“Mauritians need a government worthy of the name, capable of lifting our country out of the dystopian nightmare where we’ve entangled ourselves”

Interview: Manou Bheenick

* Electoral petition: ‘It took nearly four years for this petition to wend its way to closure… Is this at all acceptable? Is it even respectful of the value of the citizen’s vote?’

* Long-term impacts of salary increases: ‘Explosion of the wage bill, loss of international competitiveness, rise in the trade deficit, further inflation, and continued depreciation. Not a very exciting prospect, is it?’

As the year 2023 draws to a close, the Mauritius Times takes a moment to engage in a comprehensive reflection on the events that have shaped the headlines and narratives throughout the past months. In an insightful interview with Manou Bheenick, former Minister and former Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, we delve into the nuances of a year marked by its share of the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this candid conversation, Manou Bheenick traverses through the realms of politics, justice, and governance, touching upon electoral petitions, constitutional reforms, and the urgent need for a streamlined electoral petition process. Manou Bheenick also offers a critical assessment of Mauritius’ economic performance, considering global challenges and emphasizing the importance of sustainability.

Mauritius Times: What a year it’s been! One is tempted to exclaim after going through the long list of events that have hogged the headlines in 2023. We have had, as usual, the good (very little of it, though), more of the bad, and the ugly as well. What adjective/s would best describe 2023, according to you?

Manou Bheenick: Appalling, absolutely appalling, and bordering on the execrable, the like of which I never dreamt would ever cast its desolate pall over our poor country. Yes, we’ve had the good, the bad, and the ugly as you say but, I must add, without the slightest of the moral ambiguities of the eponymous Sergio Leone spaghetti western that immediately springs to mind when you juxtapose these three adjectives. And, for mood music, we’ve been served our infamous Assembly Speaker’s vocalizations for soundtrack in lieu of Morricone’s exceptional score.

The good — I differentiate the good from the seemingly good, especially the non-stop flow of populist fare served in generous doses to lull the short-sighted and the gullible — the good is infinitesimal; the bad is nothing short of humongous; the ugly is well in the realm of the ginormous. The shades of grey have been overtaken by darker tones dispelling any possible moral ambiguity about the dark intentions and designs of the crowd running the show.

Whatever happened to our glorious post-independence trajectory when we proved an army of doomsayers wrong? We seem to have forgotten that not all the doomsayers were foreign. Why did we change course? Why did we follow the false prophets? Look back with regret, anger, or no doubt for some with satisfaction. Our contemporary history adds extra layers of meaning to the words of LP Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

* To name only a few, we again saw electoral petitions set aside by the Supreme Court. There was disappointment with the Privy Council’s judgment in the Dayal petition and the license it gives to the conduct of future elections. The continuing preoccupation with the cost of living for most households in the country, and the latest issue of serious concern relates to the Financial Crimes Commission… that’s all very depressing, isn’t it?

Indeed, it is! There was a time when, in international fora, when discussing reasons for the relative success of Mauritius — small, remote, and resource-poor as it was — compared to its better-endowed African peers, I used to list our extra-territorial court of final appeal on the asset side as an advantage. And you could always bet on some African colleague sniggering that it was a colonial relic that we should get rid of once our country really became independent!

Courts dispense law, not justice. The British Privy Council is, in its own country, often also regarded as a court of justice distinct from the lower courts which are courts of law. To the layman’s eye, in the matter of the Dayal electoral petition, the honourable Law Lords have taken a risible stand which seems to transgress justice, condones moral transgression, and can be seen as giving a blank cheque for more of the same from the transgressors.

The electoral petition underlines another major failure, i.e. apart from greater clarity on electoral fraud and bribery, in our electoral system is that it took nearly four years for this petition to wend its way to closure, and this in a system where the term of office of the impugned elected candidate is five years. A corrupt elected candidate could well serve 80% of his term before he could be unseated if and when found guilty. Is this at all acceptable? Is it even respectful of the value of the citizen’s vote?

There is talk of constitutional reform in the air. Constitutional change requires a 75% majority. The likelihood of the next election — probably besmirched by even more electoral bribery of the kind which has been waved through by the Law Lords — producing such a majority is slim. A cross-party majority is possible, but unusual in our country.

