Rebooting Institutional Strength

Editorial

We will soon be completing the first leg of the 21st century, and it has been marked by many an upheaval which has tarnished the image of the country. Amongst them one that stands out is the perception of some at least of our institutions being weak because of irregularities… There is an urgency to tackle these worrying negative portrayals and to reverse the trend…

One striking feature of countries which have drifted into anarchy or misrule is that all of them have a weak institutional structure. We are lucky in Mauritius that we have had respected public institutions, such as an independent Judiciary, an independent Director of Public Prosecutions, an Electoral Commission, a Public Service Commission, an independent Director of Audit, etc. – some of which are carry-overs from the earlier British administration. But Independent Mauritius has also set up a few prominent ones of its own and strengthened those institutions with the passage of time.

It is one thing to have any number of institutions in a country but which hardly perform the role for which they have been designed. It is quite another thing when institutions efficiently carry out their duties without fear or favour. It is not that under-performing countries in the rule-of-law context do not have a plethora of similar institutions that we see in the well reputed jurisdictions. They have them all. But those institutions fail to live up to their mission either because political powers have scorched them or because their top brass are not equipped well enough morally to execute their functions to the highest ethical standards and norms, as would justifiably expect the citizens who have placed their trust in them – at least initially – to deliver in the larger national interest. Having or not having efficiently functioning institutions can make the difference between a country which achieves and one which does not.

Countries like Singapore have derived a lot more strength from the efficient operation of their institutions than we have done. Regardless of whether the institutions belong to the public or private domain, they have consistently aimed to do their very best in the course of fulfilling their respective mandates. They have lent to Singapore an image of a reliable place in which to do business. This has contributed to the country’s ascent towards finding a place among the top rankers of the world according to several indices of good performance. Good performance on a series of key indicators has collectively uplifted Singapore. By dint of hard and persistent work, across-the-board reputation for seriousness has been created by this country and this is by no means a negligible factor in the upward march of a relatively small economy.

Two examples to illustrate the point will be given, from India, whose Supreme Court decisions various stakeholders here have brought to the attention of decision-makers. For example, at one time, the Indian Electoral Commission took the bull by the horns because it was then headed by a man who meant business. Politicians used to winning elections by capturing polling booths and by recourse to other corrupt practices till then had to reckon with this new force and there was a complete changeover in India on how elections would be conducted henceforth. Not only did the then Electoral Commissioner TN Seshan get the compulsory use of the ID cards for voting established, the system even embarked on electronic voting later. It was an institution that knew what its mission was and how to set about it to get it right.

The Indian Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), is another public body which has asserted itself quite aggressively in recent years. Shifting its focus from corruption in the case of 2G spectrum allocation the effect of which was to send high executives and even a minister behind bars, it went on to expose other cases including the alleged case of public under-selling of coal mine allocations involving huge financial losses to the Indian Treasury. This amount of activism on the part of a public body like the CAG caught the attention of everybody.

The working of public and private institutions in different countries shows that it is possible to bring improvements to the outlook of a country other than by the political establishment alone. Some of them produce their result by acting through the deterrence factor. Others define the platform which is most conducive to overall progress by implementing their agenda forcefully. For this to happen, the fundamental quest should be that of competence and qualification of those in charge. Competent people normally also have a drive. This drive or efficiency is what opens up new horizons rather than making unworthy behemoths of otherwise useful institutions.

It cannot be said of Mauritius that we have been benefiting from this kind of drive, commitment to the national weal and efficiency from all our institutions. In some cases, one is at odds to understand their inconsistent attitudes posted from time to time throwing into doubt the supreme principle they are supposed to stand for. Some executives who take decisions contrary to the wishes of parties in power or of their financiers are most likely to pay a price for their boldness – until they are conveniently thrown out. This Stalinist ‘method’ it seems has been resorted to by Russia’s President Putin. Such an environment does not bring about the assertiveness of office holders we see in places like Singapore. This would indicate that they are given the freedom to act truly independently, and not merely paying lip-service to the general ethos that prevails there.

We will soon be completing the first leg of the 21st century, and it has been marked by many an upheaval which has tarnished the image of the country. Amongst them one that stands out is the perception of some at least of our institutions being weak because of irregularities that that have surfaced emanating from even the apex of the country, its presidency. There is an urgency to tackle these worrying negative portrayals and to reverse the trend so that confidence can be restored in the country at all levels. That ought to be the underlying thrust of all actions that will be undertaken to set the country on a proper course, and we hope that this would be sooner rather than later. At its most fundamental, we must not risk losing that basic institutional power which distinguishes a successful country from one that is not.


* Published in print edition on 5 October 2018

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