For more than two decades, Kalafi Moala was an irritating thorn in the side of the Tongan establishment. As the publisher and editor of Tonga’s first independent newspaper, Taimi ‘o Tonga, his relentless criticism and determined efforts to uncover corruption and abuse of power, earned him admiration around the Pacific. Of course, it didn’t endear him at all to the Tongan government. He was repeatedly banned from publishing his controversial newspaper and, in 1996, he and his deputy editor were jailed for 30 days for contempt of parliament. (Though that didn’t stop him from smuggling out editorials written on toilet paper.)
The tables have turned, however. Just over a year ago, the pro-democracy leader ‘Akilisi Pōhiva was elected as prime minister, and Kalafi was appointed as his media adviser, a job he left recently. As he tells Dale, the challenges for Tonga’s democracy reformers are far from over.
I’m an urban Island boy because I was born and raised in Nuku’alofa. And I’m the eldest of nine kids. Dad (Masiu) and Mum (Tui) have both passed away. My father was one of Tonga’s top educators as a teacher at Teachers’ College. He pioneered education through broadcasting in Tonga.
Dad taught us that there’s no limit to what you can imagine — or what you can achieve. Even though we grew up in a tiny corner in the Pacific, he had a very international outlook, and he was always pushing us to reach out to the rest of the world.
We actually come from Kolomotu‘a, the old town part of Nuku’alofa, near the waterfront. Just a couple of blocks away from the palace. That’s our home. That’s where my great-grandfather was raised, and then our parents and ourselves.
What was it that brought you to Aotearoa?
I came here as a scholarship student from Tonga High School. Sef Hao’uli was a classmate of mine. Josh Liava’a was another — and others who’re still around here. We came to Auckland Grammar to do Form 6 and then go on to university.
Sometimes there are questions raised about whether democracy and a monarchy can live together. My dad was a seaman and he recalls that when he visited Tonga he was surprised by the contrast between the wealth of the palace and, just over the fence, the poverty of the village.
We grew up accepting that royalty had a privileged life. The next level down in the Tongan social structure is the nobility. Then there’s the rest of the population — the common people.
That’s where the struggle is — among the commoners. There are some families that, maybe through education or business, have done better. And there are those, of course, who have a life of poverty. That’s how it’s been. It’s nothing new. It was something we grew up with. But more and more we’re seeing a widening of the gap.
There’ve been issues in our society that have caused that. The royalty and the nobility in our history were there to serve the people of Tonga. But, as we entered the 20th century, we began to realise that it had become the other way around, with the people existing to serve the interests of the nobility and the royalty.
And the interests of the nobility and the royalty weren’t in building a Tongan empire like in the old days, or in improving the level of life of the common people. Instead, their interests were in their own welfare and in how they could be better off at the expense of the rest of the population. We could see this very clearly, especially as we got to the 21st century. And there were questions that weren’t being answered.
That sounds almost like a caste system, doesn’t it? And I imagine that it couldn’t help but cause resentment.
Yes. It’s a stratifying structure. It’s a hierarchy with those three main groups. But, when you’re raised within a society like that, you don’t know anything else. You accept that that’s how life is. Then, when you learn about the outside world through education or travelling or migration, you begin to realise that other societies operate differently. And you see a new notion of freedom. That’s what leads to discontent. And the discontent can cause a lot of problems, especially for those people who’re asking too many questions and pressing for answers.
If you’d stayed in Tonga, instead of coming to New Zealand, things might’ve been quite different for you. But here, as a publisher and editor, you issued challenges — and became, in effect, a social agitator and a critic who kept making life uncomfortable for the Tongan establishment. I imagine that Aotearoa played a prominent part in politicising you.
Actually, New Zealand confirmed something I always felt — that there had to be a different kind of life, a better life. The biggest impact on my own thinking, though, was my father who encouraged us to ask questions and seek answers. Especially questions about justice and equality. He challenged us. And, here in New Zealand, there was a freedom. You’re able not only to ask questions but your questions get answered. So there definitely was an impact on me from spending time in New Zealand.
Another influence, I’m sure, would’ve been books. I wonder what you were reading in those early days.
