“What the country needs is a general election; the sooner, the better!”

Interview: Manou Bheenick – Former Finance minister & governor of BOM

* ‘You cannot spin your way out of the mess you’ve landed the country in. Flogging a dead horse doesn’t bring it back to life’

* ‘With the gathering storm — an economic one, certainly, but also a social and political one, we should, by now, have hoisted up a Class IV Warning flag on Government House’

Former minister of finance and governor of the bank of mauritius Bheenick gives us a blow-by-blow account of the happenings on the covid front, the dysfunctions of the economy which he thinks will continue to plummet, the need for a credible alternative with a dedicated leader who will perhaps revive a ‘mauritian exceptionalism’. Tall order, but this is the only way out…

Mauritius Times: With a number of Covid vaccines in the pipeline and mass vaccination likely to start shortly, we should be out of the woods soon once the world economy gets back on its feet. Would you nevertheless be still worried about our economy?

Oh, how I wish I could’ve subscribed to such a rosy view of how things will pan out from here onwards! Unfortunately, the reality is likely to be quite different, definitely more nuanced, certainly more protracted, and quite possibly much more complicated than we can even imagine at this stage.

And this, on both the sanitary and economic fronts.

First, the sanitary question.

Of course, we have every reason to be happy that — despite the insidious and ill-inspired Trumpian sabotage of global trading/exchange/security arrangements, including targeted attacks on specific international institutions — our global governance system showed remarkable resilience in not only warding off these attacks from its biggest player but also in rising to the challenge in what is an historically unprecedented manner.

Yes, the first vaccine is here and being rolled out. Other vaccines are following hard on its heels. The speed with which they have moved from the laboratory stage to regulatory approval is simply mind-boggling. Bravo, we’ve saved the world, we’ve saved humanity! But, pray tell me, why haven’t we shown similar celerity with age-old diseases plaguing livelihoods in poorer countries such as malaria, to name only one? Could it be that we value human lives differently, depending on ethnicity, geography, relative wealth and power?

 In the same line of thought, does not access to vaccines, and their affordability, risk tearing the world apart between rich countries and poor ones? India, not the richest of countries, has just launched the biggest global immunisation campaign ever as it simultaneously announced its readiness to supply its vaccines to its South Asian neighbours. Can we expect a similar response from the richer countries?

And, overshadowing all this, the vaccine story isn’t straightforward either. Fast-tracking the entire process — from development/ testing/ regulatory approvals to actual rollout and widespread inoculation — justified as it probably is, raises legitimate safety and efficacy concerns and risks igniting fears that may reduce vaccine take-up.

The long list of restrictions accompanying the first vaccines, and the unprecedented immunity from prosecution extended by the UK government to the vaccine producer, are far from reassuring. To say nothing of vaccine-sceptics, arguing that there are suitable public domain therapies available, that Covid-19 has a mortality rate of 0.05 percent or some similar insignificant incidence.

And the virus is mutating and striking back with a more virulent variant forcing several European countries, starting with the UK, into another round of lockdown, raising fears of continued vaccine efficacy and re-infection risks. No, we haven’t seen the last of Covid-19 yet.

* What about the economic fallout? Will it long outlive the health crisis?

I’m coming to that. Let’s take a cursory look at the economic landscape.

The pre-Covid global economy has been brought crashing down. International trade has been decimated. Global supply chains, which were at the heart of our production/transformation/transportation/assembly/warehousing/distribution/consumption model — in which our economy had found its niche — suffered a near-total disruption. Some major sectors of activity, e.g. international travel/tourism/conventions/hospitality, and the satellite activities gravitating around them, came to a complete standstill. Major airlines have gone belly-up, to say nothing of the minnow that was Air Mauritius. Venerable high-street retail giants downed shutters, possibly never to open again. Shopping malls have gone bust.

