Are the Maltese just lazy sunbathers?

Too jaded to question stagnation? Not worth the effort to sound our anger against the powers to be? TEODOR RELJIC asks whether the Maltese have nothing to protest about as revolution fills the air in the rest of the world

Do the Maltese really have nothing to be angry about while the rest of its neighbourhood goes up in flames?

As the worldwide ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests – held in reaction against perceived economic injustices in the wake of the worldwide recession – rapidly spread across geographic boundaries and recalling, in some ways, the Arab Spring, it seems Malta remains conspicuously absent from the universal chorus of dissent.

“There is nothing to protest about,” wrote Alex Grech – blogger, social media researcher and the driving force behind culture-listing – in an article outlining several reasons why the Maltese do not appear to be geared towards protesting, in general.

Really? Are we such inward-looking islanders jaded by the Mediterranean sun and pampered by cradle-to-grave welfare and vote-conscious politicians, that we have nothing to be angry about?

Here’s Grech’s proposition: ‘There is nothing to protest about. Malta is somehow managing to weather the global storm. People still have food on their table. We can watch the Rome protests on TV and the Internet without having to clean up the next day.’

But he goes on to give more varied and textured explanations, suggesting that, conversely, it might just be that the older generation remember the Mintoff years – characterised as they were by constant social unrest – that they dare not engage in activity that might even remotely recall those times (rather than just being politically passive), while also pointing out how maybe, the younger generation is in turn far too mollycoddled to even think about something to protest against.

‘To protest, you need a culture of protest. A non-hierarchical education system where a child feels comfortable to voice an opinion, question, discuss, debate and challenge without the covert (or real) chance of retribution. We bring up our children to believe that life is safe and fair – but also to respect the status quo. Someone else will take care of all that messy, political stuff. Just keep your head down, get through your exams, get your stipend when you get to University and the rest will unravel,’ Grech writes.

Economics rules

However, while the article appeared to have gained traction on the social networking site Facebook, not everyone is in agreement with Grech’s ideas. University student and former editor of student publication Realtà – which was caught in the eye of the censorship storm last year following its inclusion of Alex Vella Gera’s short story Li Tkisser Sewwi – even goes so far as to say that “Grech’s analysis is poor and naïve.”

“First of all Malta experienced a fair share of ‘action’ in modern history, to use Grech’s simplistic and ridiculous terminology. Do you know for example that the last general strike in Britain took place in 1926 while the last general strike in Malta took place more recently in 1958 and was even more successful?” Camilleri – a History and Economics graduate who has led a number of protests in the wake of his arrest following the publication of the Vella Gera story – said, while also suggesting a reason as to why an equivalent to the Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t happen in Malta:

“First of all youth have greater access to the labour market than their British, American and Italian counterparts, and second of all standards of living are not dwindling at the rate of other European and Western countries.

“However this does not mean that everything is red and rosy. The labour market in Malta is not meeting expectations, as precarious jobs are increasing, wages are not increasing according to the standards of living and all indicators show that the ordinary working man will face an increasingly more difficult economic situation in the near future,” Camilleri said, warning that Malta’s relative peace might not last for long:

“So we might not have had protests up until now, but the people’s dissatisfaction will be publicly evident if the economy does not meet expectations.”

Bipolar uprisings

Moviment Graffitti’s Andre Callus also disagrees with the idea that the Maltese are somehow hardwired NOT to protest, and points out that “public expressions of discontent are not absent. A number of well-attended protests, such as those against the hike in water and electricity tariffs [led by the General Workers Union] did take place.”

Callus emphases that the Maltese context should be taken into consideration: Maltese society and politics tends to be dominated by the ‘dualism’ of the Nationalist-Labour tug-of-war and that makes it difficult for non-partisan issues to be aired with any kind of real, defining fervour that could ultimately be the driving force for real social change. And this suggests why protests led by the Union Haddiema Maghqudin against the Labour budget of 1997, or the GWU protests against Nationalist budgets have had strong attendances.

“Protests which implicitly or explicitly express this dualism, are well attended. In the case of other kinds of protests, it is usually much more difficult to get people out on the street,” Callus said, also suggesting however that this is a process which is “still ongoing” and “still open.”

The strong presence of government in a small ‘hyperlocal’ community like Malta where the littlest of issues can be turned into a national headline, can serve to heighten the us-against-them tendency.

Where a popular cause can be safely invoked against government, mass mobilisation can be easy. In 1997, in protest against the cuts in university stipends by the Labour government, university and post-secondary students spent a week of mass demonstrations outside Castille and the parliament.

But it also served to reinforce the perception that where money problems come in, the Maltese are quick to react. Like the protests against water and electricity tariff hikes led by the GWU, there was little else to unite university students after 1997. The pecuniary interest in receiving the full stipend they had grown accustomed to (on average the stipend was cut down from Lm80 to Lm50 a month) was repackaged as a cut in government’s investment in their education.

