Monthly Archives: January 2011

Malta, International Living, and a dose of realism

A couple of weeks ago, the US-based International Living magazine published its annual Quality of Life Index, where it – well, let’s hear it straight from the horse’s ass mouth:

Every year we rank and rate almost every country on earth to narrow down the search for that elusive place, the one where you’ll find the greatest quality of life.

They score virtually every country in the world (192 countries in all) on a number of factors, like cost of living, environment, freedom and infrastructure, and end up with a league table based on the average score for each country.

As you’ve probably guessed, I wouldn’t have written this post unless the result for Malta was noteworthy in some way. Damn right it was…

Malta joint 2nd in ‘quality of life’ index

The above link is from Malta Inside Out, a pretty good independent magazine website about Malta. However they are clearly constrained by the need to appeal to all kinds of reader, whereas I don’t give a flying fuck.

The Autistic Atheist Malta Index

Let’s take a look at Malta’s scores in each category, shall we? See how well the Yanks have done their research. By the way, scores are out of 100, the higher the better.

Cost of Living

Their score: 68 (joint 119th)

Personally I think they’re not too far from the mark here. The score seems quite high, but the ranking (in the lower half of the table) seems right. Some things are cheap in Malta (rental property, groceries and eating out), but other things are extortionately expensive for a European country (electricity, gas, petrol and diesel, water, cars, and computer equipment). Depending on your lifestyle, you may find it cheap to live in Malta, you may not. But don’t forget wages are low here.

Autistic Atheist score: 60

Leisure & Culture

Their score: 94 (joint 8th)

I’m not going to argue with this one, because there are undeniably plenty of culture and leisure opportunities in Malta if you look hard enough. There are more prehistoric monuments than you can shake a large stick at, plenty of reasonably clean beaches, and in the evenings you can do anything from opera and ballet, through theatrical productions and live rock gigs, to clubbing and eating out very well.

Malta could use some more small live music venues, and the main nightlife centre of Paceville needs (a) cleaning more regularly and (b) more police patrols, but overall, whether you’re either a culture vulture or a dance freak, you can find what you’re looking for.

Autistic Atheist score: 90

Economy

Their score: 62 (joint 29th)

Malta’s economy has two very important things going for it. Firstly, because it is not a major player on the worldwide financial markets, it has suffered far less than many other countries during the recent worldwide recession. Secondly, the Maltese government wisely decided a few years ago to give substantial incentives to companies in the online gambling industry (how on earth that got past the church I’ll never know), and Malta is now home to hundreds of gaming websites and thousands of (largely foreign) IT personnel, all earning good salaries, paying local taxes and contributing to the Maltese economy.

Tourism is of course the other main industry, and despite various hiccups it seems to keep rolling along reasonably well.

Autistic Atheist score: 65

Environment

Their score: 72 (11th)

From the air or the sea, Malta looks pretty. And when you get closer, some parts are still pleasing to the eye. I’m thinking of some of the old village centres, the landscapes between Bahrija and Mellieha, and the small sister island of Comino.

Most of the towns, however, are gradually becoming concrete jungles, with high buildings of absolutely no character replacing crumbling but restorable older houses, and pavements littered with dog shit.

In the countryside things aren’t always better; you can’t go far before coming across piles of rusting car bodies in the corner of a field, or abandoned refuse sacks torn apart by dogs or cats and leaking their contents onto the road or into the soil. And everywhere, rusty shotgun cartridges littering the landscape like huge slug pellets. The Maltese may take pride in the footpath directly in front of their own property, but their pride seems to end there.

What countryside there is left is also shrinking due to unfettered and unnecessary development. There are something like 50,000 empty apartments in the Maltese islands, many unfinished, their concrete skeletons ruining views for years until their owners find the motivation to finish construction.

Mind you, when the government agency responsible for planning and development and the government agency responsible for protecting the environment are actually the same agency, what do you expect? Someone fucked up big-time there.

Air and noise pollution are another major environmental problem. Vehicle emissions testing is hopelessly inadequate, and often circumvented with bribes, and during festival season, fireworks loud enough to make you think Malta is being invaded by a hostile army are let off at all hours of the day from 7am to midnight.

Autistic Atheist score: 40

Freedom

Their score: 100 (joint 1st)

I really can’t see how they got this result. This is a country where the number of things you can’t do threatens to exceed the number of things you can do. In Malta, you are not allowed to:

  • Criticise the pope or the catholic religion (though others are fair game)
  • Satirise politicians
  • Publish literature or art deemed by some to be obscene
  • Get a divorce
  • Get an abortion (even if your life would be endangered by continuing a pregnancy)
  • Buy the “morning after” pill
  • Adopt a child if you’re gay
  • Use pornography
  • Go skinny-dipping, even after dark
  • Put a poster in your car window bearing the words “for sale” (WTF?)
  • Own more than one property if you’re not a Maltese citizen, until you’ve lived here for five years (in clear breach of EU law)

Furthermore, a number of books are banned from Maltese schools and the university.

There are also other freedoms that, while not enshrined in law, are nevertheless eroded by Maltese culture and people. For instance, it’s dangerous to go for a walk in the country during hunting season, even if you have a perfect right to be on a path. It’s also often unpleasant being black or Asian, due to the deeply entrenched racism found across all sectors of the Maltese population. And if you live with your lover without being married, expect your partner to be referred to as your “wife” or “husband”, no matter how many times you make it clear that you’re not married.

