Joseph and the Legend of Sustainable Development

"Tkun imħajjar tibni xi università, kellimni" Photo: DOI
“Tkun imħajjar tibni xi università, kellimni” Photo: DOI

From comparing environmentalists to developers, to making claims on sustainable development and investment, there is much that doesn’t figure in Joseph Muscat’s talk about the “south”

This week, the prime minister announced that a deal had been reached to build a campus for an American university in the so-called “south” of Malta. The Maltese government has offered land– 90,000 m2 – to the Jordanian investors.

The reasons for this? The “south”, apparently, could do with some more development. Two power stations, a Freeport and a couple of massive landfills (remember Wied Fulija, anyone?), and SmartCity clearly aren’t enough.

Ever the strategist, Muscat also announced the development of a nature park in the same breath as this considerable development project – because clearly, even a natural park will require some form of construction.

The Times of Malta reports: “It was evident that not everyone agreed with decisions taken – whether it was environmentalists with regard to the educational institution or developers with regard to the natural park,  but the government was seeking a balance based on sustainable development, Dr Muscat said.”

Meanwhile, MaltaToday reports: “Previous governments were reluctant to take any decisions out of fear that it would upset a lobby, be it developers or environmentalists.”

Developers or environmentalists? Putting the two on the same level is naive, ridiculous, and offensive. Developers, a relatively small group, are people who stand to make serious money from any project, as indeed they have, countless times. They make the money for themselves, and they give some of the money to the political parties.

Indeed, what Muscat is calling “balance” could probably be read as “keeping developers sufficiently happy, but not so happy that we couldn’t give them another stretch of land to build on in the next 15 years”.

Incidentally, I recall that a few months ago, the Malta Developers Association had laid claim on the very strip of land our Prime Minister has offered up to the Jordanian investors.

Meanwhile, there is no money in it for environmentalists. Indeed, there is nothing in it for them personally as much as there is for the entire nation, particularly when we have to point out that building on virgin land by the sea is probably not such a good idea when the rest of the island is already built up (and some of its buildings empty).

Muscat continues:

“However, decisions must be taken for the sake of Malta. The economy must grow sustainably but there will be a sustainable development and not a concrete jungle,” Muscat argued while speaking during an interview on One Radio.

Last I checked, the concrete jungle was already there. Sticking to the south: Marsaskala itself is quite the concrete (and franka) jungle, Smart City is as concrete as it gets (rather than the abstract concept that the PN used as election fodder in 2008), and looking further north, Tigne Point is a concrete oasis.

Malta has lost the right to talk about “sustainable development” on its own soil twenty years ago, when admittedly the term wasn’t in fashion. At this stage, any development which does not entail the replacement of previous structures cannot be called sustainable.

Moving on from the environment, let’s talk about money, because if there’s anything that can justify further development is the magic word: “investment”.

“‘We want it to be set up in the south because on average, the income of families in the south was the lowest in Malta, with families earning some €2,500 below the average,’ he said.” “He,” being H.E. Dr Joseph Muscat.

It would be interesting to hear how exactly this project will help raise the income of these low-earning “families”. Will these low-earners be employed with the university and get paid €2,500 more p.a.? Will their current employers decide that, given they’re from the south, they deserved a pay rise? Or will the high-ranking university staff living in the area raise the average so much that it makes up for the shortfall?

Indeed, what could possibly happen is that the project will increase the desirability of the neighbourhood, particularly for apartments, and the increased demand could in turn hike up the price of property in the area – as has been the case around the world, and which we are seeing happen in Malta, thanks to the influx of high-earning expats who are pricing out locals in the more desirable areas of the island.

It’s also worth asking the question: who is actually going to be employed at the university? Most probably, many of the low-ranking jobs will be given to local workers – cleaners, canteen staff, security, possibly administration. But as for the higher-paying jobs, it is likely that the posts will mostly go to people with no ties to Malta whatsoever – as recent experience in other sectors has shown.

Muscat claims all this will benefit Malta; whether that Malta will belong to its people by that stage is another matter altogether.

On not having a clue what you’re writing about

I have spent a good two hours of my day trying to write my thoughts on a topic I thought I had a very clear opinion about. The more I thought about it, the less I managed to write, and the more I read what I wrote it became clearer I wasn’t really qualified to talk about what I wanted to talk about, mostly because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.

So I said nothing.

