By Samad Ramoly
There will always be among us optimists who look at life through rose-tinted glasses, pessimists locked in the darker side of life, utopians who fantasise about a dream world, relativists obsessed with putting everything into perspective, even if it means coming to terms with mediocrity and ti lespri (bigots). All of these perspectives matter. Realists, on the other hand, approach the world in all its complexity, intuitively welcoming its nuances, and act accordingly. For them, the idea of a one-size-fits-all method does not make sense. Their actions can, however, be either lastingly fair or invariably harmful.
When the latter perspective among ruling elites is imbued with benevolence, it steers a nation’s policies towards common good, drawing on the experiences of citizens while striving to cope with globalisation. Otherwise, these elites readily hide their actions in buzzwords, ideologies and mythologised narratives from another time or elsewhere. In short, a sham that is obviously not designed to respond creatively to the multiple aspirations of citizens. This perspective can even transform the ruling elites into surreal creatures with the potential to shape the framework of the “system”. Meanwhile, wealth grab for networks of patronage of this “system” is being plotted – we call these profiteers the insiders (and the rest, the outsiders) here. The end justifying the means.
We keep repeating to ourselves that our parliamentary system is Westminsterian in spirit – that is supposed to convey a reliable interconnection with citizens. However countless mainstream politicians have been teaming up with members of the business community while government policies drift away from common good. Mainly due to the lack of sufficiently watchful mainstream media sensitive to market-dominant advertisers and their enabler-politicians, of adequate monitoring mechanisms conducive to transparency and accountability, of ruthless anti-corruption and pro-competition watchdogs. A similar situation certainly prevails in most other countries, even if with varying extent of dysfunction. Such circumstances breed anti-establishment resentments whose supreme creature is embodied by the whimsical Donald Trump and his avatars.
A narrative that speaks to citizens
For several centuries, most of the world has been infatuated with the “Western” perspective shaped by the global ruling elites and represented initially by the Franco-British “partnership” before the United States became the engine. Unlike the imprint of other civilisations, this perspective promotes a binary and probably a cheerleader mindset too. Individual freedom takes precedence over the spirit of the community, reason cannot factor in the emotional dimension (God forbid religious interference), technicality supersedes feelings, etc.
17th century wise thinker Spinoza sensed the toxicity of the non-holistic approach that overlooks complementarity and solidarity. Today anthropologist Joseph Henrich and others are sounding the alarm. In the 1980s, this “Western” perspective undermined interdisciplinary thinking in favour of one-track minded expertise. Orthodox economics and its experts mainstream economists (fortunately Millennial economists are seeking to emancipate themselves from the inability of many of their elders to think outside the box) have been elevated to the status of high priests to guide the “system”. Regrettably, Mauritius is not one of those few countries spared. For several years now, “Western” hegemony has been crumbling with the new international geopolitical context, and in its wake, the tension has gone global.
Mauritius can draw inspiration from smart practices abroad, but the solutions must be home-grown and hybrid.
Worse, Covid-19 has further disrupted our “normal” and somehow shaken the perspective of political and business captains almost everywhere, here ironically navel-gazing stays put. Even the Financial Times, the spin machine of global capitalism, has changed its perspective. For us, it is not a question of subscribing to a “stakeholder capitalism” style of reset or to that of revisited “socialism”. What matters is the emergence of an enlightened leadership that has been so elusive capable of comprehensive assessment of our everyday reality. Also badly missing are a planning entity, a global vision and the desired local know-how to implement a vision that scrutinises costs and meets standards. Alternately, the solution is not to outsource everything to international technocratic bureaucrats. Mauritius can draw inspiration from smart practices abroad, seek support from our diaspora, but the solutions must be home-grown and hybrid.
Since 1968, our successive governments have granted us with hallmarks of progress. Without really worrying about their effectiveness over time. Take the welfare state, which keeps regressing in terms of efficiency and quality. It is not the targeting of beneficiaries that will make the government’s social contract with the people efficient, but a firm commitment to root it out of waste and corruption.
