I first arrived in Malta exactly fifty years ago, have worked and visited here in various capacities for years. Our family now has long roots here: Two of our daughters and two grandchildren were born in Malta. Since I first arrived so much has changed on the islands. Anka jien rajt Malta tinbidel!
My plan for the next half hour or so is to explore some of these changes.
I’ll also pin-point some facets of Maltese society that have not changed and look at some of the things that have got out of hand and suggest why that has occurred.
I’ll then offer some tentative suggestions about what might be done to remedy some of the problems, but only for a few of them.
Plenty of problems remain.
Some of the things I say may be painful to hear, especially coming from an outsider, even from one who is long-standing friend of Malta and means well.
Besides, most of what I have to say has been said many times before by insiders. But in your hyper-charged political climate they have too often been dismissed as partisan, and so disregarded. But I am neutral, pro-Malta, cannot vote, and, dare I say it? include fervent Nationalists, die hard Labourites and colourful Greens among my best friends.
What has changed since 1956?
So much has changed since 1956 that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Malta finally ceased to be a colony and has become an independent country and a member of the European Union.
The once ubiquitous British presence has faded into a memory of those my age and is unknown to the younger generation.
You have become comparatively prosperous. We have friends who fifty years ago lived in a three-room house with eight children, who slept three to a bed and who cooked on a spiritiera and who could only travel by bus or bicycle. Each of these children today owns a large house with an ultra modern kitchen and bathroom and each owns at lease one car.
The population has increased from 320,000 to 400,000, yet the birth-rate has gone down. Now the average family has just two, not five or six children.
Your already severe population pressure now is increased by a yearly influx of some 1.2 million tourists. These new visitors have brought important wealth to the islands, but they have also increased the pressure on your already strained land, water and energy resources.
There has been a frenetic building boom that is still taking place. To quote Richard England, who quoted someone else: Malta has become a building site on heat.
Much of Valletta’s population has shifted to the suburbs and taken within your capitol’s liveliness as the country’s meeting and entertainment centre.
The residential pattern of your villages has changed. Younger villagers have abandoned the village cores and moved to the periphery. Their ‘Character’ houses have been modernized and occupied by wannabe natives, foreigners and middle class refugees from Malta’s urbanized areas in search of mythical anonymity, tranquillity and rural authenticity.
Many more women now work away from home than in the 1960s, and they have acquired more legal rights. But Malta still has the lowest proportion of working women in the European Union.
There has been an explosion in possibilities of communication and news media. Multiple radio and television channels increasingly broadcasting in Maltese, have replaced Rediffusion. All households now have access to telephones and/or mobile phones and no longer rely on the police telephone, a wealthy neighbour or the red telephone booth.
However there is no longer an independent daily Maltese language paper. Church, Union and political parties now control the news passed on to those who prefer to read it in their native language.
Since independence there has been a slow but steady increasing interest in the your literary, artistic, cultural, historical heritage and - despite its continued destruction – landscape and nature.
The steady decline in mass attendance, priestly vocations and the inability of the church to prevent the increase in external celebration of festi signal a weakening of the traditional power of the church.
With the end of British control, the power of local politicians has greatly increased. Ministers have become the new super saints, often dispensing patronage to the detriment of democracy and the long-term interest of your cultural and physical environment.
Partly as a reaction to the negative impact of this political development on the social and physical environment, civil society is emerging as a new political force. NGOs, and ad hoc citizen action groups increasingly are bale successfully to challenge poorly conceived government and private development projects.
The recently established local councils have also given voice to local communities and so taken over many of the responsibilities and powers formerly exercised by the government, political party and parish priest.
Fuelled by bank loans, affluence and driven by runaway competitive consumerism, oversized buildings, cars, buses and yachts are consuming more scare land and clogging Malta’s roads and harbours.
Encouraged by government, the tourist and building industries have urbanized much of our countryside and skyline.
Finally, the islands’ strategic location has in the past ten years been responsible for a swelling stream of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers enroute from Africa and the Middle East to a better life in continental Europe. They have profoundly disturbed the country’s ethnic homogeneity and exposed its latent racism.
In short, there have been many profound changes during the time I have been in touch with Malta. I’m sure there are even more. But I must move on. Some things, however, have not changed.
Some things that have not changed
There have been many changes, but many aspects of life in Malta have remained the same.
Malta’s small scale and high population density are constants that influence social interaction and perceptions.
