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“Khaiyum, Employees’ Welfare and Honest Academics” (ed. in FT 7 May 2022)

07/05/2022

This week, the Attorney General and Minister of Economy (Mr. Aiyaz Khaiyum) blasted USP Senior Economist Dr Neelesh Gounder and Professor Wadan Narsey. Khaiyum preached:

Academics in Fiji should provide more balanced, accurate and fair commentary on such issues and not try to mislead people due to their political inclinations.  We call on independent academics and commentators to provide objective and honest analysis of the Fijian economy.”

Khaiyum appealed to the public

Don’t be like or be misled by politically biased academics like Wadan Narsey and Neelesh Gounder and their political masters whose continuous and blatantly biased analysis continues to discredit their reputation.”

Khaiyum also blasted Narsey’s criticisms of the Government’s reduction of FNPF contributions to help employers survive the COVID crisis, claiming that without this measure, employers would have closed down permanently and thousands of employees permanently unemployed.

Khaiyum alleged that Narsey “also ignores, it would appear conveniently, that employee contribution were also reduced as employees wanted more take home pay during the pandemic crisis.”

I will not respond to the character assassination of Narsey and Gounder that is clearly implied by the Minister’s statement to the media and front-paged in the Fiji Sun, such as bias, deliberately misleading the public, and our control by “political masters”. The public are intelligent enough to make up their own minds on these allegations and whether they harm our reputations.

            But to any newcome to Fiji, the Minister’s statement would suggest that Khaiyum’s Government placed great importance on

(a) a good COVID response to protect both employers and employees

(b) employees’ welfare (including the welfare of their retirement fund in FNPF).

(c) the need for Fiji to have independent, honest, fair academics and technical advisers, and

(d) ensuring that the public are not misled by unfair commentators.

Let me take them in turn by just stating the facts which cannot be disputed by anyone.

What was a good COVID response?

Khaiyum implies that the only way to protect employers and employees was to reduce FNPF contributions. That is blatantly false and thousands of former Fiji citizens living in Australia could have told Khaiyum that.

            Australia did not reduce employee contributions to their superannuation funds as Khaiyum did.  To protect any genuinely struggling employers, the Australian Government used taxpayers’ funds and granted them “Jobkeeper Allowances” which allowed employers  whose revenues had gone down because of COVID to keep their employees on their payroll until their revenues recovered.  That protected both employers and employees.

            Khaiyum’s “solution” transferred hundreds of millions from employees’ FNPF balances into all employers’ pockets, whether they were struggling or not.

            In the meantime, thousands of employees who lost their jobs because of the collapse of the tourism industry received one-off pittances in allowances from Khaiyum.

            Employers, and especially the largest business houses whose directors now fill all the boards of Fiji, have always been happy with the Bainimarama Government, as the list of massive donors (including even their wives, daughters and mothers) to FFP clearly show.

            But what of employee welfare?

The FNPF and Employee Welfare

Make no mistake that the hundreds of millions lost by employees FNPF funds today because of the reduction of contributions, would have amounted to billions in twenty years time, had they remained in FNPF coffers earning 5% compound interest rate for thirty years.

            These employees also not just civil servants, but include thousands of military and police personnel, some of whom have been employed by their political masters in harassing unionists and opposition parliamentarians. They also include journalists at Fiji Sun and FBC who willingly do the propaganda work for the Bainimarama Government.

            Note that the Bainimarama Government has removed all employee representatives from the Board of FNPF- removing the real FNPF owners’ representatives from their own board.  What a shameful disempowerment of employees’ rights as owners of their own retirement funds.

            Note that the Bainimarama Government has appointed employers’ representatives on the FNPF Board, including the chairmen, who have also directly benefited from the reduction of employee contributions. There is also another person who has been a key fund-raiser for the Fiji First Party and his company has valuable contracts with FNPF.

Also appointed on the Board are civil servants who are under the direct orders of Khaiyum and cannot be claimed to be independent board members.  What a farce of Khaiyum’s alleged wish for honest fair and independent advisers.  And what has been the horrible impact on FNPF? Let the facts speak for themselves.

