The first article in this series was published on MONEY magazine last June, 2021 - See http://bit.ly/MaltaSOFTpower
MY FIRST ARTICLE ON SOFT POWER VOICED VARIOUS OPINIONS FROM ARCHITECTS, SENIOR BANK EXECUTIVES, ENTREPRENEURS, MARKETERS AND START-UP OWNERS. THE OVERWHELMING MESSAGE WAS: ‘LET’S GET MOVING, LET’S TACKLE OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM, THE CURRICULUM AS A PRIORITY. A BETTER EDUCATED AND MORE CULTURED POPULATION IS LIKELY TO MAKE BETTER CHOICES.” THEIR MESSAGE WAS LOUD AND CLEAR; THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW. MALTA MUST TACKLE THE ISSUE OF ITS SOFT POWER AS A MATTER OF PRIORITY. THE TIME FOR EXCUSES IS OVER. RAY DE BONO EXPLAINS.
While there are hurdles to face, there is a growing chorus of professionals, academics and entrepreneurs who not only see potential in Malta’s international image but are actively working to improve it, each in his or her niche. Malta is blessed with myriad assets and opportunities, and many valuable people are ready, able and willing to help the island succeed. This month, I enjoyed interviewing a remarkable group of Maltese business leaders, visionaries, professionals and philanthropists. Here I will share with you their views, hoping that together we will help bring about a positive contribution to the subject in question.
Claire Zammit Xuereb is one of these outstanding leaders. Eloquent and experienced, she sits at the very top of one of Malta’s largest group of companies operating in the tourism sector. In addition to her directorship duties with AX Hotels, Claire also sits on the Executive Board of AX Group and has held various positions within the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and the ITS Board of Governors. As Chairperson of the AX Foundation, Claire also helps persons living with invisible disabilities, primarily those on the autism spectrum.
Speaking with Claire gave me a sense of optimism. The lady knows her turf. Despite the challenges facing Malta and the rest of Europe, not just due to the Covid pandemic, Claire insists that Malta is still in time to reposition itself on the right track. She is an advocate for the greater involvement of the private sector, as well as the need to strengthen our education, and she has a lot to share. If one looks at her company and the zeal and enthusiasm with which their hotels are run, you can tell that there’s a lot to learn from AX Group.
According to Claire, no longer satisfied with the same old thing, people seek unique and memorable experiences for their travels. Passive holidays lying on a beach in Marbella or shopping in London are all well and good, but many want more.
“Experiential travel is the answer; it’s about experiencing something different first-hand.,” she asserts.
Examples of such experiential travelling can be those focused on archaeology, history or culture – three areas where Malta has so much to offer. Other ideas include promoting agritourism, wine production-related vacations (like they do in Bordeaux, Florence, Cordoba and even in nearby Sicily), and the appreciation and promotion of Malta’s culinary repertoire.
“It’s time to rejuvenate our products”, insists Claire. Malta stands to attract a more affluent, high-quality flow of travellers, which, contrary to mass tourism, can help sustain our economic well-being without hampering the environment. Malta can benefit a lot by “focusing on family, sports tourism and travelling specific focuses”, she maintains.
For my following interview, I wanted to speak to a young professional to see what the younger generation promises for our future. I met with Ian Camilleri Cassar, and I must say that was not let down. Ian is one of four architects behind the viral project to turn Floriana into a green town. He is fresh, entrepreneurial and radiates positive energy.
Ian Camilleri Cassar, along with Anna Gallo, Bernard Vella and Adam Brincat, all from DHI Periti, originally proposed to convert Floriana’s main avenue, St Anne’s Street, into a garden in 2014. Their design would have brought complete pedestrianisation and embellishment of the main road, with traffic to Valletta passing underground.
The project recently resurfaced in the media after plans to revitalise Paris’ Champs D’Élysée similarly were in the news. Not only did the Floriana mayor endorsed DHI Periti’s concept, but so did the Minister for the Environment Aaron Farrugia, who expressed interest in making the project come true.
