch away from the audio or TV channels we find objectionable.

Everyone agrees that alleged malpractices or improprieties must be denounced by responsible and fair reporting and that these must be investigated by the relevant authorities in a transparent manner and the culprits, if any, brought to book. In addition, the necessary steps must be taken to prevent their recurrence. However what riles people is that the endless harping on the seedy stories have monopolised and distracted the national debate away from so many more important issues in the real economy such as economic growth, the quality of service provided to the public, the true reality behind the slogans of the democratisation of the economy or equal opportunities in public/private employment, in the face of the legitimate aspirations of the progressively better trained Mauritian youth equipped to bid for the best job opportunities in the market on the basis of the simple principle of meritocracy.

The many kudos earned by Mauritius from international institutions and visiting dignitaries as well the favourable ranking of Mauritius in the various international indices measuring our socio-economic and human development performance attest to the country’s progress through the collective effort of the nation. Any objective observer would vouch that there are many positive developments which are transforming the quality of life and opportunities for the people through a range of policies and actions. However a lot more remains to be done.

* But isn’t there something of substance that’s actually happening and is good enough reason for us to celebrate?

We cannot celebrate as this is a time for discipline, hard work and innovative thinking and strategies to face the challenges posed by the backdrop of the continuing international financial crisis. In spite of the green shoots of recovery in the USA showed in the latest improved employment figures, the general picture in the EU and the growth forecasts in the BRICS countries including the latest figures in China are not very comforting and require that we chalk out appropriate intelligent responses.

As a nation we have achieved a lot in all walks of life but still have more milestones to reach. We will only be able to start celebrating when all sections of the population including the most vulnerable are enabled, through appropriate reform measures, to pursue their dreams of happiness. In this context the delivery of free housing to the more vulnerable sections of society is a worthy cause for celebration on the understanding that it is implemented indiscriminately across the many pockets of poverty in the country.

Another simple example of actions needed to be urgently taken to better the quality of life of the common man and the public at large is the significant improvement of the quality of services provided by government institutions to the public. This would indeed be cause for celebration. We can rightly be proud at the wide social protection provided in terms of national free education, free healthcare, social security aids and actions in favour of vulnerable groups, etc. However it is imperative that we urgently introduce a culture of ready and courteous service in government organizations and in particular in those which have to interface with the public.

Regular audits must be carried out on the quality of service meted out with independent surveys of consumer satisfaction or otherwise. Any public service provided must be efficient, prompt and generate public satisfaction. Benchmarks of efficient service have already been established by public institutions such as the DBM in the handling of the MID solar energy programme or the MRA in the success of the electronic tax filing system. The mainstream services must adopt similar benchmarks. Similarly, the private sector is not free from criticisms and also needs to upgrade its level of service to the public and its clients.

* That ‘depressing image’ I was referring to might be a matter of perception created by the wrong and biased focus of the private media on the bad news in particular, which obviously sells better, the more so as the countervailing efforts by the pro-government media to present a balanced perspective of things isn’t proving effective enough. Do you think this is a correct assessment of what’s going on?

The content and form of reporting of such events not only panders to people’s sordid voyeurism but also, more importantly, to the parochial interests of the Opposition. The unavowed hope of the latter is that this entire ruckus may rock the boat, hence the unabated thrust of their attacks. However, the majority of the nation does not seem to subscribe to this continuous electioneering as their focus is on bread and butter considerations of earning a living though diligent work and in helping generate wealth for the nation in their respective fields of activity.

In this context, what are rather surprising are the Prime Minister’s impromptu mini-press conferences at the end of each of his official functions in the last months. It gives opportunities to journalists to plant leading questions provoking off the cuff replies which inadvertently fuel further adverse reporting. It is noteworthy that President Francois Hollande has at the start of his mandate formalised his rapport with the press by holding only two press conferences per year.

* We could, of course, have done better, but that does not seem to happen, and the view has been expressed that Mauritius remains ‘figée, bloquée dans un autre temps’… Do you agree?

We could certainly have done much better had we adopted from the outset some simple principles such as the rule of meritocracy in all recruitments and nominations. It is not too late to do so as from now. Mauritius needs to harness all its latent human talent to operate, manage, innovate and generate more wealth for the nation. Furthermore, the University training opportunities created locally by the Education hub which already houses some prestigious international institutions are bound to unleash a plethora of graduates with pointed skills necessary to sustain the further development of Mauritius to higher levels of success.

The adoption of a policy of meritocracy in recruitment policies according to a codified transparent process applicable in both the public and private sectors should aim at ensuring that the brightest Mauritians have access to the best employment opportunities. Such a policy will have to contain an element of positive discrimination in certain categories of jobs where this is possible. In a society which promotes the pursuit of excellence and achievement in education, there is every year a new crop of Mauritians having excelled at tertiary level. The lack of transparency in recruitment policies has encouraged a brain drain as too many well-trained Mauritians prefer to stay and work abroad. However, given the choice most of them would prefer to work in Mauritius. This constitutes a wastage of valuable resources.