In praise of showers

This is a Grohe Dreamspray shower head. It is not the shower head I have at home, which costs significantly less. But just look at that beauty.

It is August. The month hot enough for businesses to pack up and do nothing for a week or two. August is also the time where the sea reaches a temperature where it stops being refreshing. The shore gets crowded, and, inevitably, dirty. So I’ve been taking showers. Lots of them. As cold as they get (which isn’t very cold). Sometimes four in a day, and not for hygienic purposes, so no soap. If I’m lucky enough, the water pipes round the building wouldn’t have become piping hot themselves, and some water which is still in the 20s soaks away the heat off my boiling body.

I’ll sometimes turn on the hot water tap. The geyser wouldn’t have been switched on, so it acts as a vacuum flask of sorts – keeping the water cold, in this case. Then the water starts approaching my body temperature, and I turn it off.

Sometimes, the water pressure is weak, and the cold water trickles uneasily over my hot skin. I want relief to be rapid. As the insecure droplets make their way round the Sahara that is my skin, I feel them defect to my body temperature as they rise to meet it. Cooling down is not a trenches and gas job; it has to be a blitz. Or perhaps a sustained blitz.

I barely need to dry myself. Actually, drying myself would rob me of the best part of the shower, and that is what happens after. I dry my feet in a towel, mop up the really wet parts, and with my skin still moist, I bask in the current of a fan or – if I’m lucky – an air conditioner, as the moisture on my skin amplifies the chill.

The consolation doesn’t last long. Very little, in fact. I try not to move too much and make sure I stay in the way of the fan. The fan, to my right, makes it hard to hear what anyone’s saying to me from outside my room, the door of which is also to my right.

The heat makes me hard of hearing.

The fan, the shower, they drown out all sound, and in quenching the furnace that is my body, I am alone.

Goodbye, old friend

Fr Eric OverendToday, a man died. His name was Eric Overend, he was 47, he was a priest, and a good man.

He was a man who cared about what he did – his sermons, the church, the people he served, the environment, his family. His feet were stuck to the ground, his head not only looked up, but around him, too.

He knew how to laugh, and he knew how to make other people laugh.

I’ve known him since I was a child, and he was a true friend to our family.

He only went to hospital today.

I can’t believe I’m writing about him in the past tense.

Rescinding Peter Andre’s Cultural Ambassador title might be better for Valletta’s reputation

His Excellency

So, apparently the luminaries at the Valletta Local Council (Malta’s capital city) have decided that the latest person to be named Cultural Ambassador for the Unesco World Heritage Site is none other than a reality-TV star who is best known for marrying a glamour model with assets the size of Mosta. His prior claim to fame was his 1995 hit single “Mysterious Girl”, which is admittedly quite catchy (in a syphilitic way).

Andre was in Malta ostensibly to attend the Malta Music Awards, where he performed three numbers while the ITV crew filming his reality show recorded the proceedings. How a reality-TV star 18 years past his sell-by date as an artiste would have added any street-cred to the ailing festival’s reputation is anyone’s guess, but that’s beside the point.

At one point before the singer’s jaunt through the island, someone whose only encounter with culture was when he/she ate live yoghurt decided this tabloid star would be a perfect ambassador for our little capital, her with the baroque buildings and the Piano-designed parliament. Instead of keeping this thought to themselves, this person decided they would propose this at the council meeting, where the gaggle of yoghurt-eaters thought Peter Andre, with his tanned complexion and washboard abs would make the perfect ambassador for Valletta’s culture.

Before anyone could rush in to explain that Valletta would not be the European capital for bacteria which make Stilton the best cheese on the planet and which turn milk into yoghurt, but rather of the culture which includes music, the visual arts, architecture and theatre among many others, the council unanimously voted in favour of the motion.

The reasons given by IT laureate and Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli were, (and here I quote Teo Reljic’s timely report on the matter):

“Valletta will feature prominently in his show on iTV which has an average viewership of 1.7 million viewers and a peak viewership of 1.9 million viewers. An additional 300,000 viewers watch reruns of his show.”

Now, I am not a particularly voracious reality-TV viewer, but surely if a production company is happy enough to film a reality TV star carrying out mundane tasks such as speaking on the phone and going shopping, a visit to a beautiful city in the sun would rank highly on the filmability stakes, regardless or not of whether Mr Andre is bestowed with honorifics.

