Sunday, May 05, 2013

Justice Jitoko on the Future of Fijian People in their Home Land


The future of the Fijian people is what we make of it; or to re-phrase it, taking into account the changes foisted on us in the last 6 years, the future of the Fijian race, or the i Taukei as the indigenous people of this land is now legally referred to, is what we make of it. This self evident truth is the common thread, the sinnet if you wish, that weaves through and connects the two major topics your Association has chosen as the theme for your Conference this year, namely, entrepreneurship and sustainable development in education.

I am mindful that the theme is of general application in the field of education of Fiji’s young, but allow me to take some poetic license, and indulge in some personal reflections on Fijian/i-Taukei education. I reflect back on a speech I made at the 2003 end–of–the-year prize-giving ceremonies at Queen Victoria School, in which I stated that for the Fijian/i Taukei there are essentially three (3) development needs and priorities. The first priority is education, the second is education, and the third priority is education. I emphasized that only through education will a Fijian/i-Taukei be competent to secure meaningful employment, accumulate wealth and property, wisely exercise his/her democratic rights, and possess the ability to differentiate what is right moral or otherwise, from what is harmful to society. These are the building blocks of a just and stable democratic society.

 Nothing in the intervening decade, in my view, has changed my belief in the importance of these priorities, given my perception of the existing Fijian/i Taukei  social and political landscape. One has only to pick up a newspaper or turn in to a radio station or switch on to the Fiji TV news to realize how appallingly uninformed, or more correctly, ill informed, we the Fijian/i Taukei are, of who and what we are; what our rights are, the limits to those rights; what are our obligations, and in under what circumstances; what are our responsibilities, and to whom are those responsibilities owed. As an example, last month, an indigenous landowner was reported as advocating the sale of his mataqali land and the realised funds to serve the present generation and the residue if any, to be invested for the future. Does he not know, as a matter of general knowledge, that under the Native Lands Act, selling or any alienation of native land is prohibited? Does he not then, as a consequence, realize that that means for the purpose of the Act, native landowners are merely exercising ufructuary rights over their land, making them effectively just life tenants to live on it while preserve it for his children and his future generations? Is it too hard to understand that the objective of the legislation is first to serve the welfare of the Fijian/i Taukei living generations and second, to preserve the same land for the future Fijian/i Taukei generations? All of these might I add, notwithstanding the creation of the so-called Land Bank under the 2010 Land Use Decree.

Again, the mind boggles when a Fijian/i Taukei accuses some of our leaders of using the dreaded “race card” by their merely mentioning the interests of the indigenous people; as if race is not a reality of life here in Fiji and that the plight or problems of the indigenous people cannot be spoken of in public lest it corrupts the concept of the “Fijian” people to which we all now belong. Will I then be accused I wonder, of playing the race card when I speak to you today about Fijian/i Taukei education? If I should be, then it can only lend more credence to my thesis today.

I am not an educationist and neither will I pretend that I have the answer let alone the competence to solve the problems that beset the Fijian/i-Taukei education as our race confronts today’s challenges. I lay some feeble claim to be an educationalist of a sort, finding myself in your profession so late in life, but that, is another story. I recognize in your midst the presence of some of our luminaries in the field of education who will have perhaps a different perspective on how we should address Fijian/i Taukei education. I defer to their expert knowledge in the field. My views which I express today may at best be correctly referred to as that of a layperson, but a stakeholder nevertheless, who is compassionate and care deeply about Fijian/i-Taukei education and the future of our race. At worst, accept it as a confused and disjointed ramblings of a disgruntled old man from southern Lau island of Kabara; a rocky outcrop that has little to contribute to the nation’s GDP, except that gentle breeze that greets your face each morning, the south easterly tradewinds.  

