By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The national fasting and prayer initiative of Rev. Dr. Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’ionetoa is quickly becoming an expensive government feast paid for by struggling taxpayers. It is estimated that $100,000 pa’anga was spent on the Government’s Fasting Tour of ‘Eua which was held on October 10 and 11. And another $100,000 or more on the same National Fasting and Praying tour to Ha’apai on November 14 and 15.
This means that $200,000 pa’anga is estimated to have been spent on Fasting and Praying Tours so far. Add to that the upcoming tours of Vava’u, Tongatapu, and the Niuas, which will be completed in the next three months, plus the cost travel by Ministers and Government officials to break the fasting schedules, it could be over $500,000.
“That is money that could have been given to help watermelon growers who suffered financially as a result of banning shipments to New Zealand,” said one member of Parliament who did not want to be named. “They are crying out for help right now.” And to make matters worse, the blame on the watermelon ban rested squarely with the failure of a Government service to provide adequate quarantine services.
People are amazed that Government could spend so much money on a National Fasting and Prayer Schedule. It seems to contradict the very idea of fasting in order to focus on seeking the will of God. Fasting denotes sacrifice and “going without” something of pleasure like food.
Fasting and praying has never been that expensive. It is supposed to be an individual and private ritual in which meals are missed in order to spend time praying. It is also meant to be a time of sacrifice when meals are set aside for the sake of spending time to seek God especially for something specific that is requested of Him.
In Tonga fasting is a ritual practiced by many churches and practiced quite regularly by adherents. But in most cases, it is done quite privately without the elaborate fanfare demonstrated through the Government directed national fasting and prayer. The Catholic Church and other Protestant denominations fast during the season of Lent – all without a huge price tag.
The call by the Government in September for a National Fasting and Praying Schedule has brought with it so much controversy. Not so much in the practice of fasting itself, but the way Government leaders and officials went about doing it. It looked insincere, and much emphasis was spent on the celebratory aspects of “coming together” rather than being humbled and praying in desperation for God’s help.
It is not so much that we want to ignore a crisis that pervades national consciousness and awareness needing desperate prayer, but rather a ritual of pleasure trips and the conducting of a “who’s who” ego stroking broadcast live nationally. And of-course to top it off with a feast to break the fast. Only in Tonga, you must replace the meals you have missed by a grand feast that makes up for all those meals. It is not funny. It is seriously tragic, and spiritually disastrous.
The Prophet Isaiah has a lot to say about the true fast that God requires of His people. He says: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). And then he declares what real fasting is, and what is pleasing to God, not to self.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.” (Isaiah 58: 6-7).
The results according to Isaiah would be light, healing, righteousness, and “then you will call, and the Lord will answer.” In fact, the whole chapter 58 of Isaiah instructs on the practice of fasting. And then in Matthew, Jesus warns against fasting that is “to be seen by men” and not to be hypocritical about it. “The Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.1,16, 18).
Even among People’s representatives in Parliament, serious questions are being raised about the way Government has used the National Praying and Fasting Tours as means for the Ministers (and some CEOs) and their wives to travel around the country. They may be fasting meals, but not travel and leisure, as well as other conveniences.
Some of the People’s representatives in opposition have accused the Government of conducting a political election campaign through the fasting tours, which will stretch into February 2021. The fasting tours was an initiative by the Prime Minister, approved by Cabinet, and funded by the Government’s budget. The Prime Minister reminded the House that fasting schedule was “a Cabinet decision,” suggesting that this was ‘law’ and must be carried out.
But the Prime Minister has credited himself with the strong belief that the National Fasting and Praying schedule is what has kept Tonga free from COVID-19 19. “We believe that is why we are still free from the Covid-19,” he told Parliament.
Other Pacific Islands like Samoa, Vanuatu, and Palau are still Covid-19 free, and without hundreds of thousands spent on a National Fasting Tour.
The estimated cost for the whole fasting tour of the country is only an estimate because Government has refused to give details, when asked in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tui’onetoa has ordered the Finance Minister, Tevita Lavemaau, not to answer any questions concerning expenses of the fasting tours.
He ordered the Acting Minister of Justice, Samiu Vaipulu to answers questions from Tongatapu 4 Representative, Mateni Tapueluelu, whether the wives of Cabinet Ministers were also paid travel allowances on the tour. But Vaipulu told the TT4 representative that the proper procedure is for him to write a letter asking for the answer.
If that is the procedure for members of Parliament to get financial information from the Government, imagine when a journalist tries to get information? This writer has written quite a few letters (emails) asking Government for information. The Minister or CEO never replies, especially from the Ministry of Finance on any financial information.
To make things worse, the Chairman of the Whole House Committee, Lord Tu’i’afitu told Parliament that he believes whistle-blowers had been responsible for the kind of questions expressed by Tongtapu 4 representative. And he reminded members that legislations against whistleblowing had been passed by the House, “against civil servants who leak out information.”
The exchanges in Parliament concerning giving simple answers to simple questions reveal how critical it is for this Government to give out information that the public have a right to. It is increasingly so that this Government has not only failed immensely in transparency, but there is now a deliberate act to withhold information, and the legislations against whistle-blowers and those who leak information have hardened that stance.
The future of the free flow of information, and the need for transparency, looks bleak. But this Government keeps moving forward with their promises of massive roads, housing development and spending whatever money they have now as if there is no tomorrow.