Nation states can sometimes link their prosperity to serendipity – such as Australia’s proximity to emerging Asian markets, especially China and India, and their insatiable demand for natural resources in recent decades – but never their success. Success demands enlightened leadership, capable of strategic long-term planning and execution of national priorities to realize the full potentialities of the state. Some nations gaze enviously at those endowed with vast resources, and despair at the dearth of their own opportunities for exploiting such resources; yet, others have convincingly demonstrated that it is far better to ‘tap’ or ‘mine’ the intellect, energy and creative potential of their people. Fiji failed to exploit this abundant resource and, within a short space of seventeen years past independence, paid a heavy price for the mind-blindness of its leadership.

Peter Drucker, famed management consultant and educator, was seen as “the man who invented management”. He argued that “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” He also pointed out “That management is not a ‘Business Management’ … but the governing organ of all institutions of Modern Society.” Sadly, this sage advice appears to have escaped the attention of Fiji’s leadership.       

More recently, in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012) authors D. Acemoglu and J. A. Robinson explored why power, prosperity, and poverty varied so greatly around the world. Still a key question for economists and thinkers, but most agree that the conditions and factors that make countries richer or poorer are created by “good institutions,” – meaning ‘laws and practices that motivate people to work hard, become economically productive, and thereby enrich both themselves and their countries.’

In this paper, by way of a comparative analysis, I submit, Fiji neither created ‘good institutions’ nor reformed its rigid colonial institutions; and, its leadership since 1970 left a lot to be desired. Even so, many still argue Fiji is uniquely placed to redress some of the blunders of the last three decades. But for that to occur it must first come up with a ‘grand narrative’ to confront and purge from its national psychosis, the absurd passions of the radicalized, residual delusions of ethno-nationalists, and the insidiousness of its identity politics.

A defect of Vision

Fiji is the most developed Pacific island state with close historical ties to the Anglosphere, especially to a vibrant OECD economy and the preeminent regional power, which managed to largely quarantine its economy from the ravages of the global financial crisis since 2008. Apart from its close links to Australia, Fiji’s location at the very heart of the Pacific gives it some distinct geo-strategic advantages. Burdened with a relatively small population (*900,000 approx.), it is reasonably well-endowed with natural resources. Until that watershed moment, when Rabuka executed the first coup, on 14 May 1987, it boasted of a well-educated, skilled, multi-ethnic workforce – not unlike Singapore’s. But that is where the comparison ends.

Singapore’s growth and spectacular transformation resulted from careful, strategic planning by its far-sighted government, led by Lee Kuan Yew, after the state officially delinked from Malaysia on 9 August 1965 – only five years before Fiji’s independence. Its most understated achievement was the introduction of aggressive reforms that effectively dragooned its historical image and colonial legacies into a ‘self-belief’, by skilling and harnessing the creative potential of its people. Initial internal reforms were more critical than external assistance, derived from foreign aid schemes such the Colombo Plan. Also, a plural society faced with similar ethnic, linguistic and sectarian challenges, the Singaporeans opted for creating a rule-based, egalitarian and meritocratic society, where all citizens enjoyed the same rights.

Regrettably, instead of emulating the Singaporean meritocracy, Fiji’s post-independence leadership adopted a pro-indigenous stance, akin to a Malaysian model which sought to preserve pro-Malay, preferential rights for its Bumiputras (their iTaukeis). It had disastrous consequences and operated to obliterate glimpses of hope in its first seventeen years, post-independence. Fiji’s successive five-year plans suffered from an absence of self-belief and coherent policies with sufficient gravitas. They were also heavily influenced by, and often served the interests of its ruling elites, as well Fiji’s erstwhile rulers who had morphed into foreign aid donors.

Suddenly, they had all the answers to Fiji’s myriad problems, which they were largely responsible for creating. Even the most charitable assessment of Fiji’s post-colonial leadership – essentially an indigenous feudal aristocracy, initially kludged together by the British to protect their interests – would be unflattering. It proved to be little more than a self-serving cabal with an exaggerated sense of hubris and a need for veneration. Even allowing for other contributory factors, their brand of uninspired leadership, combined with primordial claims to uniqueness and ‘paramountcy’, coloured the tone of national debate that soon provided the impetus for a descent towards a coup culture. The key elements of nepotism, corruption, cronyism, rorting, mismanagement and covert racism inhered the ‘colonial administration’ but found fertile ground after independence.