I believe that at it very basic, the problems of Fijian/i Taukei education are impediments that are firstly, culturally embedded and are self-imposed. They emerge at the most critical time of life, at childhood. All living creatures under the sun are imbued with one indomitable spirit which ensures their ability to survive and more importantly, succeed. I speak of the inquisitive mind/spirit. The young possess the most inquisitive mind. A child observes. A child constantly observes because that’s all a child does. It asks a million questions often very simply put: Why? Why? Why?  Fijian/i-Taukei culture unfortunately gets in the way and hinders by stifling the enthusiasm of the child to learn and to know. How often have you heard parents or adults telling the child, “O sobo o sa rui gone dau taro” or simply “Sa rauta mada na taro”. The same child grows up on his way through primary and high schools, and even to tertiary level, with the belief that asking questions in not polite and is inappropriate behavior. Little do we realize that in our stifling the child’s inquisitive mind we deny him knowledge that will define him later in life which invariably translates between success or failure. Simply put, the more you ask the more you learn; the more you learn the more you know; the more you know the higher the probability that you will succeed in life. At the end of the day wisdom, the pathway to success, only comes to an inquisitive mind.

The challenge I pose to you today is how teachers and parents, as instructors, break down this cultural barrier, and re-ignite the enthusiasm of curiosity in the minds of our children that is so vital to their education and their future? A paradigm shift will be necessary in our Fijian/i Taukei homes to recognize instead, that a child that asks a question is not making a nuisance of itself by bothering the family gathering or a dinner party, but just beginning its life-long adventure of learning and acquisition and storage of knowledge that will positively contribute to making a success of his life later. Schools and teachers must be pro-active in encouraging our children to ask questions. I always coax my students into asking questions by citing that old Chinese proverb that says, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who doesn’t remains a fool forever.” We must do all we can by encouraging and goading to convince our schoolchildren that asking is not the preserve of the dumb and the stupid. They must get over and ignore the embarrassment of asking questions on matters they do not know, and that a momentary pride sacrificed at the altar of life time knowledge is worth its weight in gold.

There is an important corollary to this process; an admission on our part as teachers. Why don’t we readily admit that even as teachers and the fount of knowledge, we do not necessarily know everything? What better way I ask, for the child to take you into his confidence with your admitting that no you do not know the answer to his question, but add, “Why don’t we find out together”?    

Let me turn to the other impediments. All of these efforts to mentally prepare our children to enter our learning institutions to be educated, will come to naught if they are not provided with a conducive environment under which they are taught. By this I mean the resources both financial and human, as well as a stable and reliable family support system. If I may deal with these issues in turn and explain how I believe they impact on Fijian/i Taukei education.

For us, with our much heralded tradition of the practice of the extended family and, as a family support mechanism in the education of our children, the system has proved through the years, to be both a blessing as well as a curse. For those like me who sailed from the outer islands to attend secondary schools on Viti Levu, home for the next five years meant living with relatives often in cramped and sometimes unhealthy conditions, with little room, if at all, for privacy and more importantly, for study. Some of us who went on to attend boarding schools; we were the fortunate ones. But whether one was living with relatives in the barracks-like quarters in Brown Street attending Suva Sangam High School or safely ensconced in the dormitories on the picturesque rolling hills of Ratu Kadavulevu, both need the family support system and network around them. Unless the whole family relocated from the islands to Viti Levu to come to support the education of its child, with all its attendant repercussions, the student, whether at Suva Sangam or Ratu Kadavulevu, will have to make do with the relatives around Viti Levu who may not necessarily be as attentative; as understandably, they may have their own children and priorities. To the extent that the welfare of the island students, or any students for that matter, studying away from home is often abandoned albeit innocently, in the hope that the relatives on Viti Levu will take care of their needs, is a major weak link in our ability to ensure that the provision of dependable family support is available to our children at all times. I recognize that this lacuna, to some extent, has been filled especially in recent years by strong and vibrant PTA groupings; but they tend in the main, to operate only in boarding and bigger urban schools. In the end, whatever relief or assistance our extended family traditions offer to the education of our children, these are often negated by the absence of the compassionate touch or approach the immediate family is capable of.

