By Professor J. Manrakhan
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And Time future contained in time past.
— TS Eliot (1888-1965)
There was a lengthy interview in Mauritius Times, 22nd July 2011 (pp 1-2, 6-7), by a frequent contributor, Percy S. Mistry, Chairman of Oxford International Associates Ltd.
Adjectival and Ardent
Essentially, he has argued that
(a) Mauritius remains much too Eurocentric in its economic and trade orientation and social outlook, with ‘its rooted pretence at faux cultural and fashionable sophistication’, (p2 col 3) and
(b) Our country could yet become the ‘centre-of-gravity locus for the Indian Ocean Rim’ and in so doing ‘changing the trajectory of its destiny’(p2 col 2).
Percy Mistry has also talked more generally of the ‘rights and wrongs’ of Mauritian economic affairs. Of course, he is entitled to his views, even if others may not be in agreement with them. But for once, he has publicly revealed much: first, about his political preferences (past and present); and second, about what he thinks of some of the top European politicians (amid some armchair theorizing); and third, an ability to turn his sense of humour upon himself (unless that was meant as a subtle riposte on the Bank of Mauritius (p 2 col 3).
Portable Rants and Realpolitiks
From being a far-left ideologue, he has moved right: indeed anything else, he believes, would almost certainly be wrong. And that, would certainly be unacceptable to most, ideologues or otherwise, without some kind of logical argumentation. A great admiration for Maggie Thatcher (he is not alone there!) seems tempered by his assessment that such a ‘Roundhead’ (?) could have done far more – except that he has, somehow, forgotten that her Conservative Party, had meanwhile dumped her. Mrs T’s intellectual successor as long term British Prime Minister, was Tony Blair, a joint-founder of New Labour. Previously, had come the strenuous unsuccessful efforts of Hugh Gaitskell and others – clause 4 and all – to contain the ‘looney-left’ or what Percy Mistry now calls the ‘softie-lefties’ – who? (R)Ed Miliband, present leader of Labour. Earlier, Tony Blair had to concede the leadership of the British Labour Party to avoid its potential implosion. Curiously, the advent of New Labour led the Tories to attempt moving left, to counter Labour, so much so that under David Cameron, present leader, the Conservatives had to turn even more left than New Labour. Meanwhile what Percy Mistry writes on Gordon Brown, as long-term Chancellor of the Exchequer and short-term British Prime Minister appears highly subjective, to say the least, even to those who favour Blair to Brown.
Sometimes, then, your Party can turn right (or left), leaving you stranded, wherever you are (say, centre Left): then what? Who is ‘right’? ‘left’? ‘wrong’? In any case we can drive on the left, or on the right, but cannot switch from one to the other at will, without disastrous consequences (The same thing seemingly exists in moving from one parallel Universe to another, except in science-fiction).
But it is with respect to German politics that Percy Mistry’s armchair theorizing becomes not so much adjectival and forthright, but downright controversial. Angela Merkel, of the Christian Democrat Union on the right, having lost heavily in a recent state election where her Union Party has traditionally performed very well, has now to face the forthcoming national elections. Realpolitik demands that the German Chancellor should carefully screen the views of the German electorate, first and foremost, and act and react accordingly to gauge the rise and fall of popular majorities (thus ‘a’ U-turn on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster), and leave the worries of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the bloggers of the Financial Times or even the Democrats v. Republicans of the US Congress, on their own back-burners. Instead of which we have from Percy Mistry, that Angela Merkel who he admits to be ‘politically astute’, is also ‘seriously deficient in her understanding of regional/global market forces’ (p2 cols 1 & 2). Which is which? And with right-wing friends like that, who needs enemies? Meanwhile let us look at The Economist: Hello to Berlin: July 9; pp 28 – 29) for an altogether different assessment. And indeed to the same Mauritius Times of 22nd July (p 4) on a BJP declaration of India driving the world towards recovery.
All of which does remind one forcibly of ‘La Cigale et la Fourmi’ of La Fontaine (1621 –1695): dance in summer; then starve in winter! The variant crafted by Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) then living in the South of France, portraying an altogether different outcome – to reward laziness, dilly-dallying, lack of thriftiness, and above normal budget deficits according to EU norms is unlikely to impress hardworking and frugal German or Dutch citizens, or indeed, should not impress Percy Mistry himself, if he is really serious, on his present (and past) strictures on the Mauritians.
Time now to head to Dodoland.
Of course, we are Euro-centric. It might have been different, if the Arabs, the Indians, the Chinese or the Polynesians had decided otherwise. As it was, the Portuguese gave us our first tentative hues of Euro-centricism; the Dutch strengthened the latter; the French made them permanent. And then the British completed the job which started as a Public-Private Partnership venture, before that term had actually been invented. That latest episode predating the more famous Entente Cordiale, diplomatically crafted in Europe, is also one which has endured, flourished and is ever evolving.