            First, look at Graph 1 which shows the percentage of FNPF retirees who take the pension option, a very good indicator of the confidence that FNPF Member and especially retirees have in their pension fund as managed by the Bainimarama Government.

            From 25% of retirees (one in four) during the last year of the Qarase Government, it steadily dropped after the 2006 Bainimarama coup to 6% in 2011 when Khaiyum, by an illegal military government decree signed by President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, halved the pensions of existing pensioners.

            That “Pension Takeup Rate” has  further dropped to 3.8% in 2021: in other words, 25 out of 26 retirees DO NOT TRUST THE FNPF AS MANAGED BY KHAIYUM to give them a good deal in pensions.

            Under the Bainimarama/Khaiyum Government, FNPF has no moral authority to call themselves a “pension” fund.

The FNPF Board Members should be ashamed of themselves that they do not show this graph and associated table in their Annual Reports (although I am sure that the FNPF technical staff would have liked to show this graph as they used to show once upon a time.  In recent years, the Annual Reports are now filled with pages and pages of useless glossy photos and useless statistics.

            The public might wish to note the rapid turnover of FNPF CEOs from the time of Aisake Taito, as one after another, they resigned “for personal reasons” from the largest and most important financial institutions in Fiji and took up jobs with much smaller organizations and no doubt lower salary packages.

            Note also the hole that Khaiyum has been digging for the FNPF.

Graph 2 shows that in 2021, Total Withdrawals from FNPF exceeded Total Contributions into FNPF, by -$180 millions, negative for the first time in decades (bottom line).

            For the first in decades has there been such a large negative drop in Net Contributions. I point out that roughly estimated, if Total Contributions had grown according to the trend to 2019 (heavy top black line), there would have been, in Members’ accounts, an extra $523 million (less whatever was the impact of COVID), suppose $300 million (that I had used in an earlier article).

Fiji’s students might like to confirm that $300 million at a compound growth rate of 5% per annum works out to $1297 millions (or more than 1 billion) which would have been in Members’ accounts in thirty years time which they have lost forever.

            Let me remind the judiciary and lawyers in Fiji that the 2013 Constitution that has been imposed by Attorney General Khaiyum on Fiji also decrees, among other denials of basic human rights, that the Pensioners’ Burness/Shameem case on the illegal halving of their pensions that was being heard in the courts will not be heard.

            Of course, this is a blatant denial of basic human rights that everyone is entitled to be heard on their grievances on theft of their property.

            The journalists at FBC and Fiji Sun might like to get the comments on this case from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Fiji (Dr Shaista Shameem) who was arguing the Burness cases pro bono, or even the newly appointed Law Professor (retired) Brigadier Aziz.

What independent academics and advisers

From the utterances of Mr Khaiyum, the most powerful Minister in the Bainimarama Government, it would seem that he would welcome with open arms, honest, independent, fair academics and civil servants.  But what has the public seen since the 2006 military coup?

            There was the departure from FBC of the competent and honest CEO, Mr Francis Herman supposedly for “personal reasons”. Francis Herman was hired by AusAID as programme adviser to Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation and he was in 2017 appointed as its head to rescue it from difficulties. At the FBC, Herman was replaced by the brother of Aiyaz Khaiyum, Riyaz Khaiyum, who most independent observers would say has converted the FBC into a propaganda arm of the Bainimarama Government.

            I will also soon release a video of the late Timoci Bainimarama (Government Statistician of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics), this honest and capable civil servant, in 2007 at a book launching, expressing his great pleasure that his FBS staff were working closely with this Professor of Economics and USP Economics Department in not only training his staff in Official Statistics, but in analysing FBS household survey data to publish numerous reports which were launched with great publicity at USP.  But because of his refusal to take orders (from you know who) to stop working with USP and its economists, even this Bainimarama was retired, and soon after passed away.

