Report by Pacific Media Centre
Tongan newspaper publisher Kalafi Moala says bureaucracy, culture and religion are a “triune of power” standing in the way of reform in the 21st century Pacific. Asia-Pacific Journalism asks academic experts for their view.
Report – By Kai Ping Lew
Reformers in the kingdom of Tonga have often found themselves stymied by an unyielding bureaucracy, resulting in unnecessary delays in passing legislation citizens need, says Tongan newspaper publisher Kalafi Moala.
“No one benefits from such a situation. Those that lose the most are the people the government is serving,” he said.
Dr Steven Ratuva, University of Canterbury’s professor and director of the Macmillan Brown Research Centre for Pacific studies, agrees with Moala about the seriousness of the situation.
“This is a major problem. Bureaucracies have not been adaptable enough in responding to emerging situations and the dramatically changing world around us,” he says.
He told Pacific Scoop bureaucracy often tried to maintain the status quo, and for many Pacific countries routine operations rather than innovative transformation was the norm.
Moala drew comparisons between the country and a ship changing its captain and its officers, but still going in the same direction if all the procedures and people operating the ship were still doing things the same way as before.
“Reforms by the government need to be driven by political will and rationale to work. Civil servants need to be educated about the intent, and this requires retraining and rethinking,” said Dr Ratuva.
Massey University Pasifika director Malakai Koloamatangi said although bureaucracy may slow down the reforms being implemented by governments, it did not happen all the time.
“There are processes and procedures in place for a reason, but the government should streamline policy channels so that what passes in Parliament becomes policy smoothly,” he said.
He added that by convention, bureaucracy should have to toe the government line and it is the new government’s job to ensure the people in the public sector will drive their reforms.
“Structural reform in Tonga is a gradual progress and it will take time. It’s not bureaucracy that challenges them,” said Koloamatangi.
Stroke of pen
Moala also questioned the need for laws dictating that nobles received annual salaries, fostering the culture of entitlement accepted by the people of Tonga.
Koloamatangi responded by saying there were other democratic countries that had a monarch, citing the United Kingdom and Bhutan.
“The Tongans need to decide what type of democracy they want. But this needs to be grown organically from Tonga, and cannot be copied from elsewhere,” he said.
Monash University law professor Guy Powles said: “You cannot change peoples’ values and priorities with the stroke of a law-maker’s pen.”
However, Dr Powles added that it was important that steps were taken to introduce practices that would encourage attitudes that break with traditional notions of relationships built on subservience to social rank.
One of the major arguments for maintaining the bureaucratic and social systems is adherence to tradition and culture through ensuring that the old ways of doing things are preserved.
“There are good traditions and bad ones. Progress is not necessarily all good,” said Moala.
He emphasised that the policies introduced by the government need to be people-centred.
“Things that benefit the people are the things that must be implemented at any cost to tradition,” he said, recognising that these may be different for different countries.
“Fiji dismantled the Council of Chiefs and admonished the Methodist church about their political activities. Samoa changed its time zone. Radical, but the governments did it as they perceived these were components of tradition standing in the way of progress.”
Dr Ratuva said that tradition and progress did not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive even though people tend to think of them as such.
“For Pacific countries, the question is how they can address the critical daily issues of the people – poverty, food security, housing, and human security.”
Dr Ratuva said the answer lies in using the most affordable and effective approaches, whether they be traditional, modern, or a mixture of both. The focus should be on selecting the most equitable, just, and fulfilling system.
He acknowledged that one of the major fears around change was the loss identity, but denied the possibility.
“Nothing is further from the truth.
“Ultimately, what defines our identity is our sense of belonging to the group – even if we do not speak our parents’ language,” he added.
Failure to ratify CEDAW
Moala said that the protests in Tonga against the ratification of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – an important bill outlining the rights of women – showed a deeply embedded cultural belief that women should be subservient to men.
The most surprising thing, he said, was that the leading opponents to CEDAW were women.
Abortion and same-sex marriage were the two main points of contention cited by the opponents of CEDAW ratification, clashing with strong religious beliefs.
AUT University Professor of Pacific Studies Tagaloatele Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop said the move signified that the family system had stronger importance in Tongan culture than the rights of the individual at this time.
“In all Pacific countries, the cultural system and the family are the glue that holds society together,” she said.
She outlined the tension between the nation’s sovereign right to uphold cultural beliefs and the acceptance of a global mandate crafted by people outside their culture.
“If we used the signing of CEDAW as an indicator of women’s status, then Tonga does not measure very well but the women of Tonga may disagree. They have their rights, roles, and responsibilities in their society. They have the opportunity to become highly educated.
“They have one of the highest numbers of PhDs per capita,” said Tagaloatele.
However, she added that it was important to look at Tongan women’s customary place in society in terms of the changing times, democratisation, and youth views of their rights and responsibilities.
Tagaloatele said that the family rather than the nation or a global mandate was still the main unit of organisation, protection, basic human needs and economic security as Tonga did not have strong welfare support or legal systems. As such, issues about child protection or protection in general were always dealt within the family.
“Whether dealt with fairly or not, it is the only institution they have access to.
“The question is, is the family still protecting and maintaining Tongan women’s status?”
Kai Ping (KP) Lew is in the 2015 Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies paper and is doing an honours programme in journalism at AUT University.