In politics, things are seldom what they seem. But the reality of Tonga’s economic crisis is otherwise. The 16/11 riot has become the government’s quaintly bitter way of assigning blame for poor leadership. The future economic, political and social success of Tonga lies in strong leadership. This kind of leadership establishes a vision for the country, works with all ministries, parliamentarians, privy council on such things as budgets and appointments, focuses on public/private partnerships and significant investments that will help revitalize its capital towards a sustainable, lively and attractive place to live, work and play, sees & understands both the bigger and smaller pictures, inspires excellence, speaks for the government and its people, and represents the country to the outside world.
Both government and pro-democracy have spent more time offending each other than embracing; this is simply not interesting, intellectually. Failures of leadership, impurity of their motives, and smallness of their politics have stopped them from dealing with their political and economic crisis effectively. Both sides have successfully taught us a good lesson about how easy it is to slide into the morass. Isn’t it time the government and pro-democracy get past the things that divide them and focus on the things that unite them and/or find a satisfactory middle ground, or balance? It will be utterly foolish to try and work on the economy separate from human settlement. This type of detachment is severe as we have witnessed on 16/11 as well as what history has taught us. Leaders can ill afford to ignore the simple fact that civic spirit ultimately translates into economic success. The country not only is without economy and direction but has also lost its soul in the process.
A recent editorial comment in the Matangi Tonga by David Tapiaka calling on Tongan overseas to invest in Tonga is a romantic and admirable impulse. The old adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” describes the situation that exists in Tonga.
Government seeking $100 million soft loan from China for the reconstruction of its downtown (CBD) compels me to question the value of government assets destroyed in the riot. The damage was mostly private assets of which it should have been insured. So why is government seeking $100M from China rather than working with investors, developers, land owners, businesses and communities to invest in the reconstruction of its CBD? Could it be that government is using the riot as an excuse to finally buy back Shoreline at $60 million? It is said that in a recent cabinet meeting, the king demanded his money and he wants it now. Is this how government leaders trying to keep their jobs by taking care of the king’s interest and paving the way for its people to dramatically sink into poverty for generations to follow? Is this $100M loan the leaders’ achievements and legacy to be remembered from generation to generation?
For all practical purposes, investors are interested in smart and great cities. What constitutes a smart and great city can be answered in many different ways. In many sustainable and green urban planning conferences and trainings I have attended in San Francisco through Urban Land Institute (ULI) and National Organization of Industrial and Office Properties (NAOIP), we discuss how to build better communities. Investors, developers, City Council, communities, focus and special interest groups are not only interested in generating revenue for the City and returns for the investors and developers but creating a city that works well for the people who live in them. There are many great cities that exist such as London, Paris, Rome, Prague, Venice, Barcelona, Madrid, Zurich and Copenhagen in Europe, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Seattle, Portland in the United States, Vancouver in Canada, and Curitiba in Brazil. I have visited and worked (design & construction) in most of these cities. Each of these cities is sustainable and with their own unique characters such as urban significant density (mixed used of lively & walkable retail, vibrant civic assets [museums, orchestras, sports] residential, offices), public transportation, public spaces and natural environments (parks, waterfronts, open spaces), culture, architecture, pedestrians are completely separated from vehicular interferences and attitude of its residents. All these cities I mentioned above are inundated with tourists. Not only tourists are spending their money in these cities, but it generates employments, revenue for the city that helps improve public services (i.e., schools, hospitals, police & fire stations, roads, transits, etc.) as well as eliminates blighting influences. Tonga can focus on tourism and start small by picking up the trash, filling the pot holes, cleaning the streets and sidewalks and capitalizing on their assets; a killer waterfront as one of them. Unless government comes up with a vision on how they can create a smart and great capital with a seductive spirit, they are not going to attract investors and visitors.
The aftermath of the 16/11 riot left pro-democracy leaders and some of the People Representatives unpopular and simultaneously crushing the hope of many towards a successful political reform. In fairness to the People Representatives, they are elected to parliament by the people and cannot be unlawfully fired by the king or his cabinet. Their responsibility is to the people though the riot reflects a deep ambivalence, not to mention confusion on the voters and Tongan spectators from abroad. It is easy to focus on the moment when it is either rapturous or depressive. Going back in time to 2005, government’s response to the public servants strike led the country to economic paralysis; not the riot in 2006. The purpose of the strike was meaningful but it did not articulate the impact of 60%, 70% & 80% pay increase it would have on the country. Sixty percent increase on $20,000 annual income is $12,000 vs. $2,400 on $4,000 annual income. Those who marched and supported the strike were probably in the low and mid level income and some of them are now decision makers in various departments. Government’s solution to the strike was a no win situation for government, public servants and the country as a whole.
In 2006, government was not paying too much attention to public opinions and progressive movement for political reform. Government went as far as ignoring their own internal tensions on economic reform by creating more Ministers and Head of Departments that no doubt exacerbated their economic crisis. Government and pro-democracy were operating somewhere between tolerance and menace without any particular interest in forming a government that would balance these competing events, tensions and conflicts. In an effort to keep the low-level tension from becoming a full-blown conflict, Prime Minister, Dr. Feleti Sevele signed the People Representatives proposal for political reform. This last minute appeasement was futile for the riot set fire and reduced the capital to total ruin leaving the public more fickle, self-contradicting and less passionate about and unsure of their future.
The public servant strike and the riot are costly catastrophes to the country. Knowing how government responded to these situations and predicting its future response is no longer a matter of political and academic interests. The economic crisis and lack of resources in Tonga should help its people especially leaders (both government and church) become more effective and more creative in solutions on sustainability with the money they have left or do not have.
The buck starts with a good leader; it does not stop there. A good leader is an agent for reconciliation and has the ability to inspire excellence and instill hope in their people. If the king and Sevele fail to honor their people in meeting the challenges they currently face, the people will fail to honor them. Former German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer once remarked, “We are born under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizons”. Creative solutions towards sustainability are not a luxury especially in the case of Tonga; it is a need to do with solidarity not only with this generation but with the next generations.
Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people.
Mele Payne Lynch
Mlpayne222 [at] aol [dot] com