            A worse fate, a humiliating sacking, befell the latest Government Statistician, Kemueli Naiqama, who had the temerity to release poverty data which included the rates of poverty by ethnicity. This had been done for decades by the FBS without any harm to the public interest.

            In recent days, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji (Mr Savenaca Narube) has publicly revealed (FT May 5 2022) that “he was forced to lie and paint a rosy picture about the Fijian economy” and he was sacked when he refused to follow Government orders to devalue the Fijian dollar because he honestly believed that it was not the right policy at the time.  Soon after his sacking by the Bainimarama Government, he was snapped up by ADB who clearly though more of his abilities than did Khaiyum and the Bainimarama Government.

            Then there was also another Governor of the Reserve Bank, Mr Sada Reddy, who valiantly was trying to reduce interest spread of Fiji banks (as has always been a problem with greedy banks charging high lending rates but giving pathetic savings deposit rates). His departure has not been publicly commented on.

            Then in 2010, an experienced ADB manager, Mr John Samy who was leading the whole People’s Charter Exercise for the Bainimarama Government departed after his People’s Charter restated the supremacy of the 1997 Constitution, spelling the end of that exercise as far as the Bainimarama Government was concerned, also resulting in John Samy’s quiet departure. At least, he had the honesty and independence to write, together with the late Archbishop Mataca, a strong letter of complaint to Voreqe Bainimarama about his Government’s departure from the Charter principles and the 1997 Constitution.

            Also coming to help the Bainimarama Government after the 2006 coup and soon departing were Francis Narayan (also an ex-ADB operative) and Robin Nair, a senior Australian civil servant.

Then in 2011, there was the forced resignation of Professor Wadan Narsey from USP because some $30 million were not being paid to USP by the Fiji Government. The journalists of Fiji Sun and FBC can ask PM Bainimarama whether he (then Minister of Finance) had bluntly told USP VC Chandra (as Chandra claimed) that he was not prepared to pay the salary of people like Professor Wadan Narsey who was writing Fiji Times articles opposing the illegal halving of FNPF pensions. And so his government was withholding $30 million from USP, according to VC Rajesh Chandra?

Then around 2011, occurred the most cynical of exercises by the Bainimarama Government and Khaiyum who set up the Yash Ghai Constitution Review Commission, chaired by Professor Yash Ghai (Khaiyum’s professor from Hong Kong University), Professor Christine Murray, Professor Satendra Nandan (well known former USP academic and Fiji MP), Taufa Vakatale (former Minister of Education), and the late Penny Moore. The Commission consulted around the country, called for public submissions and came up with a reasonable Draft Constitution.  That Draft Constitution was trashed by the Bainimarama Government on spurious grounds, and these advisers sent packing.

            But then in the last two years, an emboldened Khaiyum has never bothered to hide that he sent soldiers in the dead of night to brutally expel VC Pal Ahluwalia and his wife from Fiji, while withholding more than $70 millions of contributions legally owed by the Fiji Government. Thankfully, the USP Council backed Ahluwalia who has continued to work as USP VC from Samoa, with the Fiji Government’s reputation in the region in tatters (or tatti as Indo-Fijians would say) with great harm being done to the education of all USP students.

            Even faithful servants of AG Aiyaz Khaiyum, like Solicitor General Sharvada Sharma, have been sent packing.  No doubt more will be revealed about that.

            Sadly, what has not been revealed probably out of fear, are the many other cases of honest, competent public servants and board members, both local and expatriate, who have been removed from their posts or who tactfully announced that they were resigning “because of personal reasons”.

            Perhaps the Opposition political parties might want to draw up a Master List of such good, honest, and competent people who the Bainimarama Government saw no use for from 2006 till now.

What fair commentators

Khaiyum has called for honesty and fairness from commentators in Fiji.

            Good journalism students might wish to do a quantitative analysis of the print media The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun, or the TV news content of FBC and Fiji TV, or the radio news content of FBC and Communications Fiji, to determine how fair they are to the Bainimarama Government and Opposition Parties.

            I suspect that the results will not be surprising to any intelligent observer.

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