Instead of Andre and his viewers being inspired to aspire for higher achievements than just being himself by Valletta’s grandeur, the city stooped down and made him her representative.

I’m going to make a bold assumption here. If at least a third of the 1.7 million viewers have a relatively functional intellect and take Andre for what he is, i.e. the ex-husband of a woman with massive tits who scored a summer hit sometime in 1995, chances are they don’t take him seriously.

And if that is true, they are likely not to take any city council presenting him with awards any more seriously either.

In the same interview, Dr Dingli “deemed Andre to be an adequate celebrity to represent Valletta, citing the fact that Valletta’s nomination as European Capital for Culture in 2018 promotes a wide-ranging sweep of the definition of culture: ‘from high culture to pop culture and even particular niches’.”

Now I’m sure that Andre will have many good things to say about Malta, and I’m sure he’ll be able to say them well. He is, after all, someone who is making a living just being himself, and that means that he probably isn’t stupid. But sadly, the non-anthropological understanding of culture (which is the one presupposed when speaking about “capitals of culture” and “cultural ambassadors”) does not normally stretch wide enough to include reality television.

By appointing Andre as the ambassador of something he is no longer involved in, the Valletta Local Council is risking making a laughing stock of the city (or at least of itself) in what is more narrowly understood as the cultural sphere.

If anything, the derision expressed by many in the local cultural sphere is proof enough that Culture is alive and well outside of the Valletta Local Council offices. If this derision can get the council to revoke its award, or at least make enough of a noise, Valletta’s reputation may yet be saved.

Or we just might get a handful more ITV viewers to our shores.

Mintoff is Dead. Malta, Rest In Peace.

Yesterday, Dom Mintoff, aka Il-Perit, Is-Salvatur and a host of irreproducible expletives, died aged 96. Without doubt one of the greatest leaders (qua leaders) Malta has ever seen, his death, much like his life, has been met with mixed reactions – most of them strong, and most of them extreme.

On one end of the spectrum, devotees to Is-Salvatur, whose walls were adorned with a fading photo of Mintoff, perhaps with one of his bespoke belt buckles, and a candle burning underneath, went out into the balmy August night in a vigil for the man who made things better for the lower classes when first in power.

At this end of the spectrum, people brought up in Labour households saluted Mintoff through their Facebook profiles, ascribing everything from the welfare state to the invention of sliced bread to the recently deceased Rhodes Scholar.

At the other end of the spectrum, you had people like Daphne Caruana Galizia, who sounded out a long-anticipated (elsewhere on her blog she stated she had a bottle of champagne ready for the occasion) “allelluia” upon hearing the news, wishing he rot in hell and counting him lucky for not dying as his ally Gaddafi did.

To her, and to many people of her generation who won’t touch Labour with a barge pole, Mintoff symbolizes lost opportunities, state-endorsed violence and Mars bars and toothpaste smuggled in from Sicily. Daphne’s contemporaries might not be airing their opinions for all to hear, but she is not alone in breathing a sigh of relief.

In death, as in life, Il-Perit is, as he was, a divisive figure. His rift with the Maltese Church decades ago is still fresh in the collective memory, one generation inheriting the festering wounds of the other. If you think otherwise, think back to last year’s divorce referendum campaign. Better still, don’t.

On this spectrum, there is a middle ground, invisible, inaudible, because those standing there would rather shut up than reiterate what should now be history.

Some of us want to unlearn Mintoff’s legacy, want to see others in shades other than red or blue, and yearn for the day when electoral campaigns are fought on what happened in the past five years, not 25 years ago.

While Joseph Muscat looks keen to capitalise on Mintoff’s large following, going on to contest on his district and fielding Dom’s daughter in the forthcoming (?) general election  – the Nationalist Party is keen to remind Daphne’s generation of the Karmenu Vellas and Alex Sceberras Trigonas which have somehow managed to survive from Dom’s cabinet into the 21st century.

His framed portraits may have faded from his ’70s heyday, his candle may have been spent, but his mark on Malta looks set to stay.

Mintoff is dead. He may rest in peace, but may Malta?

Patriotism gone wrong

I love my country, I really do. I am proud that my forebears were hard workers who kept their heads high when under foreign rule, I am proud of the courage and resilience they showed when the world was at war, and I am even more proud that their descendants – including myself – can count themselves part of a union which sprung out of a desire for unity between nations which years before were at each other’s throats.

