A Simplistic View on the Evolution of the Mauritian Animal

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Not so long ago, there was the concept of slavery. People belonged to their “masters”. They were caught, herded onto a ship, and brought to a place to work the land, usually. Then, after people became a bit more humane, slavery was “abolished” and these people were called labourers. The “masters” became the owners of the business and the bosses. They paid ridiculous wages and reaped all the profits, and worse, they elected one of the labourers themselves as Sirdars, to watch over and whip their brother labourers back to work. Labourers in Mauritius worked the land, worked as sugarcane cutters, pruned tea leaves and cut down Ebony tree forests.

Then machines were invented and there was the Industrial Revolution. The labourers became machine attendants. They worked in the Export Processing Zone or EPZ sector, which consisted mainly of textile and manufacturing products meant for export. The wages were a bit higher, and the labourers now worked indoors in factories. They got lunch breaks and worked eight hours a day, and even got paid overtime. They chose to work overtime to earn more money, to save towards a better life, maybe to buy that colour TV or that washing machine.The Sirdars were replaced by the Supervisors, who carefully supervised the output of each factory worker to make sure it met the standard.

With the EPZ and the agricultural sector, the economy developed and money started to circulate into the country and out of the country. With time and popular political decisions from the ruling parties on working conditions and minimum wage level, the Mauritian wage and standard of living started to improve. Factory workers had to be imported from poorer countries to stay competitive. Banks started mushrooming everywhere. Somebody got the great idea to copy the Channel and Cayman islands and develop Mauritius as a financial jurisdiction. The slaves / indentured labourers turned factory workers turned into clerks working in the various financial institutions, while their friends less versed towards Finance worked in the more and more luxurious hotels burgeoning around the coasts of the island. They started earning even higher wages as the banks started competing with each other to reap the bigger talents, and tourists brought their foreign currency into the island. Nobody wanted to work in factories, or in the fields anymore.

With the opening up of the Mauritian economy, and the growing affordability of all sorts of satellite tv channels, the wants of the Mauritian got bigger and bigger. The Mauritian is a typical consumerist, wants-to-do-better-than-his-neighbour, mostly hardworking animal. Banks started giving out more and more loans, hire purchase companies made a fortune out of interest and the Mauritian went on collecting and collecting gadgets to add to his Mauritian dream lifestyle. To succeed was usually symbolic to owning more than one house, preferably one in the highlands, and one on the coast. Overtime became the norm and both the mother and father of the typical nuclear family would be working hard to climb the social ladder steps, while their children were herded into private tuitions so they could “achieve” even more. Either that or they watched Disney channel and MTV and rebelled against society because they thought they should be living the same kind of life as what they saw on TV. With the pressure from their peers, their children and the ever evolving Mauritian economy, the Mauritian would slave away at work for years and years, consoling themselves with the carrot of performance bonus at the end of the year while always fearing the consequences of the fatal stick of being fired. For without this great job in this small office of this great institution, they would not be able to afford the luxuries they got so much accustomed to, and this would really be the ultimate low. So they slave away for 10 hours a day with the comfort of knowing that a handsome pension would be waiting for them when they turn 60… wait 65 now. Whether they would be in a good enough shape to enjoy those millions at that age is another question altogether. With the increase in wages and the busier and busier lifestyles, fastfood became the norm and fastfood in Mauritius consists in a haphazard briani of western and eastern cuisine, or the Mauritian variation of it, which tastes yummy, granted, but which can be said to be the cause of diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol, the most common life-taking diseases in the small island. Some of them try to practise sports, but most of them end up promising to practise that jogging or swimming or football or finally entering into that expensive gym only once their doctor orders them to AFTER that stroke.

Oh and the Sirdars became the Managers, and the Managers became the Senior Managers, Department Heads, and CEOs, while the owners… well the owners remained the owners…

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Wow what a movie! The kind that carries you, awakes certain thoughts in your head, and leaves you changed. Every wannabe teacher should watch this movie about the American teaching system. Ever dreamed about devoting your life to a job that makes a difference in the world? Have you ever thought what if you do your best and still fail? Will you be able to deal with the consequences? And what about your own baggage? Everybody has problems, life is hard, but to be able to forget everything and devote your whole life to a cause, however hard and unrewarding it might be, to do your best… this is what this movie is about.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Offshore Industry in Mauritius

