Siwatibau- a role model

Postdate: 17/ 10/ 2003

In the eighties, whenever Siwatibau began to speak, some in the audience (typically civil servants, corporate types, and academia) would inwardly chuckle or even groan. For they had heard the message many a time before, and some could repeat it, even imitating Siwa’s slow drawl: “If you want economic development…. first the economy must grow…. for that you need macroeconomic stability ….. and so you must have fiscal prudence… but we all know, money doesn’t grow on trees, and so…..”. And Siwa would go on, one slow logical step after another. Often. In the last few years of his illustrious life, especially after he left the institutional constraints of being head of a UN organisation in Vanuatu, many in the Pacific would chuckle (and some grumble) that Siwa was singing the same song over and over again: the need for good governance, honesty, integrity, transparency, accountability, dedication, and hard work. And sometimes, the uncomfortable messages were not well received. But the horrible collapse of economies in Africa, Carribean and the Pacific, have driven home that the issues Siwa talked about were vital for economic development and the improvement in the lives of our ordinary people. And Siwa made no bones that powerful human beings and their actions were the causes of many of these economic failures, their wasteful expenditures, their unsustainable public debts, and the resulting impoverishment of the people. At the church service in Christchurch, Tania Siwatibau chose a very appropriate Bible reading (Proverbs 14: 29-34) for her father, who often echoed the sentiments in three lines out of Tania’s reading: “If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship…. Wicked people bring about their own downfall by their evil deeds, but good people are protected by their integrity…. Righteousness makes a nation great; sin is a disgrace to any nation”.

I doubt if there are totally good people or totally evil people in this world. But those of us who have known Siwa (and his wife Suliana), know that they have tried to live the good values, and inculcate them in their children, throughout their lives- in their work place, in society with their friends and relatives, and in their own home. Indeed, there can be no better role model for the professional civil servant or bureaucrat than Siwa. In every one of our Pacific countries, government ministers, permanent secretaries, chief executives of the numerous public enterprises, officials of reserve banks, and even senior managers in all our numerous organisations, can get rich quick, through their day to day decisions, legal or otherwise: fishing or logging licenses; monopoly rights; special tax exemptions; import licenses or quotas; tariff protection; pressure on a national bank, development bank or national provident fund to give loans to chosen clients; visa or passport approvals; classifying an import under a lower tax rate; and looking the other way, or even covering up, when things are obviously wrong. Unethical decisions which allow some people to make money at tax-payers’ expense. And some people, everywhere in the world (and the Pacific) are only too happy to pay a bribe to the bureaucrat to expedite the deal. As they do. Savenaca Siwatibau, throughout his long public service career, has often been in powerful positions where he could have easily got rich through unethical means: he has been Director of Planning and Development, Permanent Secretary of Finance, Governor of the Reserve Bank, and Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific.. Yet during all those years, there has never ever been a hint of corruption or unfair and unethical dealing, associated with him. Siwa is universally known to have been a hard-working, totally honest, and infinitely dedicated civil servant, whether in normal times or times of strife and turmoil. To be totally trusted with public resources, given by tax-payers or donor countries. During the political turmoil of the 1987 coups, while he was still the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, he became the key administrator governing Fiji. Siwa was totally opposed to the illegal military coups in 1987. For Siwa, no “cause” justified the illegal “means” which people had chosen to use. Siwa resigned from his Governorship of the Reserve Bank, and went on to serve the region through his headship of the ESCAP office in Vanuatu.

