The road to Damascus

▪️ The road to Damascus ▪️ Hate unlimited ▪️ Have some cannabis ▪️ Justice delayed

Enid E. Bonello, as assistant head of Immaculate Conception Secondary School in Tarxien, and two teachers, Claire Lauri and Francesca Vella, recently wrote in the Times of Malta about their Erasmus trip to Finland, where they witnessed Finland’s “phenomenal” education system and were struck by the country’s unwavering commitment to educational excellence.

It is well and truly an example of the conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus.  Mind you, there is somewhat of a difference.  Paul’s conversion was divinely inspired.  That of the teachers was mundane, even if apparently it was no less life-changing.   

The three Maltese educationalists spent two days learning about technology in schools, how teachers are trained, how well Finnish schools work, and PISA testing, not to mention visiting the impressive Oodi library in Helsinki.  They were struck by Finland’s holistic approach to education, which “places significant emphasis on nurturing the physical, emotional, and social aspects of learning”.  They found the Finnish education system to be deeply rooted in principles of equity, inclusivity, and innovation.

Claire Lauri, Francesca Vella, and Enid E Bonello outside one of the schools they visited in Finland.

The trio claimed to have gained an intimate understanding of how the Finnish curriculum is brought to life in classrooms across the country.  From comprehensive schools to vocational institutions, they had first-hand experience of the profound impact of the pedagogical practices of Finnish teachers on student learning outcomes.

What impressed them very strongly was how students were encouraged to take charge of their learning. The teachers didn’t just focus on giving out information, they cared about the whole person. “It wasn’t just about what you knew, but how you felt and what you could do.” It’s because in Finland education isn’t just about learning facts and figures; it’s about helping each person grow in every way possible.

The visitors from Malta say they now understand why Finland’s education system serves as a model of best practice for educators worldwide. The emphasis on collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking permeates every aspect of the Finnish curriculum, empowering students to become active participants in their learning journey.

By now, you will understand why it isn’t necessary that I mention the other praise they heaped on the Finnish system.  I am also fuming.  Why send three teachers, however good that is?  Why not close down the entire Ministry of Education for a month (nobody will notice, I promise) and send all the employees on the Road to Damascus?

As I think I have mentioned before, I have tried to encourage the bureaucrats in the Ministry to emulate Scandinavian and Singaporean practices, but they seem to be extremely slow learners, if not downright oblivious to of the modern and innovative educational system we need in Malta.

How I wish the Ministry’s bureaucrats to fall off their horse, like the Apostle, and if not go on the Road to Damascus, at least go on the Road to Helsinki.

Hate unlimited

This is not the title of a new book, though I might be tempted to write one.   After all, there is plenty of material: research about the occurrence of hate speech, the tools which are used to spread it, who uses it and for what purpose, learned studies about its impact on society, and all the stories about instances of hate.

The latest two incidents concerned the Nationalist Party accusing Prime Minister Robert Abela of using words intended to incite violence against the Opposition Leader, the ex-Opposition Leader, and against all those who form part of the PN, and an appeal by Repubblika’s president to the PM after an acrimonious exchange with Jason Micallef.  These high-profile cases are just the tip of a huge iceberg.

In the first incident, the PN objected to a statement made by Dr Abela outside the courts after the Government and the Opposition had declared their no-objection to   Mr Justice Toni Abela presiding over the case filed by the PN aimed at recouping the millions paid to Steward Healthcare in the ill-fated hospitals deal. 

What the PN complained about was that the Prime Minister was allegedly being “aggressive” towards the PN leader for protecting the interests of the Maltese people.  The Opposition said that the PM had “pointed a pistol” at Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, making him recuse himself from the same court case.

On his part, the Prime Minister had said that the Opposition attacked the judge as he was the cousin of someone who has been dead for a number of years. “It was an episode that shows how truly the PN does not respect the institutions but threatens them to decide how it wants,” he said.

Photo Illustration The Daily Beast/Getty

In the second incident, which happened during a debate on RTK103, Jason Micallef accused Dr Robert Aquilina, Repubblika’s president, of being obsessed and fixated “to the level of insanity” about Joseph Muscat.  Mr Micallef insisted that he was not saying that Robert Aquilina is insane, merely that “when you fixate on something, it can become a dangerous obsession.”  Dione Borg, the veteran PN journalist, countered that the true fixation to be found was that of the “Muscat faction” about Aquilina, who is a regular target of their criticism.

The background to this was Micallef’s impassioned defence of Muscat, not least through a Facebook post written some days earlier, in which he said that “we will defend Joseph Muscat with any means possible, including with force, and with the support of the people outside of the court and wherever it is needed.”

