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A Conversation in Apathy

Rae Munavvar
15 May 2018, MVT 00:48
In image depicting the reasons for political disillusionment in the Maldives. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ
Rae Munavvar
15 May 2018, MVT 00:48

The discourse of politics in the Maldives and an alarming disconnect within society

If words truly wove the fabric of reality, Maldivians have been passengers on vessels headed to fictitious egalitarian lands. The nation has stood witness to omnipotent declarations of surety and been party to governance that undeniably records more similarly to that of a monarchy than a republic. In short, this small populace has seemingly heard it all, and perhaps even seen it all - or not enough, depending on your personal stance.

The political rhetoric in the Maldives, so to speak, has waxed and waned from one colorful icon to the other, apparently leading to a point of disillusion; where an artfully raised eyebrow has become the most complex reaction alluded to the juiciest of political controversies.

Turn back the pages of history back a few decades and the discourse becomes even more vague. Mohamed Ameen though well known for his nationalistic narrative offers little in the way of servitude to the people, possibly better described as attempting to enforce ideology on an unwilling public. Even so, he offers a sharp contrast to his successor Ibrahim Nasir’s reclusive demeanor. Going to lengths to avoid public confrontation, Nasir demonstrated far more ease negotiating groundbreaking development in diplomatic roles, conveniently switching from silent ‘hero’ to detached ‘authoritarian’ as required.

Into this vacuum entered the poetic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a charismatic orator set to entice the nation for decades to come. A sociable personality, he drew sharp contrasts to his precursor from the moment of his first ‘election’. Gayoom favored titles and speeches littered with flowery prose; in sharp contrast with cynical, disaffected GenX-ers. In fact, his increasingly outward displays of indulgence and nepotism was perhaps the first indication that he had begun to lose touch with the younger, more educated populace that he had helped generate.

That is, until the dawn of a different ‘dhivehiraajje’ with the election of Mohamed Nasheed. In his activist and leadership roles, Nasheed attempted to both court and provoke public opinion, often using metaphors conjuring images of the nation’s victorious odyssey into the future. Nevertheless, the journey was interrupted resulting in vice president Mohamed Waheed being appointed leader of the country. A scholar better suited for academia, he had little chance of romancing a nation rife in divide and dissent.

And now we come full circle to present day, and the rule of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. President Yameen’s political narrative continuously refers to the subject of ‘development’, famously drawing parallels with the Singapore model, though little definition has been offered with regard to the definition of the term. If popular opinion is to be believed, then this growth refers more to expansive construction than the progress of the people. Suffice to say that the current conversation has become so convoluted in hatred that there is little to be derived in the way of constructive critique.

That said, the Maldives remains fairly new to sovereign independance, let alone the concept of democracy. For over three decades our society was treated to the same messages, over and over again. We’ve had a long and arduous journey from then onwards, and today we stand in a state of chaotic divide, our choices factioned by colors that are only united by an overwhelming state of indifference - as evidenced by our poor voter turnout for the recent local council elections and an ebbing wave of political activism.

And even with elections imminent, there remains insurmountable doubt regarding the future of the nation. Typically, by this time in the political calendar, the public has already begun speculation about who the electoral forerunners will be and the shape of their respective mandates are clear, if not obvious. Yet only mere months distancing us from the absolute decisions affecting the entire direction of our nation we remain collectively impervious and happy to do so.

The question of the moment is, what will break apart these walls of apathy and bring about the kind of change our communities have been talking about?

This writer would argue that political leaders in the Maldives have a history of detachment, and continue in this vein to be disconnected with a populace that is highly educated, whom via technological advancements, are afforded access to an inexhaustible source of information. They’ve lost touch with a generation that though happy to indulge in ‘youth’ activities tinted in any variety of color, and who enthusiastically share political posts and tweets, have done so with a hint of passive aggression that appears to have passed undetected.