As populations across the world developed ways to cope with the Covid sanitary regimen, including social distancing and lockdowns, online marketing, remote working, e-distribution, telemedicine and similar contactless channels — which, barring some exceptions, were earlier struggling to get much of a toehold — suddenly developed traction as they ramped up their act and emerged as major players in their respective areas.

Given the sheer extent of the economic disruption which Covid has brought in its wake, it would be extremely foolhardy to expect that all this will completely blow over in, say, six months, when the storm clouds overhanging the global economy will have lifted, the sky will be blue, and the global economy will just snap back like an overstretched elastic band to where it was before, and we’ll be well on our way to economic heaven in a Mauritius choc-a-bloc with tourists, a hive of activity in the offshore service sector, EPZ factories running machines red-hot to cope with brimming order books, with jobs galore and rising incomes…

Just try to visualise such an outcome here in Mauritius — and, additionally, pencil in the approximate contours of the rest of the world that would be necessary to generate such a felicitous outcome for our fellow-citizens, and that too within such a short time-frame — and you will realise how implausible such a scenario is!

Recent economic history doesn’t lend much support for such quick snapbacks. On many reckonings, the world hadn’t yet fully recovered from the 2007/08 financial crisis before being hit, ten years later, by Covid-19.

More arguably, the Great Depression of the 1930s — actually tracing its origins to much earlier with the Treaty of Versailles which marked the end of World War I — was not finally licked until after the Korean War in the early 1950s and the subsequent commodities boom.

If we see these two crises as constituting a spectrum, I would be inclined to place the Covid crisis, in view of its multi-dimensional nature, as closer to the Great Depression. This is not to say that we’ll require three decades for the global economy to recover – after all, the vaccine was developed within a year, piggybacking on an attack of vaccine nationalism! But it argues very strongly against banking on a quick recovery.

I would therefore urge my fellow-compatriots to be on their best behaviour as global citizens and pray earnestly for an early global recovery while maintaining our economy in full readiness to catch the rising tide which will surely follow in its wake. But, do remember, a rising tide lifts all boats, not just ours — and, most definitely, not ours if in the meantime we have negligently allowed our frail craft to fall in the wrong hands, spring a few leaks, go off-course, and head for the rocks, with the captain asleep at the wheel!

* In these circumstances, the temptation for any government that is facing the heat from all sides would be to shun drastic but necessary economic measures and instead stick to populist economics. Do you see that happening here?

This temptation would, of course, be quite understandable for a government like ours which believes – and which has led its fawning electorate to buy this crap, not once but twice – that it holds some secret esoteric key to economic success, complete with magic wand, gold investment… abracadabra!

It seems to believe it could suspend the laws of economics. It spent on consumption, with little regard for production. It jacked up expenditure but neglected to mobilise the required revenues. It mistook lumpy prestige projects for productive investment. White elephants, once rare, have sprung up on the skyline on its watch.

Before Covid-19 struck, the sheer bankruptcy of such clueless financial and economic management must have become apparent even to the most obtuse managers. The first overt sign was the raid the government perpetrated on central bank reserves. It did this under a blue sky when a more prudent and sustainable fiscal stance would have been the more mature and responsible option. This daylight robbery served to paper over the cracks in government finances.

When, soon after, Covid struck, and the economy hiccupped and stumbled, it was obvious to one and all that we were swimming naked. More raids on the central bank followed…This time, though, the Covid emergency provides some justification for such resort.

But there’s no justification to be found there for the quantum explosion of public procurement corruption, given such a terrific boost by the enabling environment of Covid-related emergency procurement. This made it to the law books without the barest minimum transparency and reporting safeguards that could have been expected. Hardware dealers turned into medical suppliers overnight!

An even bigger public procurement scandal had earlier led to the dismissal of the Deputy Prime Minister. Public officers involved in emergency procurement were soon jumping off cliffs on the coast and from office towers in town. It’s not yet clear whether these were “assisted suicides” or deaths of despair.

