By Richard Naidu in Suva
In my household, the 1970s BBC comedy Fawlty Towers is on regular repeat for family entertainment.
Only two years ago it was authoritatively ranked as the greatest British sitcom ever.
Starring the six-foot-five manic comedian John Cleese, it depicts life in a chaotic English seaside hotel.
Its owner, Basil Fawlty, is a man who thinks he is always right. His attempts to cover up small problems quickly turn into major disasters.
If you are already drawing comparisons between Fawlty Towers and the current Fiji government, you would not be the only one.
The most popular of its (only 12) episodes is called “The Germans”. A group of German tourists comes to stay. Basil doesn’t much like Germans but it’s money after all. Obsessed with not offending them he instructs everybody “don’t mention the war”.
The more he tries not to mention the war, the worse it gets. By the end of the episode he is doing frog-marching Hitler impressions and his guests are asking: “How did they ever win?”
This is what comes to mind when I think of our government and ethnic population data.
The more the government tries to pretend it doesn’t exist, the more public the issue becomes.
The media was treated last week to an 8pm peroration from Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Maybe he forgot that this was way past every media company’s news deadline (the editors of the Fiji Sun, however, seemed to extend theirs so they could report the speech the next day).
The head of the Statistics Bureau was fired, marched out from his office by security personnel.
That guaranteed another cycle of bad press as opposition parties and NGOs issued statements and social media lit up.
Immediately the critics reminded us of what happens when the Attorney-General loses an argument. Vice-chancellors get deported.
The media is attacked for bias. He blasts his own lawyers for losing a court case (the “winning argument” he says they missed would be laughed out of any remotely sane court).
Comedy aside, surely the question to ask about this disaster-prone policy is “why”? I know of no other nation in the world where the government tells the people “you are not allowed to know the ethnic breakdown of people in your own country because it is bad for you”.
Those who question this policy are attacked by the Attorney-General as “obsessed with ethnicity”.
But a lot of effort and drama has gone into suppressing what is usual (and critically important) demographic information. Now it has been applied to punishing the man who made it available.
All of this seems to suggest that it is the Attorney-General, not us, who is obsessed.
“It is a big issue,” he told the media. “If you are going to start having compassion for people based on their ethnicity, then you are losing your sense of humanity and that’s precisely what has happened”.
Really? When did that happen?
When did we all decide that we would “have compassion” for only one ethnic group? We’ve barely had time to understand the data.
It is mind-numbingly obvious why ethnic data is important to government policymaking and operations.
As opposition MP Lenora Qereqeretabua put it two years ago, calling us all “Fijians” doesn’t make us the same”.
New Zealand health authorities have heart disease profiles for Indo-Fijians, a tiny slice of their own society. Why? Because they are “obsessed with ethnicity”?
No, because they understand that different ethnic groups have particular physiologies, diets and even lifestyles. They use the information to save lives.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in Fiji the take up of coronavirus vaccines is lower in the indigenous population than for other races.
If everybody had the data, NGOs and health authorities could co-operate in working out why. They could upgrade the messaging and vaccination strategies to respond.
Because as we are all reminded, no Fijian is safe until everyone is vaccinated.
In the middle of the coronavirus it took weeks for the government to even start communicating virus information in vernacular languages.
Why? Were they instructed not to be “obsessed with ethnicity”?
We need to understand ethnic performance gaps in critical areas such as education and poverty, representation in business and professional life. If we don’t, how are we going to fix them?
Are we going to pretend that cultures and lifestyles play no part in these gaps? Are we going to pretend that we can’t use targeted programmes and information to close them?
Past governments – yes, those evil “past governments” which get blamed for everything bad — tried to respond to these gaps with “affirmative action” policies in education and economic support. They were not, in my opinion, very effective.
In my view they addressed the symptoms, rather than the causes, of these gaps. So (in my view) it was necessary to re-think the affirmative action policies, look critically at what had gone wrong, and re-design them.
The gaps have not gone away. But for 15 years we have not been allowed to talk about them. So that is 15 years in which we have lost the opportunity to look for new, imaginative ways to deal with the gaps.
Fiji is like every other multiracial country in the world. Race is a natural fault line.
You cannot paper it over by saying “the Constitution says we are all Fijians now”.
When things go wrong, in times of economic, social and political stress, people look for simple answers to their problems.
Sometimes they are encouraged to find those simple answers by blaming people who do not look like them or speak like them.
And that’s when things go wrong. The explosions of 1987 and 2000 are not so long ago.
Are we all trying to pretend that these things could not happen again?
The current government seems to think that warning us against racism, or arresting people who criticise Bill 17, will deal with the problem (or maybe solve their own future election problems).
But like everything in the stunted and short-sighted vision they have offered us for 15 years, this government doesn’t seem to understand the essence of nation-building.
Our government seems to think that a nation is built when everyone is brought under control by the government and ordered around.
So, apparently, we must all call ourselves “Fijians”. We must pretend that we are all the same.
We must not be allowed our own local governments in case they disagree with the people in Suva. We must not be allowed autonomy in the schools that in many cases our own forefathers or religious communities built.
In the midst of our worst ever health and economic crisis, non-governmental organisations, charities and private citizens should not get government support because they cannot be controlled.
Instead, government will do everything. Dial 161 and take your chances.
But nations are not built like that. Nations are built by their people, helped by (not ordered around by) their governments.
Citizens do the building
In a well-run nation, it is the citizens who do the building. It is the citizens working together, in business, in community organisations, schools, health, in advocacy for minority groups, in town and city councils, who build.
They know what their communities need and respond to those needs.
The citizens, through their councils and committees and charitable trusts, argue with and criticise and demand things from the government. Because after all, the people who run the government are supposed to work for them.
It is citizens who can come up with the ideas and demand action and support from the government to deal with the obvious ethnic differences in income and poverty levels, in education and in other critical areas of national life.
But how can they do that when they don’t have the information and are not allowed to talk about it? All we have to talk about, it seems, is what will be the next episode in our very own series of Fawlty Towers.
Richard Naidu is a Suva lawyer, media commentator and former journalist in New Zealand and Fiji. His workmates think he is a bit like Basil Fawlty. This article was originally published in The Fiji Times and is republished by Asia Pacific Report with the author’s permission.