“There are some brilliant architects and designers in Malta, although showing off their skills is not easy”, Ian says. While budgets for construction and design have gone up, and people are increasingly more quality conscious, in the absence of stricter measures from the authorities to curtailing finishings, aesthetics and the need for more open spaces, developers often go for cheaper solutions. The prevailing drive for more buildings is not driven by a zeal for sustained urban development, nor is it the result of increased demand; it’s borne out of greed and the lack of alternative investment opportunities.
It appears that up till the 1970s, Malta’s architecture followed a more European approach in its style, use of materials and prioritising for open (green) space. Since then, driven by the limestone quarry industry lobby and enthusiasm for creating wealth through rampant construction, successive governments have changed building laws to maximise space use while ignoring or softening their approach to maintaining Malta’s image as a Southern European state.
Looking at buildings erected in the late 80s, during the 90s and early 2000s, one sees a bland, beige Middle-Eastern influence creeping in. Is it just a question of low budgets? There seems to be ignorance or, at best, little concern about the cultural and historical context when it comes to architecture and building styles in Malta. Why is this?
“Yes, unfortunately, the 1980s was a downhill turn with regards to design. The best example is Bugibba. One only has to compare a Bugibba flat façade from the 1980s with a traditional Maltese double-fronted façade from the early 1900s, like Hamrun,” comments Ian, “Somewhere along the last 50 years, the Malta construction industry went haywire - or shall we say, suffered from a lack of direction, poor regulation and mediocre enforcement.”
“SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LAST 50 YEARS, THE MALTA CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY WENT HAYWIRE”
Stressing on the lack of vision as being the root of our current predicament, Ian had this to say about Valletta: “We had an opportunity to turn Is-Suq (the Old Market), located within the centre of our capital, into an art or culture museum, yet what did we choose? We made it into a food court instead”.
There seems to be growing consensus amongst stakeholders and the public that Malta needs more open spaces, especially greenery and, more importantly, trees. However, we keep seeing the destruction of green areas, development within ODZs, and uncontrolled building practices.
“Open space is not a choice but a human need,” stressed the young architect. Three primary benefits arise from open spaces: (i) Social – self of belonging, (ii) Health – activity, better air, mental stability, and (iii) Economical – as the value of properties rises, boosting enterprise and higher standards of living.
I can see how Ian’s Floriana project, right at the capital city gates, could spell such a revolutionary change in how we perceive architecture and construction as a force for good in society. Hope springs eternal!
To broaden the debate on Malta’s soft power, I also had the privilege of interviewing the incoming president of the Malta Chamber, Marisa Xuereb. A Masters graduate in Economics, Marisa hails from a long, successful career in business management, particularly in the export sector.
Having such an influential body as the Malta Chamber behind the drive to develop and sustain Malta’s soft power would be an important milestone. The Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry is the independent voice of the private sector in Malta. It is the longest established social partner in Malta – having been launched in 1848. It is the only employer organisation recognised by the laws of Malta. Because of its merger with the Federation of Industry (FOI) in 2009, The Malta Chamber is today the strongest represented employers’ body on national boards such as the MCESD, ERB, ME, MEUSAC and others.
“Here in Malta, we tend to be unconditionally ‘for’ or ‘opposed to’ everything that comes up for consideration. The highly divisive national debate that characterised the run-up to our EU accession is a classic example. There are very few things that see us pull together as a nation with a clear commitment to prioritising the national interest, over and above any other consideration”. (Marisa Xuereb)
“The most impactful things that happened in Malta in the last few years have unfortunately polarised us even more. In any other mature democracies, the murder of a journalist would have seen the country unite behind condemning the act, quite irrespective of petty personal likes and dislikes of the victim’s personality. What we witnessed was quite the opposite, and that weakened us as a nation,” Marisa states.