When I was going to school in Tonga, we used to study the speeches of John F. Kennedy. So we got to know him and his thinking. He was our idol. And, when he was assassinated, for my generation, it was like we’d lost a king, even though here we were in a world very distant from America.
There were others, too, who made an impact on us. Especially Martin Luther King. And Gandhi. And, while I was still a young boy in Tonga, I also read the speeches of Winston Churchill. But, of course, as an Island boy the most popular book for us was the Bible. It was what everybody read. For me, the stories in the Bible were non-fiction. They were true. They actually happened. And I believe that my sense of justice and equality came largely from those Bible stories.
I get the impression that your sense of fair play didn’t mesh in too smoothly with the leadership system in Tonga. And I suppose your pioneering work in the media was prompted by your feeling that the system could be better. You started up your newspaper Taimi ‘o Tonga in your garage in Penrose — and I used to see it in the shops all the time.
If I’d known the struggles we were going to have, I might’ve tried some other avenue. But my question was: How can I influence Tongan society and Tongan thinking? I could see a lot of issues that needed attention. Like abuses by authority. And corruption in government. And I wondered how I could help — and what role I could play.
And starting a newspaper was what came to my mind. I never sat down to do a business plan or anything like that. I just wanted to see a paper that would provide answers for the questions the people were asking.
That first year, it was absolutely exciting. We published for six months without advertising, just by the sales of the newspaper. And people were buying it because the ideas in the paper were different. And the ideas seemed to kind of resonate with their own thinking.
But they thought that either this guy is crazy to publish those ideas, or he may have something worthwhile to say. We were stepping out into the deep. Not so much by publishing an independent newspaper, but in that we were sharing ideas that hadn’t been shared before.
Well, you obviously rubbed a few people up the wrong way — and some of them may have seen you as intending to overthrow the monarchy.
I never had any ideas about trying to replace the monarchy. If anything, I was trying to strengthen the monarchy in its leadership role, so that it could help lead Tongan society into an orderly organisation. It never crossed my mind that we should try and replace it.
It was not so much about replacing the structure, but trying to clean it up. It had been abused in many, many places. Corruption, for example, was beginning to be rampant in parliament — and in government itself. So many of our stories were about uncovering corruption.
In Tongan society, it wasn’t accepted that the people should criticise those in authority. And just exposing any weakness or corruption was seen as criticism. And that’s where we ran into trouble. It’s like in the Māori world where you don’t question your elders. The attitude is that your leaders are always right. You’re expected to do what you’re told without any questions.
But our role then as a newspaper was asking questions. We kept asking about the policies and practices of the government. Are they just? Are they right? In a democracy, people need to know how their government is organised, and how it operates. That’s basic. But in Tonga, that was something new. And asking those questions got us into trouble.
I should explain that, when I started the newspaper, I’d already spent 20 years overseas, mostly in Asia. I’d been away from Tonga for a good while, so my mind wasn’t still set on Tongan values and the Tongan way of doing things. I’d democratised myself overseas.
And when I started this newspaper with all these questions, it was deemed to be seditious — and I was seen to be making criticisms just for the sake of criticism. That concern built up until 1996 when we published an article that exposed something in parliament that they didn’t want exposed.
So they called a special session of parliament. Three of us were ushered in. There was me, along with Filo ‘Akau‘ola, who was my deputy editor, and also ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, who is the Prime Minister of Tonga today. Actually, he was the parliamentarian that leaked us the information. And the three of us, after a day’s trial, were jailed. Led right out of parliament into jail. That’s how it happened.
My understanding was that we weren’t jailed just for that article. But we’d provided almost 10 years of relentless criticism and exposure of corruption and abuse. That was something the Tongan authorities weren’t used to. So enough was enough. And this particular article was the trigger.
It’s interesting when you look at the situation today. My deputy editor at the time is running his own newspaper in Tonga. It’s called the Talaki. I still have the Taimi ‘o Tonga. And ‘Akilisi Pōhiva is the Prime Minister.
Another remarkable event was the torching of Nuku’alofa. What can you tell us about that?
That came at a time when there was a standoff between the government and those pushing for democracy. My read on that was that the pro-democracy people were just a little bit impatient. They were promised reform and all they got was more delay.
