Fiji Times Logo

Fiji Time: 6:20 AM on Sunday 20 April

/ Front page / Features

When one size doesn't fit all

Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, January 08, 2014

ONE of the important lessons I learned in Korea was that sometimes, one size does not fit all, especially when the size is Korean and the "sizee" is … well … me. Jokes aside, I have been reflecting on the diversity we have in Fiji — not just in terms of ethnicity, religion and size and shape — but also diversity in terms of recognition or legitimacy of authority over different spheres of life and society, culture, social behaviour, ideology and worldviews.

Just over a year ago the research book, Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji, presented the perceptions and visions of the people of Fiji for future democratic development, as well as their opinions as to the preconditions required for this development. It also suggested what a Fijian model of democracy may be like. The research by Boege, Casimira, Ernst and Szesnat covered the following five key areas:

(1) democracy;

(2) rule of law;

(3) leadership;

(4) decision-making; and

(5) citizenship.

Apart from the quantative research undertaken, qualitative research was built on the scholarly discourse on the interface between democratic state institutions and non-state local societal institutions of governance in the post-colonial societies of the Global South — the so-called "hybrid political orders".

According to the book's executive summary, in post-colonial states, including Fiji, state institutions are not the only institutions which fulfil functions that, in the model Western state, are clearly state obligations. Locally-rooted social entities, such as extended families, clans, tribes, village communities, and traditional authorities (e.g. village elders, chiefs, healers, "big men" and religious leaders), determine the everyday social reality of large parts of the population. Moreover, as seen in Fiji, state institutions are to a certain extent "infiltrated" and overwhelmed by local, customary non-state "informal" institutions and social forces, which operate according to their own logic and rules.

As a result, the report states that: "Governance is hybridised by the interactions between introduced liberal democratic state institutions and local customary non-state institutions. In hybrid political orders, diverse and competing authority structures, sets of rules, logics of order and claims to power coexist, overlap, and interact; they combine elements both from introduced Western models of governance, and local indigenous traditions of governance and politics. Further influences are found in the forces of globalisation and associated societal fragmentation. In hybrid political orders, different types of legitimate authority — beyond the rational-legal authority legitimised by liberal democratic procedures — can be found, such as traditional and charismatic types of legitimacy. These coexist, compete and interact with rational-legal legitimacy, leading to the hybridisation of legitimate authority."

The complexity of Fijian society lies in its hybridity of pre-modern traditional society, modern capitalist society and recently the impact of globalisation and postmodern transitional paradigm.

According to Kerry R Howe in, Where the Waves Fall, premodern Fijian society and polity was hierarchical — a small number of chiefs ruling the bulk of the indigenous iTaukei population, with a rich culture, an efficient agricultural production system and a complex religious system which supported the sociopolitical structure. Integral to Fijian social, political and religious life was the vanua. Sekove Degei writes that the "cultural aspects and connotations surrounding the vanua were (and still are) related to the belief and value systems of the people" and "relationships," based on community, mutuality, and reciprocity which existed among "people, and between the people and their physical environment".

The beginning of Fiji's modern epoch can be placed with the arrival of Wesleyan missionaries in 1835. These missionaries who had left the fledging industrial revolution of nineteenth century England viewed the iTaukei as having a primitive way of life and set about to both Christianise and "civilise" the indigenous population, condemning and encouraging "the abolition of those activities and practices which they regarded as un-Christian and un-Biblical", introducing a set of laws based on their own society. At the same time they maintained those cultural practices which they considered acceptable. John Garrett notes that the missionary John Hunt's, "readiness to follow the local custom of kerekere in giving away his own and his wife's possessions to Fijians".

The hierarchical structure of political hegemony in traditional iTaukei society meant that chiefs of each tribe had to convert before commoners could. However, according to Garrett, "although they loyally followed their chiefs, the people seemed to understand that a fundamental personal decision was also involved in renouncing local and ancestral spirits in favour of Christ. When they did follow, the feeling of the church so formed was overwhelmingly communal. The unity of vanua, (country), matanitu (chiefly authority) and lotu, (the Christian religion), took on an almost Trinitarian solemnity in the inner life of Fijians … Traditional Wesleyans felt no strain over the emergence of a church established within the framework of custom law; John Wesley and his early followers defended and never officially forsook the established Church of England, built on similar assumptions about the sacred and secular."

