- By Robert A. Underwood
Whipping Palau into shape: A conversation with President Whipps
Palau President Surangel Whipps Pr. recently announced he was going to Taiwan as part of a tourism bubble between the two island nations. It is an interesting announcement for the relatively young president of our island neighbors.
He is not only making a statement that Palau recognizes the Republic of China over the People’s Republic of China, he is betting his economic fortunes on that relationship. Whipps hopes that the “sterile corridor” (Covid-19 free) between Koror and Taipei will bring as many as 16 flights per week over time.
Like his predecessor and brother-in-law, Tommy Remengesau Jr., Whipps brings a free-flowing style with him. Eager to take on the many challenges his nation faces, Surangel is trying to whip Palau into shape along a number of lines, structurally, economically and internationally.
I first met the new president about 10 years ago when he was president of the Palau Chamber of Commerce. I only had a brief conversation with him, but I was impressed with his advocacy of a raise in the minimum wage for Palauan workers. It is rare to see a leader of any Chamber of Commerce advocating a minimum wage raise. Almost all argue delays and trade-offs.
In a conversation earlier this month, he again relayed similar concerns. He is not just concerned about equity for workers, but for keeping Palauans home. If they cannot sustain a family in Palau, they will leave. He estimates now that there are more Palauans overseas than in Palau. His concerns over “outmigration” are also reflected in his stated desire to keep the Palauan language alive.
I tried to learn more about the political conditions he faced by tuning in to his press conferences. He conducted the press conference entirely in Palauan. It was an amazing exposition and he says he tries to encourage reporters to ask questions in Palauan so that he can reinforce the use of the language while encouraging a sense of national purpose.
Palauan outmigration has an interesting effect on politics at home. Under the Palau Constitution, the Palauan diaspora can continue to vote for president. In many instances, they are the deciding factor in elections especially the Guam-based Palauan electorate. The off-island voters tend to favor the incumbent since he (or eventually she) is more well-known to them.
Unlike the Republic of the Marshall Islands, it will take more than a new law to change the arrangement. It will take a constitutional change. He acknowledges that there is growing concern about having a large percentage of voters who are not part of the “tax base” making electoral decisions. He said it is a form of “representation without taxation.” It is an interesting twist on the old American slogan, which also affects those of us who live in U.S. territories.
The Constitution also requires him to renounce any claim to citizenship outside of Palau. As a candidate for president, he went to the U.S. Embassy in Koror to renounce his claim to U.S. citizenship in 2008. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland and his mother is American. He admitted that it was uncomfortable. It was almost like “renouncing my mother.”
The electorate can be dual citizens, but he can’t be. It is a good thing that the Palau Constitution doesn’t have a “native-born” provision similar to the American Constitution in order to be president of the United States. But his mother is happy and I am sure she is proud.
The former claimant to American citizenship is content with the relationships with the United Sates. Whipps is “happy” with the recent U.S. military exercises in Palau and it makes him feel more “secure,” but at the same time more of a “target.” While this sounds like a familiar sentiment to fellow islanders in Guam and the Marshall Islands, his “sterile corridor” strategy with Taiwan may be raising more eyebrows in Beijing where hardball politics and pressure is a way of life.
Like his predecessor, the new president is not shy about using his position internationally. He and FSM President Panuelo were the first ones out of the gate renouncing their membership in the Pacific Island Forum. This was after the failure of the PIF to select fellow Micronesian and North Pacific Islander Gerald Zackios as the next secretary-general.
He further justified the Micrexit effort by pointing out that the winning candidate, Henry Puna of the Cook Islands, failed to file papers on time. When a Micronesian candidate did the same thing in 2002, he simply withdrew from consideration. He also said that Australia was more of a “continent” than an island and should leave the PIF. He described the “secret ballot” process as being conducted by phone and the Australian foreign ministry being the vote counter. All had to report to Canberra.
He has some ideas about how to whip the PIF into shape other than asking Australia to leave. They include having U.S. territories join in order to ensure that all Pacific islands are represented in a way similar to French territories. This will ensure that there is more representation from north of the equator. He even suggested the state of Hawaii as a possible member.
He is gently whipping the press corps of Palau, his fellow elected leaders in Palau and the broader region. He has already demonstrated that he whipped Facebook. He said that social media is a major factor in Palau politics. I asked him if his political messages were banned from Facebook in the same way that Americans running for office were restricted in the November election cycle. He said “no” and indicated that it may be because his messaging was in Palauan. Now, why didn’t I think of that.
The next few years will determine whether he will experience whiplash or whether his gentle whips will turn into more than just tongue-lashing. He seems to be off to a good start.
Dr. Robert Underwood is a former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where served from 1993 to 2003. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.