Family is still the paramount point of reference and people still pride themselves on the strength of the family. Loyalty to the family is a fundamental and cherished value. This leads to what some have called amoral familism, although many would call it a highly moral form of behaviour. It s the existence of a set of values that hold that any action undertaken to benefit one’s family is justifiable, and that other people behave similarly. This set of values is widespread in Malta and in southern Europe. It leads to a disregard of the effects on others of your action to further the interests of your family – on neighbours, strangers, and future generations.
After loyalty to the family comes loyalty to partit and to political party. Political relations are still characterized by intense and destructive factionalism that effectively inhibits any form of cooperative long-term planning. The twin loyalties to families and party effectively obstruct loyalty to the state.
Family and party loyalty also feed another characteristic of Maltese life, the endemic patronage, clientelism, nepotism and the real and imagined network of friends-of-friends that can be mobilized to solve the problems of daily life.
Finally, still present, though weaker than it was, is the fear of reprisal, retribution for family, party or government. This blanket of fear rests heavily on the shoulders of so many. It inhibits persons from standing up and disagreeing, or even just questioning someone more influential or powerful. This fear for long muzzled the voice of civil society, but, very slowly, it is growing weaker.
Apart from examples of retribution, of which all of you can cite real or imagined examples, this fear also stems from an inculcated belief in what I would like to call the hierarchy of infallibility. This is the belief that combines fear of established authorities with a passive acceptance of their decisions and, above all, avoidance of open confrontation. It is a world view inculcated by the unquestioning obedience exacted by both the Church and the various colonial regimes, which for centuries dominated you, and, more recently, by the loyalty demanded by the two dominant political parties.
These then are some of the social characteristics that don’t seem to have changed much these past fifty years.
Problems: some things have gone wrong
A number of problems have also emerged in the past decades. These are the result of the interaction between the persistent social characteristics and the rapid changes that have occurred as Malta modernized.
One problem in particular has struck me most forcefully. This is the massive destruction of the environment since you became independent. Your countryside and architectural heritage, your coastal zone, the sea surrounding you, even your underground water supply and the air you breathe, quite literally have been and still are being raped, to put it harshly. They are being exploited for private gain.
Most people, but fortunately not quite all, until very recently have stood up, perhaps grumbling a bit, but doing nothing substantial to halt the growing desecration. Year by year it has become more pronounced. Malta, because of its small size, affluence and lackadaisical attitude to littering, has become, and I regret to have to say it, probably the dirtiest country in Europe. Many first-time visitors, the tourists on whom your livelihood depends, are shocked by the way you treat your countryside. Yet most of you do not seem to mind the filth. You have learned to live with it.
The recent “State of the Environment Report for 2005” says it all. A few choice passenges:
(The) landscape is threatened by increasing built-up area, industrial and coastal development, taller buildings on urban fringes obstructing views of historical centres, modern agricultural practices, increasing vehicular access, littering, poor standards of design and lack of maintenance.
The rising number of motor vehicles has serious implications for the environment, human health and the economy in terms of air pollution, land take-up, noise, and fuel consumption.
Nitrogen oxide pollution remains high in certain urban areas. The principal health effects are linked to respiratory system change, read asthma.
Malta’s ground waters are seriously at risk from over exploitation and pollution, risking the loss of Malta’s only renewable fresh water source.
And so on and so on, and on.
The State of the Environment Report for 2005 makes grim reading.
Why have things got out of hand?
Basically what happened is this. In the period following independence there was an initial lack of adequate planning and a laissez-faire attitude to development. During the latter days of the Labour Government a fairly blatant flouting of such planning regulations as existed took place in exchange for political and private advantage. Following the change of government in the late 1980s free market principles were uncritically introduced. This speeded up the privatisation of the environment. The increasingly powerful building industry successfully applied pressure to be allowed to build more and bigger hotels. Public impatience with the planning chaos obliged government to do something. By 1992 an environmental protection act, a development planning act, a planning authority and a structure plan were in place. These measures somewhat slowed down this privatisation, but it continued.
The policy of the government and Planning Authority appeared to support the generally held notion that ‘more is better’, more building, more tourist arrivals, more hotels, more houses, more and more things.
In the course of this expansion, regulations were and are still being flouted, bent and ignored. Illegal quarrying, building, and land occupation persists. Moreover, as the debris, the litter of affluence increases, it is dumped all over the island; in the periphery of villages, along the shore, at the side of major highways and along deserted country lanes in the heart of what is left of the island’s once glorious nature.