The urgent requirement to consolidate the free and fair electoral mechanism is to flesh out and accelerate the electoral petition process, with a time-bound calendar for case disposal before a specially-constituted Constitutional Court, or a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court, to hear such cases as a matter of topmost priority, continuously, and act within the specified time-frame.

* On the other hand, there’s one major concern that has come up lately: the total cost of salary increases, its financing and sustainability. We know the government will get its money back from an increase in tax revenues, VAT, CSG, etc., but what will be the long-term impacts of such policies?

I am sorry but I beg to differ. This is hardly a new concern. It’s been there ever since this government, and its immediate predecessor, which was also its mentor and enabler, came to power nearly 10 years ago at end-2014. Their sheer impudence and imprudence have been arrogantly on display ever since wherever you care to look in the matter of public revenue and expenditure, its accountability and transparency, and beyond it in social administration and economic management.

These are the people who

(1) told our voters long before Covid that they had a magical solution to our financial predicament,

(2) dispensed state largesse left and right,

(3) shirked away from repairing ailing public finance,

(4) plundered central bank reserves,

(5) commandeered the privately-financed National Pension Fund,

(6) introduced a culture of opacity in state finance,

(7) spread corruption in parastatals and Government-linked companies,

(8) defanged and neutered regulatory and supervisory institutions,

(9) stuffed cronies and their progeny in any available nook and cranny in the country,

(10) the list goes on and on.

I don’t find it at all surprising that they show such a total lack of concern with the budgetary and financial implications of the salary increase. They have been fuelling inflationary pressures with the active complicity of the central bank which has long become an agency of the Finance ministry. They have continually debased the national currency — by a cumulative 50%, or thereabouts, since my expulsion from the central bank: where the dollar was then freely available and then trading in the range of Rs 29-30, it’s become increasingly scarce, and you would be lucky to get it at Rs 45 ++. I waited nearly a month for a small dollar transfer to be cleared by a prime bank.

The impact of the salary increases goes well beyond the budget (where corresponding revenue increases, however funded, will be required to avoid a rise in deficit) as they apply upward pressure on salaries and wages across the whole country, as indeed do the social transfers and various other public financial support schemes. Watch coming national income data issues to see the expected rise in their Compensation of Employees component.

The shorthand reply to your question on long-term impact is an explosion of the wage bill, in parallel with a loss of international competitiveness, a rise in the trade deficit, further inflation, and continued depreciation. Not a very exciting prospect, is it?

* Otherwise, how would you assess Mauritius’ economic performance at the end of this year, considering global economic challenges?

Statistics Mauritius (SM) is probably the sole institution to have survived the general lowering of standards that has plagued the administrative and institutional landscape. I should declare my interest here, in case the reader feels I’m biased: yes, I was proud to have been the administrative head of its predecessor, the Central Statistics Office, when it was part of the defunct Ministry of Economic Planning & Development, which I then spearheaded for 15 years. SM does a great job, and I am proud of it.

SM has just published its revised forecasts for the expected outturn of 2023. It punctures earlier rosy views with a downward revision of the major indicator which is the annual growth of GDP (at basic prices), slashing it from an actual of nearly 10% in 2022 to an estimated 7% this year, or 30% lower than last year.

There is no surprise in tourism, the sector that bore the brunt of the Covid pandemic: the predicted bounce back of the previous year, at just under 1 million, continued with an expected 1.3 million visitor arrivals in 2023, and soaring earnings. Major operators are declaring dividends.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why our “responsible” economic and financial managers felt compelled to hijack central bank resources and inject such massive amounts into some hotel enterprises, and that too on such giveaway terms as to make the common, garden variety, bank borrower drool with envy.

It also makes you wonder why our notionally free foreign exchange is only available via a queueing system and subjected to administrative delays at the level of our commercial banks.

The Bank of Mauritius, now sadly a much less credible institution than the afore-mentioned SM (and, I must add, also one that I headed when it saw better days), has projected a full 50% decline in the external current account deficit, from 11.5% in 2022, to 5.6 % this year. You probably also believe in Father Christmas if you lend much credence to this. The more probable outcome is a higher overall balance of payments deficit in 2023, topping the Rs 14 billion or so of last year.