Thus, Fiji citizens had to endure no less than four coups (plus many threatened) between 1987 and 2006, all of which were avoidable. The most catastrophic outcome of the coups and the ensuing political and economic instability, was that Fiji lost the bulk of its most educated, most talented, most entrepreneurial, and the most needed to Australia, NZ, Canada, USA and UK.

A Poster Child of Knowledge Economy

Singapore is a tiny island metropolis with a land area of a mere 715 km2 (15% of which is reclaimed), and it is twenty-five times smaller than Fiji (18,300 km2), with hardly any natural resources to support a population of *5.7 million – over six times larger than Fiji’s. It even relies, in part, on desalination plants for its drinking water. On the basis of these facts, Fiji has distinct advantages: a viable fishing, timber, mining and tourism industries; plus, abundant land and water resources, fully capable of delivering a high living standard to its people. Its once-thriving sugar industry and other agri-businesses can be revived. Yet Fiji remains a minion compared to Singapore.

What gives the latter its competitive advantage is its highly-educated, talented and energetic inhabitants; collectively responsible for a *$364 billion economy and, in terms of PPP, generating per capita income of $94,670 compared with Fiji’s estimated $5.5 billion economy, delivering per capital income of about $10,140.

Even if we allow for the variance in size in terms of population, a number of factors stand out as likely explanations for such vast disparities in economic performance and other measures of their national success.

First, we get some indication from empirical evidence provided by the PISA examination scores, determined bi-annually and conducted by the OECD. It sets out to find a correlation between the test results of the program for international student assessment (PISA) – which evaluates the literacy of 15-year old students from 65 countries in mathematics, science and reading or comprehension – and the overall income from natural resources as a percentage of GDP (resource rent) in the participating countries.

The findings showed an inverse relationship between the wealth generated from resources in those countries and the overall educational skills and knowledge of their students. The students from countries with few resources (Singapore/HK/South Korea/Japan/Finland) stood out with high scores, whilst countries with highest oil rents (Qatar & Kazakhstan) stood out with lowest scores, consistent with low scores for oil-rich countries in an earlier study. Even countries with fewer resources in Middle East (Jordon/Lebanon/Turkey) achieved comparatively better results. Students from resource-rich Latin American countries (Mexico/Brazil/Argentina) also recorded lower PISA scores. The exceptions were countries with sound economic management and future funds for investing their resource rents (Australia/Norway/Canada) whose students performed well.

The study highlighted the need for educational revolutions in transitioning economies because knowledge and technical skills are going to be the global currency of the 21st Century. Even outside this survey, Singaporean students consistently achieve top five ranking in the world in mathematics and science.    

The compelling reality of Singapore (plus South Korea/HK/Taiwan/Finland/Japan) suggests that, in the long run, industrious societies are economically, politically and socially strengthened, and are invigorated by the Tofflerian “future shock” produced by modernity, if they valorize higher education and encourage lifelong learning to harness their citizens’ true potential. Commitment to new ideas, innovation and cutting-edge technologies in all transitioning economies, will help determine the degrees of separation, and provide effective tools for gaining that elusive competitive advantage in the “digital culture” of the 21st Century.

Second, like Singapore, Fiji suffered from nascent political ruling elites and its colonial legacy had laid the foundations of a multi-ethnic society, albeit with conflicting development priorities. But, unlike Singapore, its three dominant ethnic groups, failed to reform the ‘institutions of governance’ critical to achieving stability and social cohesion, to advance national objectives. So, Fiji ended up in dire turmoil in as much time as it took Singapore to transform itself from abject poverty. One can only hope that Fiji has learnt some hard lessons from its political and economic upheavals. It has to make far better choices to recoup losses from the opportunities hitherto forgone. But it is at a crossroads, yet again, after three decades of recurrent self-harm.

There are positive signs as the incumbent administration, the regional powers and other stakeholders are engaged constructively to restore good governance. The efforts underway since 2014 were initially encouraging, but many challenges remain with increasing sections of the once-loyal electorates and opposition parties expressing disenchantment with government and its machinations to hold onto power. 