Among the things I love about my country are the sea, the food and the fact that because of our small size as a nation, we think of ourselves as a unit more than bigger nations do.

Because I love my country, I am even more saddened and frustrated by the things that aren’t quite up to scratch. Unbridled development, ignorance and the state of public discourse all make me very, very angry. Did I not love my country, I would not let this get to me. I am, if you will, a bit of a patriot.

But before being patriotic, I am human, and because I am human, I strive to be humane. This means that I will never let the love for my country get in the way of being kind or compassionate to other people who need it. My country, after all, is made of people too.

Which is why I was pretty shocked to read a Facebook conversation between a Maltese emigrant living in London and the administrator of a page called “Reżistenza Nazzjonali (Malta)”.

The emigrant in question said:

“As a Maltese who left Malta to live in Europe, I exercise my right to live in 35 nations freely. May that right eventually grow for me to live wherever I want (just as birds do)! May that right be the same for any African who wants to go wherever!”

To which the “patriot” replied:

then like birds coming to malta (sic.), may any of your africans (sic.), entering here illegallly(sic.), be met by led (sic.) coming out through the barrels of a thousand shotguns. hunting season is open guys.

The administrator of the page must have probably felt quite smart with his response to the avian analogy employed by his interlocutor.

But his answer is a clear incitement to violence and hatred, the likes of which do not belong in a civilised society which needs to be protected from the “subtle African invasion” it is currently undergoing – if this page’s credo is to be taken seriously.

This supposed patriotism is nothing but a (thin) veil masking the xenophobia our island mentality breeds, which when you think of it is strange, particularly when you consider that Tripoli is closer to us than Rome is, and that Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet. It is this marriage of what lies to the north and south of us that makes us truly Maltese – and a true patriot should not ignore that.


Update 14/06/2012: The post in question has since been removed; I don’t know whether it was an epiphany on behalf of the admin or a slew of reports that did it, but it’s gone. Good riddance, I say.

Do you want to be Prime Minister?

In democratic states, the government and the ruling party are distinct from each other. The PN’s strategists seem to have forgotten this in their latest campaign.

As part of its share in the long-drawn electoral campaign going on in Malta, the Nationalist Party is offering one of its supporters the chance of being Prime Minister for a day – along with a free iPad 3.

The blurb on the party’s (extremely good looking) new website,, goes as follows:

Ever imagined what it would be like to be Prime Minister of Malta – even for just one day? Here’s your opportunity to find out.

On Tuesday 19th June, the winner will be in for a treat: get to meet the press, form your own cabinet, tour the corridors of Auberge de Castille, discuss your own policy ideas with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and get ready for a day full of unique events and media attention.

If this were satirical, it would have been nothing short of brilliant – mostly because people fit to be Prime Minister would not consider being responsible for a eurozone country in 2012 to be a treat – unless they possess a masochistic streak/miraculous powers.

Meeting the media

The first part of said treat is meeting the press. If you’re desperate for fame and popularity – a trait a prime minister should at least try to conceal – then yes, meeting the press is indeed a treat. But things are different in the real world, and it is hard to take this comment at face value.

Let’s take it seriously, for a moment. If any prime minister finds meeting the press to be a treat, there are two ways of understanding that.

  1. The Prime Minister – along with the government – is doing an impressive job. Everything is going to plan, and everyone, including the opposition press – cannot help but notice that and keep asking him how he does it.
  2. The press is toothless, not daring to hold the government to account and ask the important – often uncomfortable – questions on the issues which do not figure on government press releases, questions which, when asked via email, would take ages to be replied, despite their urgent nature.
    It’s either that, or the press assembled in this case is the state broadcaster and the ruling party’s media, in which case a prime minister could get away with murder (and have it reported as a suicide).

Cobbling a cab together

The second treat on offer is forming one’s own cabinet. This is even harder to take seriously. I can easily choose my own (pretend) cabinet. I call the Alliance of Awesome, and it is made up of my old chums from school, some assorted family members and my girlfriend.

But choosing a proper cabinet is anything but a treat – just ask Lawrence Gonzi, who in 2008 had “lamented quite bluntly” to the US ambassador that the elected crop of Nationalist MPs offered a “limited talent pool from which to select ministers that are matched well with their competencies and are able to form an efficient working government”, wishing instead he could pluck people from industry or academia to be ministers instead. A perfectly reasonable lamentation, particularly considering the small size of the island, the even smaller number of capable people and the small portion of the latter who actually run for office. But a headache nonetheless.

