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Is ours a culture of silence? (The Fiji TImes, 29 April, 1997)


[The Fiji Times, 29 April 1997]
[This article is part of a presentation (“Re-engineering Fiji for Growth”) I made to the 1997 Fiji Institute of Accountants’ Congress, Sheraton Fiji.


There are several cultures of silence amongst our knowledgeable citizens.

I do not refer to expatriates who legitimately feel reluctant, with their work-permits in mind, to speak on sensitive issues (although a few still do).

The non-Fijians

Firstly, there is a large internationally mobile group of citizens, mostly non-Fijians, who feel that because they are treated as aliens, they need to make hay while the sun shines, and zip off to greener pastures if and when the weather changes.

Speaking out on sensitive issues is deemed a futile and stupid exercise, also likely to damage their material interests.

Wherever they can, they are happy to manipulate the politicians and political parties in their own interest, but always working behind the scenes.

The Fijians

There is also a large group of informed and well-educated indigenous Fijians, often in economically and financially important positions.  They may say a lot in private, but are silent in public.

I do focus on indigenous Fijians, who I believe, through their political control, will ultimately determine howFijiis re-engineered into the future.

No doubt there is a cultural explanation for this.  In small societies and economies, it is socially difficult to pose uncomfortable questions to those in authority – who may be known personally, or who may be higher in the social hieriarchy.

But there are also material incentives to remain silent – good jobs and promotions, easy access to loans, participation in emerging business enterprises, and political appointments to boards and other institutions.  Civic honours do not go to “trouble makers” or “whistle blowers”.

We are not alone with this kind of problem. Citizens of other small countries like Cook Islands,Papua New Guinea, and other small developing countries, face similar pressures.

Silence over Fijian leadership

There is a strange silence hanging over the question of Fijian leadership. A recent review recommended that the major strategy to ensure the best strategy for indigenous Fijians is to select a number of young chiefly candidates and provide them with the appropriate training for leadership in today’s world.

No doubt such training will enhance these chiefly individuals’ capacity to lead. And of course there have been chiefs such as Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who amply demonstrated the leadership skills required of them by their people. There are also persons of chiefly origin who currently hold positions of authority by virtue or merit alone.

But the leadership mettle required to lead Fiji (and all Fiji, including non-Fijians) into the internationally competitive Darwinian jungle of capitalist markets of the 21st century, will surely require skills in management, economics, finance, technology, and science, in addition to cultural and social skills.

Given the current relative numbers of educated commoners and chiefs, such skills are more likely to be found in greater numbers amongst the Fijian commoners.

One would have thought that the review of Fijian leadership would should also have focused on how to co-opt the best Fijians into the leadership, commoners or chiefs.

Again, on such an important issue for allFijiand Fijians, there has been little public discussion and debate.

The appointment of  boards

Another national weakness in economic decision-making, probably more important than national elections,  is the silence about the selection of boards of management of public enterprises.

Fiji’s sad experience is that numerous of our public “boards of management” have amply demonstrated an inability to manage efficiently and with public integrity, in the public interest.

Unfortunately, the same names keep appearing on all the boards that are appointed throughout the country, often inappropriate people chosen on political or personal grounds.

There are sometimes clear conflicts of interest with the appointee’s personal or family business interests, or the persons are simply unsuitable, given the nature of the enterprise, sector or activities that are supposed to be managed.

The silence of board members

Not surprisingly, the same “culture of silence” applies here.  Few public board members see themselves as accountable to the public when things appear to go wrong, as they often do.

When disasters happen, we don’t even want to ask why all the checks and balances that are supposed to be in the system, did not work.

And we pay a heavy price.  What would one “whistle blower” on the NBF board eight years ago have saved theFijitax-payers? $200 million?  $100 million?  What about a mere $50 million? Just through one public statement?

There is still no public debate on why boards of management of our national disasters did not manage in the national interest, while many associated individuals are even further rewarded.

And the silence of accountants?

While one should not focus on any individual profession, accountants have a particularly powerful role.

By the very nature of their work, they have their fingers on the financial pulse of their enterprise. They are the first to know when things are going wrong, and they have the powerful potential to safeguard public interest through responsible “whistle-blowing”.

On the other hand, by the time economists pick up that something is going wrong (through audited accounts or Bureau of Statistics publications) it is five years too late, and the crisis is already in full swing.

The cost of the silence?

InFiji, the cost of the last few crises and mismanagement is the equivalent of the annual budget for Government.

Wastage of such large amounts means that ten years of economic growth and improvements in standards of living are sacrificed.

How does society learn?

Fijiis focused on economic deregulation.  In free competitive markets, the price “learns” from excess supply or demand, and eventually the markets are cleared, through the invisible “Walrasian autioneer”.

But how does society learn, socially and politically, when its public economy decisions go wrong?

The culture of silence did not serve the Fijian people through a hundred years of colonial control, when they stagnated economically and were left behind in many other ways.I doubt very much if a culture of silence will serveFiji’s people, and especially its indigenous inhabitants – if we want our economy to be part of the international, deregulated, competitive, capitalist free market economy.

To re-engineer economic growth, Fiji has to focus equally on “social and political deregulation” such that “alternative bids” for resources and decisions are freely encouraged and discussed by our societies, there is a full recognition of the true opportunity costs of decisions made, and mistakes are learnt from.

The role of leaders and public debate

Given Fiji’s current cultural and political constraints, such open social and political deregulation can only consciously engineered by the leaders.

While decision-makers need to be made accountable, the people must also be made accountable, by taking part in public discussions and debate.

This need not take the form of aggressive destructive attacks and counter-attacks (as characterises much of current political culture).

The high points of indigenous Fijian culture, with emphasis on politeness and dignity, could surely set the tone.

Failure to ensure the appropriate social and political engineering necessary for rational economic decision-making will have a high cost.

Fijiwill remain an economic back-water in the global economy, continually racked by economic disasters and failed endeavours, debilitating provincial and racial conflicts, bedevilled by unemployment and crime, and declining standards of living for the majority of its people.

I suspect that the majority of us attending this Accountants’ Congress will probably do OK even in this scenario.

But surely, the ordinary people of Fiji deserve a better future than this.

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