The Test of Service to the Nation

Serving one’s own interests instead of those of the country can hardly meet the test of public scrutiny or approval. It can only invite a backlash of the people and public sanction

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
— John F. Kennedy

The PRB report on the new scale of salaries and diverse allocations proposed for Ministers and the Members of the National Assembly is a test of their real sense of service to the nation. To be honest, when one benefits from such stratospheric monthly salaries and handsome perks when compared to the average income earner in the country, even the most modest of increases of 5-8% in this instance simply further improves the lavishness and comfort of the standard of living of the beneficiaries of such generosity from the Public Exchequer. What are a few thousand Rupees for those, barring the Prime Minister, earning inclusive of diverse allocations between Rs335, 000 for the Speaker and Rs143, 000 per month for a Member of the National Assembly (MNA) as incumbents of the different posts in the parliamentary hierarchy? To crown it all, the elected have to serve for only two terms of office to benefit from a generous pension.

In comparison, even the brightest and most talented young Mauritians with the best qualifications from the top universities of the world working as an engineer, a financial analyst, an accountant, a doctor or an economist earn a salary which is much less than that of a first time MNA. With such generous salary packages, the country should have chosen Mauritians with the best talent, innovative minds and professional acumen to join politics for the advancement of the country and the good of the people. This disconcerting situation obviously begs the following questions:

– How many among the political class were among the brightest and most successful of their respective generations?

– How much more successful Mauritius would have been, had these highly talented and qualified young Mauritians been instead made to join politics to serve and help run the country?

The greatest obstacle to such a salubrious change of tack is obviously the entrenched culture of absolute control over the party apparatus exercised by the omnipotent party leaders with the help of apparatchiks and sycophants prevailing in the country for so long. Such game changers for a better order will therefore have to be again triggered, as was the case at the December 2014 polls when leading parties at the time were so roundly trounced, by the people and vox populi.

As elected representatives of the people, the least that is expected in the present difficult socio-economic situation of stunted growth and unemployment faced by the country and the hardships endured by large swathes of people in the country is for the Members of the National Assembly to unanimously vote not to apply the package of salary and other increases proposed by the PRB as a mark of solidarity towards the people. In a potent way it would be an acid test of the true sense of service to the nation of the MNAs and the political class whose decision will legitimately be under the scrutiny of the people.

Valuing work

In contrast, a few thousand rupees more are an unimaginable relief and godsend for those at the bottom rungs of the salary scale in the country. This stark measure of inequality is an indictment of the political class and successive governments and their pledges to in priority continuously improve the lot of the common man. It is also germane to the key forthcoming debate on the issue of the safety net of a minimum salary aimed at addressing and alleviating the distress and hardships endured by people earning low salaries in the private and public sectors. Hopefully, the object would be to benchmark the minimum salary at a level which enables those income earners make both ends meet and live with dignity and essential comfort against the backdrop of a constant erosion of their purchasing power. However, the discussions on this crucial issue seem to have already gone off-track and asunder. Ministers and MNAs missing the real thrust of the debate in the context of ushering a more inclusive Mauritius are already raising the red flag of risks to employment and the SME’s.

It’s been 48 years since Mauritius has been independent. Isn’t it high time for employers, the social partners and government to realise that the growing prosperity of the country and its economic actors can no longer stem from a model based on paying low salaries or generally holding down the salaries of its employees as of yore? This has resulted in growing inequality. Every employee’s contribution adds value. Such a model is therefore no longer sustainable neither is it in step with the paradigm shift in the legitimate aspirations of the multitude for better remuneration for their skills and services and a more equitable sharing of the fruits of prosperity.

The minimum salary should therefore also reflect the modern reality of Mauritius as an upper middle-income economy, its rising cost of living and a fair remuneration for a worker’s labour. Such an approach would also help eliminate poverty through gainful work.

Halting pillage

Some weeks ago, the country was flabbergasted to learn that two Members of the National Assembly, namely a sitting Minister of government and a front bench member of the opposition have both been beneficiaries of state lands for an industrial project and a campement site lease respectively. State lands are assets of the State which have through wanton allocations over decades to all and sundry shrunk to a peau de chagrin. With what has been happening with State lands, good governance would have dictated MNAs, as elected representatives of the people, to be bulwarks to safeguard the shrinking area of state lands instead of benefitting from it. How does all this live up to the credo of selfless sense of service to the nation and values which drove the seminal actions for the freedom of the country led by the altruistic leaders of the country prior to independence?

The government has to be a robust guardian of state lands which are now said to be listed in a registry. It is therefore also necessary for government to spell out a clear policy regarding state lands, establish a transparent process to determine any new allocation of state land and render the terms and conditions of all new allocation of state lands open for public scrutiny. The ‘pillage’ of dwindling state land assets cannot be allowed to go on unchecked.

Recent parliamentary questions have also once again brought to light that the government rhetoric on good governance and transparency has too often been belied by actions. Yet again the commitment of service to the nation is seriously put in doubt when spouses and relatives of Ministers and members of government and those close to the government benefit from operation permits in diverse sectors of the economy, obtain fat cat jobs or are appointed legal advisers earning very handsome retainer fees. Why should a Ministry appoint a dedicated legal adviser when the State Law Office with its pool of pluri-disciplinary lawyers has traditionally provided this service to Government, the diverse Ministries and state institutions? The enormous amount paid in legal fees to legal advisers nominated all over the place could have been better used to employ more barristers specialised in different fields to provide quality legal advice to government services.

The true call for politics must above all be driven by an altruistic and selfless sense of service to the nation. Too many actions regularly brought to light are so blatantly contrary to this cardinal principle. Serving one’s own interests instead of those of the country can hardly meet the test of public scrutiny or approval. It can only invite a backlash of the people and public sanction. The government must therefore urgently bring its commitment to the credo of service to the nation back on track.

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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