Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Flagging the issue

Off the Wall 25/2/15

There was a very interesting opinion piece in the Sunday Times recently (15/2/15) by a brother minister and colleague, Rev. Savenaca Vuetanavanua. While the article was essentially about balance and calculation in decision-making framed in the ongoing discussion of the proposed change of Fiji’s national flag.

Vuetanavanua quotes theologian Karl Barth who wrote, “we cannot dwell on the past nor throw the past carelessly away and move blindly to the future”. 

He suggests that, “Barth’s comment invites a calculation of balance and the artistic design of a future direction.  It cuts in between the past and the future.”

While respecting and honouring the many views that the flag should not be changed, Vuetanavanua calls readers to reflect on what a change in flag should mean for us.

 “The question is how can the 1970 flag capture the real life situation we are now facing in Fiji so remain a living symbol in a Fiji that is evolving and transiting at a considerable pace. For that, the call or invitation by our PM to design a new flag might not be a bad one. That is our challenge now.”

The changing of symbols is not easy and must be done so to show the relevance of the new symbols. I recall the process of explanation and education about the change from takia (outrigger sailing canoe) to drua (double hulled sailing canoe) for the Methodist Church in Fiji. That change was initially resisted by those who wanted to retain the old symbol for sentimental reasons but the shift came about through the understanding about the significance of a bigger canoe symbolising the inclusive, missional church able to sail through the winds of change and stormy seas we face.

More than visual appeal, marketing or promotion – the symbols we chose to represent must resonate deeply within us, almost as if it was identifying the soul of the community it represents.

While many were reading Vuetanavanua’s article, Canada was celebrating a half century of its maple leaf flag. Back in 1965 when the new flag replaced one with a Union Jack in the corner, it was a controversial move. There were those who opposed any new flag; there were those who favoured a beaver over the maple leaf. And then the maple leaf is more particular to eastern Canada.
Reflecting on this, a friend of mine commented on social media wrote, “50 years on, several generations know no other flag than the maple leaf.”

A number of nations have made changes to their flags in recent years.

In 2013 the flag of Paraguay was alteredto show new drawings coat of arms and Treasury arms. The drawing of the Paraguay arms has been altered on at least four occasions over the past 100 years and the latest change was intended to bring the design closer to its original form.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been recognised as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian People" by the Gulf States, France, Turkey, UK, USA and over 130 other countries is using the flag used by Syria from 1932 to 1958 and from 1961 to 1963.

Myanmar raised a new flag on 21 October 2010.  The design is contained in the new Constitution (adopted 29 May 2008) that came into effect after elections in November 2010.  The design revives the colours of the triband used during the Japanese occupation of Burma in 1943-45. The large white star symbolises the Union of the states and was part of the Burmese flag used from independence in 1948 until 1974.

An interesting case of changing flags is found in Malawi. The national flag was modified by legislation signed by President Bingu wa Mutharika on 29 July 2010.  The order of the stripes was changed and the red rising sun replaced by a white fully-risen sun with 45 rays. The change was intended to symbolise the social and economic progress achieved since independence in 1964.  There was considerable criticism of the flag change from opposition political parties and the Malawi media from its proposal in December 2009. Following the death of President Mutharika in April 2012, the Malawi Parliament voted to restore the former flag.

In the Pacific, the Kanaky Flag now has been given equal status to the French Tricolour. The Congress of the French territory of New Caledonia on 13 July 2010 decided to officially adopt a local flag to be flown jointly with the French Tricolore.  The flag had previously been used unofficially in parts of the territory and is the same as that used by the Kanak independence movement since 1984. The emblem depicts a traditional carved wooden roof spire (a flèche faîtière) and tutut conch shell.

Earlier this month the changing Fiji flag was the topic of conversation on the BBC Daily and Sunday Politics programme. The programme featured an interview with Graham Bartram, who is the Chief Vexillologist for the Flag Institute. Vexillology is the "scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general".

According to Bartram, the flag is “the most important national symbol” for a country. It sums up a country in one object, in a single piece of fabric.

Bartram used the example of the Canadian flag, as a flag that removed the Union Jack and replaced it with a single maple leaf, as a symbol of decolonisation. He then highlighted the post-Apartheid flag of South Africa, which broke the rules about the style a national flag should be, but had the impact of galvanising the process of nation building, to the extent that South Africa is commonly referred to as “the Rainbow Nation” in reference to its vibrant flag which was a symbol of unity.

To those who have begun imagining or designing a new flag, in preparation for the national competition (in place no doubt, of a national referendum), Bartram offers the following advice:
·         Avoid making the flag to complex  or too busy
·         Try instead to distil all the ideas, images and elements which have deep meaning for the country into a simple, striking and unifying symbol.

As we move towards October 10th, 2015 and the raising of a new flag for Fiji, many of us continue to hope that the process will be participatory – not only in design but in choice. Some of us wonder what the value of our current flag will hold in our national life.

I was asked what the Methodist Church’s view on the proposal for a new flag was. As there was no official stance from the church, I joked that we have our own. During the Lent season the logo of the church on a purple banner flies at Epworth House. It is a symbol of our community’s New Exodus.

On Friday, I watched the carrying and waving of the Morning Star flag – the symbol of West Papua. I thought to myself, “there is so much furore over the change of our flag – yet our brothers and sisters in West Papua risk arrest, torture and death when they raise death.” It puts a different perspective on our issue.

Whatever we end up with on October 10th this year, let us hope and pray and do our best to ensure that it is a symbol that brings our nation closer together rather than further apart.

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