“Lee Kwan Yew could have been an autocratic ruler but he was a ruler with a vision. What vision have our rulers shown in the last few decades?”

Interview: Nandini Bhautoo, Academic – UoM

* ‘Maybe this is what will jolt our country back into interest — either a total dictator or a bumbling fool’

* ‘The opposition is totally ineffective, concerned as they are with their own alliances for political survival’ 

Our guest this week Nandini Bhautoo from the University of Mauritius takes a harsh but much-needed objective and incisive look at the current situation in our country. On the surface there is an appearance of progressive change, but this is grafted on unchanged structures and mentalities which ensure the survival and perpetuation of the old guard making up both sides of the political divide, together with the conniving elite class that depends on them to equally perpetuate their own interests and privileges. The result is both stagnation of society in the same old ruts, and a disenchanted youth who are not provided the necessary fresh guidance or a framework that would allow their potential to flower. Hers is a wake-up that had better be heeded if we want the country to move forward into this century.

Mauritius Times: Governments across the world seem to be holding their breath in anticipation of what’s coming next with the waves that Donald Trump is creating all around. In Mauritius, there has been the transfer of power from SAJ to his son Pravind, but things nevertheless appear to be standing still; nothing elevating happening on any front, and we all appear to be biding time. How would you qualify the times we are living in?

Nandini Bhautoo: Well some philosophers could call this period an interregnum, an in-between time when the old system is dead or dying and the new is waiting to be born again. It is clear that the old way of doing politics is phasing out, with the left-right ideological divide and all that stands in between. What we see around the world today is the rise of populism, populism which has led to the rise of Donald Trump. But he would not have been able to make it alone.

The dumbing down which has led to this has been long in the making: with the gradual anaesthesizing of people’s political conscience through popular culture and consumerism, the move towards anti-intellectualism in infotainment, as well as the increasing cupidity of top-notch capitalism which has continued in its ascent towards increasing concentration of wealth and privilege at the expense of the rights of the ordinary citizen.

The emergence of right-wing populism in western countries could be because of the above. But the scenario is different for Mauritius. I think we are living through the throes of a dying political system which had been inherited from colonial times – where ideology has disappeared. What would change if you were to replace those currently in power with any government issued from the historical political parties we have? Nothing much as far as policy is concerned, but the cronies who occupy positions of power would be replaced and the clannish spirit would surge afresh to ensure the perpetuation of group privilege. That is all that will change.

The only difference with the party currently in power is that they do openly and outrageously what all political parties have done while pretending to be discreet about it – protez montagne. In the present case scenario, it is protez montagne to a degree rarely seen before. But I doubt that any of the existing opposition parties would do things differently if they were to be voted back to power. And I guess because they know this we are locked in this interminable state of waiting as we wait for events to unfold, the promised revolt to happen as political leaders and the people take their destiny in hand.

But apart from a small group everyone seems to be indifferent to pushing for change, disgusted but apathetic. Maybe because they confusedly feel that the model for an alternative political system has not yet emerged. Whoever pretends to wish to change politics within the existing system will inevitably have to accommodate himself to the existing binary political system which will demand alliances and compromise; they will resort to the same old tactics of playing up old generational fears and forgotten traumas, because this system works with the logic of numbers for personal gratification, it does not have the interest of the people in mind.

It seems that the Mauritian population has given up on expecting anything from their politicians. The country is on automatic pilot but whereas in some countries automatic pilot can mean the continued efficient functioning of institutions – I was in the UK recently and I can tell you that despite the looming problem of Brexit this is a country which works. It has many problems but the dynamism is present.

In Mauritius, you feel more than ever why we deserve our appellation as a Third World Country or Developing country. Despite the economic progress and visibility of shiny concrete buildings, despite the possibility of international connectivity which technology gives us, we seem to be in a time loop but this is a time loop of average rather than excellence. Although we know in theory what are the progressive ideas in many fields few can see how to implement them successfully, whether it is electoral or educational reform. And in these we have the two key components of our current time warp because both of these areas are ridden through with inherited social and cultural complexities.

