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A laundryman’s son who defied convention Sunday Times, April 22, 2007


IF there is one person that a lot of people like listening to while he talks about economics and the like, it is Doctor Wadan Narsey.

His explanations are very often simple and easy to understand. And the fact that he is approachable is an added plus.

For years, Dr Narsey has been a familiar contributor to this newspaper and on TV and radio talkback shows.

Like a few prominent people already featured in the profile section of The Sunday Times, Dr Narsey is another person who grew up in Toorak.

His family owned a laundry shop there in the 1950s and all eight siblings were very much involved in the daily running of the shop.

He grew up with a mixed lot of friends in Toorak.

AtMaristBrothersHigh School, he was in the athletics, soccer, rugby and cricket teams something his father never approved of.

Although he was named Sportsman of the Year in his final year at that all-boys school, his father told him that sports would not put food on the table.

He started work at the Fiji Bureau of Statistics in 1972 but says his work at the University of the South Pacific or his labour of love, as he calls it, which began in 1973 and ended in 2004 was the longest time he spent in one place.

That was largely due to his love for teaching.

Married to Joan Yee, the couple met while he started teaching at USP in 1973 and she was graduating.

Their union was not accepted from both sides of the family at first but this changed when the children came along.


He grew up amongst Indians, Fijians, Chinese, and part Europeans in the 1950s.

If he wasn’t at school or helping out with the family business, he was busy flying kites at the Dudley church ground, playing marbles and soccer inMarksParkand at boxing bouts at the Shree Dhar Maharaj’s backyard.

“Going to Marist Brothers Primary (both St Columbus and St Felix) andMaristBrothersHigh Schoolthen was very multi-racial,” he recalls.

“Because of his ill health, my father was struggling with his small laundry in Amy Street B.Narsey Laundry.”

It was unusual then for Gujerati women to work but that was exactly what his mother did at the laundry shop.

This was in addition to doing all the cooking, the household work and minding her eight children.

“And daily, my brother and I had to rush home after school and iron for two or three hours in the laundry or go on the delivery run with my father.

“Sometimes we children (including my sisters) would have to work all night long, trying to finish the huge bags of laundry for a ship that had to leave the next morning.”

But he had a great love for sports and his prowess saw his involvement in athletics, rugby, soccer and cricket at Marist.

However, this didn’t sit well with his father.

“My father was often cross with me because I was mad about sports.

“Three times a week I would come home an hour late because I was in the athletics, soccer, rugby and cricket teams. I was a 1500metres champ at the Fiji Secondary Schools Athletics in 1967.

“My most valued achievement was being named the Sportsman of the Year at Marist.

“But when I went home with the trophy, my father (who used to frame all our academic certificates) dropped the trophy on the bed, curtly telling me that sports will not fill your stomach, son’.

“Vijay Singh and Lote Tuqiri were not around then.”


His love for sports didn’t mean that he slackened off in academics.

Although his father was illiterate in English, he still bought his children a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which would cost about $3000 nowadays.

“While our school teachers no doubt contributed, our academically competitive peer group was far more important for our academic success.

“When we did NZ University Entrance, there were some eight Gujerati and Chinese Marist boys from Toorak alone who came in the top 10 inFijithat year.

“I was lucky to become the Fiji Scholar, which was the only unbonded Fiji Government scholarship. It is ironic that most of those with bonds eventually emigrated while I have remained inFiji.”

He realised his passion for the environment when he trekked for six days acrossViti Levufrom Sabeto to somewhere near Nausori.

That was when he joined the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme whilst a sixth former along with three other school boys and all they had were compasses, maps and rucksacks. For four days they walked south from Vatukoula, coming out near Sigatoka before they kayaked to the Veisari coast.

His mates were Peter Drysdale and Anil Tikaram and together they climbed the steep slope of Joske’s Thumb.

He has enjoyed a spot of fishing (with Ropate Qalo) in waters off Nukulau and Bau on the other side of Toberua.

