“The death of the Best Loser System will not by itself kill ‘communalism’ as we know it”

Interview: Suren Bissoondoyal

“I am weary of empty slogans which do not mean anything, whether they be ‘one graduate per family’, or ‘unité nationale’ or ‘citoyenneté républicaine’… Why can’t we stick to our ‘unity in diversity’ until at least such time as we decide we should tear one another apart”

“We have been using the word ‘hub’ too freely… as a slogan without really trying to promote it properly”


What’s happening in our tertiary education sector which seems to be still grappling with ethical and existential dilemmas and difficulties and with the concerned authorities seemingly unable to come to grips with the problems that are coming up one after another? Why is that so, and what’s the way out? Suren Bissoondoyal believes that there is no solution other than “a well worked out Human Resource Development Plan and a well regulated tertiary sector, both of which are non-existent at present”. He also shares his views on the Electoral Reform Proposals made public recently and suggests that we should also go for constitutional reform…


Mauritius Times: Looks like much of our tertiary education sector seems to be still grappling with ethical and existential dilemmas and difficulties. And neither the different parent ministries nor the supervisory authorities connected with the training of undergraduates as well as medical personnel, etc., seem to be able to come to grips with the problems that are coming to the surface one after another. Why is that so, and what’s the way out?

Suren Bissoondoyal: The problems facing our tertiary education sector stem from an amateurish way we have been dealing with it.

It reminds me of the time private secondary schools were mushrooming all over the island, managed as money making businesses by unscrupulous managers — with a few exceptions — and with classes being held in garages by mostly unqualified teachers. The PSSA, when it was set up in 1977, had a hard task to put some order into that sector, which is at present well regulated.

We are witnessing the same tendency in the tertiary sector today in spite of the fact that there is a Tertiary Education Commission which is supposed to see to it that all conditions are met before a tertiary education institution is allowed to operate in Mauritius. We have seen a proliferation of third rate and dubious institutions being set up and operating in a few rented rooms without any resources deemed necessary for an institution at that level and being proudly called ‘campuses’ to fool students and their parents.

Furthermore there is no coordination among the different bodies that have to work together to ensure the proper running of the courses and the outcomes. Let us take the medical sector as an example. Courses cannot be started without ascertaining that there is proper training/attachment in a teaching hospital and without the Medical Council giving the green light as it is the Medical Council that will eventually authorize the successful students to register and work as doctors. But what do we see in practice? It’s a passing of the buck in a game of musical chairs in which TEC, the Ministry of Tertiary Education, the Ministry of Health and the Medical Council are involved.

What is the way out? There is no solution other than a well worked out Human Resource Development Plan and a well regulated tertiary sector, both of which are non-existent at present.

* There must be something terribly wrong with the system when a government-run university (the UTM) has to seek official confirmation from TEC on the recognition or otherwise of courses run and diplomas/degrees by a private university here. One would have thought that the green light to operate would have been given to universities and institutes (Mauritian or local branch of a foreign university) on the basis of, among other things, strong and recognized credentials. That’s the way it should have been, shouldn’t it? Rules-based?

The UTM also is in the same boat. On what basis does it agree to an institution being affiliated with it particularly for the running of medical courses? There is a glut of qualifications being awarded by all sorts of institutions throughout the world without such qualifications being recognized even in the countries in which the institutions operate. Nous sommes plus royalists que le roi? How do we deal with such bogus diplomas and degrees? This is why it is extremely important for Mauritius to recognize only qualifications awarded by well-established and internationally recognized institutions.

In the age of ICT, many Universities offer online courses. This is a welcome development particularly for people at work and who can only study at their own pace and in their own time. But here also the courses must be delivered by recognized institutions and the mode of delivery must be properly monitored to prevent illegal and dishonest practices. Many Mauritians go overseas for further studies or to work and the qualifications they obtain should be ‘portable’ internationally. A government which allows dubious and third-rate institutions to set up ‘campuses’ in its country is failing its students and doing a disservice to its citizens.

* At this rate we do not seem to be on the right track to achieving the objective of putting up an education hub worthy of the name, do we? But what does it take for such a hub to really take shape and to get going in the long term?

We have been using the word ‘hub’ too freely… as a slogan without really trying to promote it properly. Only institutions duly recognized internationally should be allowed to set up campuses in Mauritius, to be managed by the parent institutions themselves and awarding the same qualifications set down by the parent institutions. A visit to Malaysia where top UK and Australian Universities have set up proper and viable campuses with all the required infrastructure and proper facilities for the well being of the students will be an eye opener. We do not need offshore campuses which are like those offshore companies which operate as money laundering businesses, but academic institutions which will bring a ‘plus’ to the idea of a ‘knowledge hub’.

* The Catholic Church is reviewing its involvement in the education sector through the Kleopas project. It proposes to address the following issues: “Comment l’école catholique peut-elle être un lieu d’apprentissage d’un dialogue interculturel et interreligieux…” and “comment les catholiques qui fréquentent nos écoles peuvent-ils y apprendre à vivre de l’Evangile et en témoigner dans un dialogue respectueux avec les autrement croyants?” The question of whether public funded education should remain unbiased, freely accessible and secular has not been thrashed out as yet. What do you think?

The term ‘secular’ should not mean ‘anti-religious’ as some people tend to believe because religion has been a force for the development of values and civilizations throughout history. But misguided people have also used religion to persecute others who may not agree with them. Basdeo Bissoondoyal was jailed four times during British rule because he refused to seek the permission of the police to organize sermons on the Hindu sacred texts, arguing that Christian priests did not need to seek police authorization for similar functions.