Financial support to both the institution and the students is the second crucial ingredient towards achieving our desired level and outcomes in education. In the light of the persistent rumors of the present administration’s plans to cease its role in continuing financial support of Government schools, I am reminded of the findings of the Gonski Advisory Panel, commissioned by the Australian Government in 2010 to review the funding of schools in Australia. Its report was published in February last year (2012). It is by far the most comprehensive review done in the last 40 years. Now, if I were arguing in a court of law here in Fiji a case for the continuation and even increase of government funding to Government schools and special schools, I would merely refer to the Gonski’s Review, in particular, it’s findings, its recommendations and, its three key conclusions and I would add soon after the well known American courtroom counsel’s jargon, “I rest my case”. 

I am aware that even right now, with the Australian general elections just around the corner, the major political parties are jostling as normal for favourable positions in policies and plans on education. The Gillard government is keen to implement some elements of the Gonski recommendations, drawing accusation of vote buying from the Opposition. It nevertheless is important, in my view, to appreciate that Australia has already a blueprint to work from in planning the funding for the education of its children in the coming decades.

 I wish only to draw our attention to some of the findings of the Gonski review. Of particular relevance for us today firstly, is its finding of what it terms as “unacceptable” link between low levels of achievement and education disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and indigenous backgrounds. It further found that this gap is growing all the time. Some may argue that low socioeconomic status applies across the racial divide as far as Fiji is concerned; and that will be true, except I am saying the ratio of those in this category as ethnic or racial component of the Fiji population, are much higher with the Fijian/i Taukei that in any other. Most of our people live still in the rural areas self- sufficient maybe, but not employed with regular income by which economic status of adult population of a country is measured. (No doubt my good friend Prof Wardan Narsey will correct me if I fall foul of some of his benchmarks). The link however that I want to establish is this: low level achievement and education disadvantage of students from low socioeconomic bracket and indigenous population are by and large one and the same as far as this country is concerned. In other words, the majority that belongs to the low socioeconomic bracket is synonymous with the other. That is why, in my view, it is vital that we preserve and indeed support the long- established systems like Government schools and the FAB scholarships system that recognized and took into account the shortcomings in our socioeconomic life.

This situation will be further exacerbated if the government funding and support to Government schools are to be withdrawn. Why? For the simple reason that this Government-funded schools have been the mainstay of Fijian/i Taukei  education throughout our history. They had offered the next to the ideal in a situation that allowed our children from the far flung corners of the country, representing as it often does the low socioeconomic and indigenous background, to come together and learn in an environment that facilitated and sharpened their learning capabilities and, while the support network of the family was not always there, the space and freedom to learn and study was.

As I speak these Government-supported schools are at their death kneel. Much has still to done to upgrade let alone repair the physical facilities, to improve the amenities, to reduce class numbers, and to bolster the teaching staff. In some cases, PTAs have been pushed into doing things that are core tasks of the provider, the Government.

In the same way as the Gonski Review foretells the future of Australian education and recommends that Government schools and special schools should be fully funded by the Federal Government, I too strongly urge the Government to continue the funding and support to these schools. I go further, that not only must it continue funding them but extend the same compliments by increasing its assistance to private schools including those run by Committees. The Gonski Review estimates a cost of some $5 billion to implement its recommendations. While we are not in the same league as Australia in this regard, we still can borrow some ideas from the review in ways to assist  both the Government and the schools on the funding front. For example, the Review recommends that the Government can help schools raise money from philanthropic sources, by setting up Funds, with tax incentives, for the private sector including businesses, foundations and trusts to make contribution to; a very attractive proposition even for us here in Fiji. Prioritizing increased spending on education, the Review said, is investment not cost on the national budget.

The three key conclusions of the Gonski Review are as relevant to us and to a school child here in Fiji as it is to the Australian child. First, the Government and the education system must prioritize support for its lowest achieving student. Second, it says that every child should have access to the best possible education regardless of where they live, the income of the family, or the school they attend. Finally, it says that no student in Australia should leave without the basic skills and competencies needed to participate in the workforce and lead productive and successful life.