No, this is clearly not a government with the mettle to embrace the deep restructuring and thorough-going reform called for by the disastrous situation to which it has led the country by its curious economic management and policy stance which, to me, is strongly reminiscent of early Peronism, with strong overtones of Pinochet.

* What’s curious about the government’s economic management?

I say “curious” because I cannot find a better way to qualify this government’s strange blend of ill-inspired, institution-corroding, short-sighted, self-serving policies and practices, allied with a very timorous approach to anything that may have a negative fallout on its popularity rating.

That said, I hasten to add that I don’t see populism continuing, either, as the kitty is bare and unable to support the continuation of populist policies. The more likely outcome is that we’ll soon be calling in the receivers, unless the government is cornered into recognizing its inability to hang on, throws in the towel, and calls an early election.

The receivers for countries are not the big-name accounting firms and, for us here, not the well-known corporate undertakers who seem to have landed all such commissions in the country since the regime change of 2014. The receivers I’m referring to is the International Monetary Fund. We have now become a suitable case for treatment and qualify for the sick bay at the IMF.

* If the financial situation is therefore as bad as you are saying and there is no indication as to when the uncertainties that have hit the global economy will go away, it’s not going to be plain sailing for the Finance minister for the next few years or whoever takes over under a new dispensation, isn’t it?

Forget any notion of plain sailing! That is simply not on the cards for any country at this juncture. When your roof is leaking, as a good paterfamilias you would use any spell of clement weather to fix it, wouldn’t you? Think of the benign conditions during 2015-2019.

If, when the leaks multiply and the structure starts wobbling, you still prefer to spend your entire family savings, the legacy of previous generations, and whatever you can borrow from your friends, on unproductive and poor investments, conspicuous consumption, and a lavish lifestyle, while showering your supporters with gifts à gogo, etc, you should be the last person to envisage a plain-sailing future when the storm is upon you and, additionally, your roof risks blowing away, shouldn’t you?

Stop bamboozling the people with the current numbing narrative which is piped round the clock on the various channels of the state-owned broadcaster, turned régime propagandists to make a Goebbels proud: Trust us! We have everything in hand! Big Brother is riding to our rescue! Trust us! We know what we’re doing! Bright days are just round the corner… You cannot spin your way out of the mess you’ve landed the country in. Flogging a dead horse doesn’t bring it back to life.

We should begin to prepare our people for the worst. We’ve been doing it so well for years when faced with a menacing tropical cyclone heading our way.

I see severe economic dislocation ahead as the global economy attempts a post-Covid reset, and brings some system change to the architecture of global business and the piping underlying it. None of that will be plain-sailing. I fear we are in for a very bumpy ride ahead. And this, irrespective of who actually has his hands on the tiller.

Going into this crisis, our generation has been particularly unlucky. We have suffered the double-misfortune of experiencing the biggest global crisis since World War II, and we have done so under the worst possible circumstances imaginable — saddled, as we already were, with the most undemocratic, most befuddled, and most economically illiterate government that ever-occupied Government House in Mauritius.

With the gathering storm — an economic one, certainly, but also a social and political one, with the latter dangerously amplified by the regime for base party-political purposes — we should, by now, have hoisted up a Class IV Warning flag on Government House.

* Regime change hasn’t always proved to be a good idea, isn’t it?

Indeed, but in the present circumstances a safe pair of hands can make all the difference in handling the socio-political crisis which is in the offing. The ominous portents are around us.

Starting with the relatively benign, racist jokes have become standard fare in staff canteens or festive gatherings in top ten companies with, regrettably, little diversity in their workplace or boardroom. Ethnic slurs and racial abuse flare up on social media, spreading venom, with increasing frequency. We are seeing lynch squads taking the law unto their own hands and going on the rampage in broad daylight to tackle flagrant transgressors.

The law and order system, seemingly oblivious to the danger, fails to make much of a dent on the widening ethnic divide.

Yes, we badly need change. Yes, we need a safe pair of hands.

