It wasn't that long ago that our tiny nation stood before international podiums to disapprove our mighty neighbour India's nuclear tests. This didn't surprise or upset India. Indeed, India expected us to do so.
by Dr Hassan Saeed
This difference between us was not because our two countries had any significant conflict with each other but – as India knew and accepted - ours was a nation based on certain principles and values and our foreign policy was shaped and nurtured around those principles and values.
Everyone knew then that as a nation that prided itself on our sovereignty and independence, our foreign policy was not based on the amount of aid or loans we received. Instead we worked in a way that secured the mutual respect of our much larger neighbours.
Because of this, we were then able to take firm stands on international platforms against fellow Muslim nations, other countries in the region and powerful countries further afield when the principles and values we treasure were at stake. As a result we were able to command respect far beyond our size. Countries that sought our support in international forums knew they had to be on the right side of international law before they could count on our support.
Today, some 25 years later, we have come a long way in terms of material development. We have more resorts and more tax revenue. Our people are more educated. Our per capita income is no longer $450 per annum but $6,000. Our national spending has increased from a couple of hundred million rufiyaa to nearly 18 billion.
But despite all these material advances, today our principled voice is muted on international platforms and is perhaps perceived as a partisan voice. Our values are also less clearly defined. We no longer stand tall among nations.
Why is this?
For the very simple reason that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. Today we depend on friendly countries for budget support. Our official visits to India, for example, are on their government’s aeroplanes. In our bilateral discussions the most pressing issue for us is on how to get budget support or increase aid. In such meetings values and principles have less prominence and monetary and material gains take the center stage.
Our successive foreign ministers have competed against their predecessors for who obtained more handouts and who could keep us longer on the world’s least developed countries (LDC) status to enjoy the benefits that entails. Borrowing more is considered an achievement.
But how long can we go on like this? As a nation how long can we keep compromising our principles and suppressing our values for material benefits? And most importantly how long can we go on spending beyond our means and begging for help to cover the short falls in our budgets? How long will the generosity of our neighbours and friendly countries continue, especially if growth in countries like India and China slows down?
A government that begs for support internationally is hardly in a position to ask its own citizens not to beg for more support for them or their locality. A nation that itself is based on a ‘dependency culture’ and living on international handouts does not hold the moral high ground needed to ask its citizens to live and spend within their means.
We are a nation in serious financial trouble. As I have stated here before, since 2006 we have been spending far beyond our means and borrowing beyond our ability to repay. We are leaving our children with massive debts to pay back when we did not inherit such debts from our parents. As economists say, there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’, yet we have been feasting with no thought for the cost.
We are a nation in serious financial trouble because we are wasting precious time, energy and resources to fight against each other rather than building a sustainable future for this crumbling nation the world calls paradise. Our discredited former President may have secured some international television and documentary coverage over the threat of climate change, but his divisive rule did little to build a financially sustainable future for us.
Fundamentally we must stop spending beyond our means and start managing what we have. This means real change: stopping waste and shutting down or slimming down unnecessary government offices.
Instead of relying on foreign handouts for budget support, we should focus on broadening our economic base and revenue means.
The reality is that our long held beliefs and values are today tradable commodities. Our sovereignty is compromised and we enjoy far less respect.
If our nation was an individual, they would have to take action now. If we are to return to the values of the past we have to return to what our parents and our leaders taught us in the past. Those are the Dos and Don’ts which until recently guided us:
• We do need to focus on the basics. We don’t need to try to do things that incur vast extra cost.
• We do need to decide priorities. We don’t need to try to do everything at once.
• We do need to use simple arithmetic and balance our income and expenditure. We don’t need to celebrate unlimited spending.
If we follow those ‘dos and don’ts’ we can recast our country’s values alongside prudence, moderation and self-respect and then use them to shape plans and policies to address domestic and foreign policy challenges. That is the only way we will properly restore our sovereignty and earn respect from other nations.
Note: Dr Hassan Saeed is currently the Special Advisor to President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik