Selling ourselves cheap

We cannot expect to exploit the poor and asylum seekers, or only seek to reap profit on the rich who set foot in Malta

Manoel Island can be taken as a metaphor for an economic process taking place across the entire country
Manoel Island can be taken as a metaphor for an economic process taking place across the entire country

The ‘territorial dispute’ currently raging over Manoel Island is revealing of a deeper underlying pattern affecting the country as a whole. 

Since summer, the Gzira local council has been demanding access to Manoel Island – the only undeveloped area in a densely populated urban zone – after the leaseholders erected a barricade to keep the public out.

The island was leased to the Midi consortium, along with Tigne Point, in the 1990s, subject to various conditions including the restoration of heritage sites, the development of a residential/commercial compound, and the provision of public recreational space. 

Almost 20 years later, only the restoration of Fort Manoel has taken place.  The rest of the island has not been utilised at all, while the general public has been denied access even to the 62% that is intended for public use.

But Manoel Island can also be taken as a metaphor for an economic process taking place across the entire country. Before even questioning whether the leaseholders are justified in barring entry to the site, one must ask why the place was leased out for commercial development at all. Inherent in that question is a perspective that views ‘public land’ only as a commodity to be exchanged for investment.

Without doubting the importance of attracting national investment, one must also weigh the cost of such transactions. Not only are we sacrificing irreplaceable public land for the benefit of the few... but the type of development that is taking place is itself largely faceless, sterile and devoid of any real social merit. In the case of Manoel Island, Midi unveiled plans for a hotel at Fort Manoel, a shopping complex and a casino-hotel at the historic 18th century Lazaretto, retail outlets and luxury low-rise apartments, a helipad and superyacht marina, while taking over also the foreshore including the current swimming spot beneath the fort to build a water taxi pontoon.

From the proposed plans, the ‘public park’ appears to occupy considerably less than the original 62%. But the real problem is that we are converting a truly unique place with unlimited potential, into the sort of complex that one would find anywhere else in the world: from the Spanish Riviera to Dubai to Singapore. The developers are not even offering anything different from nearby Tigne Point – with its luxury apartments and shopping centres – or Paceville, with its hotels, casinos and entertainment spots. 

In the wake of the near-abduction at Tigne Point, it is not surprising that more people are growing concerned at the ‘airportification’ of Malta. Their concern is not limited only to the development of largely identical commercial enclaves. There is also the issue of community identity at stake. 

These projects serve the needs of a growing influx of people who come to reside here without any sort of civic bond with the country. The solution to the reality of our free market and free movement of labour is certainly not to repel people; but there is a danger that Malta might morph into a nondescript concrete jungle, inhabited by a population in constant transit.

We are also losing sight of such basic necessities as open space for people to enjoy. There is something intrinsically predatory about our tendency to value land only for what can be built on it. Ultimately, people want to live in a place where economic exigencies are balanced by quality-of-life concerns. Experiences such as Manoel Island illustrate that the only emphasis so far has been on money, with scant regard for people’s quality of life.

This extends to other areas. If Malta is to attract new residents we must also to promote a better understanding of who we are as a people, and what we also expect of people who seek to work and partake in our society, or become citizens. We have to welcome people with the expectation that they can belong and become valuable partners in the community. We cannot expect to exploit the poor and asylum seekers, or only seek to reap profit on the rich who set foot in Malta.

Ultimately the sea-change Malta is currently experiencing needs to be managed better. We need to promote a civic sense of ‘Malteseness’, promotion of language skills in Maltese and English, respect for dominant cultural traits, learning more about the way the Maltese live, and build a positive awareness of our culture. Often, we sell ourselves cheap: as a centre for business and labour, with money being the common denominator of what Malta has to offer.

A Putinesque charade

On a separate note, there can be little doubt that questions asked by the ‘general public’ at the Labour government’s ‘Gvern Li Jisma’ roadshow are all planted questions that do not reflect genuine citizens’ concerns, but only serve to massage the egos of government ministers. The most recent edition with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and deputy PM Louis Grech in attendance was a case in point. 

Muscat and his Cabinet might find it harder to answer questions of real concern to the public. As things stand, the only genuine moment to emerge from this ‘Putinesque’ charade was Moviment Graffitti’s pig-mask protest. Whether government will really listen or not, however, is debatable.

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