“Politics should drive change…

Qs & As —

… it cannot be the type of politics, which tells you ’we are government, we decide’”

In many societies, people are coming up against entrenched political and commercial interests they feel are not working in favour of the people as a whole. Sheila Bunwaree, Manisha Dookhony, and Roukaya Kasenally, grouped under the newly formed MSR, want to rally the public to an alternative improved consciousness of how delivery of public goods should really be made in the public interest, free from the old model of governance. We asked them whether it is simply idealism or whether they have the means to translate concepts into practice for a better tomorrow. Here are their answers.

  * The Mauritius Society Renewal says it proposes “to channel the collective intelligence of diverse stakeholders, encourage alternative and disruptive thinking, formulate relevant policies and advocate and lobby in favour of a renewed Mauritius.” Is this going to be an assembly of like-minded academics having a conversation on ‘renewal’ or is it the first step towards the setting up of yet another political platform?

We believe that the discussion about renewal and change cannot and should not be the prerogative of a small group of people. It should be the business of all citizens who aspire to a more inclusive, merit based and just society especially as our young nation turns 50. We are conscious that just having a conversation is far from sufficient and that is why we propose to be action and solution driven.

We are currently developing a number of projects that aim at equipping the ordinary citizens with the necessary skills to be more informed and engaged. Whether MSR will ultimately morph into a political platform is hard to tell at this stage but what is certain is that it will assist in producing a new kind of leadership, one which is infused with integrity, critical thinking and competence

* But one may legitimately ask: why not another political platform? After all, isn’t it politics that drives change or renewal in any society?

Absolutely, politics in principle should drive change or renewal and add progress in any society. But it cannot be the type of politics, which tells you ’we are government, we decide’ – this goes against the very essence of ‘citizen democracy’ that we should have a say.

We are aware of the backlash that established mainstream parties have suffered in some of the mature democracies (Greece, Spain, US). Bottom-line, citizens are increasingly becoming impatient and aspire for politicians who can deliver.

Unfortunately, in certain countries, this anti-establishment movement is being characterised by nativism and extreme right approaches. Therefore, the only way to navigate over what can be called the age of extreme and anger is to appeal to the intelligence and sense of responsibility of citizens. Politics and investment in a new ethical political pact is a matter of urgency.

* Would you say that the mood in the country, the level of discontent with present conditions are such as to warrant a review of policies with a view to satisfying the larger public rather than private interests?

When the trust placed in the political class has been betrayed, the mood goes beyond mere discontent — it is one of contempt. The Mauritian population is intelligent and has certain expectations. When the latter are not met, there is a growing sense of frustration and citizens start interrogating the system itself.

Corruption, poverty, rising inequality and excessive consumption, detrimental to the environment, have become the order of the day. Policy and systems changes are therefore needed to review the functioning of our governance and democracy to safeguard and promote public interest whilst ensuring that citizens’ fundamental human rights are respected.

* However, despite the level of discontent of the masses with the conditions prevalent at any given time, or with the leaders/politicians who are the “representations of the national mood”, why has it proved difficult, well-nigh impossible, for alternative voices to make much headway, losing out to the mainstream parties again and again?

Alternative parties find it hard to compete with mainstream parties since the latter benefit from funding, connections, systems, which small parties do not have. In Mauritius however, a few ‘smaller’ parties have succeeded in getting elective seats at national and regional levels but this has been more the exception than the norm. Our current electoral system (First Past The Post) has contributed to a winner takes it all result.

We are still stuck with this most archaic and irrelevant electoral system, and the persistent unregulated and opaque funding of political parties are major factors explaining the absence of plurality of voices which is so essential for a true renewal.

However, there is a potential voter base for newer parties. Across the world, we see people-oriented parties gaining political leverage and gnawing at voter base of mainstream parties. The recent gains in survey polls of Emmanuel Macron, the French presidential candidate, with his ‘En Marche’ movement, along with the rise of populist parties across the world, show that the will of the people can make a big difference for alternative voices.

* What do the conversations within the MSR tell you about what’s failing us as a progressive society and why are we unable to arrest the deteriorating situation one is observing in many spheres?

