“We need a new ambition of the State focused fostering social mobility and opportunities for all, enabling people to earn their own success”

Interview: Associate Professor Satish Mahadeo , UoM

‘Where have we come as a nation when we demonise and vilify a ‘vendere cotomili’…
forgetting that every ‘vendere cotomili’ in every corner of the island is worthy of respect?’

Satish Mahadeo, Associate Professor in English and Linguistics at the University of Mauritius, who has previously shared his piercing observations on the political and social scene with readers of this paper, once more comments on the recent political developments in the country and shares his opinion on future directions in politics, as well as the educational sector. He is unsparing in his views, but makes some cogent suggestions based on his experience as a concerned citizen and educationist about how we should go about shaping the political and educational future of our country.

* In a couple of weeks we are celebrating the 50th Independence anniversary of Mauritius, and there is no doubt that we are faring better today in different fields than during the time when the struggle in favour of Independence was being waged. What are your personal feelings about Mauritius at 50? Have we done reasonably well? What have we missed out?

It would be indeed intellectually dishonest for me, or for any Mauritian for that matter, to deny the fact that we have done reasonably well over the past 50 years of independence of our island. I want to feel positive about my country which has emerged from being underdeveloped and impoverished in the sixties to join the ranks of middle income countries.

But, at the same time, we cannot help comparing ourselves to Singapore, which around the same time was also an impoverished island state with no natural resources, but which today is cited all around the world as a highly advanced economy.

What we are missing out, in my opinion, is an absence of an enlightened and strong political leadership to catapult us into a “high income” country. For this to happen, we must learn the three secrets behind Singapore’s success, namely meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty.

* It is said that ‘Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.’ Do you have the feeling that we have today the men and women – and the institutions – who will steer the country in the uncertain world ahead?

With a few exceptions, the majority of our politicians join politics to make a career and not as visionaries. Very few of them have the integrity, credibility or ability to understand the hopes and fears of the electorate or simply to listen to the voices of the people. What is worse, they exercise self-deception with their logical fallacy of “Whataboutism” which refers to the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to the misdeeds of others when they were in power.

Whenever this government is accused of nepotism and corruption, they retaliate by suggesting that it was worse during the time when Navin Ramgoolam was in power. So political discourse in this country is reduced to some sort of game of comparing misdeeds, to a competition of malevolence in different regimes, forgetting that a government must be judged in itself and for its own successes and transgressions.

* Saying that we get the leaders – and the politicians — we deserve may serve the purpose of explaining away the crisis of political representation the country is presently facing. The fact of the matter is that the people do not really have the choice, do they, what with the absence of credible alternatives, the democratic dysfunctions at the level of political parties, most of which appear captured by leaders to further their political ambitions?

Several political commentators agree that democracy itself is going through a difficult time. One regime is driven out of office, followed by their opponents who fail to create a viable democratic regime.

This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. We need only turn to the USA which is known to be the greatest stronghold of democracy to see how lies and propaganda seem to be the bedrock of politics, where politicians manipulate the truth to suit their narratives.

There is no dearth of such manipulators of the truth within this government – the latest example being when our officially appointed spin doctor appears on television to manipulate statistics in order to diminish Arvin Boolell’s victory in the election, failing to understand that any story can be told with the help of numbers. This, for me, is a blatant example of Soviet style propaganda.

* The disappointment that keeps happening is that time and again the people – at least those who voice out their opinions in public, in the press and on different social media platforms — find themselves saddled with what they did not vote for, values and ethical norms that do not reflect their own or policies contrary to their interests. How do we get out of this mess and really get a new politics – “for the people”?

Plato has said: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Plato is also known to have said that if people do not take interest in the affairs of the government, then we are doomed to live under the rule of fools.

The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. This is so true of the breed of politicians who rule our lives today. Here in Mauritius we erect as icons of wisdom, as embodiments of ‘sagesse’ politicians who wallow in foul and abusive and insulting language to address their adversaries and even the electorate who has voted for them.

