By Sri Krishnamurthi of Pacific Media Centre
A New Zealand youth MP Shaneel Lal is speaking out against education policies that exclude some Pacific Island people from Pasifika programmes and scholarships as unfair.
Lal, who is eighth generation Indo-Fijian, applied for a Pasifika scholarship at the University of Otago only to be told he had to prove he had “indigenous” Pacific Island ancestry because Indo-Fijians did not qualify.
He is not the only one to be rejected on the basis of race – even though he was born in Fiji – but he aims to take the matter up with the Education Minister Chris Hipkins.
Lal told Stuff: “I know I’m Fijian. I’m eighth generation Fijian. I have indigenous [ancestry] along the lines I just cannot draw a family tree and say, ‘this person is an indigenous person’.”
Lal said the policies were unfair as Indo-Fijian people experienced many of the same challenges as other Pacific Island groups.
He said that some universities that did not recognise Indo-Fijians as Pacific people “kind of highlights the subtle racism that’s going on in our Pacific community”.
The Auckland-based student said he struck the same problem when applying for Pasifika leadership opportunities while at secondary school and his cousin had a similar experience when she tried to apply for a place in the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) at the University of Auckland.
‘Not enough evidence’
He was told his passport and birth certificate were not enough evidence of him being of Pacific descent and he would need to get a Pacific community leader to vouch for him.
He said that would be difficult having come from Fiji to New Zealand in 2014.
The irony in his circumstance was that he was chosen as youth MP for Minister for Building and Construction, Minister for Customs and Minister for Ethnic Communities Jenny Salesa, who was not responding on the issue.
When asked for a response, a spokesperson from her office said: “Yes, but probably not from the minister. It will be around definitions and criteria.”
Meanwhile, Professor Vijay Naidu from the University of the South Pacific based in Suva – where all Fiji citizens are recognised as Fijian and the indigenous people are recognised as I-Taukei – had a historical perspective on the issue.
“Some years ago, Loraine Pillai who migrated to New Zealand many years ago and retired as a senior high school teacher over there wrote to then Prime Minister Helen Clark about Pasifika identity and Indo-Fijians,” he said.
“Her response was that Indo-Fijians were Pasifika. Apparently, Aotearoa had arrived at this decision when [founding Fiji prime minister] Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara had expressed his disaffection with the absence of Fijians of Indian descent at an official reception hosted for him.
“Back to Loraine’s letter. She wrote her letter because, at a workshop for school administrators in Wellington, she had been told by a woman by the surname of Wendt that Indo-Fijians were not regarded as Pasifika people.”
Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said universities set the criteria for Pasifika scholarships, not the government.