Our History, Our Hero
As TS Eliot, Literature Nobel (1948), has reminded us (see opening caption), Time Future is contained in Time Past, and in Time Present. Fifty years ago, an eventual Economic Laureate, 1977, James Meade, invited Mauritius, as a case-study in Malthusian Economics, to take heed, notably of our unfavourable population – production tendencies, and of the necessity for taking corrective measures. Many years later, another eventual Nobel Literature Laureate (2001), VS Naipaul, described us succinctly as “An Overcrowded Barracoon”. We are thankful to all of them and have given proper consideration for their hints and views.
Nonetheless, our country has its own internal genius and its own will. Let us simply wind down fast through the corridors of Time. First, we move to the days of Bertrand François Mahé de Labourdonnais (1699 – 1754), sailor and administrator who completely reorganised French Isle de France and Bourbon to the point of even trying to help conquer India: not only was he unsuccessful there, but for all his pains he was recalled to France and unfairly imprisoned in the Bastille, and released, in frail health, to die soon after. Any objective account of his stewardship and activities will speak volumes on the performance and potential of Mauritius. No wonder he is seen as a hero – a Mauritian one, of course, and that explains a great deal of our attachment to things French.
Next we move to the British period, when Mauritius was still debating whether to remain under Free Trade or opt out for Imperial Preference. The second ultimately prevailed, but not without serious soul-searching. Then came a period of high prosperity which is not inconsistent with what Percy Mistry appears to be suggesting in his three-pronged model for the future of Mauritius, linking Asia and Australia with Europe (p 6 bottom, col 4). The Reverend Patrick Beaton (1858) with his Creoles and Coolies; or, Five years in Mauritius (2nd Edn, Kenniket Press, USA 1971) has amply described that transitional phase.
We are now moving through another transition and it would be most useful to study the beginnings of the latter, say from the tail end of the last General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to the preliminary stages of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and proceed therefrom.
Of critical importance would be our competitive ability on the latter. Despite the competitive Foresight Exercise of 2004, Percy Mistry harbours grave doubts and these are forcibly expressed throughout his interview with the Mauritius Times, not least on English; governance – national and corporate; science and technology; transport, international relations and the like. Much has been said (and written). There is little point in repetition. We react as follows:
- We have been endlessly, and unfairly, blamed for staring at our navel: in what sense is this centre-of-gravity of the Indian Ocean Rim really any different? A rose by any other name? And Singapore then? Durban? Colombo?
- What would prevent Mauritius from suffering unduly from the new Euro-Dark Age, beyond what has already been stated (p 3 col 4)? Answer (in part, that is): Hail to ‘our conservative’ commercial banks, much taken to task by the international financial guardians – Where are these now?
- Implicit in many of the criticisms of Mauritian development processes is an assumption – namely, the fast ‘melting-pot’ concept in the USA is one of universal application. It is not even true of the US, as clever politicians there know full well, and empirical evidence has also uncovered: 20 – 25 years, as opposed to 50 – 70 years – so what? We are playing for long term, are we not? Lost opportunities, true; but we can turn problems into prospects, can we not? And, Oh Yes! The pace of societal change in Mauritius is accelerating, fast – check again!
- Much water has flowed under the Grand River North West bridges since the time of Nanard, our local Robin Hood. More water still have flowed since 2004 (competitiveness Foresight Seminar) and 2008 (date Percy Mistry disconnects with Mauritius). Since then a new Mauritian daily completely in English The Independent has emerged; there are also the English supplement of L’Express; other newspapers devote more columns to English. All these make interesting and enjoyable reading.
And of all these should have important bearings on our competitive ability, strictly in accordance with the reasoning of Percy Mistry: should they not?
The Name of the Game
Indeed, the name of the game is competition. What, if anything, can we offer there? Plenty. To start with, the main reason for not shunning French, is very simple: French flair. Recherché, worldwide. So we throw the baby with the bathwater? Come on! More than that, the French use their flair, and market the latter in English, s’il vous plaît! Check with Stephen Clarke (2010) a connoisseur of multi-faceted ‘Merde!’ whose Talk to the Snail led to his Ten Commandments to Understand the French, culminating in a Sunday Times best-seller entitled 1000 Years of Annoying the French (Black Swan, Transworld Publ: Lon 2010, 685 pp +).
Two other points.
First, back to our Press and History. If you have to find out how competitive Mauritius can be, look at the interrelationships between the two. Then, try and generalize throughout the economy as far as practicable. You might be very surprised.
Second, in our national psyche the name ‘Cambridge’ is indelibly set forever.
Not because it is ‘The Other Place’ to Oxford – and whatever that entails with the Annual Boat Race on the Thames, other Oxbridge sports and other contests, lofty spires, University League Tables. In Mauritius, Cambridge is synonymous with end-of-secondary examinations, the former English Scholarship Scheme and, presently, the State of Mauritius Scholarships, also synonymous with ‘meritocracy’ and, again, ‘competitiveness’.
Indeed, we do know about competition – perhaps too much!
Now to end: what does the phrase ‘even that is more than half-and-half’ mean, concerning the Mauritius Times itself (p6 bottom, col 5) censure or compliment? Enigma variation? Crossword – puzzle prompting? Logic trap? New maths? We wish Percy Mistry prompt reconnection with Mauritian reality and leave him to ponder on how little English is really English, and the realities of English English (The Economist, June 4th 2011 et seq).
* Published in print edition on 29 July 2011