Are we heading towards failure?

It cannot be denied that there is palpable tension in the air, and pessimism, why, even loss of hope for the future of the country

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The long shadow that Covid-19 is still casting on us, the massive drug hauls that are taking place with no end in sight to the problem, the many brutal events that are erupting on the national scene on an almost daily basis, the fact that we figure on black lists and are being downgraded on global indices – so many negativities that can no doubt explain the justifiable sense of despondency that is being felt around. It cannot be denied that there is palpable tension in the air, and pessimism, why, even loss of hope for the future of the country has taken hold across a large section of the people.

Lee Kuan Yew. Pic –

We have to ask ourselves why is that so, and what should be done to lift up our spirit to restore some hope for a better future, however much the current scenarios may be giving us reason to despair rather. ‘History teaches us failure can happen if one cannot think of failing’ – this line from ‘Has China Won?,’ a book by Kishore Mahbubani – the Singaporean thinker, diplomat and founder dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public policy- set me thinking, and sent me back to some earlier material in my collection that from time to time I revisit to learn lessons from.

We fail because we keep repeating the same mistakes that we have made. It is said that experience is not repeating the same mistake twice. In medicine we say, you can have 20 years of one year’s experience (that is the year of your internship) or 20 years (or more of course) of experience in practice. The implication is that you have kept learning as you went along, and not repeated earlier mistakes you may have made. We all do. That is not the problem. To not learn from them is the problem. And when one is in a position of great responsibility, the impact is widespread.

In one of the cuttings of about 10 years ago I read: ‘Some analysts have been drawing attention to the prevailing perception of a lack of moral leadership in the country, that the country is being run like a clan with an undisputed chief to whom all must vow obedience for fear of being sidelined and, amongst other things, that there are abusive practices being resorted to in the administration of the country.’

Around the same time, a senior minister (who is currently minister again) in an interview in a newspaper had commented that ‘nos institutions sont faibles et vulnérables. Elles ne sont pas dirigées par des personnes choisies sur la base des compétences et sont perméables aux influences politiques.’

Has anything changed? And will things change? This is where we must learn from others who have been at the helm of their successfully-run countries, and to me late Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew is that model to inspire. There is plenty to gain in ‘From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965 – 2000’, written by no less than the very person who was the central character of that story, Lee Kuan Yew. Being given that we have been saying that we want Mauritius to become the Singapore of the Indian Ocean, I thought that this first-hand account by the internationally respected leader of such a tiny country but great nation could contain some gems of lessons of relevance to our own future.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I am saying is to quote some extracts, so that we get the flavour of the book and insights into the vision and character of the persona in his own words. It may be noted that the italics in these quotations are added. He begins by saying that he wrote the book ‘for a younger generation of Singaporeans who took stability, growth and prosperity for granted’ but that he ‘wanted them to know how difficult it was for a small country of 640 sq. km with no natural resources to survive.’ He reminded them that ‘public order, personal security, economic and social progress, and prosperity are not the natural order of things, that they depend on ceaseless effort and attention from an honest and effective government that the people must elect.

But he is careful to point out that his book is not a prescription, a ‘how-to’ book. Rather, it is ‘an account of the problems my colleagues and I faced, and how we set about solving them.’ It is for us to draw any lessons, and adapt them for application in our context as appropriate. This was the line adopted by Lee Kuan Yew himself: ‘So I made a practice of finding out who else had met the problem we faced, how they had tackled it, and how successful they had been.’

But it wasn’t about a blind transposition of models that had been used elsewhere, as he underlines, ‘what guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work?’ adding that ‘if it did not work, or the results were poor, I did not waste more time or resources on it.’ He is humble enough to accept that he could make mistakes, but ‘…never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from mistakes others had made.’

The theme of learning runs constantly, ‘as apprentices in the exercise of powerwe never stopped learning because the situation kept on changing and we had to adjust our own policies.’ He acknowledges that ‘I had the advantage of several ministers who read widely,’and he encouraged a mutual exchange, for ‘we passed interesting books and articles we had read to each other.’ Humility and reality surface again, when he notes that ‘when we started, we were innocent and ignorant but we were saved by being careful to probe and test ideas before we implemented them.

For me this is one of the most valuable lessons that the book contains, because too often, in our hurry to get things done, we plunge in blindfolded as it were, causing harm in so doing. And the higher we are placed in the polity, the more damage that is done because in the natural order of things decisions made at that level of national functioning have a larger impact, affecting many more lives, and also the country at large, than decisions taken at lower levels.

That’s is why it is important to remember that we do not know everything, and must consult wisely: meaning the right people, ‘capable men of integrity.’ And again, ‘I sought out able men and placed them in positions of authority to ‘administer an honest and efficient system’ in order to fulfil the ‘burning desire to change an unfair and unjust society for the better.’ He praises his core team which was ‘outstanding,’ willingly acknowledging that ‘they were all older than I was, and were never inhibited from telling me what they thought, especially when I was wrong.’ And why did he welcome such a state of affairs? Because ‘they helped me to stay objective and balanced, and saved me from any risk of megalomania which could so easily come with long years in office.

Perhaps that is why he ‘always tried to be correct, not politically correct.’ If he has ‘one formula for success,’ he says, ‘it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better.’ He ends his epilogue by reminding that ‘we stand a better chance of not failing if we abide by the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government.’

 True, every country has its own socio-historical context. But the above captures the essential, robust principles of governance that apply to all countries, and there is more than enough wisdom in them to help us avert becoming a failed state – we cannot boast to be still numero uno in sub-Saharan Africa. One day, perhaps, there may be a Mauritian story, correct but not necessarily politically correct, to tell. We will then have arrived, who knows…

* Published in print edition on 21 May 2021

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