Ratu JoneThe apparent absence of debate, particularly among the Taukei, is attributed by commentators to ‘a culture of silence’. Open, vigorous public discourse is not yet a feature of Taukei or Fijian society at large. It has been explained in terms of a cultural milieu in which authority and communal structures coalesce to muffle expression. While media controls and self-censorship have not helped, it is the epistemology, ways of thinking, of the Taukei that invites closer scrutiny.

‘Silence’ does not necessarily mean consent. It is the lack of oral and written expression about issues passing for acquiescence. From the colonial era to the present, Taukei took refuge in silence until the political climate improved. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog sites etc.) represent a contemporary variation, allowing disaffected Taukei to express opinions anonymously.  An assertive few, on opposing sides of the divide, eschew such inhibitions in that virtual world. Safe haven notwithstanding, it is outside the wider public domain. Sanctuary afforded by ‘silence’ comes at a price: uncontested interpretations of issues and events become historical truth and received wisdom.

Reluctance persists among Taukei to ventilate issues of interest openly whether the traditional system, sustaining Taukei culture, the Taukei language, qoliqoli, the protection of land or the status of indigenous people post-December 2006. It is compounded by several factors. Blood and kinship ties remain significant. Personalities matter more than issues. Opinions are an extension of the person and difficult to separate. And the ubiquity of connections renders security in numbers of larger societies meaningless.

Consequently, leaders take offence easily because there is no distance between them and their audience. The ‘personal’ element permeates and colours all relationships: traditional, political, economic, social and religious. Social interaction is complicated by the relative frequency with which people meet at weddings, funeral gatherings, other ‘oga’ (traditional/social obligations) and settings. The implications for free-flowing discourse are obvious: reluctance to disagree for fear of offending.

Communal thinking is interwoven with this ‘connectedness’. The group is preeminent and the individual secondary. The latter is a component of the whole. His/her utility lies in the credibility and weight lent to the consensus. It is sometimes self-evident, but more often a combination of interventions from key persons or groups and circumstances. There is little leeway for the self-validation essential for the flow of ideas.  Seniority determines one’s right of audience and “who can and cannot speak”. Empowerment constitutes work in progress particularly for women and youth.

Advocating a public position necessitates taking a stand. It is not as simple as Nike’s ‘Just do it’ slogan. Consequences arise: it obliges others to react. This may be unsettling if they prefer not to be involved. Individuals or groups are identified with a position, limiting their room for manoeuvre with possible repercussions. In June 1977, as naïve law students, my good friend Graham Leung and I wrote to the Fiji Times criticising then Governor-General Ratu Sir George Cakobau’s decision not to invite Mr S. M. Koya to form government. The National Federation Party had won a plurality in the May election. My fleeting temerity was swiftly aborted by the opprobrium my politician mother endured.

Dissembling is a valued cultural trait: maintenance of relationships and social cohesion is the highest good. Consensus is valued and dissent discouraged. Where it arises or is anticipated, the preceding discussion and ensuing outcome are framed in general terms. It allows those present to project a ‘consensus’, interpreting proceedings to their benefit. Individuals usually reserve judgment during this process to gauge the tide of debate. Throughout this exercise, details are glossed over and face is saved. Either way, it does not allow for closely argued exchanges characteristic of intellectuals and academia.

There is also a sense that indigenous identity is a Taukei prerogative. While not a view I share, the assumption is only Taukei can appreciate the essence of indigeneity. Disinclination to participate in public fora is the result.  Interestingly, the extent to which Taukei are committed to “a common and equal citizenry” of the present dispensation is intriguing. Ambivalence in acknowledging this country belongs to all Fijians continues. Fuelled by a perception that shared identity has been unmatched by reciprocal gestures, for example as in recognising the autochthonous and unique character of the Taukei language. A simple illustration: Taukei wince at references to the Taukei rather than Fijian language, bespeaking inferiority.  Furthermore, use of the phrase “iTaukei” in English displays egregious unfamiliarity with the Taukei language itself (legislative fiat aside – The ‘i Taukei’ reference is mandated by Fijian Affairs (Amendment) Decree No 31 of 2010).  ‘I’ partially serves as the article as in ‘Na i Taukei’ (the Taukei) or ‘Na i Vola Tabu’ (the Holy Bible). The phrase ‘the iTaukei’ in English (lit. ‘the the Taukei’) sounds repetitive, awkward and pretentious to Taukei ears, especially when uttered by non-Taukei.