During the 2000 coups, some coup leaders proposed Siwa’s name as an Interim Prime Minister. While gently refusing, Siwa was astonished that those who were blatantly breaking the laws of the country, would think that he would come back to Fiji to tacitly support their illegal actions, which were to cause ordinary Fiji people so much grief. And it is no secret to friends and colleagues that Siwatibau was disappointed at the current lack of progress in political reconciliation in Fiji, at the continuous aggression, personal attacks and counter-attacks, and just plain nastiness in the political arena. I well remember Siwa’s gentle and sympathetic advice some twenty years ago when Indo-Fijian staff at USP had encountered systematic racial attacks and had publicly and bitterly retaliated: “Wadan, you can always disagree with others’ views, but always leave room for them to respect themselves. If you don’t, they can only become nasty”. Perhaps if some of our politicians heeded Siwa’s advice, politics in Fiji would be more peaceful and constructive, rather than the divisive force it currently is. Siwa was extremely keen to ensure that there was a part of the University which specifically focused on issues regarding good governance in the region. And Siwa, despite being burdened with numerous responsibilities, felt strongly enough about creating a peaceful political climate in Fiji, to take on the chairmanship of the National Reconciliation Committee, to see if he could make a difference there. As he tried to make a difference in all the many walks of his complex life, not the least was his attempt to reconcile the conflicting pulls of his traditional Fijian culture and mataqali, with that of living a just and good life in a multi-cultural Fiji, and doing well by his family. Many in Fiji would have been puzzled by Siwa’s request that he be buried in Christchurch and not in Fiji. This was not a typically “Fijian” request by someone who was undoubtedly one of Fiji’s foremost sons, Fijian or otherwise. Suliana Siwatibau gently explained to the University delegation to Christchurch, that Siwa deeply appreciated the sense of community that had been extended to him in Christchurch- by all kinds of ordinary people who volunteered their services to help those with cancer. And Suli spoke of Siwa’s great appreciation of the incredible beauty of Christchurch in spring. Indeed Christchurch is a garden city, with virtually every household garden having flowering shrubs, creepers, trees, with gorgeous colours bursting, flowing, and cascading, overpowering the senses. Sights not to be seen in Fiji. But none of us doubt the outpouring of love, affection, and kindness that Siwa’s grand community in Fiji would have showered upon him at his time of sickness and death: his relatives and mataqali in Natewa, Cakaudrove, throughout Fiji; his traditional Fijian linkages; his school friends and work colleagues, the political and social leaders of Fiji of all races and religions; the business leaders who respected him not for any special fovours (which he didn’t do them), but for his great honesty and integrity. And beautiful flowers would not have been lacking either. But Siwa also understood that a traditional Fijian funeral for him could have also become a real financial burden on his people, which he wanted to avoid. It is not for non-Fijians to comment on Siwa’s wishes in this regard.

There are social pluses as well as minuses to any cultural tradition, even if it imposes material costs on the people. It is an interesting issue that many progressive Fijians are rethinking. Suffice to say that Siwa’s family respected his wish that he be buried in Christchurch, and that his relatives and kin groups not engage in the normal Fijian funeral practices which could have imposed heavy financial burdens. And Siwa’s family and immediate chiefs, hard as it was for them, conveyed his wishes to many traditional Fijian chiefs and leaders who wanted to pay tribute to Siwa, even in Christchurch. Siwa’s family even heeded Siwa’s request that there be no floral tributes at his funeral, and that they could donate to a cancer fund for Fiji, if mourners wished. Well, Fijians and Fiji can respect Siwa’s wish that there be no wastage of resources on his death. And Fijians and Fiji can still gather to celebrate the values he believed in, and lived out, in his everyday life. For Siwa, as Chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee, would not have objected to an inter-faith memorial service in Fiji that brought together people of different races, cultures, religions, and political persuasions. To celebrate multi-culturalism, multi-racialism, honesty, integrity, accountability, hard work and dedication to one’s country. And there will no doubt be people from other countries in the region who would love to join in. And while the humble Siwa might have objected to anything being named after him, the University might well find any number of donors willing to provide funds to expedite a “Siwatibau Lecture Series” on issues of critical development importance, given by eminent academics, perhaps at suitably named “Siwatibau Lecture Theaters”, around the USP region. And why not a special “Siwatibau Award” annually made to a top public servant (in Government or public enterprise), who embodies the values that Siwa stood for. For let us not have any illusions, in small Pacific countries, it can be extremely difficult for a bureaucrat to resist untoward pressure from Ministers, chiefs, powerful businessmen, or even family members. And there are many bureaucrats around the region who are performing in the Siwatibau mould, and to whom credit should be given, so that Siwatibau can continue to be a role model. And in today’s Fiji, how many icons- “perfect people”- can we hold up as role models for our children? While it is common for funeral orations to go overboard with the flattery of the departed person, Jone Dakuvula’s multi-faceted appreciation of Siwa’s life at the Christchurch service, had no hint of exaggeration in the many accolades received from so many quarters.

Indeed, many of us chuckled when the presiding priest asked for forgiveness from those that Siwa had might have sinned against. Of course, no one really knows what personal demons or vices any of our “perfect people” grapple with, in the deep dark depths of the night. And “perfect people” can be real pains. But for those of us who imbibe too much, gallivant too much, or have other vices which our children are all too aware of (and have no hesitation in lecturing us about), it is difficult to exhort them to be like their father. But we can ask our children to be like Savenaca Siwatibau. We can be grateful for at least one icon amongst us.

[Professor Wadan Narsey is currently the Director of the Employment and Labour Market Studies Programme in the Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance. He has been employed at USP since 1973, except for a brief three years in Parliament as Shadow Finance Minister for the Opposition.] [Email:]


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