Father Christmas was also active on the wage front where our very responsible decision-makers decided to give a salary compensation of 10% for cost-of-living increases. That is to say they gave 10% when the inflation rate which they were compensating for was only 7%. Competence, would you say? Insouciance, perhaps?

To add insult to injury, our Minister of Finance qualified this increase in wage compensation as an investment! Any volunteers out there to give a crash course in macroeconomics to our Honourable Minister? Make yourselves known to the Ministry of Finance before he crashes and demolishes everything around him.

They were playing the money illusion card to the hilt. Elsewhere, punters in this game eventually woke up only to discover their national currency going down the plug hole to be replaced by the dollar. Is that on the cards for our beleaguered rupee?

That’s a future worry. The immediate worry is the fillip that all this gave to growing consumerism and the end-of-year spending spree. Think of the import content of our expenditure for a moment. Do you really see the balance of payments deficit halving as confidently forecast by BoM?

Let me turn to BoM, discredited as it is and presiding over a rapidly depreciating currency as it does, to see what it has done with the Monetary Policy Committee which I started. We’ve already mentioned 2023 expected inflation at 7% this year. We have an inflation target range of 2 to 5 percent.

You would expect your national inflation fighter to use its key tool prudently and give the right signalling to the target public, consumers, investors, borrowers, and savers.

The MPC is in sleep mode, snoozing away, ensconced behind the curve. Its last meeting saw it deciding to do nothing and keep its Key Repo Rate at 4.5%, that is well below inflation. It looks strangely like sending our firemen to fight a raging fire with toy water guns!

If you add into the picture that it was the same guys at BoM who flooded the money supply with previously sterilized reserves, and resorted to money printing when available reserves ran out, you get the feeling that BoM has been effectively fuelling inflation, not fighting it. The inflationary impact which they triggered dwarfed whatever effect they produced with their toy gun. Only a deeper study could settle our unease about the firefighter turning into an arsonist firebug.

BoM has been complicit in our Minister of Finance’s untruthful reply to a Parliamentary Question, when he denied that our central bank had recourse to foreign borrowing. We now know, from its own Statistical Bulletin, that BoM has in fact been borrowing very massively —to the tune of Rs 67.4 billion, at end-November 2023.

Gross Official International Reserves continued their downward slide, slipping from Rs 342,210 million in December 2022 to Rs 297,244 million at end-November 2023.

* On the other hand, what is your perspective on the current state of social issues in Mauritius, such as education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation?

We seem to be living on edge since some time. We were a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual, democracy, and we wore our multiple identities as a badge of honour. This seems to have gradually ceded to a growing unease eating away at the heart of our social fabric. Our celebrated joie de vivre is less in evidence and a growing malaise is palpable if we care to delve deeper than the consumerist surface.

The rising death toll on our roads, the proliferation of drugs, rising criminality, persistent juvenile delinquency, spreading anti-social behaviour, insensitive and heavy-handed policing, rampant corruption, innumerable bureaucratic delays, slow administration of justice, declining achievement and tension in public schools, nepotism and discriminatory recruitment practices, inadequate waste management, poor flood control, deficient water supply, poor traffic management, noise and filth in dense inhabited places, environmental concerns, and the very disturbing rise in the frequency of localised outbreaks of religious tension – these are pêle-mêle some of the factors vitiating the life of our fellow-citizens. There are many others.

They need to be addressed vigorously. Remember Lebanon was once a miracle of peaceful coexistence of three of the oldest religions. Are we doing enough to safeguard ours?

It would no doubt prove quite tedious for many of your readers to detail pertinent actions in each of the areas you mention. Let me phone in on only one, namely education, which I believe has been the catalyst of our growth and development as a nation. Education has clearly played that role in Mauritius as it enabled us, with the right supporting policies, to transform a growing liability into a strong asset.

The growing liability was, of course, our runaway population growth which came from the demographic explosion sparked by advances in health care which decimated the death toll and our returning British Army ex-servicemen who did wonders for fertility and natality in the country. This birth quake was initially demoralising and caused many, including knowledgeable people, to write off Mauritius and see it as a developing basket-case. Policy preoccupations moved apace as these cohorts progressed in the higher age-groups, with active population control via state-supported family planning, followed by extension of free primary education to include free secondary education, and soon thereafter free tertiary education.

