The bearable lightness of floating.

Posted in 1 by Editor on May 30, 2009

TOM Monday, 25th May 2009

A growing number of conscientious individuals are not comfortable with our tradition of voting the way we do simply because this is the way we’ve always done it. The weight of the argument that we’ve always done it this way and that we do so simply because our parents and grandparents have done it this way has become lighter than their concern with the consequences of their decisions.

For them, elections have become morally intense and psychologically tense events. It was not always so. They recall, with some nostalgia, when elections were a family affair. When the whole family went to vote as one, much as if they were going to Sunday Mass, united in their political faith as in their religious faith. There was tension in the streets but lightness in your heart. You did not agonise over which party to vote for. It was a matter of faith.

Let’s imagine you were old enough to have voted in the 1964 Independence referendum. If so, you are also likely to have voted in one other national referendum (EU 2003), in 10 national elections (1966, 1971, 1976, 1981, 1987, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2008), one European Parliament election (2004) and in five rounds of local council elections since 1993/4.

You would have thought that, with more and more elections since 1993, voting should have come to imply as little internal turmoil as Sunday church-going. Many go because that’s the done thing. Others go to bear witness to their faith. Few go to question it. Well, the habit of frequent voting has not made it easier on individuals with a conscience. On the contrary.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the spell began to break but there is reason to believe that it began midway through Eddie Fenech Adami’s second term, coinciding with the introduction of local councils and the increased frequency of voting. If you voted 18 times since 1964, eight were spread over 31 years before 1993 and 10 concentrated in the 15 years after.

When, before 1993, you were not likely to have agonised much about how you were going to vote, voting was in any case a rare event. After 1993, you went to the polls more often and the number of opportunities to suspect that you had a mind of your own increased accordingly. Not surprisingly it is after 1993 that one observes a growth in the number of people that let it be known that the vote was theirs and theirs alone. Although most voted as they were expected to, the message sent became increasingly loud.

Voting is becoming an increasingly individual ritual, a rite of passage out of a tribal existence where your family and the party decide how you will vote. This newly-found freedom comes at a cost, the good old anguish of responsible choice, the bittersweet fear of freedom. The likelihood of clashing with the clan’s received wisdom, of crossing horns with the herd’s dominant, are bound to increase in intensity and frequency. It’s the pain of progress.

Many are bracing themselves for another of these uncomfortable moments. Many will have demonstratively not picked their voting document yet. They are the ones who want it to be known that their vote should not be taken for granted and are looking forward to an enquiring call, for the opportunity to speak their mind and, possibly, name their price.

There are, however, also the attention-averse. Those that pick their voting document early to avoid the attention of the party that equates silence with unquestioning loyalty. Don’t blame them. Having to make a choice is unnerving enough without insistent calls from tribal headquarters. Put yourself in the shoes of the intelligent voter who this time round wants to think his choice through. You have the following options.

Some will grumble but ultimately follow the herd. Some will not vote at all or invalidate their vote or vote for a minor party to shock Pietà into doing what needs to be done before the general election.

Others will reason that it will take much more to shake Pietà into action. Pietà will say, they argue, that these rebels are just letting off steam, they’ll return to the herd when it matters most. Vote for Joseph? Some will, if only to send a stronger message, namely, if things don’t change they will not switch their vote back to where their heart is. Others will put head before heart and swim out.

Whatever they choose to do, they deserve respect. They know that those with neither head nor heart – and who are to blame for the mess we are in – will have the effrontery to brand them traitors. Swimming in a familiar puddle with your feet firmly planted in the mud is easy. Braving and bearing the unbearable lightness of being a floater in the deep is for the likes of Odysseus.

Mario Vella



Of branches, trunks and the wind.

Posted in 1 by Editor on May 15, 2009

Monday, 11th May 20

An Afghan was shot dead recently in Kabul. Hardly news, you will say, with so many locals killed since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan. True, you will have some difficulty in quoting precise figures – official US and Nato sources rarely provide public estimates of Afghan military and civilian casualties – but if you do your homework right, you will eventually come up with a conservative estimate of around 7,500 as at January 2009. So what’s new about the first sentence of this column?

Nothing really except that this particular Afghan, a high official of his country’s economic development agency, was following a specialist postgraduate course at a UK university I teach at. He was, as a matter of fact, just about to start on my own module. When I was first told that we were going to have a number of students from the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, I was impressed. Here was a bunch of guys determined to promote job creation – because ultimately that is the name of the game – in, literally, a hell of a place.

And they were – they are – determined to make the best possible job of it. AISA, in fact, won the world’s second best investment promotion agency award at the 2008 World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies annual conference last year. The award, jointly given by WAIPA and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, recognised AISA’s extraordinary achievement in the mere five years since it was set up.

Colleagues in the foreign direct investment promotion world confirmed to me how pro-active, focused and – in spite of all odds – enthusiastic AISA executives are. They go about their difficult job without the braggadocio typical of colleagues in other infinitely wealthier and more stable countries. These guys – who literally have to deliver under fire – have built a reputation as a source of credible information about their country. Unlike their colleagues in luckier countries they cannot blame other state agencies for not delivering on their promises… because AISA itself is ultimately responsible for delivering what it promises in terms of infrastructure and procedures. We have a lot to learn from them.

My thoughts went to my Afghan students when I drove past posters showing the candidates of a major political party for the European Parliament elections assuring us that if we send them to Brussels and Strasburg they will “bring more work”. Oh, is that how it’s done? Is that how productive jobs are created? What a load of putrefying fish-and-chips from yesteryear! Whoever says anything like that, now or in the future, blue, red, green or black, either does not know what they are on about or – if they do – they’re shamelessly lying through their teeth.

Job creation in today’s world has to do with ensuring the international competitiveness and the micro-economic fundamentals of firms operating in one’s country. It’s got to do with not doing whatever erodes their competitiveness. It’s got to do with getting off your backside and going out there to attract foreign direct investment that really contributes to the country’s development; to development that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. You do this by making distinctions.

The essentially euphemistic expression “real estate development”, for example, does not necessarily imply economic development. Above all, you do these things on the ground and from the ground. This ground.

Suggesting that “work” will come from the European Commission is an attempt to deflect attention from the work that is not being created in Malta. This is not to say that our MEPs cannot contribute to their country’s economic development by speaking for directives and regulations that facilitate it and against those that do not. It means that ultimately it is us Maltese who have to work hard to create work for ourselves. To suggest otherwise, as that poster does, is to encourage the traditional delusion that our future depends on hand-outs from foreign states.

In our circumstances, in today’s world, economic development depends on our ability to compete in international markets. This is what our politicians have to focus on when they speak about work. Let’s by all means send our best possible representatives to the European Parliament but let’s not pretend that they will do there what we must do for ourselves here. Unfortunately, as the Maltese proverb goes, “Skond iz-zokk il-fergħa” (old habits die hard and are “inherited”). The poster referred to indicates that old Maltese political habits do not die easily.

An Afghan proverb reminds us that a “tree does not move unless there is wind.” Allow me to stretch its meaning. There are robust signals that the bad habit, deeply ingrained in traditional Maltese political rhetoric, of exploiting the ignorance and prejudices of significant chunks of the electorate, is beginning to give diminishing political returns.

A breeze may be felt that may well build up to a wind of change. When it does, the weaker branches – those that rely on old bad habits – will crack and fall.

Mario Vella