Comment: We need help to make the medicine go down

Extract from a speech given by President Mohamed Nasheed to the Maldives Donors Conference 2010.

We have come here today from many different parts of the world. Some of you are based in the Maldives. Some of you have visited many times. For others, it may be your first visit to our country. We are a diverse collection of people.

Some of you are from government, some from multilateral institutions, some from grant giving organisations. Although we are many different people, we are brought together by a common goal: We all want to see a peaceful Maldives, and we all want to see a prosperous Maldives.

And so, I welcome you here as friends. And I hope we can work together towards our common vision. The Maldives has made considerable progress over the past eighteen months. This administration was voted in because people wanted political change. There is much work to do.


The separation of powers enshrined under the new constitution has been respected. Last year, we held this country’s first democratic parliamentary elections, which were judged free and fair by international observers.
We now have a Majlis that is democratically elected, doing away with the old system where 20 per cent of MPs were appointed by the President.

The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislature. I have made no secret of my concerns over the capacity of the judiciary to dispense justice. Nevertheless, we respect its independence and I hope that with training and capacity support, the judiciary will grow into a respected institution.

This administration respects fundamental rights and liberties. People are now free to join political parties, and participation in politics is very high. Over 80 per cent of the voting public took part in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Almost 10 per cent of the population has joined the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party; and a further 10 per cent of people have signed up for the main opposition [Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party]. Free, open and competitive politics is now part and parcel of people’s daily lives.


Press freedom also goes from strength to strength. We have dozens of newspapers, TV and radio stations, websites and blogs all free to report and comment as they see fit. Newspapers frequently criticise the government; in fact many newspapers lean heavily towards opposition parties.

We don’t mind criticism; indeed we welcome it. I would, however, call on certain sections of the media to be more responsible. Journalists should be mindful of the consequences of their actions. It is not OK to spread rumours or unsubstantiated allegations against anyone, whether they are in government or opposition.

To be honest, I don’t really care what people say about me. But in a small society, false allegations can be very hurtful. So I appeal to the media to act responsibly. And I ask journalists to try, to the best of their abilities, to report the truth. Of course, humans will always make mistakes. When the media makes a mistake, people who have been wronged should be allowed redress.

At the same time, we don’t want defamation laws to create a chilling effect on press freedom. For these reasons, this administration has decriminalised defamation, so journalists no longer have to fear jail for anything they write.

And with the help of the press freedom watchdog, Article 19, we have submitted a new broadcasting bill to the Majlis. The broadcasting bill will improve the integrity and independence of the broadcast media, and I urge all MPs to support it.

Last year the Maldives climbed 53 places in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index. We are now ranked six places behind France for freedom of the press. This is a remarkable improvement.

But I do not want to sound complacent. Earlier this month, a gang of youths threatened and attacked journalists from DhiTV and Haveeru newspaper. This was a disgraceful attack on the press. The police swiftly arrested the suspects.

But let me be absolutely explicit about this; let me make this crystal clear: I don’t care whether you are a gangster, or whether you are a senior politician controlling the gangsters. If you attack, or orchestrate attacks on the media, this government will take appropriate legal action to protect the media.

Despite some setbacks, freedoms are improving. We still have much work to do. But I can say with conviction, that Maldivians enjoy more freedom today than at any other point in history. That, I believe, is something in which we can be proud.

Economic liberation

Through political change, we have managed to emancipate people, so they can play a full and active role in society. And just as people need liberty to progress, we believe business also needs freedom to prosper. We are therefore implementing reforms to liberate the economy.

Our economic reforms involve three crucial parts:

Firstly, we are committed to financial prudence and long-term stability. We have scrapped the reckless policies of the past, which saw money printed to finance a growing budget deficit. Instead, we are working with international multilateral organisations, to ensure we do not spend more than we can afford. And we are reducing our budget deficit to sensible and sustainable levels.

The second plank of our economic reforms is a far-reaching policy of privatisation and public-private partnerships. We do not believe that the state can, or should, play the role of business. Privately run firms tend to be more efficient, more profitable and provide better customer service and job satisfaction. We are therefore offering private parties the chance to invest in a wide range of state run enterprises.

The third part of our economic reforms involves cutting red tape and reducing government bureaucracy. In the past, the government offered people jobs not because there was work that needed doing. The government offered people jobs as bribes; to get their allegiance to a repressive regime. Almost 10 per cent of the population works for the government – a staggering amount.

And there are more civil servants than there is work to be done. Many government employees are under worked; chained to demoralising jobs. Our administration will therefore dramatically reduce the number of civil servants. But we must provide loans for outgoing civil servants, to help them set up businesses or acquire new skills.

We make these changes because we believe in the rights of the individual, over the regulation of government. We implement these reforms because we believe in the dynamism of the market, over the indecision of the state. We make this shift because we believe in business over bureaucracy. I believe that a free economy is the path to success in the Maldives.

Economic Crisis

Of course, we face many challenges. When we came into office, we inherited an economy in crisis. In the years leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, the former regime went on a spending spree that almost bankrupted the country. Our administration inherited a huge national debt from the former regime.

We took over a budget where 70 per cent of government revenue is spent on civil servant’s salaries. We were bequeathed millions of dollars of unpaid bills. And we inherited this situation, just as the global economy faltered.

According to World Bank statistics, the Maldives faced the worst economic situation of any country undergoing democratic transition, since records began in 1956. It has not been an easy 18 months, and we continue to face serious budgetary shortfalls.

As I mentioned earlier, we are embarking on major fiscal and economic reforms, overseen by the IMF. These reforms will see the size of government radically reduced. And reforms will enhance the government’s tax revenues. When fully implemented, the changes will ensure fiscal responsibility and macro economic stability.