Borg, who has written extensively on political violence in the 1980s, made clear that he was alarmed by the comments: “The last time Labour supporters entered Valletta to protest the court they set it on fire.” He interpreted Micallef’s comments as an attempt to incite a mob in an attempt to intimidate magistrate Gabriella Vella in the midst of her inquiry into the hospitals fiasco, an inquiry opened at Repubblika’s request.

All this confirms, in my opinion, that Malta’s politicians have lost the plot and are now engaged in a dangerous free-for-all which is bound to flare tempers and lead inevitably to violence.  I am not going to enter into the merits of the two cases, where both sides had some reasons to feel aggravated, for that is not the point. The point is that mature and well-meaning people do not engage in this sort of behaviour.

According to a survey carried out over four months in 2016, around 34% of respondents in Malta had been victims of hate speech   ̶    they specified that 80.9% of the hate speech episodes happened in the form of public verbal abuse.  The victims believed that the main motivations behind the hate speech were nationality (21.6%), political opinion (17.6%), and religion (14.7%). I have no doubt that those percentages have exploded in the subsequent eight years.

In a Eurobarometer survey, Maltese people were found to be the most likely of all EU nationals to come across hate speech online. Around 55% of those who took part in the survey agreed that “hate speech” was the illegal content they were most likely to “encounter accidentally” online.  Malta topped the list, compared with Lithuania, which ranked among the countries where hate speech was least noticed (19%).

According to the same Eurobarometer survey, Maltese respondents were the third most likely to agree that the country needs to have arrangements in place to limit the spread of illegal content on the Internet.  Will the politicians respond by following more socially-acceptable behaviour and putting in place the necessary legislative and enforcement provisions?

I have no doubt that they won’t.  They like it this way as it whips up support which otherwise they wouldn’t have.

Have some cannabis

The number of drug-related emergencies has doubled in one year, reaching 1,072 cases in 2022.  Most of those who sought medical assistance did so in connection with cannabis and cocaine, according to data provided by a clinical toxicology unit at Mater Dei Hospital. 

In December 2021, Malta became the first country in Europe to legalise the recreational and personal use of cannabis. The new rules on cannabis introduced the creation of cannabis associations and the first club has begun to distribute the drug to its members.

That’s great.  It is really comforting to know that we are not the leaders in poverty reduction and income inequality, nor in educational attainments, nor in reducing corruption.  After all, who cares about such issues?  They are too difficult to solve  ̶   liberalising cannabis is the easiest thing in the world to do.     

Photo: RDNE Stock project.

In any case, intoxication-related medical emergencies contribute to a higher GDP   ̶  cannabis growing and distribution are economic activities. So is cocaine, even though it is in the black market.  Seminars have to be organised to discuss cocaine abuse   ̶  the fees paid to attend the seminar and the organisation of the seminar both contribute to the GDP.  Authorities paying exorbitant salaries to “experts” have to be set up to draw up legislation, prepare reports, or enforce regulations – more GDP.   More Police have to be recruited to arraign and prosecute those who break the laws in the law courts – yet higher GDP. Then the patients who overdose or fall ill because of the drugs they inhale have to be cured   ̶   their medical care also makes our GDP higher.  Finally, the funerals (undertaker, flowers, etc) also count towards the GDP. 

On the other hand, when patients are hospitalised, they cannot work  ̶   that’s less GDP.  If they are not hospitalised but get ill or have mental problems, they still cannot work or their productivity suffers   ̶   also lower GDP.  But such negative GDP factors are not easily visible and their GDP deductions can be blamed on something else: say, on the Opposition for being obstructive, or on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.  

At the end of the day, it is worth it, isn’t it?  After all, we can boast of being the leaders in the EU.  And if that isn’t enough, we can again pat each other’s back in the knowledge that, according to a European report, cocaine use in Malta has become prevalent at all sorts of festivities, including celebrations of religious events such as baptisms. 

Justice delayed

A Gozitan father who had failed to pay maintenance to his wife has now been condemned to pay €39,000.  That’s as it should be, you might say.  But not if his wife and children had to wait 39 years!  L-Orizzont reported the case extensively, detailing how the man had refused to pay a single cent even though he had had a job, had received social assistance, and had also inherited some assets.

Now I know that, when there is a separation of a married couple or they divorce, relations between the partners can become very pricky, if not violent.  But can I ask why the legislators have allowed the legitimate rights of one of the partners and the children to be sacrificed at the altar of pique?

Surely, the legislation should provide for an automatic payment of a percentage of the relevant income to be paid to the partner and children who stay with him/her?  In cases where it is clearly impossible for a payment to be made, there could be an appropriate mechanism whereby the Courts directly or an officer of the Courts could suspend or reduce the payments for a limited period of time depending on the circumstances.

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