We’ve now reached the stage where we channel nearly 10 % of our budgeted resources to the education sector, which add up to Rs 20 billion in 2023. One would expect that, as taxpayer, we are continuing to get value for money. Are we really?

Let me illustrate my concern by reference to the PISA score. This is an internationally comparable indicator, Programme for International Student Assessment, conducted by the OECD and measuring the performance of educational systems. It does this by measuring the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science. I was dismayed to see the 2022 results recently and to discover that our country is still absent from this league table. I was an invited guest at an OECD Development Conference at its HQ in Paris nearly 12 years ago when I had discussed our inclusion with the Secretary General. A country is judged by the company it keeps.

When I looked at UNESCO comparative data on education, my dismay gave way to outright shock. If we take literacy as a broad indicator of educational level, we learn to our amazement that literacy in Mauritius actually declined between 2014 and 2021. In its global ranking for 2023, out of 207 countries covered, UNESCO places us at the 135th place. We are well behind several sub-Saharan African peers like Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, and Namibia. Maybe we do better on some of the other indicators. But alarm bells should be going on, don’t you think? It’s well past wake-up time for our sector managers, decision-makers, policy makers, and – why not?—voters.

In the meantime, parents who can afford it are voting with their feet. Increasing numbers of Mauritian students now flock to private schools which offer a choice of medium, international curricula, and a better education environment.

* Another issue of concern is climate change, which is already a reality for us judging by recent climatic events. How do you see Mauritius addressing issues related to climate change and environmental sustainability?

Like all island-states in the SIDS group, our country is highly vulnerable to climate change, particularly through global warming, sea level rise and coastal erosion. However, while Mauritius has signed up to the pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, its ecological footprint has been consistently rising in line with its economic development, especially its unbridled physical development.

Our efforts to achieve greater efficiency in energy use have been feeble. We could easily have done much more in renewable energy, especially solar, which is barely present in public sector buildings such as schools, hospitals, and government offices. We persist in use of petrol and diesel in official and public transport.

Our country has signed up to many initiatives on combating climate change and protecting the environment but our government has proved weak and irresolute in actual implementation, with poor interdepartmental coordination throwing a spanner in the works.

Worse, government has flagged through many large construction projects without much concern for their environmental impact with the result that, despite elevated public expenditure to ease the situation in the usual flood-prone areas, periodic flooding has now generalised into a nationwide problem, flooding major newly built roads and bridges and snarling up circulation and traffic.

Our government is very long on promise but short on delivery. Gone are the days when a stalwart like Prof Joel de Rosnay readily put his shoulder to the wheel to help our country deliver on our environmental commitments to the international community and to our people.

It’s disquieting to see how we seem to be dragging our feet while, internationally, COP28 — the just-concluded Dubai Conference of Parties — which is the driver of the International Framework on Climate Change, has made very significant progress, notably in mobilising funding for global actions.

* Sometime last week, two individuals were discussing life in Mauritius. One said there’s something great about the “Mauritian Spirit,” which is generally manifested in our cordial and helpful social interactions across ethnic communities. The other, slightly on the negative side, referred to parents’ anxieties regarding their children’s future in this country, mostly focusing on the challenges we were discussing earlier. How do you react to these two different perspectives?

Both of them resonate fully with me. Talk of “Mauritian Spirit” and the like — there’s a whole extended family of them: debrouillardise mauricienne, rainbow nation, ene sel le pep ene sel nation, da tohar hath laa hamar hath; for the uninitiated, that’s in French, English, Kreol and Bhojpuri, respectively — such talk is calculated to elicit a Pavlovian reaction, driving the born-and-bred Mauritian absolutely gaga. I doubt very much whether they have any effect on the new class of “Mauritians by investment”.

Had I been a dog hearing any of this, I’d probably go flat on my back and wag my tail, waiting for the “Assez! Couche-toi!” which is probably what the cynical Mauritian does once the show of brotherly love and ethnic harmony is over. But the Mauritian Spirit does not bring down employment obstacles, give unqualified equality of opportunity, put a brake on ethnic ghettos, bring diversity to corporate boardrooms, or bury racial jokes. Worse, the Mauritian Spirit cannot help the Mauritian to remain globally relevant and internationally competitive in the search for tomorrow’s opportunities and jobs.

