We have the duty to decide on the type of society we want to live in and voice our views on matters we find objectionable in all walks of our lives.
We should stand up for our principles and rights. Not to do so is to encourage licence
A new year is a new dawn. If we retrospect honestly about the events and actions of year 2013 which is ending shortly, we can take stock of positives as well as where we went wrong. We can then uplift the principles and objectives underpinning the way we charter our future. Such an exercise of critical self-appraisal is not only beneficial for the individual but more importantly for the nation if we are to define and shape a better order for all in the country. After 45 years of independence, it is time that we examine some of the most objectionable behaviours condoned and taken as acceptable in our society when they should be decried and chastised. By our complicit silence or our tacit partisan support, we abet in perpetuating sores of our political, societal and economic modus operandi.
On the threshold of a New Year let us pinpoint some of these glaring ills that afflict our country and resolve to get rid of them through the induction of a better order.
Before doing so, I must highlight a wonderful positive of 2013 and commend Government, its engineers and contractors for building the Ebene-Terre Rouge Motorway. I have always felt that, akin to the Plaisance-Wooton Highway, we needed two cross country motorways bypassing towns and villages on both a North-South and an East-West axes to speed up the movement of people and goods, reduce pollution, decrease transit time and open up the green scenic hinterland of Mauritius for the benefit of Mauritians and tourists. We now have such a North-South axis motorway which can swiftly take us from Plaisance to Grand Baie. Bravo. We could perhaps now envisage investing in flyovers (or butterfly exchanges) to iron out the bottlenecks at the Phoenix roundabouts.
The low ebb of political ethics
Some of the events of the year show that political ethics have plummeted to a low point in the country. The Opposition, which vigorously denounced the conditions surrounding the sale of the Medpoint Clinic to the State last year, has in April 2012 blissfully entered into a coalition to fight the next general elections with the very persons and party it accused of allegedly benefiting from the sale of the private Clinic. For decades now, we witness an unending carousel of successive coalitions before each general election whereby yesterday’s coalition partner becomes today’s political opponent and subsequently next election’s coalition partner. Power has been the driver despite the pro-common man policies rhetoric and the distinct ideological difference between the Opposition and the other political coalition protagonists, as shown by the rifts and policies adopted during their respective tenure of office.
Mauritius is probably the only democratic country where the Opposition systematically clamours for anticipated elections throughout the five-year mandate. In this unending puppet show, the latest ploy vigorously canvassed in a concerted manner by the opposition coalition parties is to drum up a conjured rift between the PMSD and the Labour Party. The obvious intent is to provoke a split in the Government and force anticipated elections ahead of the 2015 timeline. All this smacks of desperation and reveals the sorry state of political ethics, reminiscent of the shenanigans prevalent in banana republics.
This abject politicking has turned the National Assembly into a futile mano a mano between the Government and the Opposition instead of being a forum of serious debate about the tenor of policies, ideas and enabling legislations to transform the lives of the people. The stated mission of the National Assembly and its Members is ‘to ensure that the best interests of the nation are served’. Instead, we note that in 2013, the National Assembly sat from 26 March to 24 July and after being on holidays till 22 October sat again till 18 December when it was adjourned till 25 March 2014.The National Assembly therefore held only some 50 sessions during the year. Numerous concerted walkouts of the Opposition from the Assembly have further reduced their participation during key debates on policies or legislations being passed. Against this background, it would be infra dig and indecent to wish to increase the number of Members of the National Assembly in the country at a juncture when we need a new breed of more able and altruistic Mauritians to become elected Members.
At a time when we all have to work harder and be more disciplined to conjure through higher productivity, the adverse effects of the international financial crisis on economic performance and growth in the country, is it not time for elected Members to do likewise and for Government to set the example by curtailing the National Assembly holidays and for the elected Members to uplift the national policy debates to charter an innovative and path breaking trajectory for the future?
It should be recalled that following the recent passing away of Nelson Mandela, worldwide tributes were paid to this outstanding statesman by world leaders and our own National Assembly with pledges to perpetuate his legacy. Beyond statues and avid proposals to bestow other posthumous honours, what better way to live up to the legacy of Madiba than to emulate his rectitude in public life, his nation building efforts in a society fractured by decades of apartheid and institutionalised racism, his selfless public service during a single term of office as President and his retirement as an elder statesman with no official position focusing on philanthropic work to combat poverty and AIDS.