But times have changed. There is a greater desire for intercultural and interreligious dialogue today. Many of the problems facing modern civilization stem from the notion that ancient cultures and religions are ‘outdated’ and are irrelevant in the modern world. What we need is to re-interpret the term ‘values’ in the context of the challenges facing humanity to enable us to have the moral force to stand on our feet but also to reach out to others. In this context the objective of the Catholic Church to review its involvement in education is commendable, and should be followed by other religious bodies. Young people, particularly Hindus, are very often required to follow rites and rituals without being taught the meaning of the customs and the age-old values inherent in them. They moreover find themselves unable to counter the onset of materialism and publicity materials telling them that happiness lies in keeping up with the Joneses.

* This question of ‘dialogue interculturel et interreligieux’ brings us back to an MGI-sponsored conference in 1996 when academics and research scholars pondered over the issues related to the ‘making of a multicultural society’ with particular emphasis on Mauritius. Is the Mauritian multiculturalism still at the stage of work-in-progress or do we have to move on to embrace interculturalism?

The aim of education, apart from the teaching of literacy and numeracy and other core areas should be to develop in young children a sense of multiculturalism. Uttam Bissoondoyal had proposed that all children should be exposed to a new area in the curriculum called “Cultures and Civilisations of Mauritius”. But this was shot down by people with a narrow vision about the aim and purpose of education.

Multiculturalism cannot be thrust on people with a magic wand and accepted by them instantly. It has taken centuries in many countries, including Mauritius, to emerge. We have to look at history on a long-term basis to understand how civilizations are influenced by invaders or mass immigration and vice versa. ‘New’ countries like Australia will have to wait a little longer for such osmosis to take place. Multiculturalism is for the masses, interculturism for the few. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring!

* There has been a lot of canvassing undertaken to promote ‘Morisyin’ as a medium of instruction at the primary school level (although exposure to Kreol and its use as a medium of instruction from the primary up to apparently the tertiary level has since long been prevalent), and as a vehicle to bring about a particular form of ‘Mauritian culture’. (Dev Virahsawmy argues that ‘Morisyin’ will be instrumental in the making of our “yet-to-be nation”) Does not this look too much of political midwifery to be called in to deliver on that? Should not the moulding of the Mauritian nation be allowed to come on its own, naturally and gradually instead of having recourse to forceps delivery?

Languages, just like cultures, take time to establish themselves, and we should not impose any language on anybody for the sake of ‘moulding’ a Mauritian nation. Wars have been fought when people got the impression that their language was in danger. Bangladesh was created when the former East Pakistan fought against the imposition of Urdu by West Pakistan on the proud Bengalis. The national anthem of Bangladesh was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore just as that of India. India itself was in turmoil when the South (particularly Tamil Nadu) was asked to accept Hindi as the national language. The three-language formula (English, Hindi and a regional language) was then accepted by all States.

Nobody was forced to speak Kreol in Mauritius, but today it is a reality in all aspects of life. We do not need any ‘political midwifery’ to achieve any imposed and artificial ‘uniformity’. Another question is whether uniformity is desirable or not.

* What do you think of the prospect of a Morisyin-coloured culture? Will such a culture be the national Mauritian identity that is talked about? Is it desirable in our context, when we see that different cultural streams have till now co-existed in relative peace?

I have no idea what a Morisyin-coloured culture means or what it should look like. As I said earlier, everything in its own time. We should not rush anybody into such matters, disrupting their cultural habits. We should not try to impose our own ideas of a Mauritian culture on everybody. What is wrong with our multi-cultural culture, which has come about without it being imposed on anybody?

A kaleidoscopic culture is much more vibrant than a ‘unique’ culture as we see it in some totalitarian states which do not allow any form of dissent.

* We also hear about such concepts as “mauricianisme”. “unité nationale” and “citoyenneté républicaine”. What do they mean to you and do they really help the objectives of multiculturalism?

I am weary of empty slogans which do not mean anything, whether they be ‘one graduate per family’, or ‘unité nationale’ or ‘citoyenneté républicaine’, etc. Why can’t we stick to our ‘unity in diversity’ until at least such time as we decide we should tear one another apart…

* Besides constitutional safeguards (protection of minority rights, Best Loser system etc) and institutional support in the form of an Equal Opportunities Commission, does it require a measure of political patronage to ensure the sustainability of the multicultural experiment? Electoral reform as a stand-alone initiative or coupled with constitutional reform?

Let me start with the Best Loser System. There was a time during pre-independence days when the bogey of ‘Hindu hegemony’ was being dangled in front of ‘minorities’ for political gains and against the demand for independence. At the Constitutional Conference held in London to decide on the issue of independence Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, leader of the C.A.M (Comite d’Action Musulman) argued the case for a separate electoral list as in the past no Muslim candidate could get elected in the then large constituencies. The British — true to their imperialistic design of divide and rule — did not refute such an argument outright, but were prepared to listen. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, leader of the IFB (Independent Forward Bloc) gave the example of Abdul Wahab Foondun who was elected in a Hindu majority constituency (Bon Accueil). This example killed the demand for separate electoral lists and paved the way for a much more acceptable formula: the Best Loser System. It reassured the ‘minority communities’. Mauritius was thus spared a much worse scenario than the BLS.

The death of the BLS will be on paper only, although this will not by itself kill ‘communalism’ as we know it. But we have to be forward-looking, particularly after the Sik Yuen episode. But we also need to strengthen the democratic set up of our Constitution. The President of the USA, the most powerful country in the world, is not himself that powerful. The House of Representatives and the Senate (which together form the Congress) can veto important proposals coming from him. We have seen it in two cases recently — the budget deficit and Healthcare. In India the Electoral Commission has wide powers. Only a few days ago it threatened to cancel elections in some constituencies in West Bengal if the Chief Minister does not transfer some officials who were not being impartial during the election process. The Chief Minister had then to abide by the order of the Election Commission. This is the sort of Constitutional Reform that we need.

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