Opinion – By Tupuola Terry Tavita
There’s a buzz in the kingdom of Tonga these days. Come August, landmark electoral reforms will be implemented and most likely, the first ever democratically-elected government will take office.
Perhaps, to some degree, the optimism – with a whiff of uncertainty – that has taken hold of the streets of Nuku’alofa is akin to Apia in the run up to the January 1, 1962, independence.
Under the reforms, 16 seats (up from eight) will be made available to the commoner roll while only seven (down from nine) will be appointed by the king from the nobility ranks. [PS editor: According to last November's final report by the Constitutional and Electoral Commission, the reform recommendations will increase people's seats to 17 (up from nine) while the noble's seats will remain at nine.]
This year’s general elections will signal the curbing of His Majesty’s political powers – and influence – which has been absolute since modern government, under the heavy yoke of traditional governance, was introduced in the kingdom.
“It is a strange feeling to many people here,” says respected Matangi Tonga editor and social commentator Pesi Fonua.
“For so many years many have been fighting for more political power. Now that the king has said ‘here’s your power’ – it’s almost as if they don’t know what to do with it.”
But it’s not just politics that’s putting a smile on the common folk’s faces.
The city center is brimming with activity.
Three years since riots burned down half this city of 60,000 residents, the economic and business outlook is better than ever.
Shops are opening up left and right, and no less than six major Chinese-funded infrastructure developments are going up in the capital.
“Investors have been flying in and holding talks with government officials,” says Fonua.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about but the fact that they’re here and have shown interest in putting money down is reason enough to be optimistic.”
Just last week, billionaire Richard Chiu of Warwick fame unveiled plans to build a five-star resort at picturesque Taunga Island in the Vava’u group.
That project may well take precedence over a similar Warwick development here at our own Vavau – that’s been on the backburner for some years now.
Attractive to investors
Blessed with over 300 pristine islands and a land system where every inch of property is owned by the crown – as opposed to the fickle clans-based landownership issues in Samoa, investors are finding tough to wade through – Tonga certainly has the leg-up on Samoa when it comes to attracting over hotel investors.
Sweeping investor-friendly legislation now before Parliament pushed by a leaner, meaner and certainly hungrier business regime in the kingdom and Samoa could very well lose its comparative edge in the regional tourism stakes it took years to build.
Tonga is certainly making a splash.
Though the numbers don’t show it, least yet, tourists are flocking to its beaches and outlyer excursions.
Driving through Nuku’alofa, there is much to learn and admire about Tonga and Tongans. From its coral roads to tidy farm fields and old churches that dot the landscape.
The soil despite its coral makeup is mould-rich and rock-free making it very fertile for crop production. Like its women folk, fruits and veges in the kingdom are unusually plumper and tastier. Certainly sweeter.
With a penchant for 18th century English society, Tongans are classic-inclined.
Old Wesleyan churches built of coral slab hand-quarried from the reef still serve their intended purpose as place of worship. After 140 years.
No less impressive are the timber churches – similar to the aesthetic-looking Protestant Church on Beach Road – gothic landmarks that still retain its sweet sandalwood aroma as you walk in – after over a century in existence.
“Our ancestors built it and generations of our family worshipped here,” a comely local girl pointed out.
“It’s very special to us.”
It’s also a timely reminder for us in Samoa where new inhabitants and new preachers alike have become only too bulldoze-happy to pull down old churches and make way for defacing concrete monstrosities.
New legacies most of us can ill-afford and will take generations to pay off.
Watching funeral proceedings the other day, I was impressed with the exchange of hundreds of yards of hand-painted highly-regarded tapa – similar to our traditional fine mat practice – as each group came to pay their respects to the deceased.
Notably absent was the presence and exchange of container-loads of canned fish as we do at such occasions in Samoa.
And it beggars the question, when did the barter of Made-in-Taiwan processed low-grade farmed mackerel ever creep into our Samoan culture? When did we create this totally unnecessary demand on our people? Because the only ones that ever benefit from it are the wholesale stores.
Food for thought.
But in saying that, while there are many positives to learn from Tonga, there are also many things we do better in Samoa than they do in Nuku’alofa.
Beautiful as the Tongan isles are, the kingdom does not possess the geological and biodiversity Samoa has in abundance – mountains, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, etc.
What they do possess and Savali has noted, is that the average Tongan is genuinely concerned with what is the common good, the common interest. As opposed to the what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that has pervaded our Samoan mindset.
If they want better roads, then nobody would stand in the way of building better roads. If they want hotels that create hundreds of jobs, then everybody pulls out all the stops to make it happen.
Maybe it’s because they lived under an absolute monarchy and never really had a taste of real power. Or maybe it’s because they never had to go through the pains of colonialism and deal with issues such as land alienation.
Tongans do have a high level of tolerance and they’re certainly not complainers. They may hold conservative values but they’re very forward thinking.
The new business oligarchy is proud and hungry. Eager to dispense of the label of being called a Pacific backwater to neighbouring Fiji and Samoa.
And that’s cause for Samoa to step up. Because the Tongans are deserving of anything they’ll achieve. And that will certainly be at our expense.
Tupuola Terry Tavita is editor of the Samoan government newspaper Savali.