Need for a paradigm shift in framing national policies
It is distressing to note the lack of innovative out-of-the-box thinking relating to new policy proposals which are tabled in front of the National Assembly or in respect of finding solutions to long outstanding problems.
Nine-year schooling: Let us take the example of the recent proposal with regard to nine-year schooling. The initial debates were confined within the straitjacket of the 9-year schooling format when there are much more important issues which need to be addressed. These relate inter alia to reframing our school curriculum to respond to the diverse aptitudes and skills levels among the young in the country, re-engineering the technical training-cum-placement programmes towards skills which are in demand thereby enabling school leavers to enter the job market. This approach aims at minimizing the current mismatch between skills required and the job opportunities in the market place. The training of the related teaching staff should concomitantly be upgraded accordingly. Is the 9-year schooling enough when compared to the higher performing economies in the world?
It is to be noted that of the 47,300 presently unemployed, about 52% do not have the Cambridge School Certificate or equivalent or any equivalent technical qualification. In contrast some 26,300 foreign workers are employed in Mauritius.
Apart from appropriate technical skills, a more productive work ethic is required to compete for jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, we need to also address the requirements of the brighter students by broadening the choice of Examination Boards to include suitable higher level and more internationally recognised Exams Boards such as the Oxford Cambridge & RSA (OCR) Examination Board. India and China have successfully devised their own more rigorous Exams Boards as evidenced by the plethora of Indian and Chinese students joining top Universities abroad. France, Luxembourg, Germany or Austria also have similar Exams Boards. These Examination Boards provide a better preparation for admission to the best universities abroad.
18,300 small sugar planters: An outstanding policy failure relates to the small sugar planters. The dwindling number of some 18,300 small sugar planters have been left high and dry in the wake of the 2006 EU sugar regime reform policy and related price reduction, Whilst the sugar corporate sector also benefits from revenue from the more lucrative coal-bagasse cogeneration power plants to supplement their sugar revenue, the small sugar planters’ sugar revenue together with the paltry amount received for their bagasse and molasses do not cover their higher costs of production leading to a growing trend towards abandonment of cane cultivation.
In the absence of any real political will to include the small sugar planters in a real partnership within the sugar cane industry, there is need for a paradigm shift in policy. As it is no longer viable for the small planter to grow cane, they should in deference to their diligent contribution to the sugar sector and to GDP for decades including the post-Independence period, be allowed the total freedom to dispose of their small individual land holdings, the majority of which are less than a hectare, according to their own free choice without any constraint. This policy should allow them to freely dispose of their land holdings or use them to pursue other more gainful activities of their choice to improve their standard of living, whilst helping to democratize the economy.
The Illovo Deal fall out
The insider whistle blowing on the Illovo deal in recent months has yet again highlighted that it was driven in the interests of the chosen few at the expense of the State and the nation. How can anybody associated with it arrogate himself the right to lay claim to a socialist political heritage? It was a missed opportunity to correct the stark inequalities in the country and cannot be condoned.
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Leave History to Scholars and Historians
There is a compulsive intent on the part of political leaders across the political divide to surreptitiously give their own version of historical events in Mauritius in order to put them in a partisan light. There is selective amnesia. Some court scribes have written their own sycophantic versions of History which cannot stand the test of objective analysis. As part of a new credo, let there be generosity and a sense of honesty towards verifiable historical facts about personalities in our history or the performance of past governments. Re-writing history or insidious propaganda cannot stand the test of historical scrutiny. Let history scholars assess men and events which have marked the country on the basis of objective facts and empirical research, taking into consideration that documents of the British colonial period in Mauritius have been rendered public by the British National Archives.
Let us take the example of the fight for our independence as lots of people still remember the facts and the role of the key drivers of this momentous struggle. There were many key figures who were involved as well as simple people who risked repression and their jobs in pursuit of this prized goal. The fight for the rights of the downtrodden multitude required the setting up of political parties, workers trade unions, the cooperative movement as well as newspapers in French, English and Hindi to mobilize the masses. The well followed articles of some of the key political leaders in the local press in both English and Hindi as well as the organisation of cultural events across the country where Hindi was the mobilising factor all contributed in advancing the cause of freedom.