Autistic Atheist score: 40

Health

Their score: 83 (25th)

Not much to say here – healthcare in Malta is better than some European countries, worse than others, sufffering from a lack of investment in staffing (like many other places), and medicine prices vary from very reasonable to horribly expensive, depending on your ailment.

Free consultations and treatment are available, though queues can be long, and many people opt to pay to use a private GP and one of the many private hospitals instead of the public health service.

Autistic Atheist score: 75

Infrastructure

Their score: 61 (joint 25th)

Hahaha. OK, let’s look at the good points first. Malta has a decent airport, a fairly useful flight schedule, boats that take you to Sicily and Italy for fairly reasonable prices, a certain number of roads that are in good repair (mainly the ones that trace the routes taken by the Queen of England and the pope on recent visits), and electricity, water and sewage services are pretty much universally available.

Internet connectivity is getting better, though it still slows at peak times due to the limited bandwidth provided by the submarine cables between Malta and Italy, and it, like everything else on Malta, is frequently interrupted by power cuts, especially in summer when demand is higher due to the need for air conditioning. Malta’s main power station is basically a bunch of huge diesel engines, and is hopelessly inadequate to the task.

Now, the reasons why even a score of 61 is way too high.

Public transport (i.e. the buses) within Malta is a bad joke. The route network fails to take into account daily commuting trends, the bus drivers are largely an unwashed, uncouth and racist bunch of thugs, and the buses themselves are relics from a bygone age that should have been retired decades ago, and that belch thick black smoke because the drivers (who also own their vehicles) save money by filling them with cheap illegal fuel.

And finally (you knew I’d get to this, didn’t you) the roads.

Apart from a few specific routes, the smoothest parts of Malta’s roads are generally the speed humps (of which there are many). Deep potholes abound, and driving after rain is always an adventure because no-one has any idea how deep a water-filled pothole may be, so everyone drives around them, usually risking life and car on the wrong side of the road.

The tarmac used for road repairs is of a very poor quality, since contractors get quotes accepted based on higher quality, more expensive materials, then buy more cheaply and fake the receipts. The same applies to road markings, which normally fade to virtually nothing within a few months. A road that was rebuilt using EU funding about three years ago has already subsided due to poor quality work and materials.

Autistic Atheist score: 45 (and that’s being generous)

Risk & Safety

Their score: 93 (joint 48th)

The probability of your property being burgled in Malta is pretty low, as are the probability of your car being stolen and the chance of you being mugged in the street.

However, the Maltese are an extremely volatile lot, with general decency often barely concealing major resentments or chips on the shoulder, and flare-ups are common. These range from minor incidents of road rage and arguments in the street, right up to shootings over perceived injustice or insults.

And if you drive your own vehicle in Malta, you are taking your life in your hands every time you get behind the wheel. Driving standards are appalling and drunk driving is the norm.

Autistic Atheist score: 60

Climate

Their score: 100 (joint 1st)

OK, so it’s pretty nice here for much of the year. But it’s not worth joint first place. Humidity is high all year round, causing clothes to rot in wardrobes and tools to rust in cupboards, and the Maltese winter (January and February) normally features strong winds and plenty of lashing rain, making it feel really cold even though temperatures never dip to freezing.

You mustn’t forget the floods, too – I’m not sure if Malta’s regular autumn storms and subsequent severe floods should go in climate, risk & safety or infrastructure, but I guess here is as good a place as any.

Autistic Atheist score: 80

Final Score

Their score: 76 (joint 2nd)

So it’s time to calculate my completely subjective, totally unscientific and no doubt biased final score. However I’ve still used the same weighting formula as International Living, so as to give my figures a veneer of accuracy (even though I don’t agree that environment gets the lowest weighting of all their categories).

Autistic Atheist score: 62.75 (62nd)

That seems more reasonable.

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Freedom of expression in Malta, part 2

The ugly truth about censorship in Malta has been thrown into the spotlight again, as noted by this article from the Times of Malta website:

PBS blacks out politician shoe-hurling satire

The bit that really interested me was not the fact that the TV show described in the article was censored, but the reason why. Here’s a quote from the article:

The Press Act says that whoever uses “defamatory, insulting or disparaging words, acts or gestures” in contempt of the President would be committing a criminal offence liable to a jail term of up to three months or a fine.

There are so many things wrong with laws like this, it’s hard to know where to begin.

First of all, is the president so thin-skinned that we all have to tiptoe around him? Aw, diddums, did the widdle pwesident get his feelings hurt? There there, Mummy will put the nasty man in jail…

Secondly, regimes that seek to prevent public criticism of them (because that’s what’s going on here) are usually only too aware that they have taken, or are likely to take, actions that justify, or at least are likely to cause, such criticism.

Thirdly, as noted in the article by a spokesperson from the Maltese Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura (Front Against Censorship), preventing freedom of expression in the form of political satire is actually unhealthy in a modern democracy, as it stops people from challenging sacred cows and the cult of personality (which is very strong in Malta).

Fourthly, a regime that prevents criticism of its president would probably be less hesitant to prevent all criticism of itself and its policies – the first step has been taken, after all. After that it’s a slippery slope to totalitarianism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: freedom of expression must be absolute in order to be safeguarded without erosion.

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