I can also relate to the second interlocutor if I fill in some missing background of the concerned parent. Presumably, s/he isn’t part of the landed gentry, isn’t independently wealthy, doesn’t form part of a social club or fraternity, doesn’t belong to the chatwa network around the ruling clan, counts on a functioning education and health system, relies on law an order dispensed in a fair and equitable manner, and depends on the free and unhindered operation of the job market, public and private procurement and contracting,and administrative authorization and licensing.

Additionally, with children on the verge of entering the job market, I presume s/he is emerging from a hefty outlay over several years on the children’s education and maintenance such as private coaching and university fees, etc.

Now, place yourself in the position of this second interlocutor. Do you find much help from the Mauritian spirit there? How can you prevent him/her or her children from being attracted by the employment potential, and better life prospects, of some foreign countries?

I am afraid we’ve just been piling on the push factors in recent years. We’ll wake up one fine day to discover that our country is no longer the preferred choice of the best and brightest local talent while, around us, everything is increasingly run by foreigners. This is already happening in some sectors such as bakeries, heavy machinery operation, hotels, and restaurants.

We desperately need to reverse this situation. Long used to vaunt the merits of our country to foreigners, whether tourists, industrial investors, offshore clients, and recently, real estate and property investors, we now need to polish up our act and… sell our country to Mauritians themselves! They know well, from personal experience, what’s wrong and dysfunctional. Mauritians need a government worthy of the name, capable of lifting our country out of the dystopian nightmare where we’ve entangled ourselves. We need a paradigm shift.

* We have yet to see any indications that 2023 is ending with hope for a brighter future—one that is surely achievable provided the right conditions are put in place. What are your thoughts on this question?

The hope that next year, the future, tomorrow will be better is inbuilt in the human DNA. It often masks our powerlessness to actually influence the course of events. But the hope, sometimes buttressed by New Year Resolutions, does infuse us with the spirit, the drive, the stamina to make things better in ways that we do and can influence. And sharing our hopes with others gives a collective dimension to what is a common and shared enterprise to face challenges and seize opportunities that come our way.

2023 is far from ending on a promising note, neither globally nor domestically. But it didn’t turn out to be as bad as we feared. The Ukraine war hasn’t escalated. The extension of NATO to its Finnish neighbour hasn’t got Russia lashing out. The carnage in Palestine hasn’t ensnared Iran and set Western Asia aflame. Covid and its sequelae of variants haven’t bred new lockdowns.

Fears of global recession abated. Supply chain disruptions gradually recovered, easing shipping stress and freight rates, except in the Red Sea where the reverse has occurred. Protectionist and deglobalisation pressures were contained. Inflation has been steadily declining. Global growth and trade have sprung back. In short things could have been much worse at the global level.

Which only goes to show that, domestically we haven’t done as well as could have been expected against this broadly improving global environment if our country had been in more capable hands.

But all is not alright with the world we live in. Geopolitical tension runs high. There is rising racism and right-wing extremism. There is spreading religious fundamentalism. There is growing poverty and food distress. There is the menace of AI and robotics hanging over humanity. There is the threat of almost uncontrollable global corporate behemoths impacting every aspect of our daily existence.

Our international global governance mechanism, still under the thumb of Second World War victors, is unable to address effectively the many nagging concerns. Can we expect 2024 to see much, even any, progress on some of these issues?

0n the domestic front – fortunately for us – we have to contend with more tractable issues. Our democracy is under attack; our freedoms are under threat; our future is at stake. The year that is just beginning could very well see us called to cast our vote in the general election. If it does, we hope and pray that it will be free and fair, untarnished by electoral rigging and phantom voters, and untainted by charges of bribery and corruption. Yes, 2024 holds out this promise.

A wiser and more informed voter will decide among the alternatives confronting him: do we continue on the same trajectory with the same team ruling our country since 2014? Or do we dump them and change course and throw our support behind a team with a more promising vision of our collective future? That is the question!

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 29 December 2023

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