With the ceding of Fiji to Great Britain in 1874, the unity of the vanua, matinitu and lotu became the three-legged stool on which modern Fijian society would now stand. According to Ilaitia Tuwere, "the vanua absorbed the lotu such that one became indistinguishable from the other". He adds that "without the vanua and the lotu, the Fijian way of life would not have its present form". This was exploited by the British colonial government, who created a Council of Chiefs through which to govern the iTaukei. It also served to entrench the position of the emerging Methodist Church in the sociopolitical structure of Fiji. Conversely, according to Steve Ratuva, indigenous Fijian culture and politics have helped shape some of the doctrines and practices of the churches. This relationship has made not only Christianity, but particularly Methodism, an inseparable component of the Fijian socio-cultural milieu. Christianity has provided the ideological base on which various forms of cultural and political practices are justified.

British colonialism's use of the three-legged stool had economic and social repercussions on the emerging modern Fiji. Karen Brison notes that rural iTaukei were moulded by a British colonial philosophy "stressing the importance of preserving iTaukei communal tradition in order to prevent deracinated people from flooding urban areas that offered employment only to a few." She writes that "the British had set up a system of ethnic niches in which Indian indentured servants were brought to work on sugar plantations while the indigenous population was encouraged to stay in a traditional state in rural villages".

However, since independence in 1970, such restrictive policies were no longer in place and in the process of urbanisation, the traditional structure of the three-legged stool began to lose its "Trinitarian solemnity". Increasing access to education and resulting employment opportunities led to a new "educated", "white collar" class within the iTaukei social structure. The modern concepts of immediate or "nuclear" family began to erode the extended family/clan structure in the urbanised context, while individualism and status based on earning power, began to eat away at the communal structure and provide a new sense of identity. However in the rural and traditional setting the three-legged stool, however twisted the legs may have become, stood firm. Thus a hybrid culture developed in which iTaukei must have one foot in each world.

However, the advent of globalisation has further challenged the hybridity of Fijian society. The shift from communal and relational identity to individualistic and materialistic is more pronounced than ever before. The influx of new religious movements which are Pentecostal in ecclesiology has weakened the influence of the Methodist Church and other mainline churches (Catholic, Anglican, Seventh-day Adventist). Globalised media has introduced new symbols, cultures and lifestyles. The immediacy and accessibility of communication and sources of information has led to new ideas and new ways of thinking about culture, democracy, human rights and an emphasis on secularism, which had been resisted by conservative structures of cultural, traditional and religious values. Fijians are no longer just members of ethnic, social or traditional groups, they are now part of the global community.

Finally the postmodern paradigm is also influenced by the rise of civil society, non-governmental and community groups. Some have emerged from within the church, such as Soqosoqo Vakamarama (indigenous women's association), Stri Sewa Sabha (Fijian women of Indian descent social welfare society) the Young Women's Christian Association and the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy, which was originally part of the Fiji Council of Churches, and those of other religious organisations. Others have been part of the changing paradigm such as the Fiji Women's Rights Movement and the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre. Yet others have emerged as a response to the changing sociopolitical landscape such as the Citizen's Constitutional Forum, Dialogue Fiji, and the NGO Coalition on Human Rights.

As we continue to pass through the threshold of this new and significant year, looking for "true democracy for Fiji" or a "truly Fijian democracy", national unity and cohesiveness of Fijian society, cultural and religious liberty and respect and tolerance for and among all Fijians; it is important to remember the complex hybridity of Fijian society. Such social hybridity extends in the sociological sense to the discussion of religion and secular society — premodern society is religious, modern society is secular, yet the post-modern/emerging society is in fact broadly ecumenical in both a Christian and multi-faith dialogical sense.

In this regard one size may indeed not fit all. Even the saying that "that the strongest chain is only as strong as the weakest link" may be pause for some thought. The chain may be made stronger by removing the weakest link, but that makes the chain smaller. The weakest link, if strengthened (empowered), may prove to be a strong and crucial link in the chain, rather than merely a brick in the wall to be removed.

"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity"

* This article contains elements from Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji, published by the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Research and Social Analysis, and Sailing To The Island Of Hope: A Wesleyan Ethical Framework For 21st Century Fiji, Reverend James Bhagwan's Master's of Theology in Christian Ethics thesis.

* The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with.