ImageMost of you not working in the Offshore industry must have one day wondered, either from a newspaper article, or a fancy money laundering plot in a movie, what does Offshore really mean. Those of you outside Mauritius must perhaps be viewing it with a suspicious and curious mind while those of you in Mauritius must be thinking that working in Offshore must be a great way to earn loads of money quickly. Well… yes and no. This year I will (finally!) have worked 3 years in the offshore industry, and I should be in a better place to tell you more about it. I feel that this should be documented, as I have never read anything anywhere about offshore from the point of view of a critical, curious, gold-digger, not-keen-to-work-too-hard, feel-superior-than-everybody 26 year old point of view…

I started to work in the Offshore industry because it seemed to be making a lot of money back in 2009 and they offered to pay some expensive professional exams for me and I had nothing else better to do. You must understand that, in my opinion, for a young professional in Mauritius, most of the time, from my 5 years working experience, you either choose to do a boring and stressful job and earn loads or risk everything and do your dream job, but then you can afford only a dalpuri (cheapest street meal there is) for lunch (OK maybe I am being a little satyrical, but believe me, this is not that far from the truth from my point of view). So in Mauritius, most ambitious social ladder climbers either opt for working in banks, big financial institutions such as insurance companies, or (here we go!) offshore management companies (OMCs or MCs in Mauritius slang). We have the big huge ones which employ hundreds of people, where it takes you lots of sleepless zombie years (approximately 10) and sucking up to become a manager, and there are smaller ones which employ dozen of employees where they hire people with experience from the bigger MCs at more or less the same pay, but with fancier titles so that these gullible people receive a (false) sense of achievement of having climbed up the hierarchy, but do they really?

So what do all these people actually do all day? Offshore products range from companies (domestic or foreign), funds (open and closed ended), trusts, societes, and more recently in Mauritius, partnerships. The usual team structure in MCs is made up of administrator, senior administrator, team leader, manager, senior manager, head of X Product, Director, etc… And then there might be fancy shared services such as business development, product development, tax planning etc. So what do they DO?? Ok, I am getting to that part! They come to the office at 08 30, get a huge cup of coffee, and set about administering a portfolio of offshore products: filing with the authorities, drafting of financial statements, payment of regulatory fees, liaising with the clients, chasing them to pay their fees, investing the clients money, buying posh villas and maintaining them, holding board meetings with corporate directors and drafting endless minutes of meeting, and in the best case scenario, making sure that everything is financially and legally sound. This can range from really interesting structuring of investments to reallyyyyyyy boring paperwork, depends on the days, really.

So what about money laundering? Well, I would like to point out that money laundering is a serious crime, so we do not do it 😛 We do something called enhanced due dilligence, which means making sure that we know our client, and especially their source of funds. Local regulatory regulations are quite stringent, especially after political and popular pressure from India. But some structures are so elaborate and so spread out across the world that one cannot assure you that they can be 100% convinced of the source of funds in certain cases, but legally it is the very first administrator who cashed in some shady funds without ascertaining the source who is to blame.

Mauritius is a lucky country, we are friends with everybody – Africa because of our strategic position, Europe because of our being past British and French colonies, and most importantly, India, our beloved mother India – because most of our ancestors come from India, we love Bollywood, our grandparents wear sarees and speak broken Hindi dialects, our food, our culture, our TV channels all are very much India-centric. Yes I am coming to it, we have enjoyed the benefits of the India double taxation treaty (DTA) for decades now. I am pretty sure that the offshore industry in Mauritius has largely fed off and developed from the India DTA. This means that Indian people find ways to invest all of their money in Mauritius companies and thus pay much lesser taxes than what they would have paid had it stayed in India. HOWEVER, the Indian government is now realizing how much it is losing in taxes through this DTA, and it is a sure thing that they are going to eliminate it anytime soon.

So what will happen to the Mauritius offshore industry then? It is an industry which has fed off the friendly diplomatic ties and regimes the island has enjoyed since independence. But this is not sustainable, as we will soon witness with the India DTA. What then? Will the thousands of Mauritian youngsters lose their jobs? Maybe… But let’s hope not. We dream of a day that “Mauritius will be to India what Monaco is to France” or what Cayman Islands is to USA or what Jersey is to UK… What about being the bridge between Asia and Africa that we have heard politicians speak about ever since we were kids? Singapore, Marshall Islands, even Seychelles are tough competition. We need to build on expertise, find niches, and grow sustainably. Let us hope that the business leaders will act now.