To answer your question, for democracy to function properly, we absolutely need a sophisticated population who does not easily succumb to the lies of politicians, and their appeal to our fears and anxieties rather than our reason and intellect. I would like to quote from a recent book written by Thomas Friedman, a well-known columnist for ‘New York Times’: “Our democracy can work only if voters know how the world works, so they are able to make intelligent policy choices and are less apt to fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots, or conspiracy buffs who may be confusing them at best or deliberately misleading them at worst.”

Hence my emphasis on the importance of a true quality education.

* Much has been said about the ‘devaluation’ of the so-called “traditional parties” by the left-wing parties and the new generation of politicians. The performance of the new breed in the present government has not been very encouraging. And though there may be a number of reasons for the record abstention at the recent by-election in Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes, voters have demonstrated that they are not yet willing to embrace new anti-established parties. What’s your take on that?

Over 45% of the electorate in the by-election in Constituency No 18 – the bulk of them consisting, according to me, of young voters – did not vote. This seems to indicate a significant decline in party identification. By party identification, we mean a deep psychological bond between a particular party and voters. Indeed, we see the main cleavage in our society as a conflict between people at large and the political elites. One explanation for this partisan “de-alignment” is the diminishing value of partisanship in contemporary politics. The factors which are salient in understanding this situation include political alienation among certain groups of the electorate, diminished trust in political institutions, and a decline in the number of voters with strong party identities and loyalties.

In times of political scandals, people’s trust and certainty are shattered. Of course, voters’ disenchantment has been exacerbated over the last three years due to various politicians’ affairs and abuses of power – some would say, driven by the media starving for sensation. If a country suffers from long lasting and chronic corruption scandals, as is the case with this government, anti-establishment parties are expected to mobilise voters and benefit from blaming the guilty party and offering new solutions.

The loss of trust in traditional politics and government is often accompanied by a weakening of the political centre. For a long period of time, there was a centre left and a centre right that alternated, typically in Europe and the UK and the USA. But with the weakening of trust in the centre, we have a situation where parties of the centre are chasing the shadows of the populist extremes in order to stay alive in politics.

In the Mauritian context, in the absence of ultra right wing parties, L’Alliance Lepep came to power in 2014, by taking populist measures such as the raise in the pension for the elderly and the removal of the penalty point system, etc. Lack of faith in traditional politics and the politics of the centre is a new fact of life, and voter apathy is an expression of that. Hence the high rate of abstention in the election in Belle Rose-Quatre-Bornes.

The status quo of strategies of the right and left will not bring back inclusive growth nor a sense of togetherness in our society. Market fundamentalism as practised in the West and copied in Mauritius has failed. But the traditional strategies of the left are not going to bring them back either (thus explaining the emergence of the ‘Beyond right and left’ ideology of Emmanuel Macron). Traditional social democracy is what has characterised the centre left. But it’s tired and is not able to rekindle hope among people. The challenge for politicians is: Who will represent those feeling politically homeless?

Around the world, populist leaders are connecting with voters fed up with politics as usual and exploiting anger against the establishment out of touch with ordinary voters. But giving voice to people’s frustration is one thing, offering the real answers is quite another. Roshi Bhadain has learned this lesson at his own expense. His repeated attacks against what he calls ‘dinosaurs’ and his campaign based on denigration and insult against adversaries who are not there to defend themselves are one of the most repugnant things that the electorate had to endure and rightly repudiated. He has failed to realise that, in the Mauritian context, a ‘dinosaur’ in politics is not defined by age, but by a state of mind characterised by an absence of enlightenment, by ignorance and arrogance.

It hurts me that we are becoming a society where we notice a deficit of compassion and a crisis of empathy, where just because some people have different views, we are bent upon stripping them of every layer of their humanity and reduce them to a label such as a ‘vendere cotomili’. I do not know Mrs Nandini Soornack, nor am I concerned about her trials and tribulations, but every Sunday when I go to the market, I do come across a young lady, with subdued eyes, as if carrying the burden of her suffering, who sells me coriander which gives so much taste to my food.