And one of the major problems we have here is the dissociation between officially acceptable politically correct discourses which speak of democracy, equality, citizenship and yet fail to address the underlying reality of a deeply divided society, divided in its aspirations and projections. This divide is born out of class difference as well as community differences, both overlapping but not always so.

Some aspire to have a life reinventing the laziness of tropical paradise luxury even as they ensure for themselves the luxury of being able to travel abroad several times a year. In the process they make sure that their offsprings are given the proper elite education to perpetuate the reproduction of social privilege. In contrast, most others are aspiring to just survive the month and scraping through to allow their kids to go to school so that they do not get caught in the same cycle of thanklessness.

But in addition to the class difference, we also have the reality of both inherited as well as reinvented cultural appurtenances which function as buffers against the demeaning reality of a sense of the collective injustice against the indifferent state. And this creates its own internal dynamism, with a logic all of its own. This is seen as a problem in nation building but the panorama contains real pain even as it leads to fragmentation of allegiances.

If we fail to even acknowledge the reality of the imaginative fragmentation of identity projections, we refuse to give it a name, refuse to talk about it except to deny that it exists or that it can be allowed to exist, the tyranny of political correctness creates another form of domination of discourse and leads to collective unpreparedness to the explosive potential of these differing allegiances. So people at the top end of the scale of privilege have interest in ensuring status-quo and lack of openness so that privilege is reproduced in all its form, whether it is economic, political, cultural or social privilege. That is why nothing is happening in this country because if people were to wake up to the real scale of injustice in which we live there would be no place for the elite to run.

* If you were to evaluate what is failing us as a progressive society, to which factor(s) would you attribute the general sense of lack of direction and want of a stout culture of governance we are actually observing in many walks of life around us?

We have the theory of what a progressive society should look like, we have the pattern but we are systematically failing in implementing it. Maybe the problem lies in our propensity to imitate rather than to understand.

Mimeticism is the damnation of all postcolonial societies but the long ancestry, as well as the dynamism of African and Indian national realities have allowed these countries to move away from the inclination to reproduce imported models. But here we are stuck between all possible models, with the fear of allowing any model to evolve in case it breaches feelings of belonging and identity. So we adopt imported models and refuse to effect the critical work to assess, challenge and innovate models of social belonging which are appropriate to our particular local complexity.

The consequence is: we are stuck in perpetually reproducing the same antiquated models and outstaring each other in pretending that the model we present is the best, even though we know it is past its sell-by date, not adapted to the complexity of our times. I have come to realize that far from being the asset which external observers are so ready to praise, multiculturalism can be a trap, it is our trap as it creates mental structures which resist development, in silent, unspoken, often unconscious fear of the undefined other.

That could explain part of the problem you have evoked but it is certainly not the whole story. Historical research on the genesis of plantation societies talk of boycott, laziness, indifference, vagrancy as being a means of resistance. I do not know whether this specific spirit of resistance has stuck into our national genes to explain why everyone takes to their job half-heartedly as though it is not really their responsibility. We hear terrible stories of incompetence in the medical field despite the fact that we can boast of some excellent medical practitioners. Similarly, in the field of education, even though we have a few good and dedicated professionals, it seems to me that the public educational system is failing our young people.

Despite all the structural reforms that are repeatedly brought forward we rarely deal with the real weakness of the curriculum of the public education system: the failure to impart critical self-awareness to young people about their role and responsibilities in contemporary society. The space exists for this kind of work in the Humanities, namely in literature classes as well as the compulsory General Paper class. But most of the time teachers content themselves with doling out notes rather than provoke their students into critical thinking.

If these spaces in the curriculum were efficiently used to instigate into critical self-awareness I think we could see gradual change in the coming generations. But this is not happening, or rarely, either because of teacher despondency, indifference or ignorance, or because of the indifferent and ignorant attitude that we encounter at all levels of decision making right across the education spectrum. So where is the rejuvenation to come from? The new reform recently proposed seems fine on paper but we are yet to see if it is successful in implementation.