The much-needed reforms of the static colonial institutions, and others undermined by the coups, have yet to be prioritized. Some reformative measures foreshadowed by the Bainimarama government, once seen as laudable, have come under greater scrutiny and criticism. Little is on offer for consensus building and more sympathetic treatment of the expectations of vocal dissidents, doubters and opponents. Most disturbingly, allegations of ongoing corruption, nepotism, cronyism and perceptions of disregard for rule of law or established policies and procedures in the bureaucracy, and elsewhere, (e.g. at USP recently) have gone largely unheeded, adding to a trust deficit in governance, as a whole. The elites seem to getting away with their noses in the trough.  

In the early years, Singaporean citizens largely escaped this ignominy. However, they had to subordinate their individual freedom and accept diminished rights for the greater good of the collective society, even if it meant some international ridicule or censure. In the context of Fiji’s crises, one has to recognize that there is no single definition of democracy. All democracies evolve and they are only enriched by internal dissenters, doubters and opponents. A majoritarian consensus rather than unanimous accord may be a way forward.

Third, a cacophony of paeans to “Asian Century” offers enormous opportunities and creates challenges for Fiji in equal measure. The strategic US response to the rise of Asia is expressed as its counter-assertion that it will coexist with “America’s Pacific Century”. The past and incumbent US administrations’ so-called “pivot to Asia” highlighted the profound shifts in diplomatic and geopolitical realignments that have taken place since President George Bush (Jnr) was in office. The GFC crisis, the sluggish American economy and the Euro-zone crisis stood in stark contrast to the steady ascendency of Chinese and strengthening Indian economies. The recent Trumpian trade wars, ‘deglobalization’ initiatives, increasing Chinese assertiveness, and the Covid-19 pandemic have called for further readjustments and creative policy settings for all economies.

The two Asian economies are expected to become the largest and third largest economies, together with the US, within a decade in terms of PPP. Fiji enjoys historical and cultural connections with these countries. It must set aside myopic policies and xenophobia to seize the opportunities for preferential trade arrangements with these emerging giants, where more than a third of humanity resides. The opportunities for two-way trade with these countries are enormous but it does not have to be at the expense of existing trading blocks in the Anglosphere.  

Recently, Fiji has shown quite clever management of its foreign affairs, and it has the capacity to navigate both spheres of influence adroitly. By July 2012, to contain Chinese presence, the regional powers (Australia/NZ) had no choice but to restore diplomatic ties with Fiji, after US had recognized Fiji’s strategic importance by pursuing a more independent policy. It had already opened up renewed dialogue with Fiji in October 2010.

Without sacrificing its traditional friends in the Anglosphere, Fiji has already adopted a ‘look north’ policy in terms of increasing its level of integration with Asia. This policy is not inconsistent with Australia’s own aspirations. However, China’s aggressive stance in the Indo-Pacific has forced many in the region to rethink how best to mediate trade and security issues with an ever-assertive China. Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ presents a huge dilemma for the two regional hegemons.

Fourth, Fiji could give thought to positioning itself as a deliberate choice of an offshore financial centre in the region to undergird its economy and reduce overreliance on tourism. This would require significant reforms and tax incentives to lure foreign investments. Some key elements may include:

  • Capping personal and corporate income tax rate at, say, 20%
  • Taxation of all income derived entirely within Fiji and increasing the tax-free threshold
  • Removal of capital gains tax on all assets except speculative land dealings
  • Removal of any death duty or inheritance taxes
  • Provision of security for investors in terms of property ownership and succession laws
  • Setting realistic threshold for direct foreign investments and improving foreign investment guidelines
  • Strengthening and reforming banking, corporation, insurance and taxation laws
  • Establishing stringent prudential controls and independent oversight of financial markets
  • Consolidating banking regulations – its protective provisions to guarantee security and confidentiality
  • Unflinching commitment to freedom, robust free press, meritocracy and equality for all citizens
  • Pledge of a ‘clean government’ committed to an independent judiciary, bureaucracy and rule of law
  • Reinforcing FICAC and its independence to eliminate the scourge of corruption, nepotism, cronyism
  • Complete intolerance of any form of local, fiscal or transnational criminal activities.

