Policy-making in Mauritius
By Paramanund Soobarah
Every Mauritian has great respect and admiration for Singapore as a country, initially for its cleanliness, its sights and its great shopping, and gradually, when we come to learn more about it, for the way it is governed and for the competence of its people. It excels in every field in which it is active. Singapore regularly tops the world in Mathematics examinations carried out for young teenagers by TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). Experts from the United States of America visit the country regularly to study its education system – particularly the way mathematics is taught in the country. Only last month Singapore Airport was declared the best airport in the world. “Through-and-through excellence in whatever we do” seems to be the motto of every Singaporean and of their government. Competence at one’s job is the only criterion for appointment – cronyism, party or community affiliation do not enter into the equation, and one and all work hard at achieving the required competence. It is not at all surprising that our Prime Minister should be mesmerised by that country following his visit there.
What perhaps some of us do not know is that Singapore is an island one third the size of Mauritius and three times our population, without taking into account an additional million non-Singaporeans who live there to work: specialists in all technical and scientific fields flock to Singapore to find quality appointments. Considering that not so long ago Singapore was little more than a fishing village, and that it gained its independence from Britain within the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and its independence from the Federation in 1965, only three years before Mauritius gained its own, the phenomenal economic and social success of Singapore is nothing short of a miracle and rightly the subject of admiration by the entire world. The recent article entitled “Singapore’s lessons for an unequal America” by world-renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz informed us that even in the matter of social justice, it is among the best in the world.
Many believe that the strategic location of Singapore near so many large and wealthy countries is the source of its economic success. Location may be an advantage, but it also imposes upon Singapore a very heavy burden for its defense, for which it feels compelled to take solid measures. It maintains an army, a navy and an Air Force; it spends 25% of its budget on defense, a proportion much higher than what Israel has to. According to the International Business Times, Singapore was the fifth largest arms importer in the world from 2007 to 2011. All male Singaporeans aged 18 or over are required to serve in the military for about two years, and on completion of that initial service, have to remain available as reservists up to the age of 40 for fighting men and 50 for officers.
In safe hands
We are therefore very happy and proud that Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has established a close relationship between the two countries and that he should have called upon the government of that country to provide a team of experts to help out with issues relating to the recent fatal flood in Port Louis. We have not seen the terms of reference of the team, but we are confident that we are in safe hands, because we know that the Government of Singapore chooses its professionals with care. We are sure that they will find the precise reasons for the catastrophe and will recommend sure-fire ways and means for preventing the recurrence of such catastrophes in the future.
But we have one major sorrow about the way the business is being conducted. The team’s work is being carried out in a very opaque fashion. Nobody doubts that they will do a good job, but there is a vital need for Mauritians to learn to do such work themselves. A public Commission of Enquiry, assisted by the team of Singaporean experts, would, by its slow method of conducting its affairs, have involved the whole population in its work through the press and would have been a major educational exercise for the nation. By the time such a Commission would have finished its work, everybody would have become briefed about what is possible and what is not possible in the way measures are to be adopted and precautions to be taken to avoid similar mishaps in future.
The prime purpose of such Commissions is to determine the true causes of the catastrophes they enquire into with a view to preventing further recurrences of the same type of event, and not to apportion blame: that is the only way to progress in all fields. In my view, it is still necessary to establish such a Commission and it should be tasked to examine the activities of all post-SSR central and municipal administrations and determine to what extent their decisions and actions contributed to the catastrophe – unless one wants to extend the enquiry back to Governor Mahé de Labourdonnais’s administration, for he is widely believed to have had the wide trench along Mgr Leen St dug to prevent flood waters from reaching lower ground.
Media reports hint that the Singaporean experts have said that further modelling would be required. That indeed is the first thing that has to be done. Teenagers studying Geography used, in my school days, to be given a chart with contour lines from mountain tops down to the coastline, and then asked to plot the course of a river from some given point by examining the contour lines. I myself used a closely related technique when determining the feasibility of a straight-in Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach path to Plaisance way back in the sixties, using the standard 1 in 25000 chart for the south-east portion of the Island. Nowadays with Global Positioning System (GPS) much finer contour lines can be drawn, and I am sure hundreds of Mauritians will volunteer for such work – obviously against remuneration. Such work must not be carried out secretly: the educational opportunities it provides are too good to lose. We strongly appeal to the Hon. Prime Minister to extend the scope of this work and make it publicly accessible through some Commission of Enquiry or other machinery that will have a similar effect.
Regardless of what steps Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam takes, it is fitting that we look a little more closely in what further lessons we can learn from Singapore. Like Mauritius, Singapore does not have any natural resources. Like Mauritius, its only real asset is its population. But then, Singapore knows how to turn this asset into gold. That method is readily available to all governments and is there just for the taking: it is called Education.
The Singapore system of education takes over every child right from the nursery. Our supereducated academia and media, including the Immortals of our great Académie, will turn up their noses at the methods in force in that country. While in Mauritius extra resources are devoted only to less performing children (through the ZEP Programme), in Singapore special attention is paid to the best performing children through its Gifted Education Programme. This programme identifies the better performing children at a very early stage in Primary School. Right from Standard III, one percent of the cohort is selected by testing and examination for special nurturing for the rest of their school years – right up to university level.