A couple of people in meetings may have had a few beers — and that led to burning down one store. And, before you know it, the whole town was on fire. But, it became clear once that was investigated, that there was some planning, too, as well as the element of thuggery where some people just wanted to throw stones and put the match into a store.
The planning was by small businesses who were bitter about the sudden rise of Chinese business people in Tonga. They saw that as a corruptive act that was happening in association with nobles and others high up in government. So they had planned that. How do I know that they were planned? Because they had firebombs. It takes a while to get these firebombs going.
To this day, there are still unanswered questions concerning the torching of Nuku‘alofa. Who were the leaders? They ended up jailing a number of those that actually did the torching of Nuku‘alofa. But in Tonga, nothing is done without leadership. Both good and evil, there is always leadership that’s involved. That’s Tongan society for you.
Kalafi, you’ve just finished a stint as the media adviser to the Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva. And I understand you were hoping that, by now, he might have achieved more in Tonga’s push towards democracy.
Yes. I think Pōhiva’s special skills have to do with being in opposition. He’s been a relentless critic of government and a strong advocate for reform. He’s got tremendous skills at being able to lead a party or lead a group of people to bring about reform.
But it’s one thing to be a critic of government, and another to run the government. That’s a totally different ballgame. And this is what we faced when our pro-democracy leader became the prime minister. With the appointment of new ministers, there’s been a lot of inexperience and incompetence. In the first year, we solved some problems but we created others.
My assignment, of course, was to be there part-time for the first year. But, when my term was finished, I felt I needed to continue to do things outside the corridors of government — where you can sometimes achieve a lot more.
Pōhiva is a man whose intentions are good, who is not at all corrupt, and who has a passion for Tonga. But he needs able people around him who will be able to manage and administer, and attend to the reforms that have been promised. But we’ve still got three years to show Tonga that elected commoners can actually run government. So that’s our challenge.
Because of the flow of Tongan migrants to Aotearoa, there’s been a growing relationship between our two countries. But, for many of your people here, it’s been very much struggle street for them and other Pasifika families. What do you make of New Zealand’s treatment of our Tongan people?
Well, I see a difference between how the Samoans have fitted into New Zealand society and how our people have. Tongans, and other Pacific Islanders for that matter, need to accept that we weren’t forced to come here. We came here of our own free will. And we came with the hope of a better life. And our numbers grew.
But the Tongans have brought from Tonga our own baggage into New Zealand. And we have formed our communities here and made them far more Tongan than we are in Tonga. Our Tongan ways, our Tongan practices, our kava parties, our churches. We’ve organised a stronghold of Tongan society here that is far stronger than it is in Tonga.
On the other hand, when I look over at the Samoans, I see that they’re integrating far better into New Zealand society. They’re not bringing so much baggage to their new home. I think part of it is that they’ve kept to their original intention to put their kids through education and get ahead that way, whereas Tongan society has been slower to adjust.
I don’t think there’s mistreatment here. Not deliberate anyway. It’s more to do with how Tongans have gone about settling in their new home.
I recall a time when I was speaking to about 40 Tongans at the university in Auckland. And I asked them: “How many of you have non-Tongan friends, close friends, here?” And, out of the 40, there were three who put their hands up. In other words, the rest only had Tongan friends. They’d kept together.
I think we miss out because of that. If we move to another society, we need to learn that good things in that society can help us. As I said earlier, we came of our own free will. We had the idea that, through hard work and with our kids getting a better education, our families would have a better life. But, Dale, too often, we haven’t taken advantage of what New Zealand offers.
And, finally, your thoughts on the Tongan-Māori relationship?
I think it’s getting better. Over the last 30–40 years or so it’s developed into a much better relationship. Tongans look at the Māori as their cousins and the Māori look at the Tongans as their cousins too. But there is a problem in that Tongans don’t really understand what the Māori have lived through, where the Treaty of Waitangi fits in, and how they’re trying to resolve their issues. There’s a need as well for Māori to recognise us and the Samoans and other Pacific Islanders as their cousins who they can help develop.
One advantage is that there’s been a wonderful relationship between our royal family and the Māori royal family. And, I think, if we all see that warm relationship between the Māori and Tongan leadership, it will help us move closer to one another.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.