The truth is, most individuals do know what they want. The “Maldivian Dream” as it were, lies not in a far reaching version of reality. Nor are people looking for a bridged path to such a place. In a time where the memory of Tsunami’s continues to evoke feelings of mortality, people require little external assurance of a certainty; broadcasts of destruction and devastation that no politician could possibly hope to control, are viewed constantly, everyday on screens of every sort.

There is little need, if any, to emulate any other country or kingdom. Nor will clicking our ruby (or whatever the preferred hue may be) heels, chanting that there’s “no place like home” help the Maldives find salvation.

The average local in most industries lives day to day on an average salary of MVR 7500 where city rent is typically MVR 15 000 for a two bedroom apartment. Hospitality is the biggest employer in the Maldives, and yet locals earn an average of MVR 9752 in a job where male expats make approximately 63% more than their Maldivian counterparts (Average remuneration as derived from National Bureau of Statistics, Economic Survey 2012 -2-13).

From atolls without airports and atolls with more than two, to overbooked ferries impractical for urgent trips from the furthest atolls, domestic travel proves as lacking in structural organization as it is unaffordable to the common man. This comes coupled with healthcare facilities that are sorely wanting, being condensed at Male’, resulting in gigantic queues and multiple waiting periods for what are often urgent tests and procedures. Urban development seems to have been at a standstill, entire atolls and islands are still operating with minimal electricity and access to modern facilities, resulting in mass migrations towards the overpopulated capital.

Environments that should be sacred to the people it belongs to, are being ripped apart to make room for even more white washed investments. The havoc this wreaks on fragile tropical ecosystem has devastating repercussions in Tourism, Fisheries and Agricultural industries, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, Maldivians who cannot even afford a lawyer must rely on a judicial system that UNDP’s ‘Legal and Justice Sector Baseline Study 2014’ concluded displayed severe impediments to justice. At the same time, crime appears to be increasing at alarming rates, from 1 in 3 women reporting being subjected to some form of violence in their lives, to frightening statistics like 210 cases of child abuse being reported in the month of February 2018 alone (Ministry of Gender and Family).

These are hard-working citizens barely able to afford living in the same country they were born and raised in, unable to celebrate its beauty themselves. These are people not concerned with heading to an imaginary destination or crossing over a passage that takes a decade to construct. They have immediate needs, realistic goals and no one to answer for it.

Thus, today it is far more prudent that our nation’s leaders compete on platforms discussing solution-based mandates, and gravitate away from the norm of distributing or redistributing blame for a country that was built by trial and error, by well-meaning ancestors who did not have any context for economic and technological boom that the 21st Century would beckon. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who are aware that the systems in place are now failing, to adapt applications that better suit specific requirements.

The time old rhetoric based in mockery and judgement actively dispersed across our nation now falls on deaf ears. No matter who steps up (or steps down) to the so-called ruling pedestal it is clear that the discourse needs to change. Newer, more meaningful messages need to be communicated to unite the divisions that exist.

To be clear, there are certain factions of the population that may not need a change in discourse or narrative, political or otherwise. But to evoke the support of modern industrial changemakers, genuine social innovators or even the shiny new millenials and gen-z voters, to catalyse and reignite the faith of Maldives’ educated and dynamic young voters one must make a change to turn the tides.

The fundamental root cause of apathy is undoubtedly a missing connection or even a semblance of trust between the populace and its governance that any action taken will be in fact conducted in the manner that it ought to be done. It would seem that any voice of concern passes unheard and ignored, pushing people further towards despair.

The lesson to be learnt here, if any, for aspiring leaderships wishing to earn support that will be reflected in voting booths, is that they must emerge with words worth waking up and listening to, followed by measurable actions that make them ring true. They must first spend time reflecting on the lives of their constituents and less time making alliances if only because a success derived from only half the nation’s population, is fated to be short lived and insignificant.

After all, leaders are only as powerful as the people that place them on such pedestals.

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