One case of Chikungunya does not make history!

By TP Saran

 In Singapore, that is. And that is why, among other reasons, Mauritius will never become Singapore. What do you expect in and of a country where distortion of news and strategic disinformation are the norm in some quarters with a clear agenda to paint everything in black?

Is it any wonder that many bright – and not necessarily in the academic field — young Mauritians who find opportunities elsewhere after completing their studies there are not at all inclined to return to their country?

Will one case of chikungunya occupy the front page as a headline in Singapore? The answer is a plain no, because the degree of maturity and training of Singaporeans will not allow them to go down to such cheap levels. Especially after knowing that their country is more than well-equipped to cope with these diseases.

In fact, this is so in Mauritius too. We learn from official sources that the last case of chikungunya acquired locally was in August 2006. After that, whereas our neighbour Reunion island – which is a part of and is as developed as France — has had local recurrences of chikungunya every year, in Mauritius all the measures taken have been so successful that the few reported cases have all been imported, including the latest one of a lady who had travelled to India. This is the situation as regards dengue fever too – in Singapore and Malaysia it is endemic, and they don’t make a fuss or history out of it! And of course everybody knows that there is no more any indigenous malaria in Mauritius.

All this information was shared repeatedly in the dozens of press conferences that have been held since, first, the outbreak of chikungunya in 2005 and then during the episode of the AH1N1 pandemic influenza last year. The population was reassured that the health authorities in Mauritius were fully prepared to cope with any surge of these diseases, what with the willing collaboration of multiple other sectors that were concerned e.g. tourism, local government, education, etc. And the result was seen in practice. There were some deaths no doubt, but they did not exceed in proportion what was happening in other places where the pandemic had struck, even in advanced countries of Europe and in North America.

And that is what is so unpatriotic about the wickedness of the propagandist approach adopted by some blockheads, meant clearly to create panic among people when, equally clearly, everything goes to show that the situation is well under control. So it’s not only bureaucratic heavy-handedness that prevents us from matching Singaporean standards. However, the Prime Minister is right in pinpointing this element as a significant one in retarding us on many fronts, though it may not be the most important.

Singapore is corruption-free, and meritocracy prevails. We are no doubt trying hard here, but political interference, and communal, ethnic and racial considerations to varying degrees still come into play in many decisions. And this is where, as the editorial in last week’s issue of this paper underlines, we need the ‘right sort of leadership’ all the time and at all levels. Ask any civil servant at high level in Mauritius what sort of pressure can be brought to bear, even accompanied by hardly-veiled threats at times, in certain matters, and then we will get a truer picture of how difficult is the environment and atmosphere within which the civil service functions.

It is good that the Prime Minister himself realizes this, because we do not believe that changing to a presidential system will necessarily improve matters, at least at certain levels of functioning. Because it does not follow that there will be an equivalent transformation of practice or mindset. For example, do all the decisions of a statutorily constituted board in any ministry have to be approved by the minister, save those which are provided for in the act governing the board, or those where the board seeks such approval for reasons that it clearly spells out to the minister? And yet, in a number of ministries, this is imposed, to the detriment of the country in terms of general governance, and of course to those which the decisions concern in case the minister decides to go against the board’s decision – although there are limits to this exercise of power on his part. Thankfully – never mind that he can throw a tantrum if he is gently but forcefully reminded of this.

But thank goodness that there also boards of which we are aware that they will not allow any hanky-panky, in spite of being forced to review decisions without, as is to be expected, any new substantive element being submitted as justifying such request. This is where we are convinced that the present system itself can be strengthened, if only the right signal is firmly sent from the top to everybody concerned that statutory boards and similar structures must be allowed to carry on with their work without any meddling whatsoever. And there must be some mechanism whereby information about any such attempts reaches the highest level so that the corrective action can be taken immediately.

Transfers, selections for training or attendances at local or overseas forums are other examples where inappropriate coercive influence is quite regularly resorted to. There are even instances where after candidates have already been chosen for a course by due process, ‘instructions’ are received to take in or substitute X or Y. Needless to say, neither X nor Y will have the required entry profile – and in the first place this is the very reason for them to try to get in by the political backdoor. And their intermediary will glibly pontificate – in public, so as to market their spurious credibility — about defending the national interest. The result is that the deserving are left out and, where this applies, those who could have learnt valuable lessons elsewhere, and help to bring them back home and try to adapt them in the local context so that we can make progress, are denied the opportunity of doing so. Again, it is the country and the people at large that are the losers.

We are not so stupid as not to appreciate that effective information for decision-making can come from both formal and informal sources, and that sometimes the latter can be quite potent. But it is also a fact that a decision-maker, especially at policy and strategy levels, may not necessarily be in a position – often because of the highly technical nature of a subject – to make a reasonable or objective judgement about how to act on the information or idea that is received from a source outside the established and legitimate governing structure.

In that case, the commonsensical thing to do is to have it tabled and debated openly by those who know better about the additional aspects that need to be taken on board — such as funding or benefits and system-wide impact — and accept in good faith whatever conclusion or recommendation comes forth. Instead, more often than not the latter are met with stubbornness and an attitude of ‘it is I and I only who decide here, understood!’ – except that, when it comes to taking the responsibility for the consequences of the decision, that person will then squarely refuse to do so, and pass it on to subordinate officers who have been forced to waste resources and energy on some matter of no immediacy or relevance. Again, this is where within the existing structure, firm directives and guidance can rein in tendencies to push self or vested interests that are inimical to the public good.

Another example of bureaucratic muddle is when certain officers insist on chairing meetings where the issues to be discussed lie entirely outside their understanding, not to say competence. These are the typical archaic, fossilized bureaucrats whose tribe should go diminishing. Their main aim in trying to impose their presence is to show who is the boss, to hell with the matter at hand that needs to be analysed professionally under the guidance and oversight of a higher professional. How then can we expect things to move ahead?

On the other hand, it must also be remembered that the country operates within the limits of the jurisdiction in place, and decisions taken must respect the laws of the land. If the legislator wants newer developments to take place, then the appropriate legislation must perforce be established so as to meet the requirements of the sector concerned. Even the most compliant bureaucrat will not – and must not – bend the rules to accommodate requests that are not receivable, and the hierarchical superior must clearly understand that constraint so as not to clash unnecessarily or to expect that what cannot be done should be done somehow. Again, it is a question of accountability, and who is prepared to assume responsibility in law?

Because, in the ultimate analysis, this is what guarantees the integrity of the polity and projects the image of the country and, by extension, that of its leadership. Do the leaders appreciate this truism?

Given that human nature is vulnerable, and it is not easy to get committed, sincere and strong-willed people who can resist temptations or unbecoming pressures, one must aim to build robust systems, and constantly hone them so that they remain inviolable.

But this takes time, and we recognize the will to effect change for the better. For a start, however, let us keep, or get, the better people with established track records in command!


* Published in print edition on 8 October 2010

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