Grand Bay or High Gini Coefficient Bay

We were strolling through Grand Bay today, the weather was really hot, we had lunch at Sunset Boulevard, which is a nice place with ocean view. There were only tourists in the restaurant, and the only other Mauritians were the staff. This is something which we, young professionals comfortable with mingling with our lighter skinned friends, don’t find unusual anymore, but in Grand Bay, the lack of other brown skinned customers was much more apparent than in other places like say, Caudan or Ebene. It is a weird feeling that of feeling like an outsider in your own country. But we were starving and we did not care much for this. After lunch, we continued our stroll up to the new shopping complex around Super U. I was surprised at how elaborately big the development was, and how many shops the complex contained: so many clothes and accessories shops, cafes, etc… It was a nice feeling to have so much choice. Following recommendation from a friend, we had ice cream at a Gelato place just outside Super U. A tourist lady asked to taste one of the flavours for her son. There were so many flavours that this was inevitable, so we asked to taste one as well. The lady asked us if we were intending to buy, (or if we were just planning on tasting for free silent comment). I was kind of put off by the attitude. Funny thing about Mauritians. They slave away at a place for the comfort and pleasure of tourists, then they feel empowered by speaking french or english all day, and then they feel like displaying that false sense of superiority to other Mauritians. I call it plain Invert Racism. Then I thought, oh well maybe she had some bad experience before and did not just intend on being rude. Then I looked around me at Grand Bay, tourists and expatriates everywhere, Mauritians as staff, other multitudes of shopping malls mushrooming on the island. Will the average Mauritian be able to afford these shops? Everybody knows the answer to that question.

I for one, am seriously worried about the growing level of income disparity in Mauritius. With the opening up of the economy, especially the growing Finance and Property sector, we are welcoming more and more expatriates. I myself work with expatriates: South Africans, Irish, British, French, I think they are lovely people, but they do not live the Mauritian reality, they live the Mauritian “dream”. Me and my circle of friends have no issue having a blast in Mauritius and affording having glimpses of that Mauritius dream life, but what about the rest. The people working blue collar jobs that pay less and are having to raise a family with that salary? The people who go to Bagatelle only to window shop or who cannot afford to pay the Rs 350 to watch a 3D movie for the whole family?

I sincerely think that a growing Gini Coefficient is a problem not to be ignored. Being surrounded by things you will never be able to afford will grow bitterness in people, and that is definitely not healthy. What is the solution? Higher taxes for higher earners? Education and education, to help climb social ladders? More affordable leisure activities (yes we only do have beaches and free access to only one decent park)? Free community sporting facilities for the youth? Tighter expatriate immigration facilities?

It is not enough to open ourselves to the world, it is also important to help our children to process that information, with solid set of values and they have to be proud of their own culture. After 44 years of independence, there is still a long way to go, that is for sure…

Hugo Cabret

The other day, I had the chance to watch Hugo Cabret, and I absolutely loved it. I never thought a movie about two kids would prove to be so sweet and touching. Martin Scorcese outdid himself in transporting us to Old Paris and into the dreams of a little boy. If I get the chance I am definitely going to read the book.

Hugo Cabret: So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason…

This quote is quite central to the plot, and I was deeply touched by it, especially considering that I am still trying to figure out my own function in the world. The characters were all very endearing, and now I know who George Melies was, apart from one of the Eleves Dieux in Bernard Werber’s Trilogie des dieux.

All in all, Hugo Cabret is a feast for the eyes and the soul. I feel a lot like how I felt after watching Ratatouille and Amelie Poulain, a sweet feel-good sensation, like a nice and warm chicken soup…

This Blog

This blog is an effort to write again after several years of blank pages. After Drops of Ash, My Kingdom of Relativity and Beautiful Garbage, let’s hope that this one stays live for a bit longer. Despite the silence, the endless inner reflections were pretty much there, except that they were regurgitated most of the time to kind ears, but then these friendly souls reflected back and this somehow affected in a most definite way the course of these reflections, which might have taken a whole different direction if left solely to the battlefield of my mind. Hence the blog. God, even my English has now changed to boring colonial business language after 5 years of being an office rat. Nevermind, this blog will not be a bitter space, but a lush forest where ideas will grow freely and fruits will be abundant… This blog will be a memoir of how we try to survive Mauritius at 26, while still keeping the fire within burning…