It is not true that this cannot happen. All that is required is a political will to do so, bearing in mind that investing in competence everywhere minimises the risk of mishaps at all levels of decision-making.

It is equally not true that Mauritius remains ‘figée, bloquée dans un autre temps’ as we have as a nation reinvented ourselves on several occasions in the teeth of new challenges facing the country. Time has probably also come for us, in the context of flagging demand in our traditional markets, to negotiate a set of new trading agreements, with countries having a more robust growth potential, for our exporting and tourism sectors.

* PPS Reza Issack obtained good and extensive media coverage thanks to his comments about the “mediocrity” of some of his party colleagues (who sit in the Cabinet) without actually naming them. Whatever his motivations, one may find it difficult to disagree with his view that Mauritius needs a big kick-start, ‘un coup de fouet’. What do you think?

It again boils down to the pool of competence and talent among the elected members of the victorious coalition. The manner and criteria of recruitment of candidates to stand for elections, according to the specific predetermined ethno-caste profiles fitting the specific slots in the national grid of the sixty candidates in the 20 constituencies of Mauritius, has deterred many Mauritians from joining politics. Furthermore Cabinet members are also chosen according to the same disconcerting logic. The result is that Cabinet members can only be chosen from the limited and specific resources available irrespective of the fundamental skills required to hold such a post. It follows that some are less apt than others, hence the scathing remarks made.

If Mauritius wants to live up to its loftiest ambitions, it is time to have a paradigm shift in the manner in which parties chose their candidates for election and eventually for Cabinet posts. A new approach must attract talented Mauritians willing to serve the country to ensure that the key ministries are manned by the most qualified and able elected members. In the US, the UK, France or India, a fair share of the Ministers has been to the most prestigious universities or institutes of the world. In Singapore, a country we wish to emulate, professionals from the private are inducted to serve as ministers for a term of office. Do we have the will to break loose from the hold of diverse vested lobbies to kickstart this sea change…?

* One could ascribe the public statements made by the PPS to genuine personal frustrations with inaction on the part of some of his colleagues. He seems to believe that it would require a Cabinet reshuffle to jolt it back into action. What’s your take on that?

New blood always helps. If one interprets the indulgence with which these remarks have been treated by the party Establishment, it would not be surprising that a reshuffle is on the cards. There are interesting options available among the elected party members. However, the timing and tenor of any reshuffle would be important if it is to have the desired positive impact.

* Mr Issack has not spoken about government fatigue after two terms in office or the want of a powerful driver leading the government forward. Nor has he broached the issue of the (sometimes) corrosive influence on government decisions by all manner of lobbies made bolder by a thin parliamentary majority. His other proposition – that of a political solution to the current stalemate through an alliance with the MMM – is on the table. Is that the thing to do to get matters right?

At his last press conference, the leader of the MMM has already denied any prospects of discussions with the Labour Party to arrive at an alliance. Airing the prospect of a coalition which means a reduced number of Cabinet posts available for sharing in essence makes a Cabinet reshuffle appear to be a more palatable option to the incumbent ministers!

* One section of the opposition is beset by the negative impact on it of the sale of a private clinic to the government. There may be more in the pipeline for it on this score in relation to consignments of Bois de Rose that have been seized. The other section is troubled by doubts about its leader’s health – and the long-term viability of the Party. The leader’s son would be called in, it would appear, to take care of the Party’s future. What does all this say about the current predicament in which our parliamentary opposition stands?

Both opposition parties are home grown and have been sustained on the strength of their respective leaders. Will the ideological anchors of the parties be able to give them specific identities in the spectrum of policy options? Will they be able to maintain the trust of their electorate and continue to lay claim to be a viable alternative in the next general elections? It is not an easy situation and it is certain that considerable thought is being given to all this.

* Does that question of political dynasties irk you in the sense that we do not seem to be able to free ourselves from this political straightjacket that keeps producing leaders from family-owned parties? How do you see politics evolving, given this situation?

What is irksome is when party leaders consider the party to be part of their family heirloom to be inherited by the next generation. This can only happen through the tacit collusion of the party members who are complicit in this undemocratic state of affairs. Such a situation confers absolute powers to the leader who holds the political future of his members in his hands. In such a situation sycophancy is rampant. If we subscribe to basic democratic values, the first instruments of democracy must be the political parties and the way they operate.

In the absence of dynasts, this blemish on our democratic values could be resolved by itself.

* But one could argue alternatively that these ‘dynasties’ have so far not wreaked havoc and that we should rather free ourselves from the intellectual straightjacket of political correctness?

The issue is about ensuring that our political system allows for democratic debate and free elections at all levels of the system including within political parties as is the case in mature democracies like the USA, UK, France or Australia. Such an approach could bring out beneficial changes in the manner we do politics.

* Anyway, let’s give the politicians – and their sons – a break. Do you think that the country has taken a firm direction nevertheless to address its future with lucidity?