Let me turn finally to the provision of the third essential leg to the proverbial tripod in support of my belief is the pathway to successful Fijian/i Taukei  education. Here I speak of human resources and specifically teachers and technical or support staff. We all recognize that roles of teachers have changed significantly with modern technology and in the age of the internet. For some schools that now access the internet, rather than teachers being the major source of knowledge to the students as in the past, they now become the facilitators in the learning process. In modern schools the teachers teach the students not knowledge, but how to gain information and more importantly, how to select and use them. Our education system then has to prepare both the teachers and the students in this new age of technology. This means teachers need to acquire computer skills, the understanding of how to use  power points, projectors, etc. as their role shift from teachers or educators to supporters and facilitators. In-service training to expand the teachers’ knowledge base is absolutely essential and must be prioritized.

School management and general administration around a school may be not everybody’s cup of tea. They are nevertheless skills that must be encouraged to be acquired by everyone as a logical consequence of the changing nature of a teacher’s role in this new age.

Extrinsic motivation in terms of monetary rewards cannot be underestimated in the overall configuration of a revamped education system intended to truly serve the interests on the Fijian/i-Taukei . The system must firstly employ competent and skilled teachers. Thereafter, it must be prepared not only to pay, but pay adequately if not well, for their services. I have often wondered, if there were other forms of rewards, monetary or in kind, that should have been used by Government to attract teachers to go to rural areas and teach where, our Fijian/i Taukei students predominate. Perhaps it is something which we should not just leave for Government alone to do. I recall that some years back while we, the people of Kabara, were engaged in running an inter-island shipping business, our management team promised and gave free passages to Government officials, including teachers and their families, posted to the island, in their travels to and from their postings. Maybe such initiatives are worth revisiting.

I have attempted to underline what I believe are the essential components to an education system that is not only responsive but sympathetic to the Fijian/i-Taukei.  Any strategy that is intended to achieve the goals I have advocated, brings back into focus your theme for this year’s meeting.

First, when I think of entrepreneurship in the field of education, I am attracted to the idea of innovation; not so much as that associated in the start up of a new business or venture, but in the revitalization of the old. Essentially, we have a system that has to be upgraded to meet the needs of our people. We have a mindset influenced by our traditions and culture that desperately needs to be changed; we have education development wants that need prioritizing; we have instructors and teachers to be up-skilled; and through all of these we have to keep our faith and commitment to the profession. It requires innovative ideas and thinking on the part of our educators, curriculum developers, course designers, individual stakeholders and collectively the FTA, to ensure that our goal is achieved. Entrepreneurship in these areas should help bring about constructive changes that will impact on transformative learning (especially in the radical change required in our belief system), capacity building, creativity and adaptive management in the light of the technological revolution we face. I believe all of these can be achieved and achieved in our lifetime.

When I think of sustainable development, I am reminded foremost of the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s definition which states that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future generations to meet their own needs.” There were initially three pillars underpinning the concept, namely economic development, social development and environment protection. The missing fourth pillar that eventually found its way into the equation through the efforts of the indigenous peoples international forums and prescribed under the 2001 UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, is the one that I wish to focus on - the fourth pillar, cultural development, and more specifically, the recognition of cultural diversity as an essential ingredient of sustainable development. How so? You may well ask. Well, first the Universal Declaration on Cultural Rights says that together with economic growth, cultural development enables a country especially one that is multi-cultural  to achieve a “more satisfactory, intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence.” Second, next year, 2014, will mark the end of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development whose objective is to integrate principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning. The dedication by the UN for a decade for this purpose underlies the importance of education in understanding the holistic approach to sustainable development.

