(Submitted to The Times of Malta way back in July 2011. Never published. )
One usually starts an article with a quote from a scholarly work. I shall use Air Malta’s in-flight magazine as my source, for it is in a sense Malta’s CV. During my last flight, I noticed no less than four adverts for strip clubs. This would have been unthinkable a mere twenty years ago.
This mundane observation reveals the extent to which this country has changed, and to the widening gulf between political discourse and reality. In the forty-odd years since 1964, Malta became an independent state and a European Union member. It transformed its economy from agriculture and ship repair to ICT and the service industry. The population ballooned by 100 000 and life expectancy shot up to 80+. People’s expectations rose accordingly.
To ignore either the external causes or the resulting social change is absurd.
The divorce referendum result is no surprise at all. Our politicians should have seen it coming. It is merely the confirmation of the EU referendum result of 2003. The real surprise back then was our blind provincial obduracy. After being granted the best accession terms possible, and after years of dancing with dictatorships and diplomatic U-turns, the country almost blew its only chance to join Europe.
Those of us who voted Yes did not merely vote for EU membership. We voted for a European way of life and a European mindset. A mindset whose roots may go by the name of Judeo-Christian or Helleno-Roman – the jury is still out – but one which is always tempered by humanism. Above all, it is bathed in the light of rationalism. It is this last bit which seems to escape us.
A few months ago the government launched Vision 2015, a strategic road map which aims to make Malta a centre of excellence. A fine objective, but the project is destined to fail unless change starts where it counts: in the mind.
We can hardly expect every Maltese to be a paragon of forward-looking, European, rational thought. But it is our right and duty to demand this much of our political leaders and policy-makers.
There is a total disconnect between projects which symbolise the very essence of modernity – Vision 2015, SmartCity, e-Government, Brand Malta, the Edward de Bono Institute – and policies based on reactionism, inertia and downright fallacy.
Some of the arguments put forward during the divorce debate – Yes campaign included – are a case in point. But it goes much deeper. When the Libyan crisis erupted, all sorts of fantastical and unrealistic military capabilities were being attributed to Gaddafi’s regime. These erroneous facts were then used to justify Malta’s policy of non-intervention. Our recurring debates on issues as diverse as firework factories, childhood obesity, renewable energy or tunnels to Gozo are replete with unscientific claptrap.
Where are our scientists and intellectuals? Their silence is deafening.
The divorce debate laid bare the twin evils which plague Malta: irrationality and immobilism. They are united in a blend of isolationist provincialism which is often mistaken for “defence of traditional values”, “national pride” or, lately, “prudence”.
I am no blue-sky thinker and this is not a call for some Brave New World. I am convinced that my generation is worse off than the preceding one. I therefore believe that in order to secure the future we must defend the achievements of the past. And what are these achievements if not democracy, justice, liberty and reason? All the rest can and must be adapted and reformed.
We face unprecedented demographic, environmental, geopolitical and economic upheavals which require new paradigms. Malta has the technological, administrative, military and diplomatic tools to engage with a changing world. Yet on many matters our government and civil society keep treading the familiar path to the bastion of rigidity. It is a stance which is at odds with the proactive action proclaimed in so many strategic road maps.
Not only must we accept change, we must embrace it. The alternative is to be swept aside by the tide of history. Malta is a minuscule overcrowded country at the extreme southern periphery of Europe. It is difficult enough to live with the disadvantages that fate has thrown at us. To relish our status as the eternal misfit is inexcusable.