Where have we come as a nation when we demonise and vilify a ‘vendere cotomili’, forgetting that every ‘vendere cotomili’ in every corner of the island is worthy of respect? By heaping so much scorn and abuse on defenceless human beings, we are abasing ourselves, especially when we are ourselves descendants of labourers, small planters and slaves. In what way is this different from a Donald Trump who abuses immigrants from Africa as coming from ‘Shithole’ countries?

What is worse is that when such abuses of language as uttered by Roshi Bhadain – who speaks of ‘reforming’ and ‘renewal’ and introducing a new way of doing politics – were made, there was not a whiff of reaction from observers who claim to be objective and independent. Is it because notions of social class and gender and ethnicity are involved?

I am here reminded of the flowing words of Martin Luther King – who is being celebrated these days in the USA during the Black History month – when he talked of repentance. “We have to repent in this day and age not just for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and inaction of good people.”

On the other hand, enunciating high principles in politics, as the candidate Tania Diolle — one of the few candidates who impressed me by her beauty of mind and spirit – has done, does not always bring electoral success. We need new strategies and a new ethos in politics both because of the failure of market fundamentalism as well as the growing irrelevance of the traditional socialist democracy. We need new strategies to revitalise politics of the broad centre.

We need a new ambition of the state, but focused on a few critical objectives like fostering social mobility and opportunities for all, enabling people to earn their own success. What most academics seem to agree upon is the stagnation of middle class incomes and a rise in joblessness in Mauritius, especially among young persons. In the past, children had better incomes than their parents had at the same age. Now the opposite is true in many families, which proves that social mobility has slowed in our society.

* But, like in most places elsewhere, everything revolves around politics in Mauritius, and that is good reason for us to care about politics. Do you get the impression from your interactions with the University of Mauritius students that the young do not really care? If that is indeed the case, why is it so?

The pattern of youth abstention from the polls – as is evident in the recent by-election in No. 18 – has helped to create the impression that young people are not sufficiently engaged in politics. In almost every election, they are the least likely to vote, and their participation rates are continuously declining. They are less and less concerned with politics, less politically knowledgeable, and more apathetic.

It is often stated that young people harbour more negative attitudes, and less trust in the political processes. But elections are a symbol of democratic legitimacy of our country. Through elections, the system of representation is established. A politics education curriculum taught as a Humanities subject is indispensable for imparting critical thinking skills and inculcating a deep understanding of the complexities of our Mauritian society and politics in general. And the value of such an understanding has no price whatsoever.

* There is often the temptation to pin the apparent lack of political engagement of the young on our system of education, but wouldn’t that be a rather simplistic and reductionist explanation of the present state of affairs?

There may be other factors, but since I come from the world of education, it is my conviction that the system of education is partly to blame for this lack of political engagement. The value of education lies in the knowledge we have about the world we live in, and the potential we have to develop to build up more knowledge in the future, to critique existing knowledge and understand more about the world we live in.

After having worked with the young at the University for many years, I do not have the impression that a higher education is viewed in this perspective. For them, higher education is judged by what a student’s earning power is after education. People who think of education in financial terms – though it is definitely an important motivation factor in our times – are approaching education in an instrumental way. Unfortunately, universities are often seen as factories providing people with employability skills so that they can go out and seek a return for their financial investment or investment of time.

If we think that the be-all and end-all of education is solely the transfer of knowledge instead of being an exchange of ideas, of creativity, we are missing the point. We are misunderstanding the nature of education. We are misunderstanding how individuals relate to society. Albert Einstein is known to have said: “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

Students, not only at secondary level but even at the University, sit silently in seminars, they do not interact with their lecturers properly; they do not go to their lecturers during the latter’s office hours to develop their knowledge properly. In other words, they are not having the ‘community of learning’ they need to have in order to learn properly and have an understanding of their society with all its complexities. All this is connected to politics – isn’t it? – in the broad sense of the word. Therefore, the explanation is far from being simplistic and reductionist.