Why was and is this still taking place?
I attribute this to at least eight factors. I’m sure you can point to others.
1. The widespread south European ingrained habit of regarding all public space as a no-mans land.
2. The family centred orientation that is so much a part of the fabric of daily life in Malta condones the indiscriminate dumping of rubbish beyond one’s front door, in public spaces. It also accepts the illegal construction of buildings with total disregard the laws and regulation established to protect the quality of life of others and/or the nation’s environment. Amoral familism is opposed to the notion that individual rights and interests must sometimes be sacrificed for the common good. In short, it contradicts the principle that the state’s building ordinances and zoning regulations should be obeyed because they are right and just.
3. A weak sense of heritage at the grass roots level furthers the destruction of national patrimony. Though it is beginning to change, the notions of heritage and patrimony have until very recently remained foreign to most Maltese and Gozitans. Many – if not most – still look upon much of the country’s monumental heritage as having to do with others – the Knights, the British, il-Gvern, the tourists, with ‘them’, not with ‘us’.
4. The Friends-of-friends syndrome already mentioned reinforces the firm belief that friend sin high places in return for political support, favours or cash can regularise abusive building and other contraventions. The very fact that illegal construction activities are so widespread and that so few persons are successfully prosecuted and severely and publicly punished for this, validates this belief and encourages potential offenders to proceed.
5. You’re somewhat muddled and archaic legal system makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for MEPA successfully to prosecute building offences and remove illegal constructions, even if it had the resources to do so. The inability – or unwillingness – of the state to enforce its own building regulations encourages people to flout them.
6. Fear of retaliation for reporting or testifying against illegal activity leads to the Maltese version of Sicilian omerta’, collusion through silence. Such fear also reflects the lack of confidence in the ability of the state to protect the rights of its citizens, and thus it underlines the need to cultivate influential protectors. Given the widespread ethic of amoral familism, there may even be empathy with the offender: Halli lil kulhadd jimxi ghal rasu!
7. Your electoral system also furthers the friends-of-friends syndrome. The small multi-member constituencies generate intense pressure on politicians competing in the same small area to secure the votes of the same constituents. One way they can obtain votes is by personally intervening with authorities on behalf of favoured or powerful constituents when the latter run into difficulties. Friends working in MEPA have told me that political pressure on them at times is severe.
8. Finally, your various governments, whether left or right, blue or red, have invariably favoured the interests of the building and tourist industries over the interests of the people. These industries prioritise profit making, if needs be to the cost of the quality of life and heritage of fellow Maltese.
What can be done about this?
(Not much I’m afraid in the short-run. Much of the difficulty is rooted in your culture and your legal and electoral system. But make a start by seriously enforcing existing laws, severely punishing offenders and cleaning up your countryside. That you are still not doing so is evident. Illegal structures still stand and so much of your countryside is truly filthy.
To clean up your landscape is a enormous task. Is it because so few politicians venture into the countryside that they do not realize the extent of the mess there is and the scale of the task? Have they just got used to the mess? Serious funds and personnel must be made available to do this. A clean up will require hundreds of thousand liri and a large tasks force. Could not able bodied unemployed, asylum seekers and volunteers be mobilized? Once the job is done you will see that littering and dumping will abate..
Remove, without exception, all advertising billboards outside built up areas. They urbanise, cheapen and pollute the countryside. They give Malta the image of a nation of hucksters selling off its family silver. You have made a beginning – continue! There are still billboards about – 9 between San Gwann and Naxxar – remove them.
Be more serious, consistent and strict about enforcing you new littering penalties. This will require more funds, manpower and cooperation from the courts. A start has been made. Enforce it. Ruthlessly destroy all illegal built or modified structures whether in or outside development zones (ODZ) and enforce the polluter pays principle. Illegally built constructions are clearly illegal, and should be removed. Not just the boat houses of the little people. Some of the illegal structures of the rich and prominent should be taken down with high media coverage to set an example. This too will require more manpower and equipment, and possibly adjusting the laws to facilitate it.
Above all it will require courage and determination. Surely this is not beyond the power of a government serious about cleaning up its countryside?
