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The Devil is in the Details

Moss Beach,California, USA


On the evening of Tuesday, May 1st, 2007, I was prematurely giddy about my first opportunity of listening to the Prime Minister of Tonga, Dr. Feleti Sevele in San Bruno, California addressing the church leaders and a few Tongans who attended the meeting. With the current unfortunate state of affairs in the kingdom, my recent article on leadership and my impulse to participate, I went to the meeting with a sense of hope that the prime minister would be delivering an authentic message about leadership and his visions to unite the government and the people in a common cause towards political, economic, cultural and social development.

Sevele, in a wearied demeanor detailed the government's policy with over-the-top emphasis on the riot on 16/11 being the major cause for a $100 million loan from China as well as the necessity to extend Martial Law (a.k.a. Emergency Powers). Sevele noted that this money is primarily going into the development of infrastructure (i.e. sewage, drainage, power and widening the road). In other words, it is to rebuild things that were due to government's negligence and were not directly affected by the riot on 16/11. This of course raises a number of issues. Where does that leave those that have lost their businesses in terms of government assistance? If the private sector does not recover from 16/11, then how does government expect to generate the revenue needed to repay the loan? Is government's action being dubious? Listening to Sevele's speech, I became optimistically pessimistic about government's intention of assisting businesses affected by the riots. As long as businesses continue to suffer from 16/11, the people will continue to blame the pro-democracy leaders for all the ongoing hardship that is experienced and leaving the government blameless. The people's natural pragmatism and critical thinking are their only means of protection from a system that breeds much confusion (or could it be corruption).

When Sevele was asked by one of the audience whether there has been a political reconciliation, for economic development cannot be successful without reconciliation, Sevele responded that government is detaching political reform from economic development; an action I do not endorse. He added that government has forgiven the pro-democracy leaders in their hearts and a separate team has been assigned the role of political reconciliation. He delegates (relinquishes?) the responsibility to another team for covering up mistakes and showing weaknesses in admitting their shortcomings. A strong leader does not only reconcile the opposites, but speaks the truth, conducts the orchestra as well as facing the music irrespective of dissonance it presents. Government can apologize for their failure to recognize and respond to conflicts and growing tensions effectively. Pro-democracy leaders can apologize for their lack of patience in catalyzing change.

Sevele did not come off sounding chastened, new or energized. He failed to persuade people who believe in one thing to believe another. He brought their own set of dramas and addressed them in the meeting. I did not want to hear politics. I wanted to hear a straightforward plan that aligns with the public health and purse; a plan that will promote a quality life that people need and deserve. From what I gathered in his address, he has the instinct and motive to avoid necessary conflict with the King. With this $100M loan from China, he may be willing to tolerate high unemployment rate as the price of buying back Shoreline at several tens of millions of dollars and contracting with Chinese companies for the reconstruction of the capital.

"Looking East" is one way to safeguard the King's interest. China does not interfere in Tonga's political turmoil. China as we all know is providing financial aid to Sudan while staying clear of its political activities. China's interest in Sudan is not about humanitarian or environmental values but aid-for-oil. There is no such thing as "no strings attached" with any loan from China. Soon enough, the strings attached will manifest themselves. China may have very well demanded that all the contracts to perform the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa will be from China. China loans Tonga $100 million and China gets the $100 million worth of work out of it and Tonga pays China back the money. Benefit to Tonga may or may not ever eventuate.

Capitalizing on Tonga's assets in addition to foreign aid, loan from China and remittance from Tongans overseas will help sustainable development. Other than tourism, farming is probably one of the assets that have not been fully deployed. The continued commercial squash farming has become resolutely unglamorous and head-hurting complicated process. While there are both positive and negative impacts to this commercial squash farming, no one has been able to describe its full impact on the public and economic health, environment and now migration. There are approximately 2,000 kg of pesticides being used annually in squash framing. This poisons the land, water, food and ultimately the public health. At one time, growing bananas on a large scale for export was quite lucrative until New Zealand shut the door claiming there was a fruit fly problem in Tonga. Farmers do not have the capital or the expertise to challenge the decision from New Zealand quarantine. Farmers have asked government for aid to have scientist or agriculture experts to examine the issue of fruit fly. If the conclusion is that there is no fruit fly problem, then there should be no restriction on exports to New Zealand and Australia. When the issue was raised at the economic summit, the Minister of Labor, Commerce and Industries admitted that his team does not know how to address the issue, therefore instill a feeling that the job cannot be done and back off. New Zealand is hiring growers from Tonga because they foresee the demands Australia will have due to the drought. Tonga could be looking ahead as well and start diversifying their local agriculture. Strong leaders follow trail and do not back off when they encounter difficulties or is it a question of competency that prevents government from collaborating with local farmers. The people should be increasingly concerned, if not restive about Government's inaction and how it impacts the health of the Tongan soil, the purity of its water and economic growth that will allow the people to put food on the table, create employments, generate income for the families and opportunities for better education and quality lifestyle.

With regard to Shoreline, the issue I have is what is the impact on government and the public if the power continues to be managed by Shoreline until their lease term expires? And how much of the $100 million loan will be used to buy back Shoreline? People wanting the power back because of current ownership (the King) is over simplifying the issue. Isn't the real issue affordable and reliable power which does not bankrupt current and future generations? How can the public want back what they never really had? The decisions about Shoreline have never been subject to much public scrutiny or review. Does government really believe the public is so naïve and is willing to buy back the power no matter the cost?

The devil is in the details, no doubt. Once the details are known, we will know who the devil is. In fairness to Sevele, he is undoubtedly experiencing the one of the nastiest turns in the history of political and economic reform. He is caught between the conflicts of reform and the compromises necessary for the monarch to preserve the system as is; such is life in a tiny and politically promiscuous kingdom. Sevele's appointment, as observed by many as a moment for political healing, but his disinterest in narrowing the distance between the government and people, his willingness to put the brake on economic growth and impose unsustainable costs for the long run leaves Tonga more vulnerable and fragile.

Government cannot be chasing wealth at any cost and clean up later. This is a great opportunity for Tonga to do something bold, think and plan longer-term. There should be a strong focus on land use, quality design and a development that will guard against a repeat of the 16/11 catastrophe and/or natural disaster. While the ocean may rise dramatically due to global warming, Tonga's economy is sinking dramatically due to the leader's failure to create a living and working community. New development could and should display an amazing amount of strength and civic pride. Despite different ideas and plans, government and individuals should be working toward a common goal; solidarity and regeneration. And if the king continues to look East, there is a lot to learn from a scratch-built metropolis called Dongtan; this marshy island near Shanghai will be a city that will rise (fully realized) from nothing and the world's first green city. Every block is engineered in response to China's growing environmental crisis.

In leadership, it is about "command and connect" and not much about "command and obey".

Mele Payne Lynch

Mlpayne222 [at] aol [dot] com