Singapore, South Korea and the Nordic nations in particular have long internalised the imperative of a proactive and inclusive state. Like the education and health systems, an integrated public transport system does not have to endorse the imperative of profitability. In fact, in some cities public transport is free. More are looking forward to follow suit, having well anticipated the multidimensional impact of a well-connected, affordable and green energy-driven public transport system on labour and leisure markets, the environment and society as a whole.
Regarding Mauritius’ development model, it has never been founded on incentives for innovation and efficiency but on privileges (rent-seeking, cronyism, preferential deals with other countries and dented rupee). All our governments have been flaunting public infrastructure projects (which tend to go hand-hand with kickbacks) as trophies to celebrate this development and almost monopolise the 7:30 pm news on national television to hype the dedication. If previous governments pretended to be fiscally responsible (when mismanagement was growing endemic) even if the use of the 7:30 pm news was already grotesque, the current government is allowing itself all excesses. A freefall with regard to the quality of governance that speaks volume about the validity of the Mo Ibrahim Index and makes a mockery of our high “democratic” credentials as surveyed by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The Covid-safe episode provides a short-lived comfort that could boost the phony image of faultless management, but it cannot hide what is brewing underneath: a drifting national system that is neither robust nor virtuous. Our integration into global finance without the monetary protocol required to stabilise our currency (which other small and open economies are observing) has perverted our development model which was already producing distortions and instability. An outcome that has insidiously been constituting a worrying reflection of our behaviour.
A healthy nation cannot exist without a responsive government that inspires trust and creates the conditions conducive to the well-being of citizens. However, to sustain their often flashy lifestyle (which zealously ambitious outsiders promptly ape) insiders have unwittingly favoured a development model that deindustrialises and turns a large segment of outsiders precarious. The high cost of living, whether in absolute terms or relative to the level of income, and the ongoing housing crisis act as the main channels of discontent.
It is worth emphasising that 60% of the inhabitants of Vienna in Austria, a country that really generates high income, enjoy housing that is heavily subsidised by the state. To be effective, we must urgently seek to significantly reduce the costs of running households and businesses. Through the blinkered perspective, the ageing of the population, among other key areas to be addressed, and its negative impact on the country’s vibrancy have been ignored.
Investing in whitewashing and its offshoot greenwashing, which serve to channel attention away from insiders, is also a confession of incompetence to build a flourishing and globally competitive nation. Resorting to prohibitions, fear-mongering and repression becomes a management style when a government knows it is incapable of measuring and taking risks to navigate an increasingly unpredictable and ruthless global environment. Where they expect an empathetic state, the most vulnerable outsiders face stigma. It is not easy not to be tempted into rod so bout (reckless pursuit of personal gain) when visible and invisible obstacles are everywhere. An existential crisis is not the stage to give the best of oneself while being simultaneously law-abiding. When, the more so, leading by example is nowhere to be seen.
Even before Covid-19, the most advanced societies were beginning to embrace responsible consumption. Since Covid-19, frugality and everything experiential have been added to this new way of life. It is far-fetched to expect a sophisticated lifestyle when debt trap eats up what is supposed to be disposable income and available leisure activities are not all healthy and varied, let alone affordable. Inequalities are polarising the country as gated communities, shelters for the well-heeled, and subsidised Smart Cities targeting without qualms foreigners are on the rise. Ironically, wealth and land concentration in the hands of a few members of a very small ethnic community remains a taboo. Which in itself is suicidal* and a litmus test for any aspiring change agency. In addition to a lame excuse to empower new parasites.
Technology has freed us from many physical tasks. Artificial intelligence will free us from many intellectual tasks. Without a shift towards experiential, interdisciplinary and lifelong learning, it would be pointless to look forward to a human capital, featuring Digital Natives, blessed with nimble cognitive abilities and a strong sense of discernment. Especially with the overwhelming use of algorithms to bolster the sense of entitlement of insiders.
We must stop fooling ourselves. Without the advent of a few visionary insiders, a critical mass of outsiders and synergy between all stakeholders, we will not get out of the vicious circle. We will have to settle for more flashes in the pan in return of more scars including the normalisation of shoddy work and service, structural mismatches, a mode of operation specific to cheaters and incivility. There is plenty more than meets the first impression of a dazzled visitor, sloppy national statistics or the number of fancy cars on our roads.