I have been told that Private sector education is the only hope for this country. It is probably true – but this will further widen the social chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the future. Unfortunately as long as we maintain our generalized attitude of average performance, it seems that the whole country has taken the attitude: ‘nous bat-batté’. In French we call it ‘attentisme’: waiting to see what happens from outside control rather than take charge of the present and the future shape of events.

* To your mind, are we in Mauritius facing a situation of a serious deficit in governance across the board which is preventing us from focusing on social values we should have strived to preserve? Is there an element of continuity in the deteriorating situation one is observing in many spheres such as governing by dissemination of what is being called “fake news” in other places?

I think it is because we have for so long tried to ‘preserve’ values that we have not been able to renew our institutions anywhere. To ‘preserve’ means to put away something which is not functioning in the present.

There is no dynamism in preserving. I think it is this dynamism we lack in order to question, challenge, innovate. Because the nature of society has changed dramatically over the last few decades and I am not sure that preserving values of earlier modes of social existence can help us much. Everywhere the fear of globalization has induced this protective attitude of clinging to the old and refusing the new, sometimes with dire consequences when Obscurantism has been allowed to rule entire societies.

I don’t think we need values as much as critical self-confidence to embrace the fast-changing present reality. That would equip us even to cope with fake news or the bombast of communicative rhetoric by which our imagination of the present is managed.

* The way things are happening gives the impression that nobody seems to care or notice whether there is a government in place or not. The same may also hold true as regards our perception of the opposition. People seem not to care anymore, busy with leading their lives and staying out of harm’s way as best as they can. Is that painting too negative a picture of the current situation prevailing in the country?

I think most citizens are disgusted with the present state of affairs, but there is certainly a lot of apathy as well. Marches and protests seem to lead nowhere. If the people who have been voted into Parliament seem incapable to oppose the abuse of government, then what can the ordinary citizen do from the outside, what leverage do we have if parliament cannot safeguard the proper running of the country?

If you see what is happening in the US currently – it is amazing the way US institutions are resisting the abuse of power by the current White House administration — be it the opposition, the media, the judiciary, the security services and the people. This is a functioning democracy. Whatever will happen with the incompetence of the current administration will be provoked by the collective pressure coming from all these quarters.

Trump might not be able to stay 4 years in power. It is not yet a month since he has been sworn into office and the country is abuzz with resistance. There is even a @roguepotusstaff twitter account which is leaking information from inside the White House. Their twitter handle reads: ‘The unofficial resistance team inside the White House. We pull back the curtain to expose the real workings of this disastrous, frightening Administration’.

Last Tuesday the New York Times reported that the Secret Services have decided to keep a lot of sensitive information away from the Trump administration because of their incompetence and their inability to keep secrets. The US is abuzz with resistance from unexpected quarters. If that is what it takes maybe this is what will jolt our country back into interest — either a total dictator or a bumbling fool. We are very low but we haven’t descended low enough yet to provoke that kind of reaction.

It’s true that most people who lead comfortable livelihoods have not much interest in things changing in the country, others keep away for fear of retaliation, for fear of the arbitrariness in the way power functions, where people can be transferred or sacked for speaking out against the system, where the connivance which allows the citizen to wheedle their way through the difficulties of daily life might disappear if you are too voluble in your criticism.

* It could be that this “démission” of civil society stems from the belief that there is not much that can be done to hold politicians – whether they sit on government benches or on those of the opposition – accountable, so the ‘rape’ goes unchecked for five long years. What do you think?

I think a lot of people woke up with a gueule de bois when they realized that this government took but 6 months to accomplish the pillage which the previous team took 10 years to do.

The opposition is totally ineffective, concerned as they are with their own alliances for political survival. Most of the people who are currently in the opposition have been at some stage in the ranks of government themselves. So they should know how to build up their opposition but it seems to me their eyes are more fixed upon ensuring this government does so badly that it ensures their election rather than in righting the present course of things.