He toured the Yasawas during his stint in Parliament and at the Ministry of Tourism.

“MostFijitown people have no idea how beautifulFijiis, although tourists do,” he says.

He played soccer forOtagoUniversitywhile studying there but said he couldn’t match a certain Ratu Kamisese Mara who held the record for drinking the “yard of beer”.

“A few years later, while a USP professor found a place for me at the London School of Economics, I rather idealistically chose to do my Masters in Economics at theUniversityofWest IndiesinJamaica. The studies were okay but the two years there had a greater impact on me.

“Jamaicathen was torn apart by political conflict between the socialist party of Michael Manly and the conservative pro-US party of Seaga.

“There were hundreds of political murders. Some parts ofKingstonwere not safe for outsiders, even during the day.”

From that experience, he learnt that ordinary people would sooner reject socialism if their stomachs were empty.

“I was one of the few Fijians who was present at the One Love reconciliation concert given by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and other reggae stars of the seventies.

“It was in a massive football stadium with soldiers standing guard everywhere with machine guns.

“You did not need to smoke weed yourself. All you had to do was breathe.

“Manley and Seaga symbolically embraced on the stage to everyone’s applause. A week later their followers were killing each other again.

“Just as fascinating was doing my PhD at Sussex University in UK in the early 1980s with a rich international array of friends from Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ireland, Peru, Egypt to just name a few.

“Many were refugees, whose lives had been shattered by civil wars and military groups gone haywire, with entire families and generations of intellectuals destroyed. Their experiences seemed so alien then, but not so strange now.”


Dr Narsey started work at the Bureau of Statistics where he made life-long friends like Kishor Chetty.

At the moment, he is doing work again for the Bureau and some of his colleagues (like Bale and Rak) are still there.

“But my longest stint of work (or rather “labour of love”) was at USP, from 1973 until 2004 when I finished as a professor. Teaching was a perpetual delight.

“Despite the high emigration of graduates, I enjoy coming across hundreds of former students occupying the highest of professional positions in all the Pacific islands (including those still at USP like Dr Biman Prasad).

“I did not care much for publishing academic articles or books. It was more satisfying to write newspaper articles, simplifying complex public policy issues for the ordinary members of the public (many of my articles are in my book To Level the Playing Fields).

“My writings often were not popular with politicians, most political leaders prefer ideology to facts.”

For three years, he was USP’s Director of Planning and Development and he also did major consultancies in the region for the World Bank and Forum Secretariat.

The earlier days at USP were not all fun, he recalls, as regional staff had to fight against cliques of expatriates to get post-graduate training and promotions.

“My colleagues in arms then were Dr Yadhu Singh (an early kava researcher and now a chemistry professor in theUS), Dr Ropate Qalo (still soldiering on at USP) and Dr Rajesh Chandra.

“There was depressing racism against Indo-Fijian academics, an evil that raised its ugly head recently, with the appointment of the last Vice Chancellor at USP.”


He ventured into Parliament in 1996 after he was invited by Jai Ram Reddy (NFP’s Leader of the Opposition) to enter Parliament.

Initially, his wife was not happy as there were mortgages and bills to pay and the salary of a backbencher was only a quarter of his USP salary.

But she eventually agreed.

“I was elected unopposed as I was also acceptable then to the Fiji Labour Party, of which I had been a founding member in 1985 with my student and colleague Simione Durutalo.

“In Parliament (together with the late Narendra Arjun) I was not popular in the NFP because I co-operated with all political parties (including the FLP) on issues. But they were exciting times.

“The new Constitution was being approved unanimously in Parliament, with my own hobby-horse the multi-party government enshrined in law (even if it was largely ignored in practice).

“And the Select Committee on ALTA had got close to an agreeable resolution of the leases problems.

“I fully supported Mr Reddy’s approach then (as now) that the only way forward was for Indo-Fijian parties to work together with the largest Fijian political party and its leaders, whether it was SVT, SDL or any other.”

But he said politics was also disappointing in some ways because the NFP and FLP leaders could not work together.