* If you think the economy might get worse the longer this government remains in power, it might nevertheless be too early to suggest that its days are numbered. That would be wishful thinking because it still commands a comfortable parliamentary majority, doesn’t it?

Every single day that this regime stays in power is a day too many! A born-and-bred democrat would have seen the writing on the wall and given the country what it needs to reset it on a new trajectory, under new management, to give it the social peace, the harmony, and the serenity required to engineer and implement a new strategy for our economic salvation in the post-Covid world.

What the country needs is a general election; the sooner, the better!

The Opposition plays a crucial role in the proper functioning of any Westminster-style democracy, with a first-past-the-post system of electing parliamentarians as we do. Other types of democracies have their own safeguards. Irrespective of opposition numbers, our unicameral system is critically dependent on Speaker impartiality, as there is no other avenue for legislative redress against the excesses of the government side other than the problematic recourse to our slow-moving and apparently overloaded court system.

It is certainly not the first time that a government commands such a large majority in our country. We’ve known more overwhelming ones before. Remember the 60- 0 of 1982, the 57- 3 of 1991, and the 60-0 of 1995. Do you recall any previous instance of such Speaker partisanship and Opposition harassment as what has emerged as the norm since 2015?

The democratic credentials of those who are now calling the shots, and producing such sorry outcomes, are nothing to write home about. Others, individuals and institutions, also share some of the responsibility for pushing us on this downward slide.

The various electoral petitions, questioning the very legitimacy of the regime and alleging electoral fraud, are now, one year later, still wending their way through the judicial maze, making many of us wish for a Constitutional Court whose need had never been felt in the preceding half a century.

By way of comparison, when France was in a comparable fix, with the government majority steamrollering the opposition in parliament, and abusing the system, it was the Judiciary that stepped smartly into the breach and remedied the conjunctural weakness to hold ministers accountable, actually sending some to prison! Government ministers grumbled about the judiciarisation de l’Executif, but the public interest was admirably served. Judicial activism has also occasionally filled a legislative vacuum in other countries, including the largest democracy of all, India.

* Why is it that a system that worked so well, for so long, has now failed so miserably?

I venture to suggest that the answer lies in the quality of the human resources in play.

Our first generation of political leaders, forged in the crucible of the struggle for independence, had a much better understanding of the psyche of the nation en devenir: they understood that, for democracy to work in our plural country, it required a supreme form of political generosity: political inclusiveness. This was the recognition by the winners, the “ins” of the rights of the “outs”.

To me, this was the unwritten clause in our Constitution. And all our travails since 2015 trace their origin to the new brigade, hungering for power and unencumbered by any deep democratic convictions, openly flouting the essence of political inclusiveness while paying lip-service to its compulsory outward form as defined in the legislation.

* Fine, but the question that usually came up in the daily chatter of many Mauritians for a long time had been: ‘What’s the alternative?’ Now it would seem people have moved on to asking: ‘Who will lead that alternative?’ Crucial question, isn’t it?

Indeed, it is! But we have a more fundamental question that has now sprung to the forefront. It underlines the pertinence of the other questions and gives them added urgency. And that is the question provoked by the massive deployment of army materiel, tanks, armoured vehicles, riot police, rooftop snipers, etc — the likes of which has never been seen since the pre-independence riots of the mid-1960s — and the brutal treatment of some unarmed citizens questioning this military restraint on their freedom of movement.

Many questions, actually. Was this quasi-military mobilisation and show of military might — with additional hardware and equipment on standby, ready to intervene, parked less than a kilometre away — was all this just protection for a minister on his way to court?

Or was it actually to intimidate the judiciary itself by not only surrounding the courthouse but also, apparently, stuffing the courtroom with plainclothes police to keep press and public out?

Or was it in fact a trial run of how to intimidate and muzzle a peaceful people in a disguised attempt to put the lid on the incipient revolt rumbling across the country? A psychological war-game against the population, perhaps? Could it have been a Machiavellian attempt to provoke the people…?

We begin to have real fears for our democracy.