But it is true to say that no one seems willing to hear commonsense within the rank and file of power. The secrets and distortions of truth go on. When someone is evicted or self-evicts himself from power a window opens, a few secrets are leaked but that closes very soon, whether out of fear of libel or to ensure that they are not marginalized in the future. We have seen so many improbable alliances and counter alliances – they all know that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s strategic alliance.

* A very contrasting picture is what obtains elsewhere: Singaporeans, according to a national survey published under the title Our Singapore Conversation, are satisfied with how their government is serving them and how it is preparing them for their future. This is what must have prompted Thomas Friedman to write in the ‘New York Times’: “If Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about taking governing seriously, relentlessly asking: What world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive?” So the issue is really about leadership – and good governance – at all levels and in all sectors?

Singaporean society has a different history, a strategic location which has ensured internal dynamism. But this has come at the expense of a lot of sacrifices. The vision for the future of the nation I believe dominated all the bickering about national appurtenance.

Lee Kwan Yew could have been an autocratic ruler but he was a ruler with a vision. What vision have our rulers shown in the last few decades? Since the 1980s we have been moving forward economically but stalling socially, and because of this stagnation mentalities remain the same, therefore institutions cannot be rejuvenated.

Change has to come through the individual, it cannot come through abstraction. The meeting point between individual self-criticism and a collective vision can potentially lead to real change. But who is to elaborate this vision, the same ineffective technocrats whose compartmentalized awareness of the social life of the nation has led us to this impasse.

To bring about change we need to create the self-aware citizen who is capable of objective critical self-assessment. This comes with investment. An investment which we do not seem to be making for the moment, at least at the level of public services.

* When you look around and see the younger generation that’s coming up and aspiring to take over from the old hands, do you feel confident that they have what it takes to deeply envision and construct a better future?

I have been saying since the beginning that young people are caught up in a systemic malfunction, as our society fails to provide the support network for the nurturing of individualities which would successfully reinvent themselves in response to the new social challenges.

I think we take for granted that young people form an exclusive category. Before the youth movement of the 1960s-70s, there was no such socially recognized category called Youth. But with the revolutionary movements of the 1960s in the Arts, Politics, Intellectualism, music, etc… Youth as a social category was invented and associated with the zest for social transformation.

I think it has been hard on all young people who reached adolescence after this glorious decade, because they keep being told that they hold no ideological beliefs anymore. But in truth young people are always avid to learn and to yearn for change, they all dream of a better world. Idealism forms part of the DNA of adolescence. They harbour a huge potential – if only our society were to provide an adequate framework for its expression. But are we providing this?

As I ask it you realize that for me this is a rhetorical question. Where is the philosophical, social and political awareness being imparted to nurture the sophisticated leaders who could potentially take charge of the destiny of the nation?

For transformation to take place it is not just a handful of young people who should be exposed to these philosophical ideas but the vast majority of them, and that is not happening anywhere. We are churning out technocrats, not thinkers. They will function as long as given direction, but a directionless structure will leave them flaying.

* Would you agree with certain observers who consider that the time when ideals and ideology were leaders’ main motivators in social, economic and political actions, is gone by and that the short term has come to dominate all walks of life? Is there something of this sort you also see among the younger generation at the university? Or, are they quiet but very much concerned about the insubstantial pursuits of quite a few leaders of society today?

Maybe we put too much responsibility on the shoulders of young people. They are like everyone else suspended in a maelstrom of contradictory, confusing multiple narratives. Why should we expect them to find solutions that we as adults have not been able to find?

After all we are supposed to have more experience than them and if our institutions are functioning at average capacity or failing today it is our collective fault. If we can’t redress things, I don’t think we should expect young people to do so. They will be burdened with the same suffocating mentalities which create the burden of static structures.

Until we learn to circumvent that, why should we expect matters to be different in the next few decades to come?

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