MALDIVE ISLANDS 1978-79 – In mid-1978 I was sitting at my desk in the downstairs office of my home, White Waves, the spray from the waves pounding on the nearby reef corroding the light fittings, when a large manila envelope arrived in the morning post.
It was addressed to ‘Mr K Jackson BA’ and was festooned with Papua New Guinea stamps. Like much of the mail we received in Malé it had a battered and soiled appearance that suggested it had travelled for many months in a dirty sack in the hold of a slow ship.
The envelope didn’t seem to contain much at all, so I tore it open to be slightly surprised when on the desk dropped a medal. A PNG Independence Medal to be precise, with an explanatory note from NBC chairman Sam Piniau telling me to “wear it with pride”.
Maldives Independence day was on 26 July, a few weeks hence, and on that day I gave the medal a public excursion it has rarely known since.
It was on that Independence Day the police were out in numbers.
In per capita terms, Malé had the largest police force in the world. One adult male in five was a policeman.
There was also a National Guard in which the highest ranking officer was a major. The school cadet corps had a colonel in charge.
He’d been awarded the superior rank when the school cadets went to Sri Lanka and unexpectedly won a rifle shooting tournament.
It was unexpected because at home in Malé the cadets had never been allowed to use live ammunition.
The president refused to hand out ammunition to anybody except his relatives.
At that point in 1978, President Ibrahim Nasir sensed that his hold on power was slipping.
Around the same time the only trained National Guard officer returned after being commissioned at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom to be immediately placed under house arrest.
He was eventually released in November when the coup finally came.
During these unsettled months in the second part of 1978, Nasir was not the only nervous person in Malé.
At the Independence Day celebrations, my medal and I were sitting in the VIP section of the national stadium when the regular commuter plane service from Colombo – an old Avro – did a low sweep across the field by way of a salute.
Immediately there was no high ranking Maldivian official in sight. All had flung themselves to the floor.
When the long anticipated coup finally came in November 1978 it was mostly an anti-climax.
The main surprise was Nasir fleeing to Singapore taking with him the nation’s 25-vessel shipping line – much to the surprise of Maldivians who until then thought the government owned it.
The new president Abdul Gayoom moved quickly to assert his authority. A few acolytes of the previous man were gaoled or exiled and a liberalisation decree was issued.
Among other things it said, “The Maldives now has freedom of the press. The press is free to criticise anything except the last government and the present government.”
By this stage of my career, aged 33, I’d learned, sometimes the hard way, of the need to tread carefully through cultural complexity, political sensitivity and bureaucratic idiosyncrasy.
I knew that the integration of new attitudes, new ideas and new methods within the framework of a developing country was rarely a straightforward and trouble-free process. Indeed it was mostly either trouble encountered or trouble narrowly averted.
Unless common ground between development and culture, politics and bureaucracy was well established, even the most appropriate and necessary innovation could fail.
The Maldives presented an unusual twist on this, though, as the roles of politician, bureaucrat and entrepreneur were more often than not intertwined in the one human body.
The Maldives was – and remains – a constitutional democracy, but the rhetoric of freedom was always restrained by the reality of the need to align with this complexity of other interests.
As a consultant, I knew that success in my mission required change and that change would require disturbance.
I also knew that culture (whether within a nation or an organisation or a sports team) hates and resists disturbance.
This was the cultural conundrum. The paradox that somehow had to be squared away.
On the surface, people would say, ‘yes, we want to move to a better place’ but the changes required to attain it implied significant and unwelcome disturbance (both psychic and material) to just about every prevailing arrangement.
And at some point in this process of change, the tolerance of the existing system would be stretched, perhaps to breaking point.
Early in my Maldives’ assignment I had sought to build personal and professional capital not by plunging into the tasks that UNESCO wanted me to achieve – which at its fullest extent required significant and sustainable change - but by asking my Maldivian colleagues what they wanted and working with them to realise it.
They wanted to produce programs for teachers, in social studies and English language for adults and students. I could do that and we did it together.
They wanted skills in radio engineering and broadcast management. Too high level for what could be accomplished in Malé and requiring training overseas, which was arranged.
They wanted a broadcasting system that reached the remote atolls with good radio signal. That took longer and required the appointment of engineering consultants and the sourcing of major funding for transmitters and aerial systems. But it was done.
What they didn’t want was disruption. And the disruption, when it came, emerged from what looked like a benign source - a community education program, Radio Haveeru, which focused on atoll-dwellers and their expressed desire for more programs on topics like Maldivian history and culture, health, agriculture, fishing and business.
Having bedded down a significant amount of production activity, and with Radio Haveeru moving along nicely, I wrote to the education minister suggesting we now not just transmit information to the people, but enable the people to get information, comments and questions back to broadcasters for inclusion in the programs.
“One of the most important functions the mass media can perform is to promote and facilitate dialogue between various groups in society,” I wrote.
“To encourage dialogue is of particular importance in a country where the government wants to involve the people in the process of development.”
The people would participate through letters, which would make the long sea journey to Malé before providing raw material for Radio Haveeru.
The proposal met with enthusiasm and within a week an invitation was broadcast inviting listeners to participate.
Two weeks later, 150 letters had arrived. Two days later the roof fell in as the censor’s axe swooped.
I was told that only letters strictly related to program subject matter were to be used - no religion, no politics - and there were to be no more requests for feedback.
Furthermore, when the current stockpile of letters was cleared, that was it. Finish.
A Maldivian public servant later approached me and commented, “I see we’ve clipped your wings.”
“No,” I responded, “You’ve clipped your own.”
By now, my time in the Maldives was nearing an end. I spent some weeks easing my way out of projects, preparing a long report and making farewells. We’d achieved a lot but not everything. But it was OK.
The day before I was to fly out to Paris for debriefing and then on to Sydney and home, my Maldivian colleagues asked me to prepare a list of 50 program ideas they could implement.
The next time I saw Malé was eight years later, when I was asked to return for a two week consultancy to review the broadcasting reform process.
When I entered the terminal building at Hulule international airport, my valued colleagues Badru Naseer and Hussain Mohamed were there to greet me.
“We’re up to number 40 on the list,” they said.