The Prime Minister: Singapore comes to Mauritius 

By TP Saran  

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Board of Investment, a two-day Mauritius International Investment Forum was held at the Intercontinental Hotel, Balaclava. It was declared open by Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam on Wednesday morning. Before that, Lord Meghnath Desai from the UK, former Professor at and then Head of the London School of Economics, had addressed the audience. As is to be expected from figures of his calibre, the latter’s speech was shorn of clichés that serve to prop the interventions of lesser brains, and was outstanding in its clarity, coherence, continuity and flow of ideas that sailed high with the wind, as it were. After all, he is Meghnath…

Back down on earth, we also sat through the prepared speeches. We heard many things that were already known and had been said before, in jargon now only too familiar. And given the recent visit of the President of Singapore, we were naturally not surprised when the Prime Minister announced that Singapore was coming to Mauritius on the highways, through a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries for a start. Further, Mauritius was going to benchmark itself against Singaporean standards, and especially as regards the water crisis, Singapore experts would be assisting Mauritius to develop an Integrated Water Management System that would ensure, amongst others, that in the years to come the country had an uninterrupted 24-hour supply of water delivered to its citizens.

We were naturally delighted to hear this, but we could not help asking ourselves why is it that we have had to wait so long for the government to take such a decision? Some time back, it would be remembered, the Prime Minister visited Singapore, and was shown to be travelling in its public transport system to judge for himself its state-of-the-art condition and efficiency. And hence the decision for a light railway system that will be coming to Mauritius too. Everybody is aware of the amount of dilly-dallying that has attended this issue of the LRT and the enormous and inordinate amount of consultancy fees that have gone to destinations known and unknown in relation to it, and the reports that have gathered dust. Could it be that there is also a publication about Integrated Water Management that is gathering dust somewhere?

In a severe tone reminiscent of that which preceded the exit of a head of a parastatal institution earlier, the Prime Minister warned that lame-duck parastatals had better be on their guard because he was not going to tolerate those who wallowed in ‘satisfactory underperformance,’ quoting the source of this expression. This warning was greeted with hardly-muted applause by the investors and businessmen present, who were already on a high after the Minister of Finance Pravind Jugnauth had lashed out at ‘pointless bureaucratic procedures.’

Continuing, the Prime Minister said that he did not want a list of excuses to justify underperformance: he wanted results, and what mattered for him was results-oriented performance, again an expression often utilized in management circles. All this was in the context of the setting up, at the level of the Prime Minister’s Office, of a ‘high level structure’ that would monitor the implementation of government’s policies.

While agreeing fully with this downstream measure, we feel that the country would benefit even more from having an upstream one: namely, a robust institutionalized mechanism to critically and constructively advise the government on the right policies that it must pursue. That is a glaring gap in Mauritian governance that no government in the past couple of decades has given due attention to. We elaborated on this in our article of last week, pointing out at the same time that because of this lacuna the government exposed itself to allegations of malfeasance if not scandals.

Singapore also has a bureaucracy. Perhaps we must take the opportunity of the Singapore presence to have an evaluation of ours carried out, identifying the weaknesses and making recommendations? And perhaps too, the same high-level structure that the Prime Minister has alluded to could oversee the implementation of these recommendations to the letter?

And, further, we could learn some lessons from Singapore about the functional autonomy of institutions, which the Prime Minister mentioned too, institution building apparently being a favourite theme of his. And since we are about it, the Singaporeans could be invited to tell us how they have neutralized attempts at political interference which are the bane of our local institutions and bureaucracies. We make a distinction here between meddlesome political interference and judicious political intervention on occasions when this may be required. And if we are as mature a democracy as the various indices and rankings enunciated ad lib seemed to indicate, then such interventions and occasions ought to be fewer and fewer.

Why were not the ministers previously responsible for the water and transport dossiers as proactive as the Prime Minister? Is there a case here for an equally structured monitoring and evaluation of ministerial performance? For example, is it sufficient for ministers to focus on the input side, that is, populist measures and stances with wide media coverage? Or should they too be benchmarked according to how they go about facilitating the development of strategy and the formulation of policy in their respective ministries, and what transparent mechanisms they help set in place to oversee implementation? Whether and how they motivate their staff to give the best of themselves, inspiring them towards excellence rather than haranguing them into apparent submission and hence demotivation? Whether it is really necessary for some to badmouth and be uncouth, to ride their egos and exhibit their bombast, rather than display some degree of culture and empathy in their dealings with personnel whatever be the level or grade of the latter? Whether, in other words, they are true or pseudo-leaders of people under their watch. There must some measure of ministerial ineptitude?

And then, coming to the ‘people on top who do not deliver,’ surely this must begin by putting the right people in the right places? Will the day ever come when we stop appointing people, especially in acting positions, for political convenience instead of any competence or special skills they may possess? If we did a headcount of the number of such people currently in post, we should not be surprised that we are falling below par on expected results. And here again, perhaps we may learn from Singapore how to select the right people to put on top of organisations and institutions?

Welcome, Singapore.

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2011

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