Some of you may be thinking that all of what I am talking about has to do with education for sustainable development, not sustainable development in education; and you will be right except that I believe that sustainable development in education is really in the end all about sustainable education. Essentially then, we are dealing here with the role of education in the 21st century. I am not qualified to even begin to discuss the challenges to the sustainable education of the 21st century. What I am most certain of is a paradigm shift in the way we see education and learning, to the extent that we may even revisit the limitations I had placed on entrepreneurship and innovation earlier on. We are not merely looking at piecemeal response such as adding on sustainability concepts to our curriculum, but a systemic change in our thinking and practice.

As part of this wholesome change to bring about sustainable education, I am suggesting that the strengthening of the linkage between culture and education is essential. Cultural diversity, one of the four pillars of sustainable development, means the teaching in our schools of culture, in our case, cultures. It is easy to see why. Adherence to and respect in and practice of cultural diversity brings out the character of a nation, especially a multi-racial one as ours. It is the door to a nation’s soul, philosophically speaking. Inherent also in this belief is an undertaking by those in authority, to not only protect, but preserve the cultures the system sustains. Put very simply, for a race to survive, its culture needs to survive alongside it. Culture in the context of a race means customary beliefs; culture means social forms; culture means material traits. They are manifested through language, literature, arts, music, philosophies and rituals. You know all these. The important issue is how do we protect them now and for the future.

Let us take the Fijian language and let me ask a few questions. How do we protect and sustain for the future our language? Is it enough that it is taught in schools? Is it not right and proper that, in addition, it be also made the national language alongside English? Is it really too big a concession to ask of other races living here with us, and who incidentally a majority have their own languages protected in their countries of origin, to grant us the dignity as a race with a language recognized and blessed by law in our Constitution? Or are we so obsessed with the ideal of one people that anything that invokes the thought of separate treatment is frowned upon as not in harmony with the national objective of togetherness?

Looking into the future, I am hoping that alongside language, our education system will also recognize by taking into account other important aspects of our culture: in the preservation of our arts, music and rituals. My hope is based on Fiji, as a member of the international community, its conduct guided by the UN Charter which imposes obligations on its members to their adherence to UN Conventions and Agreements, will abide by the provisions of the 2001 UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both Agreements impose a duty on member states to protect the indigenous cultural heritage and tradition of their native population.

In keeping with your theme of sustainable development in education, I am suggesting that if Fiji’s education system of tomorrow is truly going to serve and protect our race, then it must not only prepare our children for the job market to compete and consume, but equally to care and conserve. That to me is the meaning of sustainable education for my people; a system that meets the needs of our present, without compromising our future generations in terms of their needs within the protective embrace of our identity and heritage, our culture. Education for preservation: if I were to suggest a sub-theme to yours.

And so, I end where I begun: the importance of education for the country, and for us the Fijian/i Taukei as a race, in particular. An inquisitive spirit, I have identified, as a pre-requisite to life-long learning and success which we must not suppress in our children; a conducive environment with appropriate support systems – structural, human and financial.

 The logical end product, if my thesis is correct and, the single most desirable attribute which I pray and wish is visited on our children as they leave our schools, can be summarised in three words: “a discerning mind”. A discerning mind is best described as capable of exercising good judgment and wisdom; that exhibits a keen insight, that is astute, that is perceptive. Look back into our recent history and wonder how things may have turned out if, not so much as those who led, but those who followed, had discerning minds.

Where and who else can we draw our inspirations from other than from the wisest of us all. In the Books of Kings, 1 Kings Chapter 3: 6-14, King Solomon, on ascending the throne upon the death of his father King David, asked:

“ O Lord God, you have let me succeed my father as King, even though I am very young and don’t know how to rule…Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil….”God responded saying, “Behold I give you a wise and discerning mind….” 

I am sure, as sure as I am standing before you today, that the God we have in common with King Solomon, our God, will not mind if we, as teachers, emulate him with the same endowment to our schoolchildren as he gave King Solomon.

It is my fervent hope that in your deliberations in the coming days, you will always be mindful that in the mission of your noble calling and solemnised in your oath of profession which you reminded yourself of this morning, lies the destiny of our people as a race.

I wish you well in your deliberations.

Vinaka vakalevu.

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