Land and lucre

Patrick Galea, an MA Sociology graduate with a research interest in social movements, also recognised the unavoidable presence of the two major political parties, and how this fact tends to blot out any other, more ‘minor’ issues into insignificance.

“Consequently, those issues that carry little partisan overtones are seldom considered to be important by the general population and do not animate any significant amount of people, at least not enough to make protesting a viable option,” Galea said.

“Maltese perceptions are often insular and inward looking. As a friend of mine once said, the Maltese seem to expect that their news becomes world news, but world news is seldom deemed relevant to them. The immigration issue, and the many voices that seem to expect the world to stop and come to Malta’s rescue, is a case in point.”

Galea’s point is illustrated by its flipside – in 2005 and 2006 the short-lived right-wing Alleanza Repubblikana Maltaija led two well-attended protests against immigration. On the other hand anti-racism protests led by Moviment Graffitti have tended to attract less numerous crowds, usually younger and better educated but never achieving that critical mass that can counters the popular xenophobic sentiment we may have grown accustomed to in recent years.

But this also gives a clue into what Maltese people are sensitive about. Not just money, but the limitations of a small island: land. So the threats to a limited resource, such as the metaphorical ‘invasion’ from the sea of immigrants threatening to take jobs and welfare; or the threat of increased construction taking away green pastures, have resulted in popular demonstrations.

Chiming in with the overall sentiment, Michael Briguglio, leader of the Alternattiva Demokratika (The Green Party) and an early member of Moviment Graffitti pointed out how protests are very much present in Maltese cultural life, though certain notable political strands may be absent, or as yet underdeveloped.

“Civil society actors such as trade unions, environmental NGOs and civil rights NGOs have carried out protests, time and again… Of course, this is not to say that Malta is bubbling with activism. For example, Malta lacks a feminist mass movement or a coherent and broad-based students’ movement.”

In the past Briguglio has participated in various protests such as the protest against the Rabat golf course (a mass civil society action that gave positive results when the golf course was refused); the 2006 protest against the extension of building zones, and other environmental protests led by Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar which had captured the expectations of better environmental stewardship after EU accession.

Briguglio points out another curious form of protest (or non-protest) that appears to be peculiar to the Maltese – the tendency to not vote.

“My reading of this is that certain people do not vote in local or European elections so as to give a message to either or both of the major parties, which in turn, have access to the details of such voters, given that parties are exempt from data protection legislation. Such ‘protest’ gives a message of disgruntlement, which, in return is paid back through a political favour. Hardly a call for social change,” Briguglio said.

Grech didn't say he believed there was nothing to protest about. He was simply drawing up a list, not of his personal beliefs, but of possible avenues to explore in the debate. He was asking a rhetorical question, and answering with a list of possible reasons one could come up for our lack of desire to engage in active protest about international issues. And I stress, international issues. If you see the original post on Malta Insideout here, rather than the out-of-context quotes in the article above, you can clearly see that Grech was simply listing possible reasons, not giving a personal treatise on it all. The Malta Today article is based on a misreading of source material elsewhere online. He says, to quote accurately: "It's quite a Pandora’s box, worthy of study or a chat over a beer. The 14 reasons I list below are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive." Reading the commentators in your article and those in the comments' thread, it is clear that most do tend to 'believe' that the Maltese will rarely be galvanised into action through empathy with an international cause; only tending to bother when the issues are hyperlocal issues still stands. Grech was talking about international issues.
Jurgen Cachia
@Martin Borg & I M Schreck: Demonstrations, protests, strikes etc are usually at the heart of social change and absolutely essential to democracy. Without them you get stagnation (witness the GonziPN regime). In my 35 years of participation in demos and rallies I can say that violence is usually initiated by the forces of the state.
Noisy, chaotic and violent protests are organised by those whose interest it is to destabilize a government. Unless in matters of extreme dissent and terror, street protest should be avoided if the national interest is really at heart. If not, then that is another ball game altogether. It seems, at least at the moment, that our political leaders have realised this and thanks God are considering the national interest and not there party's. Let us hope it will remain like this in the coming future.
Joseph MELI
When I was a student we would organise protest marches at the drop of a hat even in the face of severe and heavily enforced opposition .The students today are all the privileged sons and daughters of the fat -cats living high on the hog and much too cool to be seen in public objecting to anything -except possibly no signal on their many technological devices or not enough ice in their Margharita's.Wimps and wusses the lot of them.
The fact that the opposition is holding back from calling the people to the streets shows a more sensible way of taking over the government through democratic means and with less damage for it to repair. It is enough that the local situation warrants an immediate change in goverment the opposition is letting gonziPN hang by its own rope as it struggles to hold on to power at the people's expense. What is the use of protesting when you have an insensitive government only pr-occupied by its single seat majority and would not take any action to make things right. The protesting will be shown at the polls in a civilised manner.