Whose interests does it serve to destroy our flagships?

By Murli Dhar

The University of Mauritius (UoM) is without a Vice Chancellor (VC) since about one month. The incumbent, Professor Konrad, has resigned his post prematurely. In a cautious recent interview to l’express newspaper, he has stated, amongst others, that the PMO’s decision to pre-empt the decision of Council Members to adopt the restructuring plan of the UoM was improper.

It had, in his words, an effect similar to removing a judge from office before he delivers an expected unfavourable judgment. He has ascribed his decision to resign to the fact that the decision of the PMO was tantamount to challenging the autonomy of the UoM, something about which he has sought the views of Vice Chancellors in other parts of the world before resigning. The latter would have confirmed his reading of the decision that the university’s autonomy was at stake.

Apart from funding the UoM, the government looks forward to certain deliverables from it. On the funding side, it must assure itself that money handed over to the University is well spent. On the deliverables, the government has to ensure that the University is able to raise its international status so as to become a recognized centre of relevant learning, if not at the global level, at least at the regional level. We understand that this is what the plan prepared by the ex-Vice Chancellor was about and that it had been discussed at length within the concerned instances of the UoM. There was a consensus about it and the Council was about to adopt it as a working tool to carve out the future course of the UoM when the incident to replace the Council took place.

It is certainly uncomfortable for us as citizens of Mauritius to take stock of the fact that our University is without a VC, the more so as the appointment of the outgoing incumbent was made following international invitation for filling the vacancy. In the ordinary course of circumstances, a university functions best when it has at its head a competent VC. It is also known that the best performing universities of the world are those that enjoy a considerable amount of autonomy in the running of their affairs. There is hardly any political intervention in the 100 top universities of the world. Learning is a pursuit, it is believed, which delivers the most when it is left to itself. In this environment of constant progress, those who lead the universities advance the scope of applied knowledge in such a manner as to find industry knocking constantly at their doors for tapping concrete research results that are applicable in their respective fields of work.

It was a great thing that we had our own university at the very start of our career as an independent country. There were far thinkers at the time who saw not only the prestige that attaches to a country having its own university. They also saw the contribution this institution can make in other ways to the life of the nation. Indeed, it is an instrument par excellence to give due orientation to our budding local talents. By creating scope for them to find expression, the university becomes an instrument of empowerment, forcing those lower down to emulate and rise like their predecessors. A well-groomed population up to the tertiary level acts like a critical mass to raise our economic and social potential. The university has a key role to play by providing those opportunities to the younger generation.

In a number of countries, local universities are not only saving foreign exchange that would have been spent up by students to acquire skills and knowledge from attending overseas universities. They also are big sources of incomes for the countries of their establishment. We in Mauritius have created scope for our younger generation to follow courses at the local university especially where they cannot afford to meet costs associated with overseas universities. To do this, a university needs to have a good standing and reputation.

Ours has been in dire need of such a standing. Some of the well-known international universities are established trademarks of excellence at the global level. Obviously, the kind of scenes we have just witnessed at the UoM does not go in this direction. And it is a pity!

* * *

One more flagship at risk

Another local institution that has played a crucial role in the uplift of the country is Air Mauritius, the national airline in which the public sector has a majority stake. Few will deny that Air Mauritius has proved critical towards making Mauritius part of the global mainstream. Let alone tourists. Businessmen and investors will not go to a country which is not connected to the rest of the world by means of regular, predictable flights into and out of it. Air Mauritius has provided this assurance over decades and made Mauritius a reliable destination for business and international tourism.

This is a mark of good standing acquired by the country thanks to the national airline and we take risks with this achievement only at our own risk and peril. We should have been concentrating on how to fortify the airline through proper management and the exercise of a close highly knowledgeable board oversight to ensure that it does not weaken, especially during these moments of global economic turbulence hitting several airlines operating from established central hubs. In this perspective, Air Mauritius is handicapped as it proceeds from a geographically isolated location in the south west Indian Ocean and not from those passenger and cargo-full centres of international aviation.

What have we been seeing? A lot of turbulence concerning the appointment of the Company’s CEO over a number of years; a Board that is peopled by members who are not specialised in aviation proper or in airline business but are equipped rather with knowledge of individual other fields in which no doubt they may be excelling. Had they been drawn from the right business background with the correct ‘animal spirits’ pertaining to commercial aviation proper, they would take decisions differently. For example, they would have protested firmly when the decision was being taken lately to appoint at the head of this essentially commercial airline a CEO with an Air Force background. The effect of this appointment was to drive down even more forcefully Air Mauritius’ image, and that was just after the stupid and highly expensive hedging that had landed the company into insolvency during the previous CEO’s tenure of office.