Let us remind ourselves of Alvin Toffler’s definition of an ‘illiterate’ man or woman: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

  Education reform: “Everything may look good on paper, but the reality is completely different on the ground”

* Another education reform concerning the primary and secondary sectors is being implemented as from this year, and a review of higher education is apparently in the pipeline. Would you say these constitute the adequate responses to the aspirations and needs of the present and future generations of Mauritians?

A review of higher education is by all means required, but we must not blindly copy what is being done elsewhere. Lately, we have been hearing about the profit motive behind university education. Indeed, major changes happening in the world are redefining the metrics of excellence for higher education. But I beg to disagree. If the only way we should judge whether a university education is worth is by what our university is earning or by a student’s earning power after his or her education, we are highly mistaken.

There is also so much craze for research in our university that we are undervaluing the importance of teaching which alone can create the ‘community of learning’ I have been referring to earlier. The University is not paying any attention to teach students properly. The young are not well trained to think because they are not taught to think. Students are just listening very passively, and are not part of the ‘community of learning’.

My main worry is that the quality of teaching and learning in universities is being impoverished. There is no dialogue. Students are reluctant or frightened to say anything. They are rebuffed by academics who are not really trained to teach. How we recruit, how we reward, how we develop teachers in their careers, how we promote them based on their performance are paramount in education. Just getting the right people for the teaching force – as is the case with Singapore and Finland – is a central challenge of our education policy.

* What’s your take on the Nine Year Schooling? Will it achieve the objectives its promoters have set in terms of, amongst others ‘equipping all students with knowledge, foundational skills and attitudes leading to an empowered 2030 citizenry, inculcating in all students a sense of moral responsibility, a set of values and a strong identity for the country, promoting the holistic development of all students’?

To achieve all these crucial objectives, don’t we need very qualified teachers? It is high time we restore the prestige and status and the ‘lettres de noblesse’ to the teaching profession. The NYS speaks of the holistic development of students. Who else than good teachers with high ethical standards themselves will be called upon to inculcate the basic values that have built this country? Who else are going to educate our children in basic moral principles and talk about the importance of character and personal integrity so lacking in many of our politicians?

* What about the issues of equity for the rural and urban, the well-off and the less well-off stakeholders, the role of public sector institutions for the provision of quality education opportunities?

Let me address the specific issue of equity in education, which implies that personal or social circumstances such as place of origin or family background are not barriers to academic achievement.

One of the central facts in education is that strategies focused on the form of egalitarianism (which implies that everyone studies at the same pace and same curriculum in every school) tend to have inegalitarian outcomes. It looks good while it lasts but, by the time children leave school, it’s very inegalitarian. Many students may leave school with nothing in their heads. This is not a good strategy for equity. So we have to be careful about the balance between differentiation and uniformity. We must be willing to differentiate so that education can be tailored to each child’s starting abilities, and their ability to follow a pace of learning that they find comfortable.

In Switzerland, at the age of 15, 70% of kids go down the vocational path. Some form of customisation is needed. It is fairer to them. They leave school with something in their heads, and with a certain self-confidence that they can go on in life. I hope that the NYS will redress the bias that parents have towards vocational training which is hugely underrated and excessively stigmatised in our culture.

* Does it also address the issues of ‘excessive competition at CPE for decent or “star” colleges, the fate of consistently high failure rates at CPE or the pervasive phenomenon of private tuition’?

Everything may look good on paper, but the reality is completely different on the ground. Knowing parents as I do, with their obsession with their children’s academic education, it will take a very long time to eliminate competition and, with it, private tuition. I will concur with your regular contributor on education, S. Callikan, in saying that “the NYS reform aggravates and extends competition” and “invites the expansion of private tuition.”

 

* Published in print edition on 19 January 2018

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