Commentary on Tonga’s 2010 political reform – Is it working?


Why our 2010 reform does not work, and how it can!


By Kalafi Moala


19 February 2021 – A decade later, and going on the third government administration since 2010, yet we are no closer to making what is supposed to be a more democratic system work better in the Kingdom of Tonga than before 2010. I am frequently asked by those who follow and read articles at Fangongo, why doesn’t the constitutional reform of 2010 work?

There are various reasons for this, but I want to essentially deal with what I believe is the chief reason why the 2010 reform has not worked, at least according to expectations by all parties concerned.

Of course, it is always clearer and easier to understand things when we look in hindsight. And especially when we look back beyond the immediate into the distant past. In doing so, we often come to grip with the reality that “we have been here before” but unfortunately, we have not learned much from our history.

Whenever we talk about the subject of reform in Tonga, the legendary figure of Taufa’ahau or King George Tupou I as he was later known, looms large in our minds. He was the man instrumental in bringing about the first reformation to have taken place in Tonga. This lasted for 170 years, and today’s modern Tongan society is still essentially a product of what this Christian King and his missionary advisors started in the first half of the 19th Century.

They simply altered the fundamental belief system of Tongan society by the introduction and teaching of the Bible and reconfigured the authority and governance structure of Tonga.

They established at first a code of laws, and then a full-fledged Constitution to be the compass for the journey of Tongan society into the future.

Well, the future is here and the reform Taufa’ahau initiated has stood the test of time, and essentially made Tonga one of the most educated, highly developed, and most harmonious socio-cultural Christian societies in “the third world.”

The word reform in English is what has been translated as “liliu” in Tongan. Like any other nation, calls for continuous adjustments and reform are made as conditions change in any society from time to time.

By the 1980s onward to the next three decades, there were calls for Constitutional amendments – for changes – to bring reform to Tonga, to make the system more democratic.

This did not necessarily negate the major reforms brought about by Taufa’ahau in the 19th Century, but rather to make it “more democratic”. It was explained that it means there would be greater participation by people, specifically, the commoners, in the running of Government.

What is involved in reform?

Taufa’ahau’s reform was a Christian reformation. But how is that different from other reform movements? Does reform bring changes to society, or is reform the result of changes that happen to people in a society?

It is my view that true lasting reform comes out of spiritual awakening in a society. The legislative design of law in Tonga was based on Christian or Biblical morality. Tonga’s reform was driven by an understanding and commitment to the sovereignty of the Living Creator-God.

The ‘Utui Spiritual Revival in Vava’u in 1834 brought transformation to people’s lives and set-in motion the social and governance reform that transformed Tongan society.

Author Charles Colson wrote: “All law implicitly involves morality: the popular idea that you can’t legislate morality is a myth. Morality is legislated every day from the vantage point of one value system or another. The question is not whether we will legislate morality, but whose morality we will legislate?”

In reform we are looking at corrective action that is done regarding abuses in moral, political, and social spheres. At the same time there is the replacement of abuses or reconstruction by appropriate behavior and actions in all those spheres.

There is through reform a social transformation that affects all spheres of life, but that reform is based on values, beliefs, and a moral system. In the case of Tonga, Taufa’ahau’s reform, despite some inadequacies in application, was truly founded on a Biblical belief system.

The historical Reformation in Europe that started with men like John Wycliffe of England (1330-1384), Jon Hus of Bohemia (1372-1415), Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland (1484-1531), John Calvin of France/Switzerland (1509-1564), John Knox of Scotland (1514-1572), and George Fox of England (1624-1691) was largely a movement of reform of abuses in the Church.

But it was more than dealing with abuses in the Church. It was a radical alteration of life in personal morality, political, and social affairs. Not only was the root of the problem dealt with, but there was also the restoration of Biblical principles and practice in every sphere of society.

Tonga’s 21st century reform

The reform Tonga went through in 2010 was essentially a reform to make the system of governance “more democratic”. Most Tongans believe that it was a good thing and there was cautious hope that if accomplished by other reforms in social and economic spheres, we could be heading toward a pathway of becoming a more prosperous and peaceful Tonga.

This reform was implemented during the reign of King George Tupou V, who not only gave consent, but also gave conceptual support particularly when he insisted that a reformed political system would work best when it is accompanied with strong economic development.

In hindsight, the real weakness of the 2010 reform was the apparent lack of spiritual awakening in Tonga as a whole. When an attempt to bring about structural reform (which is what took place in 2010) without the accompanying spiritual and social reform, all that could take place is a system change without the fundamental change necessary in people’s belief systems and behavior patterns.

We make changes to our governance system without changing people’s mindsets, attitudes, and behavior.

Many Tongans unfortunately were led to believe that the 2010 reform to a democratic governance structure would open the door for liberty, prosperity, and general social wellbeing in our society. But the 2010 reform, as necessary as it may have been, was simply an external structural reform without the internal reform as the true catalyst for change.

Consequently, it became like the notion of how inappropriate it would be to put “new wine into old wineskins.” In this case, it was old wine poured into new wineskins, and it has not made much of a difference, for what was really needed was a change of the old wine into new wine.

And this is so different from the social and spiritual environment in Taufa’ahau’s days. Even though King George I lived in an era where society was less formally educated in Biblical and Western ways, there was a spiritual awakening that took place in the 1830s and spread throughout Tonga, so that by 1875 (a mere 40 years later) when the Constitution was promulgated, the whole of Tonga could be declared a Christian nation.

This meant that not only most people in Tonga had converted to Christ, but the institutions, laws, educational system, and other influences into Tongan society were truly based on Biblical principles. In other words, God was at the center of the reform of King George’s era.

No governance structural reform can work anywhere, without a reformed people to administer good governance. Without a shift of mindset, attitude, and moral conviction by those in key leadership positions, “liliu” or reform for a “more democratic” Tonga will only continue to be more of the same.


  1. “No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian religion…Should our republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance this great experiment will then be surely doomed”

    John Jay

    First US Chief Justice 1789-95


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