Building strong institutions: Lessons not learnt!

By TP Saran

With the exit of Prof Konrad Morgan as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, the chair of VC has declined in the quantum of the credibility and respectability that he had unobtrusively built up for that office in the course of his short tenure. He represented a quiet force that had been lacking at UOM for some time, and unless UOM promptly finds somebody of equivalent calibre to replace him, it is bound to continue on the downhill path on which it has now stepped.

In an article titled ‘The Prime Minister: Singapore comes to Mauritius’ dated 18 June 2011, which highlighted some aspects of the speech of the Prime Minister made at a forum organized by the Board of Investment and at which Lord Megnath Desai of the London School of Economics delivered an address worthy of his intellectual status, we had written as follows:

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, we could also learn from the Singaporeans how they have neutralized attempts at political interference which are the bane of our institutions and bureaucracies. We make a distinction here between meddlesome political interference and judicious political intervention on occasions when it may be required. And if we are as mature a democracy as the various indices and classifications enunciated ad lib seem 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?

‘Welcome, Singapore.’

In the wake of the still unresolved MedPoint affair, it was pointed out that one of the main lessons is probably that civil servants would now exercise more caution while carrying out instructions emanating from their ministers. Conversely, the implication is that ministers would be equally careful about forcing public officers to do things that in the final analysis they themselves would have to answer for either at ICAC or in the National Assembly. Simple common sense, one would think, to expect that their instructions (usually oral) should be implemented in accordance with the rules and regulations, to which the minister’s attention would have to be drawn if necessary so that situations that lead to MedPoint scenarios do not arise again. In fact, in doing so the public officer is ‘protecting’ the minister concerned.

Most if not all ministers, however, do not see it this way.

It is the same line of thought that impelled us to make the remarks about political intervention and political interference in the extract quoted above. But many of our representatives, loaded with diplomas and degrees as they are, know too much already. They do not feel that they need to pay heed to sound and sane voices that are intended to help them gain a perspective which would guide their steps in the direction of national interest, which they so often confuse with personal agendas – and hence the risk of going off track with the consequences that we see more often than not.

What we note is that down below here we never learn any lessons, and we keep repeating the same mistakes. No, whatever is said loudly in public is not, alas, reflected in the actions that are taken. Even if, therefore, the Singaporeans keep coming, it is likely that we will never have institutions as robust as those that exist in that island. It is a matter of deed following word. Lamentably, we remain forever louder in words than in deeds.

* Published in print edition on 27 January 2012

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