The official mission statement of the Gifted Education Programme reads as follows: “Our mission is to provide leadership in the education of the intellectually gifted. We are committed to nurturing gifted individuals to their full potential for the fulfilment of self and the betterment of society.” And the vision statement goes: “Our vision is to make Gifted Education in Singapore a model of excellence. We will achieve this vision by providing professional expertise and exemplary resources to develop intellectual rigour, humane values and creativity in gifted youths to prepare them for responsible leadership and service to country and society.”
A fit of apoplexy
How will that go down in Phoenix and Reduit? If there is some talk of implementing such a scheme in Mauritius, I fear some may get into a fit of apoplexy. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too! Sadly, though, the present drive in Education is towards Creolisation and lowering of standards from pre-primary to post-doctoral. Can it be true that some PhD holders can’t write a single paragraph of good English? Theses can be written by anybody, not necessarily by the candidate, but shouldn’t there be an HSC General Paper style examination-room written paper for all graduates to ensure that they can write?
Led by our great team of intellectuals and prodded by the nation’s ace journalists, our government will engage in anything to help those that fail the CPE. Once those who cannot pass the CPE have been identified, the government will do just about anything to force-feed them, short of standing on its head and walking on its hands with legs bent forward. But one thing it will not do: it will not engage in testing those children in earlier classes to identify weaknesses to enable corrective action to be started earlier: that is against the philosophy of the intellectuals! The real danger there is that such early testing might also identify some children who are better than the others – the greatest possible social crime.
But it is perfectly possible to identify weak children without at the same time trying to identify gifted ones. Identifying the weak ones at an early age would have permitted the authorities to offer them special nurturing right from their earliest years. If the announced objective of “a graduate in every home” is to be realized, it is essential that such early testing be conducted and weaker children be helped with specially adapted education schemes.
Over the last few months, we have on several occasions been gratified by the statement that the government will “democratize our education system.” We honestly do not know what to make of this statement. The last time we were treated to this siren song was when it was crooned about the Economy, before the 2005 election. We jumped overboard in our thousands and grappled with the waves to catch sight of and if possible grasp the sirens only to have our skulls smashed on the rocks and our skeletons left on the beach to dry.
Times have changed and we can breathe more freely now. But if the new song is another siren song – how can you tell until you’ve experienced it – God help us.
The weapons used the last time round to finish us off? The infamous NRPT, taxes on savings accounts, no deductions allowed for the education of children, nor for sick and elderly parents, etc., etc. The Middle Class, it was said, were a bunch of crooks and parasites that must be taught a lesson with the stringent punitive measures; earlier talk about democratizing the economy, it was openly conceded, was only an electoral gimmick to get the votes. Only the very rich, it was also said, deserved democracy and government protection, like a flat rate of income tax for all income levels, none at all on dividends, no capital gains tax, no inheritance tax, authority to set up apartheid-era integrated resort schemes with huge profits and no access to locals except as gardeners and cleaners, handsome stimulus packages for people who don’t know how to run their business, etc., etc.!
When the protests got too loud and it became necessary to assuage the Middle Class, another siren song was the answer, although we did not recognise it as such at once (siren songs are never recognised as such until it is too late): taxes were substantially decreased on cars. We all ditched public transport (travelling by bus in this country is a painful experience, anyway, as it is so badly organised: that subject needs a full-length article by itself) and got our own cars. Many families bought two, three or more cars. No arrangements were made for the parking of cars; municipalities not given the authority to collect parking fees within their jurisdictions — that would have permitted them to build and operate multi-storey parking lots.
Our roads are choked, and cycling has now become the fastest way of travelling. Walking to bus stops used to be the only exercise that most middle-level employees took, and it was just about enough to keep obesity, and the terrible maladies in its train (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc.) at bay. Now every middle level employee has a car, and uses it even for going to the local shop, severely aggravating our traffic jams and parking problems, and his or her own physical condition.
Pedestrians can hardly walk on the roads without being run over. In the town of Quatre Bornes where I live, I am ashamed to be driving past children who have to lean hard against walls to avoid being run over! Huge busses ply along our narrow streets, and sometimes have to pass one another in opposite directions. Every one of our narrow streets have become subject to huge traffic jams.
To resolve the problem, the government has embarked on an ambitious road-building project. The learned ones say that spending on infrastructure in hard times was recommended by economics guru JM Keynes – that actually helps with unemployment. How true – aren’t we helping the Chinese, the Indians, the Bangladeshis and the Philipinos to resolve their unemployment problems? We would have been happy to use our own unemployed; the trouble is they don’t like soiling their hands, not after their long schooling they’ve had up to the age of 16. Anyway picking pockets of tourists and locals is much neater and much less demanding of effort. The only trouble in all this that building roads to accommodate an increasing influx of vehicles is like chasing the rainbow: however many roads you build, the flood of new cars will soon choke them.
Those who swear by Singapore must enquire how that country keeps the number of cars on its roads under control. You can import a car — customs duty is only 20% of the CIF value – but to put it on the road you will need a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) under the Vehicle Quota System (VQS). COEs are of two types: five-year non-renewable and ten-year renewable. This system keeps the number of cars on the road under control. From time to time, as older vehicles are taken off the road, COEs are made available for purchase, but there are no fixed prices – they are sold under a bidding system! Additionally, abundant parking facilities are available. When shall we have such forward-thinking and dreamlike facilities in our country?
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2013