Colonia, Yap — Elections in most countries bring with them a loud, boastful lead-up when candidates use first-person narratives to tell voters about their experience, accomplishments, qualifications and future plans if elected. Family photos are standard fare in ads and on billboards. Social media follow the candidates’ every move on the campaign trail. All while tearing into their opponents to knock them out of the ring.
Not in Yap, where boastfulness is looked down on and direct confrontation is strongly discouraged. In this society, where respectful interactions and peaceful relations are imperative, non-written forms of communication such as ceremonies, rituals and performances have been used for centuries to dispense information. Complex relationships of family and hierarchy dictate the need for deference, cooperation and maintenance of social order.
Bragging about yourself, even by candidates for office, is not acceptable. Consequently, their official statements appear opaque and filled with platitudes to the outsider. But the Yapese say they know how to read between the lines. And they know family histories and the candidates’ pasts.
Historically, the traditional chiefs have been the protectors of their people, revered as wise and knowledgeable. They always had the best interests of the community in mind. The chiefs continued to be influential after the country was established in 1983 and a democratic government was formed. Among many things, they were relied on to tell their constituents who to vote for. The people who live on the Outer Islands of Yap are said to choose the elected leaders. They line up at the ballot box on election day and vote for their chiefs’ selection. The only excuse not to vote is illness, old age or being off island.
On the main island, few people vote and those who do still often vote for the candidates supported by their chiefs or the male head of the family. Many candidates are supported based on who they are related to. As a result, entire villages often vote as a bloc. Some support is given to thank a candidate for past work even if he was not in an elected position at the time the work was done. Others say it depends on which candidates promise to give the Neighboring Islands the most “free stuff.”
This election cycle may be the test as citizens challenge the status quo by pushing the candidates to respond to questions forthrightly and engage in honest, open dialogue about the real issues that are impacting the island today and the decisions that will shape its course into the future.
The senatorial candidates for those islands and the gubernatorial candidates, visit before the election to make their promises to the chiefs and community. Although still respected and relied on to look after their communities, it is expressed in private that some chiefs have put up a veil. Concern has arisen about money being accepted from outsiders who are intent on taking over development of the island. Others say that money gifts are the way China does business and it would be disrespectful not to accept it. But things are changing.
There is much at stake as grant funding from the Compact of Free Association stops in 2023 and the trust fund becomes the main source of revenue for the state; as outside developers negotiate on behalf of their government to lease government and private land to build hotels, take over the port and marine resources and other commercial enterprises; and as monopolies like FSM Telecom are faced with competition due to the World Bank grant for the installation of fiber optic cable that mandates opening the country up to other service providers.
Some citizens are speaking up and advocating for greater transparency. Several senators who are currently running for re-election are also becoming more vocal about the need for accountability. But many leave it to the government leaders to decide what is best out of lack of interest or adherence to historic reliance and respect for the chiefs. Others believe that the cultural prohibition of direct communication prevents open political discourse and debate. But retribution can be violent and delivered under cover of darkness for those who speak up and give an oppositional point of view or attempt to expose wrongdoing. Another reason to remain silent.
With an estimated 1,800 or more Yapese living in the U.S. and its territories alone, a campaign is underway by the election commissioner and private citizens in Yap and abroad for non-residents to vote by absentee ballot. In Guam, voter registration drives were held during October. College-age students at schools in the U.S. are also being encouraged to vote in this pivotal election that will set the direction for the future of Yap’s youth as COFA funding decreases.
Ad hoc and organized groups have come together to educate voters about the candidates by collecting questions from the public through Facebook and boxes set up around the island. A town hall event is being planned that will be live-streamed on radio and Facebook. Women and youth are a special focus of one of the groups since they are often not informed and stay away from the voting booth.
But the question is being asked, is it possible or even prudent for the Yapese to remain dependent on leaders who rely on traditional means of indirect communication both before and after an election as the state steams toward an unknown future. Centuries of colonial rule by the Spanish, Germans, Japanese and Americans seems to have numbed many to the possibility that China may be the next nation in that long line to impose their will.
Everyone agrees that sustainable development and foreign investment are imperative, but the question is how the leaders intend to control it and ensure that it is for the betterment of the state and its people. Does transparency by its very nature demand direct, albeit respectful, communication skills. Can the Yapese change from a centuries-old system of indirect communication to one that takes into account new forms of immediate information transfer like social media that shape the way we think and interact and the way we vote.
This election cycle may be the test as citizens challenge the status quo by pushing the candidates to respond to questions forthrightly and engage in honest, open dialogue about the real issues that are impacting the island today and the decisions that will shape its course into the future
Joyce McClure is the Pacific Island Times’ correspondent in Yap. Send feedback to email@example.com