The Main Lesson to Draw

The bottom line is: we cannot continue fudging up things in this manner. This is like inflicting unnecessary punishment on ourselves. We should avoid reaching the point of no-return. Even the best-run airlines cannot afford to make so many mistakes as Air Mauritius has made. We are lucky the airline is still here despite the massive recurrent losses it has been accumulating.

Like the University of Mauritius, Air Mauritius is an important flagship enterprise of the country. Our objective should have been to make core undertakings such as these invincible in their areas of activity. No one in his wisdom can expect that key institutions of the sort will thrive if you sever their top drivers from time to time. We feel that even those who are made to endorse overturning decisions of the sort are conscious of the amount of damage this has been doing by projecting a negative image of the country. They are also no doubt conscious of the amount of across-the-board discouragement this kind of situation is instilling among the population at large, especially among our well intending citizens who would like Mauritius to keep improving and rising up to new challenges. It is true that individuals can be replaced. But if you go down this route successively, you’ll never reap a harvest good enough to be able to sow for the next crop. Real success builds upon itself, not by bits and pieces.

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The road towards an improved Singapore model

In the name of economic development, the government authorised the creation of several commercial centres across the country. The latest of the largescale shopping centres was the so-called Mall of Mauritius at Bagatelle. We understand that permits and licences are given in these respects by the appropriate Ministries.

Many were shocked when they saw the upcoming bricks and mortar in a green place like Bagatelle, something that usually soothed the eyes and mind of those travelling to or from the concrete and hotchpotch of central Port Louis. The development appeared to be going against all the claims being made about keeping the green and sustainability of Mauritius under the MID project. People who genuinely see Mauritius as a haven of beauty and endurance when concrete does not invade its every nook and corner grumbled and protested against the project for some time. They eventually allowed themselves to be persuaded that it will, after all, work out for the best for everybody and still preserve the environment somehow.

This assumption held until we saw the Minister responsible for the Environment himself on site, watching helplessly a yellow-green viscous stream of continuing pollution pouring down from the Mall into the adjoining river that flows downstream through several villages. This condition must have been going on for some time, perhaps since the mall was inaugurated months before. The government departments having authorised the project, hopefully under terms and conditions for the respect of the environment, should have given a clearance on solid and waste disposal. They would accordingly have been under a duty to keep watch to ensure that their terms and conditions were being complied with. Did they fulfil this clause? The developers of the project, on their part, were under the duty to respect those terms and conditions: did they respect them, even if the Ministry had not specified such a down-to-earth thing in its permits?

This kind of situation hurts the overall image of the country. If there is a syndrome from which several sectors of our country have been suffering for long, it is this: “focus on the short term only and take measures to correct deficits from this kind of narrow outlook until constraints or collateral damages become much too apparent making further corrective action unavoidable”.

This makes institutions underperform, at times to the point of near destruction of their true missions. The mind is not applied to consider the negative consequences of short-term decisions implemented or the necessity for follow-up before it is too late. This desultory general attitude has become responsible for decisions that do not see far enough to bridge the gaps they are creating at the moment.

The impetuous decisions are oftentimes endorsed, including under occult political pressure, where the politicians are themselves victims of self-interested individuals “going for the kill” when circumstances permit. In the process, many organisations fail to rectify their disastrous course. By the time they realize that they have gone too far off course, it is too late or costly to reverse gear. We need to go back to deeper ‘projets de société’ which can be conceptualized by a few high thinking minds and change the course of history for the better. If we don’t go in this direction right now, we could end up living on the goodwill from the past.

 We need now to evoke the true substance which has gone into the country’s deeper-level development in the past. For this, you need a small team of some high and proven independent thinkers in the government services who can dedicate themselves to elevate missions of the public sector. Not only can they spot systemic failings before they take place but they can also act to direct public institutions towards their loftier fulfilment. This will create a stronger culture of responsibility in the country; it will spot failings before losses are acknowledged in a whole range of public and private activities; it will also disinterestedly advance the country’s consolidation towards progress. It is the road towards an improved Singapore model.

* Published in print edition on 24 Feburary 2012

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