There are lots of positives in terms of the achievements realised so far. We have inter alia a much diversified economy with multiple new sectors generating their own growth potential, a broad state-financed social protection, a low and uniform tax rate, a positive growth rate of about 3.5% in the context of the international financial crisis and an agreeable quality of life. There are still clouds over our main markets and our export performance, but cogent steps are being taken to focus our marketing efforts towards markets in Africa and Asia having more growth potential whilst maintaining our efforts in our traditional markets. We however need to be vigilant on the performance of the various sectors and take necessary corrective steps as required. In the current context of difficult market conditions it would be worthwhile for each sector to review its cost structure to investigate any savings that can be made to improve their competitiveness.

It would help if in conjunction with the diverse stakeholders we develop a longer-term perspective of the country’s vision for the future. There are so many fundamental issues that need to be addressed that it would be difficult to squeeze them in here. I will therefore limit my comments to energy and two major mismatches.

First, it is high time to address the long outstanding issue of the participation of the sugar planters in the income streams generated by the use of their bagasse and molasses in the production of electricity and ethanol through an appropriate partnership.

Second, the existing and new medical colleges will soon be significantly increasing the number of interns wishing to do internship in hospitals and subsequently as doctors entering the job market. Already there was a significant backlog of students who completed medical studies and who had to wait for a long period to obtain internships in hospitals. It is important to anticipate the problem in order to find appropriate solutions. On a larger scale a similar mismatch will appear between the thousands of graduates from the diverse centres of tertiary education in the Education hub and the job opportunities in the market place. It has to be addressed early to take advantage of the new skills pool available.

Third, there is a yawning mismatch between the average income of a graduate cadre of some Rs 25,000 and his legitimate aspiration to buy a plot of land to build a house. It is impossible for him to do so if one considers that it would cost him at least Rs 400,000 to buy a plot of 100 toises of land in a village and more than Rs1 million to build a small 100 sq m house on it. Being an island, access to land is limited and its prices are appreciating, as the owners of land cash in on or develop their land assets through investment in real estate developments and new sectors such as the tertiary education hub. This problem which requires an examination of the larger land issue must be addressed at the earliest in the context of a policy of all-inclusive socio-economic development.

* What more do we need to do in the various spheres of life of the country to heighten the ‘joie de vivre’ which used to be the hallmark of living in this country at one time?

We live in difficult times when the natural instinct is to save rather than spend. This is in fact one of the root causes of the reduced demand for our exports to the EU. In addition, the real purchasing power here has been eroded hitting the disposal income levels of lower and middle income groups. It is only a boost in growth rates which might change things. In reality in spite of all this the quality of life here is enjoyable.

* If basic values are being eroded by all manner of misbehaviours, whose job is it to get matters right once again? Why do many opinion leaders leave the burden of adjustment solely to politicians? What should be the role of other responsible stakeholders of the country?

Values have deteriorated because of the collapse of the partnership between the parents and the school in conjunction with the religious bodies to groom children to discern between right and wrong. Peer pressure and the adverse influence of the binge culture during the formative period have further eroded values. First and foremost parents must assume their responsibilities towards the upbringing of their progeny. The school must also play a more proactive role through civic courses imparted as part of the curriculum. The civil societies in localities as well as religious bodies must also be harnessed to help inculcate basic civic values to the young.

We should in parallel embark on a policy of early rehabilitation of those who have committed offences. Sports keep the young out of mischief. Further investment in sports facilities especially in vulnerable localities and staffed by appropriate coaching staff will also help improve values.

* Do you feel that Mauritius is grooming all its resources sufficiently well to position itself as it should in a world that is fast changing and requiring dynamic adaptation? In which area, do you feel, we are currently making our mark?

Apart from the largely untapped resources (barring tuna and sea food) of our exclusive marine economic zone, our most valuable resource is our human resources. As pointed out, the opening up of diverse centres of university education has beefed up the skills mastered by a larger number of university graduates. It requires that appropriate urgent plans are drawn up to ensure that there is as close a matching of the skills pool with the job opportunities created accordingly.

We have made our mark in all the diverse sectors we have opened up. The budding sector which requires special mention is the field of empirical research. I understand that a beehive of Mauritian researchers are working on path-breaking fields of polymers and are undertaking diverse research projects to test the possibilities of deriving economic benefit from the multiplicity of resources in our exclusive marine economic zone.

* When almost all sectors of activity and even individuals forming part of the citizenship put themselves in a position as to constantly be in need of support and politicians try to oblige in all cases, no matter the distortions that are created in the process, how should one read the situation? Are we becoming vulnerable across the board?

If we want to shirk once and for all a third world mentality and instead adopt a mindset of rigour, discipline, hard work and transparency, we can put an end to all this cronyism forthwith. It is honest hard work which generates wealth. If politicians want to avoid negative press headlines, they have to shy away from dispensing patronage at the expense of the public interest. There is a significantly different and loftier manner to do politics based on imaginative leadership and ideals of public service to create a better society for all.

* Published in print edition on 14 June 2013

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