Monday 01 March 2021

Deconstructing foreign critique about Malta

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Much like parents who become defensive, touchy and over-protective if their children are criticized by other people, one of our national traits is that we build up walls when ‘the foreigner’ says something which is not nice about Malta.

Now, I would be the first to object if it is unjust, ill-informed and completely skewed criticism which depicts Malta inaccurately, but when the critique zeroes in on certain undeniable truths, it is more difficult to wave it away like a pesky fly.

When I shared the article, Malta: an island of lies and secrets, I felt it to be one of the most accurate assessments I had read in a while. However, the provocative title should have cued me in that, inevitably the objections would start flying in from all sides. People immediately pointed to the patronizing tone, which I agree can certainly be felt throughout, although frankly, I would be hard-pressed to find a foreign journalist writing about Malta who does not (whether consciously or unconsciously) adopt this tone.

However, I am trying not to let this tone get to me so much, because I have noticed that other nationalities do it to each other as well. Listen to how the British speak disparagingly about the US and Americans in general (who are collectively dismissed as being stupid, uncultured rednecks). Listen to how the Americans who have never travelled in their lives speak about other foreign countries.

In this particular instance I have not let the tone interfere with what the journalist, Matthew Engel was saying, because in the examples he gives, he is perfectly right.

Let’s take the opening salvo where he referred to the V18 celebrations: “No matter that much of the artistic material on the night was recycled. No matter that the pride evaporated when people had to wait up to three hours to get on a bus home.”

Come on, please don’t tell me he was exaggerating or that he got it wrong, because the day after the event, those two gripes were all over FB.

The picture he paints of the idyllic Malta of his childhood is also very familiar; in fact there are even specific groups with names such as Nostalgic Malta where people share postcards and old photos, describing with wistfulness the ‘way it used to be’. But even in those ‘innocent’ days, the Maltese were savvy and street-smart, something which was not lost on Mr. Engel, who throws in the apt Maltese phrase, il-Maltin jafu idawru lira (the Maltese know how to make money). Hands on heart, can we really say this is not true?

His depiction of the way partisan politics works here, with its football-like tribalism, and the promises of jobs and favours depending on who is in power, is also spot on. “..small-country back-scratching was part of the fun, especially because so many jobs were government ones.” We say all this ourselves, and even cynically joke about it, with the latest leaked Wasteserv emails further proving how casually politicians have always practiced the art of ‘recommendations’. So why does it rankle so much because a ‘foreigner’ points it out? Would it make it any more palatable if the person who wrote all this was Maltese?

Engel goes on to paint a fairly accurate picture of the rise of Joseph Muscat, and the current economic boom. But with the boom has also come the downside, and the journalist touches upon all the issues we have been discussing for a while now, including the charges of corruption, dubious dealings, the selling of passports, as well as the over-development and rocketing property prices. “Beneath the new apartments are top-end estate agencies (a €5.8m penthouse anyone?), branded stores and services aimed at the oligarchs who are seeking bolt-holes and footholds on the EU’s southern edge: a sunny place for shady people.”

I read that sentence and cannot help but remember how many times we ourselves have wondered, who exactly can afford to buy these million Euro properties?

He speaks about the traffic, the pollution, the uncontrolled construction sites, the inefficient bus system, the farcical planning rules and incompetent police – take any of these complaints and tell me whether you do not see them repeated several times a day on popular social media discussion groups.

Engel refers to the low tax rate for foreign companies which has brought in an enormous amount of revenue for the island, and whether this will all come tumbling down, and here again he is right. The rumblings at EU level for tax harmonization across all member states are coming closer.

Mostly, however, it is his description of ‘the new Sliema’ which hits the nail on the head: “a cheapjack Dubai or Singapore being built on shaky foundations.” I have lost count of how many Sliema residents daily lament about how their beloved, once charming, town has been destroyed beyond recognition.

So what is the beef? When you have someone taking a look around who remembers the island as it once was, who comes here not as a complete newbie but as someone who has a basis for comparison, I think we have to be grown-up enough to be able to take it . And for once, this journalist also spoke to a different cross-section of people. There were those who objected because he did not extol Malta’s plus points enough, but this was not intended to be a touristy promotional piece to encourage more people to come here (don’t we have enough already?). This was, after all, carried in The New Statesman, a political and current affairs magazine.

I believe if we are to improve the country and fix what is wrong before it is too late, we need to be honest with ourselves. I know it may be a hard pill to swallow, but we really need to get over this hang-up when foreign observers put their finger squarely on our sore points.

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