Unless there are truly serious considerations of health and public safety, MEPA should reject out of hand and without further consideration any application for developments outside development zones (ODZ). This would save itself and the applicants much time, frustration and a great deal of money. Think of the incredible amount time and funds already wasted on the various ill-conceived golf course and villa schemes. All were or are ODZ.
Enlarge the MEPA Board to accommodate civil society interests by appointing a representative of the ENGOs, the Environmental Non Government Organisations.
Act seriously to eliminate the illegal use of ground water.
Take serious measure to control polluting vehicular emissions.
The measures taken to date are farcical. Everywhere you can see and smell their failure. Fine all polluters consistently and heavily.
Finally, actively support and participate in the activity of the ENGOs and citizens action groups opposing irresponsible and or illegal developments.
Need I go on?
All this has been reported and recommended before, numerous times. Most recently in Open Letter by the new Malta and Gozo Citizens Committee signed by over 400 persons who had the courage to stand up to be counted and to urge people to pressure government and local councils to address their concerns about the environment and not just the interests of the developers.
Other serious problems
Besides the growing destruction of the environment, there are many other serious local problems. To name a few, but there are many more:
- The growing influx of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants
- National health: obesity, heart, asthma
- Growing carbon pollution and warming
- Tourism’s uncertain future
- The impending transportation gridlock
- The questionable future of Maltese agriculture
All these problems, many of which are interrelated, require serious integrated long-term planning, not ad-hoc sectoral solutions, often made to appease strong political and commercial lobbies or current situations.
The most serious problem
To my mind the most serious, overarching and fundamental problem is the total absence of an integrated long-term national development policy.
Policy advice now is sectoral and provided by a range of separate government agencies that are often advised by selected consultants. Moreover the advice of consultants is as often shelved as it is adopted.
Everywhere most politicians think of the future mainly in terms of the next election, thus only three or four years ahead. They are structurally constrained to think in a short-term time-frame. They are also concerned that civil servants support their plans for the future. The research-based long-term vision of academics that could be vital for sound policy is largely absent, and can even be politically awkward.
Come to think of it, compared to Holland, academics in Malta generally maintain quite a distance from involvement with Government policy. Is this by choice or by design?
I suspect that this reluctance to become involved has much to do with the more general endemic apprehension, if not fear, of taking sides, of standing out. There is fear of being labelled, fear of falling from grace with one of the parties, fear of some form of retribution for taking a stand against the policy of government or party, fear of offending or jeopardising the careers of relatives. Perhaps not with out reason, for the past has demonstrated that retaliation for taking a stand is not imaginary.
An advisory body on integrated long-term government policy is needed. It must be autonomous and completely independent of the civil service and political parties. The model for the advisory body I have in mind is the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschapplijke Raad voor Regeringsbeleid www.wrr.nl). This is a government financed, independent constitutional body with a Board of Directors (five to eleven) composed of senior academics and prominent business executives, appointed for five year terms by the Queen. Politicians and civil servants cannot be Board members. Heads of strategic government departments may be invited from time to time to advise the Board, which has its own qualified research staff and can co-opt others if necessary.
The Board’s task is to provide advice on various developments and proposals that in the long term can affect society. The underlying consideration is that policy decisions – such as those concerning health, transportation, tourism, education, environment and scientific projects, and so on – that affect society for decades must take into account wider long-term developments.
I think that such a highly qualified independent constitutional body of experts who provide advice to government and parliament on integrated long-term policy is urgently needed in Malta.
Thirty-two years ago I gave a talk to the Institute of Directors on developments in Malta over the previous fifteen years. I set out a number of trends. Among other things I pointed to the urgent need to examine the likely long-range effects on your own quality of life of the steady increase in tourism. I also warned of the likelihood that economic and educational developments would create a market for unskilled labour from Africa and generate social problems.
My conclusion then is still relevant: There is urgent need for systematic thinking about social trends. No one can predict with certainty what will happen. But educated predications based on research can and should be made to advise policy-makers. Malta is so small and densely populated that there is no room for trial and error. Moreover, the pace of change everywhere is accelerating. Such long-term analysis is a job for specialists, for both theoreticians and practical men. It is not only the responsibility of government to see that such analysis takes place.
The University and Polytechnic are also responsible, as are professional bodies and other groups of interested citizens. Malta’s future is everybody’s concern. Hence it is everybody’s responsibility.”
I truly hope that I won’t be obliged to come back and haunt you after yet another thirty years with the same message.
Also read interview by Matthew Vella