Some of these political leaders of the time also played key roles in the determinant actions of the sugar industry workers trade unions as from 1937. A scorecard analysis of the contribution of the various political leaders of the time measured in all these diverse facets of the actions initiated to mobilise and inspire the people towards freedom would help map out a more comprehensive picture. It was a collective and synergic effort in an exhilarating period during which some of the prominent leaders passed away prematurely.
Discipline and respect of the law
As a nation, it is totally unacceptable that since the beginning of the year some 40,000 drivers have been fined for various traffic offences reaping more than Rs 100 million and counting for the Exchequer. The huge sum collected will certainly help amortize the cost of installation of new sets of speed cameras. However, it is high time that as citizens of a country aspiring to become a high-income country, we conduct ourselves with more discipline and respect the Highway Code. Such discipline is prevalent in the UK for example. It would make driving so much more pleasant and safer for everyone.
Our wanton propensity to pollute our environment and our beautiful country is equally unacceptable. In the wake of the laudable ‘Clean Up Mauritius’ initiative, lots of citizens seem to have been sensitized on the need to keep their environment clean. There again a disciplined behaviour is required by all. In parallel, it is time that in a partnership between municipalities/district councils and waste recycling firms, we start the sorting out, disposal and recycling of all our waste in a more structured manner. In this context, the home compost-making scheme using domestic organic waste comprising the bulk of our refuse is a laudable initiative of the government.
There cannot be two categories of citizens in our country. Those who respect and abide by the law and the rules and those who do not. The street hawkers and squatters on state lands are cases in point. Whilst we have to address poverty and respond to the need for shelter to prevent squatting on scarce State lands, bending the rules for street hawkers has led to licence and spawned a cohort of new hawkers unfairly competing against rates paying traders and impeding pedestrian traffic in the city and main towns. Everyone must be made to abide by the law.
Strategic thinking and expert advice
We have to recognise that as we develop more sophisticated sectors of activity in the country, we would need specific expertise in each field as well as specialist operators to help leapfrog the sector through appropriate transfer of technology and expert advice. If we want to take full advantage of the better market prospects expected next year, to boost growth, it would be timely for us to choose and induct suitable world class experts to advise and help re-engineer key organisations and sectors towards the generation of more sophisticated value addition up the value chain. There would be merit for such experts to be inducted in inter alia the Financial Services sector, the ICT, the Tertiary Education sector, the multi faceted Ocean Economy sector and the Free Port bearing in mind our strategy to act as a trading platform between Asia/Australia and Africa.
Following the scuttling of the Planning Ministry, it is equally important that we urgently set up an independent strategic thinking Unit with the mandate to brainstorm, with the help of a multi disciplinary team of professionals, corrective or more robust strategies where necessary as well as define a long-term road map geared to assure a potent tempo of sustainable growth. The numerous institutions and Ministries are very often caught up in the rat race of operational imperatives. It is therefore important that the well-manned strategic thinking Unit is open to suggestions from the economic operators and the public and become the catalyst for policy re-engineering and forward planning so as to map out innovative growth strategies and a projection of our development path in the next decades.
Protecting our purse strings
The multiple bank charges imposed locally on our personal bank accounts are exorbitant. The local spread between the lending and saving rates as well as that between buying and selling currency is much higher than what prevails in say the UK and the EU. There are no bank charges on personal bank accounts in the UK so long as the accounts are in credit. Similarly, bank charges are controlled in the EU. In spite of some recent sabre rattling on this issue by the Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, nothing has been done. The measures in this respect in the last Budget are too little. Meanwhile, banks generally make handsome profits. In particular, as per their latest reports, MCB and SBM, the two main banks of the country who have the largest shares of the market have further increased their net profits to Rs 4.3 billion and Rs 3.9 billion respectively. It is high time that the authorities take more substantive steps to remedy this iniquitous situation.
No to licence
As citizens of a free country, we have the duty to decide on the type of society we want to live in and voice our views on matters we find objectionable in all walks of our lives. We should stand up for our principles and rights. Not to do so is to encourage licence. Let us in deference to Madiba’s legacy pledge to say no to licence.
Have a blessed and happy New Year.
* Published in print edition on 27 December 2013