“On many issues, I was discouraged from giving my professional advice as an economist, in case it was used by other parties to undermine the NFP.”

In the 1999 elections, the NFP was obliterated when the Indo-Fijian community rallied behind the FLP. “All NFP candidates were wiped out, with myself coming closest to winning (thank goodness, I didn’t win).”


He met his wife, Joan Yee, in his first year of teaching at USP in 1973. She was just graduating then.

“Her grandfather Man Sue had a well-known shop in Korovou. We were probably brought closer together when, through sailing negligence on my part, we were marooned all night on the sandbank.

“Neither my parents nor hers were happy about our relationship. But we eventually got married 10 years later in a registry office inBrighton,UKwhere I was doing my PhD. Our first son was born there.

“When the kids came along, our parents all accepted the marriage. And our children are lucky to have doting grandmothers, aunts and uncles on both sides.”

Like other couples, he says, they have their differences that have to do with personalities and interests rather than race.

“My wife is a very private person while I am far more outgoing.”

He is a firm believer that wives should be given equal opportunity and support to develop professionally.

But he says that for that to happen, there must be balance in the family work the males should pull their weight at home.

For two years, he looked after their children while Mrs Narsey pursued her Masters degree inMelbourne.

“I am glad that I helped her fight her career battles at USP, once requiring large legal fees to successfully challenge an unfair USP decision.

“I cook a lot (although I don’t like washing up). My three boys are also good at cooking.”

He never hesitates to remind his sons that the shortest route to a girl’s heart is through her stomach.

Dr Narsey says his wife is a very busy professional person with far more responsibilities.

“She has the highest standards in work ethic and honesty, whether it is at the USP Library (where she has worked for 30 years) or as the deputy chairperson of the Chinese Education Society or as a Public Service commissioner.

“One area we totally agree on is that our financial priority is our children’s education and family security not fancy homes, cars, jewellery or clothes.”


He says their children suffer from being well-off and doting aunts give them the clothes, shoes and knick-knacks they want, even if they don’t need them.

“They easily reject clothes and shoes, which I would wear,

“Fruit will rot on the trees at home, because the kids have not bothered to check.”

But they are all too familiar with cash economics and if he is picking fruit, they tell him that he is picking fruit worth $5 but risks $500 of medical bills if he falls.

“To a request, Can you cut the grass, please’, the response may be, Dad, can I give you $12 for the travelling grasscutter to do the job?’

“Children these days seem to know the price of everything but not the value of one’s own human endeavour that builds a home.”


Two years ago, he went through four crises in a row.

“My health worsened with uncontrolled diabetes, I nearly blew myself up burning garden rubbish and had a horrific car crash inChristchurch.

“The hardest to cope with, especially after devoting three decades to one employer, was work disenchantment and alienation, especially when old colleagues devalued ethics and friendships to further their own ambitions.

“What kept me going through all crises, was saying to myself this day will surely pass’. And it has.”

But he says rather than conflict, he found avoidance as the best way to deal with vexatious people.

“I found it easier to just avoid vexatious persons, whether strangers, colleagues, friends or family, moving away altogether if necessary.”

He retired from USP in 2004 and works on projects and consultancies that interest him personally.

For SPC and the Bureau of Statistics, he analysed the Household Income and Expenditure surveys forFijiandTuvalu.

TheFijireport has been published by the Bureau. He is now about to complete a second report for the Bureau on the 2004-05 Employment and Unemployment Survey.


“Although all my brothers and sisters have emigrated and done very well abroad,Fijiis my home where I belong, whatever the trials and tribulations.

“I enjoy the work I am doing.

“I love my golf and I was fortunate to representFijiat an International Seniors Tournament inMelbournelast year. I hope to see Vijay Singh play on the PGA tour.

“I may visit my family and friends inCanada, who I have not visited for more than 25 years.

“And cope with a few friends who do not appreciate enough that the goodness of the cause’ is not a sufficient reason to justify fundamentally illegal and unfair methods.”

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