By TP Saran
The saga of Infinity BPO, captured poignantly perhaps by the image of its workers staging a demonstration outside the imposing building that houses the company, is illustrative of many issues that we have not ceased to flag in these columns, and that have to do, fundamentally, with the way this country is governed. However much we pride ourselves in being an example of democracy worthy of emulation in the rest of the geographical region to which we belong – Sub Saharan Africa – and which is cited by no less than leaders of the African continent, and enhanced, we shout loudly, through the recognition granted by the Ibrahim Index (for whatever it is worth, we must add), the fact remains that there are deficiencies in our governance pattern that make us fall short of democratic functioning at its best.
We may rightly ask the question: is democracy an ideal towards which we can only creep or, if our politicians are sincere enough, speed towards? Meaning, establishing democracy at its best can only ever be an ongoing struggle. Which would also be fine – provided that there were demonstrable evidence that all of us, especially those who decide our destiny at the highest levels of the polity, are actually engaged in that process of continuous fine-tuning.
But unfortunately the evidence for the latter is not too forthcoming.
In the case of Infinity BPO, here was Jean Suzanne, a hero who, according to reports that appeared in the media at the time, was brought in because of his reputed competence and attainment in a very competitive sector in France, where he had made his mark. Official declarations at the time align with political correctness, in the sense that it was felt that his appointment to the higher spheres would position him as a role model for his compatriots of similar origins, besides acknowledgement of the starry rise of a son of the soil.
Fair enough, but now we have a fairy tale that has spun out of romance, and given the slide to the hundreds of millions advanced by an over-generous government during the rise and rise of both Infinity and its icon Jean Suzanne. From the Aston Martin (at Rs 8 million?), to the watch at a pittance (Rs 900, 000), to the sojourns in luxury hotels, to the frottement with the high and mighty: who would not be proud of a Mauritian who has been able to achieve so much at such a relatively young age and coming from a humble background? Role model indeed – as it appeared then.
Beneath all this glamour, though, were simmering the inconsistencies in the management of the call centre that had shown so much of promise to so many when it was launched with an inordinate amount of hype, verging on euphoria. The latter are now opening up with their versions of alleged biased recruitment practices, employees who did not receive a cent in December and thus could not make ends meet – not to speak of participating like others such as their boss in the Christmas and New Year festivities (surely a most legitimate aspiration?) – and the general atmosphere of betrayal, with echoes of alleged siphoning of moneys to St Elsewhere. But why should the employees, who had earned their due, be made to pay for the swashbuckling of their employer(s)?
That is a matter that will have to be determined perhaps by a court of law, but of equal interest to us is the presence of Jean Suzanne as Special Adviser at the PMO. We have never hidden our skepticism about the need for sundry advisers in various ministries. We maintain our serious doubts about their role(s), and we can state without batting an eyelid that most of them are wasting public money. Or, even if they are not remunerated, misguiding the leadership. We recall that many years ago, a very senior minister brandished to the executives of a union who had come to meet him a copy of the ‘relevant section of the Constitution’ which authorized him to recruit special advisers that would dilapidate precious taxpayers’ money. Down the line, when the time for tally came, what was the output of these advisers? Zero plombage, as we say so colourfully here.
In like manner, it would perhaps be worth the while for the Mauritian public to be informed of what signal contribution has been made to the IT sector – and we are talking of a transformative one, thanks to the input of such special advisers? We would be the first to salute those advisers if we became aware of their magnanimous input.
And we have a related case that is making the news: Medpoint. It would also be of great interest to know whether there was any equally transformative input by any adviser currently attached to the Ministry of Health and some other ministries. If there has been none, then why does the country need additional advisers at all?
We do not intend to be prescriptive, but since there is constant reference to the Singapore model, why then do we not look in that direction for their governance practices so that the consequences of our own, inadequate ones do not keep boomeranging back at us? Last year, this paper published an article showing how Singapore selects eventual political candidates for election by a rigorous, quasi-academic/corporate mechanism that grilled potential aspirants through a two- (or three-) step process that made sure they knew they would be accountable – and be liable – to the State and the people of Singapore. Perhaps it is time to really emulate the Singapore model instead of keeping talking about it, starting with advisers before, at a later stage, applying the same assessment matrix to political hopefuls?
Particularly in the case of the PMO, given the willingness of the Prime minister to attract the best and brightest Mauritians or other nationals to help out the country, individuals who get a chance to get up close to him may exploit this situation and ‘market’ themselves without revealing their entire profile. Hence the need for greater caution and tighter scrutiny, as the case under reference is amply demonstrating.
It is still not too late to set up a high-level entity to grill the currently serving advisers and sift the wheat from the chaff. Do we genuinely, sincerely want this country to get out of the beaten track? That is the question for the future…
* Published in print edition on 11 February 2011