I feel there is much healing that needs to take place for the country to move forward. We have inflicted much damage on ourselves by failing to be unequivocally on what is morally right and morally wrong. A strong brand is built on a clear set of values that all those who identify with the brand embrace. The Malta Chamber President believes that the priority is to identify these values and ensure that they are being upheld at all levels of governance, across public and private organisations, as well as by well-meaning citizens. It is only at that stage that we can converge towards the new ‘Brand Malta’:
“What is becoming clear to us at the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry are that businesspeople who make headlines for the wrong reasons are not representative of the whole business community, and, as we champion ethical business, more and more honest business people are coming forward and lending a hand in rebuilding Malta’s reputation. “It is certainly something that we can only be successful at if we work together, with commitment and perseverance, with immediate urgency and with a clear vision for the future that enjoys broad support across the political spectrum.”
I could not complete my piece without speaking to an exponent of Malta’s real estate sector, such as the young entrepreneur Steve Mercieca. When debating Malta’s image, we often pick on construction and property development, so it is essential to hear what he must say.
As the chief executive officer and co-founder of QuickLets and Zanzi Homes, or the QLZH group, he has grown exponentially, taking his brand overseas to countries such as Cyprus. With a team of just under 600 specialists, 37 offices and over 50,000 properties on his companies’ books, Steve is one of Malta’s rising stars on the business front, successful in his own right but also altruistic.
I see Steve’s energy and business drive as being positively contagious. While determined to make his business flourish, he actively works to share his success with the community. In 2019, the QLZH Foundation embarked on a project to plant 1 million trees in Malta, quickly supported by Malta’s largest betting firm Betsson Group, and many other sponsors.
Among other initiatives, Steve’s QLZH Foundation team members travelled to Ghana to help set up an internet connection for two communities and present them with a whole new library of textbooks for their school. QLZH continues to support children’s education in Ghana with every property they rent. Despite the ongoing pandemic challenges, the real estate market is booming, and Steve Mercieca has all the reasons to be very upbeat about Malta’s economic prospects. When asked about how development and the environment can be better harmonised, Steve was optimistic about the changes taking place in Malta. In his view, both the Maltese people and the authorities have become more aware of the need to protect and embellish our environment, especially our heritage, ODZ and village cores.
“What Malta needs is quality development,” he stressed, adding that developing taller buildings, for instance, could mean less use of land, nicer edifices and more open spaces, offering more amenities and a better overall urban environment”.
Steve comes across as a good role model for young people thinking of going into business and as an example for other established entrepreneurs. Malta stands to gain so much from Steve’s example, and I’m sure that we’ll be hearing more about his endeavours.
Finally, I raised the question of Malta’s soft power with economist JP Fabri. We spoke about Malta’s FDI attractiveness, fiscal integrity, ease of doing business here.
It appears that Malta’s geographical limitations can also work in its favour. History has shown that the island and its economy are resilient; our small size makes us ‘nimble’ and can react to market needs much sooner than other, larger EU countries; this plays to our advantage, making us more competitive.
“As a small island state, Malta’s success rests squarely on our collective ability to attract new investment. In a world where capital and labour are extremely mobile, we need to ensure that we nurture such conditions, including our ability to supply talent with the required skillsets, remain accessible and responsive in terms of regulatory and administrative institutions, and constantly be ahead of the game,” JP says.
Working on Malta’s soft power theme resulted in me meeting various industry leaders, exponents, and professionals from multiple sectors.
There is a growing consensus that Malta needs a national effort to develop, launch and sustain a cohesive national brand identity. All the people I spoke to expressed strong opinions on the need for Malta to make inroads, whereas soft power is concerned. What seems to be lacking is a concerted effort, a project leader - an orchestra conductor - to harmonise all the skillsets at our disposal towards the common goal.
Should the government or the industry champion the drive towards the strengthening of Malta’s soft power? Who should take the lead? The prevailing opinion out there is that a public-private partnership model is the best way ahead for success. Now, who will make the first move forward?
Over the last two decades, Ray has directed businesses in the Media, Marketing and IT fields, focusing mainly on the international market. raydebono.com