Well, there is a general concern across a wide spectrum of people that we are stuck in a rut with little feel-good factor in the country. If one is to be introspective and understand the state in which we are – we will no doubt blame the crop of politicians that have used the celebratory indicators and writings (such as the Mo Ibrahim Index, WB Ease of Doing Business) to make Mauritians feel that all is rosy in paradise.

As citizens, many of us failed to question the status quo as we remained content with the politics of division as long as we got our share! So, in other words, we are reaping from the seeds that politicians have sown and who we, as citizens, have watered. The Think Tank that MSR constitutes is an open space for citizens to engage and bring about a revolution in thinking and doing. Disruptive thinking should be central to any society, which claims to be progressive.

* There is an ongoing government-driven conversation in Singapore on “what world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive?” We do not see that happening here. Are we expecting too much from governments which are completely different from the driven types obtaining in places like Singapore?

Well, despite all the strides in innovation that Singapore is known for we should not forget it is a soft authoritarian state. That said, Singapore’s impressive strides were essentially due to the vision and determination of its founding father – Lee Kuan Yew – under which Singapore thrived and continues to thrive as a merit based and affluent society.

The new leaders continued in shaping that vision to help adapt the country to new challenges. I think we should not be in a logic of expecting very little from those we elect; on the contrary, citizens must push for responsible, ethical and competent governments. This can happen when politics becomes a common good, understood and shaped by every citizen.

* So far, neither the government nor the opposition has been able to rise above the tide of internal contradictions. The present system here seems to incentivize politicians across the board to play to the gallery instead of attending to the work for which they’ve been elected. How do we force a government and the opposition to deliver instead of keeping on bickering about trivial matters, especially if voters have to wait for five years before they can express themselves?

The current politicians have been playing mostly at the centre. The game of political coalitions does not help in providing a meaningful contradiction. Citizens’ lenses focus only the electoral cycle – their vote every 5 years. They have not been trained to question and interrogate those who represent them in between two elections.

There is no culture of accountability and when this merges with a culture of impunity, you can imagine what happens. Mauritius Society Renewal will work with tools that will allow the citizen to become conscious of his or her role in the consolidation of democracy.

* How do we construct something better, more productive for the country out of this situation?

We need first to instill a vision and tackle the deep level of bad governance. For that we need more independent institutions and governance structures.

Aside from governance, our country needs more productive industries. Although we have economic growth, job creation remains a challenge. We claim that Mauritius is not competitive because of high labour cost, yet economies like France and Germany with higher labour costs still manage to sell and export their produce. We need to inspire ourselves from such countries that have maintained a strong industrial and agribusiness base despite mounting costs.

Enhanced access to employment will also help in addressing the poverty issue. It is a sad truth that despite our being a middle-income country, a high proportion of people live in poverty, the middle class is thinning down and indebtedness is exacerbating the problem.

* We put the question to Nandini Bhautoo of the UoM recently, and it’s still valid: when you look around and see the younger generation that’s coming up and aspiring to take over from the old guard, do you feel confident that they have what it takes to deeply envision and construct a better future?

Younger generation is a homogenous bloc. Some are indifferent to what’s going on. Our education system has failed large sections of Mauritian youth. Nearly 50 years of independence and the system has failed to produce independent, critical thinkers. Our diaspora have talent and a sense of service to their country but there is not much effort done to attract them.

There are however some people from the younger generation who have started initiatives that address national challenges. The platforms that they use are very different compared to the ones employed by the more conventional politicians. We are privy to younger generation’s engagements on economic and social priorities, from health to governance and democracy. The challenge that remains is that the old guard must trust and empower the younger generation and, most importantly, the old guard must be ready to hand over.

* Now that the launch is done, what are the next steps for MSR?

As mentioned earlier, MSR proposes to be action and solution driven. We are setting up some key projects that provide citizens with the necessary skills to be better informed about the polity. We shall be harnessing the power of technology and innovation to allow citizens to track the use or abuse of public resources, promote political literacy in an engaging and innovative manner as well as start to cultivate a culture of public debate, advocacy and lobby on key themes. MSR is bent on renewal through a more inclusive, ethical and just society.

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