Choosing entails leaving people out – and that only means unhappy backbenchers, some of whom have been quite a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side throughout this legislature. Quite the treat.

Tour of Castille

Being shown round Castille is a treat in itself. Being shown round by the man in charge is a privilege.

An issue of identity

Despite calling the campaign PM for a day, a couple of sentences into the blurb and the illusion is shattered (and shat on) – Lawrence Gonzi is still prime minister, and you only get to discuss ideas with him. Which is to suggest that PM for a day is really the opportunity to hang out with the PM for a day, rather than be him, which I suspect is where heir apparent Joseph Muscat stopped reading (provided he already has an iPad).

This is all well and good; after all, better a prime minister who actually was elected rather than one who won a party-sponsored competition. A tour round Castille with the media present is not such a bad thing – I saw Lawrence and Kate Gonzi in a similar activity last year and the pair had a grand old time with the assembled schoolchildren.

Party pooping

There is, however, a snag, and a nasty one at that. This contest is organised by the Nationalist Party, while the post of prime minister, despite being occupied by the leader of the Nationalist Party for the best part of the last 25 years, remains firmly a governmental position.

In Malta’s case, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Nationalist Party happen to be the same person, but that is historically contingent, and not necessary.

It is in totalitarian states that the ruling party and state are one and the same, where the army and the police serve the party and government is characterised by flagrant corruption, clientelism and blatant injustice.

In democratic states, the government and the ruling party are two different entities.

A party seeking re-election could do worse than observe that distinction, particularly in an electoral campaign.

Put us out of our collective misery and let Malta win the Eurovision

Long before the Eurovision Song Contest overtook Scouting Jamborees as the campest worldwide events, the small island nation of Malta has been rabidly devoted to the contest, with the Virgin Mary being overtaken in the devotion stakes on final night.

And yet, despite the best efforts of Chiara and Ira Losco (2nd, 3rd, and 2nd), Malta has never won the dubious honour of hosting the contest, making it the musical equivalent of a lovelorn teenager (let’s call her Melita) being walked in on while about to lose her virginity to the the one that she loves. Three times.

In retrospect, these might have been blessings in disguise (much like the teenager, whose teenage relationships were all blighted by two-timing boyfriends and whose friends were all knocked up by the time they sat their A-levels), and with finances and space not being at a premium, one might be led to the conclusion that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.

Bollocks to that, I say.

For one thing, the contest’s 120 million viewers will actually get to know what a beautiful country Malta is, unless all the “postcards” are produced by Where’s Everybody and feature “flash mobs” in Republic Street instead.

For another, the intensified media scrutiny on the island might highlight some of the issues the country faces – such as the plight of irregular migrants – and get the European community to do something about it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Malta hosting the contest is that it would be a real headache to find a venue to host it in. With a population of 410,000 people, Malta has no real use for a venue hosting up to 23,000 people, but the headache (and the finances) entailed to create a suitable venue for the contest might actually save the country millions.

How? The government is currently mulling the thought of building a tunnel between Malta and Gozo, a smaller island with 31,000 inhabitants, which may cost anything between €156 million and €1 billion. Given these kind of project’s tendency to go over-budget, we might be looking at a €1 billion bill. Which is an awful lot of money.

With the prospect of having to organise the contest looming close, the government would have another populist hobby horse to saunter around on – remember – the entire nation is Eurovision-obsessed, as opposed to the 31,000 souls (and goats) living on the sister island, and instead focus on making the Maltese Eurovision the best in living memory by spending less of the money it doesn’t have.

And much like our teenage girl, the country could be spared its misery and move on with its life.

In short, vote for Malta. Please?

UK residents can vote for the Maltese entry by calling 090 15 22 22 21. Calls cost 15p from a landline, considerably more from a mobile. (It’s 51p on Vodafone). 

Valletta retains its McD (and its dignity)

That most humble of cities, the city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen and Malta’s incumbent capital city has apparently been spared the disgrace of having its only McDonald’s outlet closed – a move which threatened its status as capital for reasons outlined elsewhere on this blog.

As someone who has the capital at heart, having been partly raised there, I welcome this “last minute development” (read: €€€), and suggest that the fast-food chain’s presence in the capital be reinforced, ideally by one or more outlets.

Know of a possible location? Suggestions below.