Some reforms will be painful and costly. And the economy is still vulnerable. We are not out of the woods yet. We still require significant budgetary and developmental help, to see us through this transitional phase.

We must not falter. We must swallow the bitter economic medicine, to ensure our long-term health. But we need your help. We need your spoonful of sugar, to help the medicine go down. We need the assistance to foster people’s confidence in the changes we are bringing during this turbulent transitional stage of our budding democracy.

Violent opposition

Already, we see the warning signs. There are elements in the opposition determined to block progress in the Majlis. And some opposition figures are flirting with violence in the streets.

This weekend, some members of the main opposition party, the DRP, have been doing their best to get arrested. They are starting fistfights and goading the police to arrest them. Why do they behave in this fashion? Well, it may have something to do with this conference.

I must stress that most members of the opposition are sensible and respectable politicians. But the DRP, I fear, is in danger of being hijacked by radical elements, that the new party president appears incapable of controlling. These radicals call for revolution – disregarding the democratic mandate the electorate gave our administration.

DRP radicals are trying to obstruct this conference from being a success. They are hurting the Maldivian people, just to score a cheap political point.

I understand that the Maldives is in the infant stages of democracy. But it’s time that certain politicians left the nursery, and learnt to grow up.

There are also vested interests in the country trying to prevent economic reform. Many people made huge profits from the closed and corrupt economy of the past. They are trying to prevent a clean, open and transparent economy from being created.

The Auditor-General has compiled evidence implicating senior members of the former regime in corruption and embezzlement of state funds. The opposition is now trying to remove the Auditor-General – even though it was Former President Gayoom who appointed him.

I am under tremendous pressure to act against members of the former regime, who stand accused of corruption and human rights abuses. But I am loath to take this action. If we took action against everyone implicated in corruption and torture, we would end up arresting most of the opposition.

I do not believe that arresting the opposition, is the best way to build a healthy democracy. But you can understand the pressure I am under, during this period of democratic consolidation.

There are also religious extremists attempting to undermine the core values of our democracy.

On the issue of extremism, allow me to go back four or five years ago. Back then, the ruling regime did not allow political parties, and opposing voices were brutally crushed. The only avenue for dissent was underground religious groups.

When the MDP was formed, first in exile and then in the Maldives, a lot of people left these underground groups and joined the opposition. Organised political activity helped to keep fundamentalism in check. As society has opened up, the remnants of the underground, extremist movement have legitimately come into the open. These groups have moved quickly to fill a large space in civil society.

Dealing with fundamentalism

I am often criticised by liberal Maldivians because I refuse to censor religious groups. I am criticised because I won’t crack down on the fundamentalists.

But my point is this: the ends do not justify the means. You cannot arrest and imprison people just because you disagree with their views. Moreover, the battle between liberalism and fundamentalism is a battle of ideas.

Liberally-minded Maldivians must organise, and reclaim civil society if they want to win this battle of ideas. People with broader viewpoints must become more active, to create a tolerant society.

A few nights back, 32 young people came to see me. They were furious about the rise in extremism. To my mind, these are just the sort of people who need to reclaim civil society, if they want to foster a more open-minded society.

We must defeat the rejectionists, who hanker for a return to authoritarian rule. We must overcome the vested interests that want to stymie economic progress. And we must win the battle of ideas against extremists who want to replace democracy with theocracy.

I believe we will not win by going for a crack-down, or a witch-hunt or mass arrests. To my mind, violence only begets violence. Instead, for democracy to flourish, the government must show that people’s lives are improving. We must be able to say, that things will get a little better. We must be able to highlight a brighter future. We must use hope, to overcome fear.

Helping Maldivians

I believe the Maldives is becoming a better and fairer place. Aside from political and economic reforms, we have been able to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable people in society.

We’ve introduced an old age pension for over 65s, to free elderly citizens from the bondage of begging for basic needs.

We’ve started universal health insurance, so every Maldivian can work freely without having to fear the cost of falling sick.

And we’re developing a national ferry network, so people, goods and services can move around the country cheaply and quickly.

But we need help to ensure our economic reforms are successful. We ask for assistance to help the government fulfil its modest election pledges. And we need you to support our vibrant democracy, to safeguard hard-won freedoms.

Climate change

Climate change is real, it is happening and it is getting worse. I know many people are bitterly disappointed with the Copenhagen Accord. The Accord, in its current format, falls well short of a planet saving deal. But it does provide a foundation on which we can build.

Time is of the essence. Sadly, we are falling behind. Climate deniers seem to have gained the upper hand, and vested interests are using leaked emails, and minor errors in the IPCCC reports, to undermine the case for action.

The talk now is of waiting another two years, for Cancun and then South Africa, and perhaps then we’ll have a deal. But we cannot wait for ever.

The scale of our challenge is immense. To solve the climate crisis, the world needs to go carbon neutral by mid-century. This is why the Maldives is pushing ahead with its carbon neutral goal.

We want to break the link between carbon and development. We want to show that carbon neutral development is not just possible; it is profitable.


In the Maldives, we know how costly fossil fuels can be. Fossil fuels damage the environment and the economy. On some islands, people pay over 80 US cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. This is obscenely expensive. High prices dampen demand for energy, which in turn hinders economic growth.

The Maldives cannot develop, unless we have a plentiful supply of cheap energy. And the Maldives cannot survive, unless we persuade the world to abandon carbon.

For both these reasons, renewable energy and carbon neutral development makes sense. There is so much at stake for the Maldives. The threats to our democracy, our economy and our environment are real and deadly.

We are walking on a razor’s edge. But I remain optimistic. With your help, we can consolidate democracy. With your support, we can maintain economic stability. With your assistance, we can help ensure the long-term survival of this country and this planet.