These minor irritants nevertheless demonstrate how the ‘culture’ curtails more honest dialogue. Taukei keep these feelings to themselves, stoking victimhood. Shared, it serves to heighten awareness and sensitivity among Fijians although that process may be confronting. Those observations about use of ‘i Taukei’ exemplify the spectacle of unchallenged perspectives morphing into accepted orthodoxy. Wadan Narsey has expressed concern about this trait in analysing possible causes for the ‘hibernation’ (Narsey’s description) of ‘Fijian’ (i.e. Taukei) intellectuals.

The manner in which Taukei relate to authority bears on this discourse. The hierarchy of the traditional system, although modified, continues to apply between leaders and led today. Forthright, direct comment yields to endorsing the prevailing orthodoxy. It safeguards the position of followers in terms of anticipated largesse, guising their actual opinions. Taukei are accustomed to dealing with their rulers in this way as a means of self-preservation. The extensive protestations of support for the government, some of which is doubtless genuine, may be understood in that light.

At the same time, some perspective is useful. While the culture has tended to reinforce the status quo by limiting challenges to authority, individuals capable of strong leadership have been able to buck the system to attract a following. Navosavakadua, Apolosi R Nawai, Ratu Emosi of Daku, Sairusi Nabogibogi and Ravuama Vunivalu formerly, Butadroka, Ratu Osea Gavidi, Bavadra, Rabuka, George Speight and Bainimarama more recently have lain claims to prominence.

Their populist appeal and charisma, the promise of a better future and a pointed rebuke to the ‘establishment’ for supposed failings partly account for their success (though varied).

Levelling of both the Taukei community and wider society, particularly since independence, reflects an irreversible trend: those from more representative backgrounds dominating leadership. That dynamic will have a liberalising effect over time. A vision of the future surfaced during debate in 2006 over the Qoliqoli Bill which sought to extend property rights to Taukei fishing rights. It was protracted, vigorous even fierce but open and peaceful. Such scenarios are attainable but an enabling environment is a prerequisite.

The other relevant consideration is that informed and sustained debate requires familiarity with issues, intellectual inquiry and reflection. For Taukei, earning a living, raising a family, undertaking tertiary studies and involvement with ‘oga’ consume their time, energies and resources. It is one reason Taukei are often absent from activities such as service clubs. ‘Service’ as they conceive it is material and financial support provided to immediate and extended family; or bearing the educational and boarding expense of close kin in straitened situations. Taken with obligations to the vanua and the lotu, there is a cost: capacities for conceptualising and articulation thereof are appreciably diminished.

Additionally, the phenomenon of reading not being popular among the Taukei and wider population is worrisome. It is more than a means for acquiring credentials. Exposure to ideas, development of rational thought and nurturing of imagination engendered by this process is critical. Reading moulds the shape, quality and frequency of debate. It stimulates the ability to formulate, synthesise and articulate ideas clearly and logically.

Despite that lack, the situation is changing gradually. Regulation is being eased accompanied by empowerment initiatives for women, youth, people with disabilities, rural populations and other marginalised groups. Rising standards of education and exposure especially in the form of foreign work experience, the present dispensation, the pervasive presence of the media, in addition to accessibility to information technology have all had an impact. The resulting paradox: a more permissive social environment facilitating increasingly diverse opinion.

There remains a need to provide more open, honest debate within Taukei and wider Fijian society, so citizens are able to participate effectively in the issues of the day. It is critical for our development as a nation and as part of the global village. For this to happen, understanding this psyche of ‘silence’ makes possible remedial measures through socialisation, educational initiatives, empowerment, community and civil society support and other means. While ensuring the emerging landscape is focused and engaging rather than visceral; promoting balance with respect but not hostage to sectarian sensibilities. Journeying beyond a culture of silence to where meaningful dialogue and debate become commonplace.

  • Joni Madraiwiwi is a traditional leader, lawyer and a former Vice President of Fiji (2005-6).

    This article appeared in the March 2014 printed edition of Repúblika on pages 26 and 27.