2018 risks becoming another year of irrelevancies. But if we engage convincingly well with the outside world, it could bring a lot of benefits to the country – By M.K.
2017 proved to be a year in which the government made efforts to get back the focus lost during the preceding two years. The government budget announced measures aimed at placating the damage done through poor decisions taken – such as the clumsy mishandling of the BAI saga in 2015, unilateral rescinding of the oil supply contract of Betamax, interfering in Air Mauritius – by introducing, amongst others, the concept of a minimum wage coupled with a system of “negative income tax”. It is the direction in which to go socially, but will the measures bring back the faith with which this government had been voted to power in 2014? Nothing is less certain.
The absence of the government in the by-election of Constituency No. 18 in December this year showed that it feared to be thrashed in the election. It escaped being severely punished by voters, especially as the latest scandal spawned by Showkutally Soodhun was rolling out furiously to its detriment on social media at the time of the election. Mere damage control of this sort has put the government in a defensive posture. The government is conscious that this has to change if it wants to stay on in time to come.
Implementation of some concrete positive measures in 2018 may change the existing bad perception of the government. The question is: what are those measures and to what extent will they prove that the government has, after all, a few competent decision-makers left, despite the public perception of non-performance or even bad performance of some sitting on the benches of the government and others in the boards of public bodies? A quantum jump will be necessary to successfully demonstrate that the government can collect itself, identify issues needing to be tackled well before it is too late, and deliver tangible results to the public.
The high abstention of voters at the by-election also showed that they did not hold some of the opposition parties standing for the election in high esteem either. The public loss of confidence in the political class altogether does not augur well for future governance. It is clear that there is a public preference for doing politics otherwise than it has been done in past decades. For this to happen, political parties and politicians have to drop their old baggage and manner of doing, and present themselves in a convincing alternative set-up which prioritises the national interest above theirs.
Given this situation of stalemate, the question may be asked whether the government will continue enfeebling itself and provoke general elections in 2018 under pressure from the public. That will be the case especially if it burdens itself with more of the characteristic wrong decisions it took in the preceding two years. Or if some huge scandal erupted against any one of its prominent members, making it unbearable for it to continue in office. Both these kinds of risks are present.
2018 will mark the 50th year of independence of the country. We have struggled with the world outside to make a place for ourselves during all this time. Progress has been made. Overall, our public infrastructures are quite good, despite shortcomings in certain sectors. Nonetheless, economic transformation has taken place to keep us going. Whereas it was necessary to keep catching up with ongoing changes, both inside and outside the country, we’ve devoted too much time and attention to fix problems temporarily, as and when they arose. Thus, when the international price of sugar fell, we delved into the reserves of the Sugar Insurance Fund to subsidise planters’ revenue shortfalls, as we have not carried out the structural changes necessary against this foreseeable eventuality.
The economic model needed to be revisited in the light of international developments. It is likely that we’ll pay a price for not having done enough to overhaul and adapt it to emerging new circumstances. It’s the reason why we’ve put qualified young persons on the market without being able to gainfully employ them in sectors which promise to resist the international onslaught on our production capacity of both goods and services. Of course, transformation of this sort will take time to be in place. A single year will not suffice. 2018 could however prove to be the start of this transformative process if we want to insulate ourselves from the negative consequences of a not-very-promising international situation.
One good thing in our favour is that we have the required institutional platform to deal with issues. The main difficulty has been that of equipping public institutions with the appropriate competencies and freedom of decision-making so that they keep re-inventing themselves to match up to what is expected of them. We seem not to have learnt from past experience that undue interference with their working has made quite a few of them irrelevant, counter-productive and exposed to negative perceptions. But if that were to stop, 2018 could mark a departure to a situation in which superior collective wisdom and sharper insights will once again guide their actions to the country’s benefit.
A wise country learns from its preceding missteps so as not to repeat them to everybody’s detriment. For this to happen, politicians should rise to become true statesmen capable of inspiring all to head towards a superior goal rather than remaining stuck in the ruts of non-performance. It’s already difficult for a small island state to fight it at the international level, the more so if international waters get further muddied. If we don’t complicate matters from within, we stand a good chance of realigning our policies and ensure their pragmatic implementation, aware of the risks we face.
Mauritius has always thrived by opening up new avenues of production and interactions with outside markets. Technology is changing the nature of these interactions at high speed. Jealous of losing out their economic advantages, major countries are raising barriers to prevent others from doing business in what they consider to be their exclusive preserve. For a country like Mauritius, the real fight is at that frontier, not within. However, unless we have a cohesive internal apparatus to respond to challenges issuing from this front, 2018 risks becoming another year when we could stall into irrelevancies. But if we engage convincingly well with the outside world, 2018 could bring a lot of benefits to the country and its people. This is our sincere wish for all, including our readers who, as always, have continued to give us their unflinching support throughout the year.
* Published in print edition on 29 December 2017