Fifth, to intensify nation-building efforts, Fiji should instill “self-belief’ in and arrest the continuing departure of its citizens to other countries. Conversely, it has to find ways to incentivize the Fijian Diaspora to return, and make a contribution to national development priorities. Offers of dual citizenship, tax benefits and other fiscal incentives are helpful, but leadership must provide certainty and lasting confidence that the country would not revert to political vigilantism and lawlessness.

Fiji has to re-conceptualize its notion of citizenship, away from the traditional view of the rights and obligations of the state and its citizenry, towards a more nebulous and horizontal view of 21st Century citizens. It must accept global citizens live and work in environments, mediated not only by the state but, increasingly, supranational entities, trans-national corporations, NGOs, NPOs and networks of civic organizations. To exercise their freedom and agency, they must be empowered with high-quality education and technical skills, so they can reimagine the interdependency of a globalized world that offers great opportunities, but lays even greater demands on commitment to political, socio-cultural, economic or environmental obligations of the state. 

Sixth, to aspire to be a developed, free market, sophisticated ‘knowledge’ economy, Fiji has to have more than highly-skilled workforce. It must have advanced infrastructure, reformed institutions and prolonged periods of good governance (with low levels of taxation, corruption-free environment, adherence to the rule of law and freedom of speech). Transparency International rates Singapore as one of the least corrupt nations, and the business community regards its judicial system as the best in Asia, along with Hong Kong.

But no one is perfect. Amnesty International reminds us of its mandatory death sentence for murder, drug trafficking and some firearms offences. It excoriates its lack of freedom of speech and restricted freedom of assembly requiring a police permit for gatherings of more than five people, and decries the fact that protests have to be confined to a speaker’s corner. Surely, these are matters for Singaporeans, and western societies are hardly in a position to lecture. They are tainted by centuries of revolutions, wars, organized violence, colonial exploitation of other countries, slavery and racism.

Furthermore, since 9/11, many western countries have introduced draconian anti-terrorism laws that impinge on the rights of their citizens and free movement of people. The notion that rich western nations have all the answers to or will solve all global problems is a fallacy.

Success is Within Reach

To succeed, Fiji must grab its own future, aim to be the standard bearer in the Pacific, so it can become the poster boy for decency that it once was. Its leadership must work diligently to refurbish its international image and extirpate the potential for political vigilantism, fragmentation and periodic dictatorships from the lived experience of its citizens. They have frustrated progress, checked development efforts and continually remind us of the country’s inability to forge a ‘shared’ idea of Fiji to liberate its citizens. They must be empowered to create a knowledge economy based on indigenously-developed, credible institutions.

In the influential Post-Capitalist Society (1993) Drucker went on to argue, presciently, that ‘knowledge’ would replace land, labour and capital as the new basis of wealth creation. Dysfunctional societies are stuck with hoary arguments, fretting over who controls these resources, which are becoming redundant and may expose “the vacuum behind the façade” of such societies. The masses then look for a miracle or a Messiah who can easily turn them toward the “abracadabra of fascism” – a cue that should resonate with Fiji citizens.

In sum, it took some three decades for Singapore to uproot its past and turn itself into a vibrant, highly developed, ‘knowledge’ economy that is the envy of the world. It is the second freest economy in the world with AAA credit rating. As a leading financial centre it is ranked fourth and it is also the fourth largest foreign exchange trading market after London, New York and Tokyo. It justifiably boasts the highest level of income equality in the developed world, with the greatest number of millionaires. These statistics are not a panacea for all, but they account for its stability, despite being a hybrid culture (like Fiji’s) where multi-ethnic groups enjoy religious freedom and retain their four languages as ‘official’. Its other achievements are too numerous to mention here but one indisputable fact remains: Singapore’s successes are directly related to the quality of its leadership, and its valorization of education, egalitarian values and meritocracy. There is no better example for Fiji to emulate and there is every reason for it to learn from the successes of this tiny Asian giant killer.   

*All figures quoted herein would have changed but are based on earlier estimates for illustrative purposes only.

 Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney-based consultant, independent researcher, writer and critic. The opinions expressed are his and do not in any way reflect the views of the publisher(s). Based on an earlier article, updated July 2020.