An open letter to my fellow citizens
The Call of The Clarion
— Revd Ian Ernest
I find myself increasingly distressed by some of the goings-on in our country and have decided, in all humility to share a few ideas and reflections with you. For me, the final straw has been the savage murder at Corps de Garde, and one of a series of violent incidents over the last weekend of 5-6 February 2011.
The recent performance for the commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery at Le Morne also left me feeling distinctly uneasy. Apart from the fact that the parallel between the slave trade (none of the slaves had any choice in the matter) and being enslaved by drugs or alcohol is somewhat forced, it was unfortunate that the performers were from one community only, inevitably suggesting that drugs, alcohol and prostitution are the problems of one community. The scale of drug and alcohol abuse is, of course, a symbol of a social malaise, but it is not the only sign around us.
Since Independence, our country has seen a great deal of progress, for which some of our leaders must be given considerable credit. At the same time, however, some perversions have crept into our society and, if they are not properly tackled soon, we run the risk of even greater problems in the future. I suspect that our main problems stem from a breakdown in ethical standards, and even the non-existence of ethical perspectives.
Given the amount of “religious” activity in our country, this might seem somewhat surprising. However, to state what we are too often afraid to say, some of this religious activity seems more confined to the promotion of ethnic identity than to the pursuit of spiritual and human understanding. This is a basic problem, all too often spoken of as “the Mauritian reality” and therefore swept under the carpet, that all we religious leaders need to address.
Let us be clear. Ethical standards are something that all of us can promote, whatever our religion and even those who have no religion. They may be connected with religious dogmas and beliefs but they are more universal.
Ethics relate to how we behave. We can all agree that using violence, selling drugs, dishonest business dealings, pursuing financial gain at the expense of others, abusing one’s position and corruption amongst other things are deeply unethical. We can expect our leaders to set an example but the problem lies not just with our leaders. The woman who tells a political candidate she is not voting for him because he won’t or can’t provide her son with a job is unethical. The person who draws his or her salary without working properly is unethical. Work, whether as a teacher, a doctor, a politician or as a labourer, has vocational aspects; it has responsibilities as well as privileges.
As recent events have illustrated, some people, from the highest to the lowest in society, seem oblivious to ethical factors. There will always be “black sheep” in most families and societies but it is the sheer scale of this that is frightening.
How this has come about would, no doubt, require a book in itself. But, put simply, there are certain factors in our society that particularly contribute to this situation. It includes the perception that political, religious and community leaders are concerned more with their personal advantages than with the members of society they are meant to serve. It comes from the feeling that some people can get away with anything. Political cronyism and ethnic considerations are major factors. There is all too often a clear absence of meritocracy. The resulting perceptions permeate down through society so that, to take a banal example, one begins to wonder if someone imagines they can get away with murder (literally and figuratively) because they voted for the party in power at the time of their crime.
To give some examples of a flagrant lack of ethics, politics is not about pleasing potential voters and key interest groups, but in serving the country and providing leadership. Teaching is not about the extra income from private tuition but the privileged position of educating our youngsters for tomorrow. Practising medicine is not pushing patients towards private treatment to earn more money. Business is not just about increasing stakeholder wealth but also about genuinely valuing employees and offering customers quality goods and services at a fair price. Journalism is not about distorting the truth to suit one’s own point of view but of providing readers with factual information and informed comment. Religious leadership is not about seeking advantages for a particular group of people but of providing ethical guidance, spiritual help and support to individuals in facing life’s problems.
It is not my intention to criticise any particular individual, individuals or groups of people, although, if anyone does feel offended, it is presumably because the truth can hurt. We face a society-wide problem. Nor are we alone in this; most other societies in varying ways and to varying degrees face similar problems. But it is in the society in which we live that we have to address the problems and look for solutions.
Steps to be taken
In the first place, therefore, I would urge our Prime Minister to ensure that the Equal Opportunities Act is promulgated at the earliest opportunity and without further delay. I would also ask our political leaders to give urgent priority to the formulation and introduction of an anti-racism/anti-communalism bill. The strains on society caused by ethnic fragmentation are too great to continue ignoring them. Of course, such a measure would provoke outrage in some quarters, where vested interests prevail, but the time is always right for us to “fight the good fight with all thy might”.
Corruption, cronyism and the way public money is spent need more serious attention, including a major change in mindset amongst some of those drawing salaries from the public purse.
What else can be done? I would suggest the setting up of some sort of Social Advisory Council or Think-Tank at several arms length from government to examine problems and offer solutions. And here, I am not talking about lengthening prison sentences or the use of the death penalty, neither of which has been shown to have any useful impact on crime, and that without considering moral factors. I am talking about such things as how to educate society and how to bring in legislation and reforms that will have a genuine impact.
All this needs not just political will but the awakening of all members of society to the realisation that it is more than time to address our problems, each individual in his or her own way.
I have not spoken of poverty. In part, this is partly being addressed but it has to be addressed properly and in a global way. Building houses for a potential bank of votes is not poverty alleviation. Some poverty is, of course, self-inflicted, through addiction to drugs or alcohol and is difficult to address. But we are a small country, where nothing should be considered impossible because of the sheer scale of a problem. And I do not believe that poverty in itself is at the root of social evils, although it may exacerbate life’s difficulties.
There are plenty of poor people who lead decent lives. There are plenty of rich people who are greedy and devoid of any moral sensibility.
To our leaders, I would say, please do not fail us. To my fellow countrymen, I would add that we all have an individual responsibility to make a difference. There are too many ways that we have all failed.
Revd Ian Ernest
Bishop of Mauritius and Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean