Michael Falzon | Sunday, 15 February 2009

They never heard of Jason Azzopardi!

While on a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip in Indochina and thereabouts, Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi keeps, incredibly, coming up to my mind!
Seeing the hustle and the bustle of the thousands of people in Bangkok and Hanoi who do everything ‘al fresco’ on the city pavements, I can only conclude that they have never heard of the guy.
In these parts of the world, people not only place tables on the pavements when they have a shop nearby. They even set up their stand-alone barber stalls; knife-sharpening workshops; grocery and hardware stores; and open air restaurants complete with kitchens leaving the streets and pavements stained with the cooking oil that goes to prepare so many hot snacks. The reek of oriental frying is unmistakeable.
I am sure that Jason would have not liked it one bit and had he been in charge, he would certainly order his army of ‘anti-alfresco’ reservists to swoop down on all this activity, checking whether everything is in order and whether the size of the stall, the number of pots, kilograms of all kinds of meats and all kinds of vegetables being sold – let alone the chairs and tables and the canopies – are all according to permit.
The mayor of Bangkok would make a killing if hires Jason to do this job for him. On the other hand he might not… seeing that he wants to be re-elected when the next election is due. The mayor of Hanoi would probably be in a similar position, except that elections might not bother him so much, and the task might be easier for him.
The trouble is that if they had to carry out a Jason Azzopardi-style exercise in Bangkok, it would not remain Bangkok. It would become a ‘Malta in Southeast Asia’!
All countries and peoples have their own ways of doing things – their traditions and their culture. I realised this so many years ago when on another trip I found myself outside the Stazione Termine in Rome and, as I always do in any European train station in winter, I decided to buy some freshly roasted chestnuts from the one of the portable stalls plying food outside the station. As soon as I made my wish clear, the Italian hawker, produced a paper bag that holds the number of chestnuts that he was to supply for the indicated price and then added another two – just out of ‘respect’ to his customers of course. The fact that more than two chestnuts were later found to be rotten did not reduce the munificence of the act in any way!
Later on in the same trip, I found myself outside Zurich train station. And what did I do? I went for that bag of freshly roasted chestnuts, of course! The Swiss hawker put the paper bag he produced on the certified scales that was on his stall and filled it with chestnuts. On perceiving that he had somewhat given me some fraction of a milligram more that I had bargained for, he simply removed a large chestnut from the bag and replaced it with a smaller one! I haven’t stopped hating Swiss precision since that traumatic incident.
Whether we like it or not, Bangkok culture, Swiss culture and Maltese culture are what they are. Forcing the Maltese to behave like the Swiss will never produce the desired results, whatever the ‘carrot and stick’ methods that are employed. We will always keep acting like the Mediterranean people that we are, even more akin to Neapolitans than to Romans. Membership of the EU has not metamorphosed the Swedes into Greeks or vice-versa. Not allowing some space for the culture that pervades the mentality of the Maltese people is a silly mistake on Jason’s part, albeit one that might have long term consequences.
Acting in a way that is obviously ‘strong with the weak’ and ‘weak with the strong’ makes it even worse. How can he justify his petty persecution of canopies on public pavements while he closes both eyes to the situation in the zone of Little Armier, where people have for years broken the law with impunity by using public land to build their summer shacks, with some making a business out of the whole shenanigan. I know what I am saying as when I tried to do something about it, I was left alone to burn my fingers alone, nay my palms, arms and body. The lack of support from my then Cabinet colleagues – let alone the then backbench – was overwhelming. I could almost hear them chant: ‘Burn, Michael, burn!’
Launching a ‘hotline’, whereby people may anonymously report others for ‘illegally occupying’ public spaces, is the very culmination in Jason’s stubborn insistence to ignore our culture. As a lawyer and an MP for so many years, he should have by now realised that people in Malta ‘report’ their neighbours of wrongdoing not because of some public spiritedness but because of spite and jealousy. It is a convenient way how one ‘gets even’ with one’s neighbour. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ is, perhaps, the Christian tenet that has failed most spectacularly in Malta Cattolicissima!
Jason’s report-thy-neighbour-anonymously system has probably been a runaway success. The problem is that Jason might be fooling himself by thinking that he is on a sure winner. He is in for a surprise.
A surprise so big that, I am sure, it will keep on haunting him for the rest of his life. At the last PN meeting before the general election last March, while moving around in the crowd, a middle-aged lady approached me and asked me whether I recognised her. My answer was negative. She then went on to ‘remind me’ that as Minister of Education, over 12 years earlier, I had refused to authorise leave with pay that her husband had requested. I probably had a good reason for doing so – a thought that I confirmed when I saw the look of disdain on her face. People might forget that you helped them but they never forget that you refused to do something they wanted – however correct your decision might have been.
This country refuses to be a humdrum place where everywhere runs by clockwork, whatever Jason Azzopardi says and does. Over 30 years of communist rule have not persuaded Saigon (sorry, Ho Chi Minh City) to behave like Hanoi. Five years of Jason Azzopardi will leave Malta exactly where it was.
It will never be a Switzerland in the Mediterranean!


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