What’s the alternative? Who will lead it? Very important questions, no doubt, but the first one is easily answered for any right-thinking individual: Anybody else but the current gang!

This gang has

(1) played hard and fast with our democracy, and yet to answer allegations of votes buying and electoral fraud,
(2) practised an extreme form of nepotism,
(3) disembowelled regulatory bodies across all sectors,
(4) hollowed out parastatal bodies,
(5) parasitized state-owned enterprises,
(6) battened on questionable public procurement practices, including Covid-19 emergency procurement mechanisms,
(7) stifled parliamentary debate,
(8) undermined the freedom of the press and persecuted a private broadcaster

 …and the list goes on and on. With such an eloquent palmarès, they richly deserve the Order of the Boot!

An electoral system that produces such results obviously needs deep reform, as indeed does the Constitution itself with many of its glaring weaknesses actually revealed by the unprincipled actions of the current gang!

Our constitution resisted change because it proved difficult to rally a sufficient majority behind any proposed changes, with some clauses further entrenched by requiring a three-quarters majority for any amendment. Change is now long overdue.

* The question of leadership remains unanswered to this day, even within the so-called ‘l’Entente’. That needs to be addressed – the sooner, the better, isn’t it?

We need a leader who can inspire and lead the burgeoning common front of all opposition parties, lead it to victory, and commit with nothing less than a missionary zeal to a program of strong political and economic reforms. He must be supported by a like-minded team of competent individuals, with complementary skills and high integrity, and willing to put country above self.

They must all share the same sense of mission to remedy the weaknesses in the political framework — including the Constitution, the judiciary, and the police — and to carry through the economic and social reforms necessary to build the new post-Covid economy.

They must not shy away from the substantial re-engineering that is required to bring our approach in so many areas up to best practice, and set our country back on the road to social peace and economic prosperity.

The time has come to reinvent the Mauritian exceptionalism that was once our trademark but fell victim to exceptional mismanagement, and has now become a fast-fading memory.

One of the many lessons we can draw from the previous general election is that we have been in too much of a hurry to write off the old guard. Our political and social stability is paying the price, as is our economy which has nose-dived since. There is a need for continuity to repair the damage suffered and rebuild confidence. If we love our country, we should not give in again to the siren calls of untried and untested political adventurers.

The old guard is admittedly showing signs of wear and tear. But there’s life in the old dog yet, as one would say. If they could only rejuvenate their team, restructure their parties, don the new garb of nation-savers, and reinvent themselves, they could well provide the providential safe pair of hands we are searching for. Especially, if they give an advance indication of their intention to step down within a given timeframe and put in place full handover arrangements.

Let me end with a quick recap of recent Malaysian political experience, which has interesting parallels with our present situation. A 93-year old Tun Dr Mahathir came out of his 15-year retirement, to fight and win an election, standing with former rivals and a rejuvenated team against his own former party, when his country was engulfed in a monumental financial and political scandal involving the Prime Minister himself with, inter alia, a film-financing scam, a murder, unexplained wealth, etc.

Dr M was reinstalled as Prime Minister of Malaysia to provide the missing gravitas and stability, and bring the outgoing Prime Minister, Najib Razak, to justice. Najib — who happens to be the son of the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak — has been sentenced to 12 years’ jail in the first of many corruption trials in which he’s embroiled. Razak’s wife is facing a string of corruption trials as well.

All this to say that our venerable politicians have a role to play to steer us out of the current mess to safer ground. Which one will lead? The answer can only be provided by the leadership contestants themselves, no doubt still jockeying for position with their party-political machines, or we’d have gleaned some indications already.

There can be no leader without followers. The real test will come at the polls when the party-political leader who can rally most followers, also known as voters, will emerge as the country’s leader. And we hope and pray that the alliance-in-the-making will make the right choice of leader to lead it into battle, and that an enlightened, now hopefully much wiser, electorate will rally behind him. Or her.

* Published in print edition on 15 January 2021

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