I love the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. It is a very beautiful place. The people there are generally friendly, generous and they are blessed with an idiosyncratic sense of humour that makes them seem quirky and funny. The population of that sunny archipelago need all of that sense of humour when they deal with officials, be they in government bureaucracy or private corporations.
I reside for five to seven months of every year in a small fishing village called Marsaxlokk, located in the south of the main island. Before my last trip to Malta, I planned to apply for Maltese citizenship and an ID card which would entitle me to certain discounts and benefits. I already had a Maltese passport that was relatively easy to obtain through the Maltese Consulate in Australia, due to the Maltese nationality of my parents. I had organised as much as I could for my citizen application before I left Australia, through the Consulate in Australia. I did this after receiving several confusing emails from various government departments in Malta, in response to my enquires. It was not easy trying to work out exactly how to go about applying for citizenship. The emails from Malta were confusing as they came from different departments and strangely, each advised of different requirements. It was as if no one quite knew the complete details of what was required. The consulate’s office in Australia was very helpful and the secretary listed all the necessary documents I had to take with me for the application. She also convinced me that it would expedite matters to pay the consulate’s office a fee to register my Australian birth with the relevant Maltese authorities (one of the requirements of application) before I left Australia, rather than try to do it myself after I had arrived in Malta. The final words from the secretary at the Maltese Consulate’s office were an ominous, “good luck”.
A day or two after my arrival in Malta, I found the relevant government building in the capital city, Valletta, and enquired at the front desk. The woman asked me if I had been to a different government building at the other end of the city, and when I replied that I had not, instructed me to go there first. This I did. After about fifteen minutes’ walk and waiting in a queue for another ten minutes, the woman at the enquiry desk of this second government building explained that I did not need to be there and that I should go back to the first building, at the other end of town. So, back to the first building I went where I was told to wait in the corridor outside room 35. It was a room with about four desks in it. Each desk had an official who was interviewing prospective Maltese citizens such as myself. I watched proceedings through the doorway, hoping that I would be interviewed by a supportive official when it came to my turn. One applicant got up from a seat at a desk and walked out of the room with a perplexed look on his face, and I was summoned by the official at that desk to take his place. The official was very friendly and affable. I explained that I believed that I had all the necessary paperwork including copies of my full birth certificate and my parent’s marriage certificate, which showed my birthplace, that of my parents and their parents, along with my passport and proof that my birth in Australia had been registered with the relevant government department in Malta. I also had proof of purchase of my residence in Marsaxlokk. The bespectacled, female official looked over my documentation very, very carefully. So carefully in fact, that I had an uneasy feeling that she was looking for something wrong. She wore a furrowed brow and paradoxically, looked disappointed that everything seemed to be in order. Eventually, she raised her head from the paperwork and said with a smile:
“Do you have any proof that you have lived in Australia for the last six years?”
“Can you prove that you have lived in Australia for the last six years?”
“Well, I have my birth certificate, and I have lived there all my life. I am Australian. No one told me I needed documentation to show that I have lived there for the last six years. I have emails from various government departments here and the Maltese Consulate in Australia. No one ever mentioned that requirement.”
“You need to show that you have lived abroad for six years to obtain dual citizenship.”
“Okay. How about my Australian passport? Will that do?”
Her smile evaporated.
“Yes. Can I see it please?”
I showed her my passport.
“Sorry, this passport is only two years old. You need to prove six years.” Her smile was back.
“But it was renewed after it had expired. Doesn’t that show I’ve been there for more than six years?”
“Sorry. I need something which shows six years.”
I have learnt from my travels in other countries that there is absolutely no point in arguing with an official when facing a situation such as this. In fact, arguing can potentially antagonise officials and often proves counterproductive.
“Okay. How can I prove to you that I have lived in Australia for the last six years?”
“Can I see your tax returns? Do you have them?”
“No, not on me. I don’t travel with my tax returns, usually.”
“Well, can you can get a letter from your employer to say that you have been employed in Australia for six years.”
“A letter would take weeks. How about an email?”
“Yes, okay, that would be alright.” At least she was being conciliatory.
At the time, I was a school principal on leave, so I emailed my deputy principal and explained to her what to do. It occurred to me that I could have found any friend, from any workplace with a .org or .com email address and ask them to email this official and say whatever she wanted to hear.
A few days later I returned to room 35 and the official to try again.
“Hello. Did you receive the email from my employer?”
“Yes. Thankyou. We can proceed. Now, have you stayed in Malta a total of six months during your lifetime?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You need to have spent at least six months within Malta, before you can claim citizenship. Have you stayed in Malta a total of six months over your lifetime?”
I took a punt.
“Ah, that’s good then.”
The official processed my application! Without asking for proof of a total of six months stay in Malta. So, it transpired that I needed proof for the obvious, namely that I had lived in Australia for six years, but when it came to the more difficult to prove requirement of the designated six month period of stay in Malta, the official simply took my word. I got the distinct impression that the official had felt that she had done her job competently, and completed her duty by finding a problem and solving it, and therefore, was happy to quickly conclude the application. It seemed to me that she wanted to take a little trouble, but not too much. The bureaucrat had proved her expertise and exercised her authority over one issue, and that was enough. Perhaps an intrinsic need for power and control was also fulfilled.
The rest of the process was relatively straight forward. I went down to the other government building at the other end of Valletta, waited in a queue, answered the same questions as I did before with the previous official at the first building, had my photograph taken and was issued with an ID card. I waited to be asked for a fee but there was no payment required. I could not help thinking that in Australia, I probably would have had to provide my own photos and paid an exorbitant fee to the government.
I celebrated my new Maltese citizenship with a pastizzi and a bottle of Kinnie, sitting in St George’s Square, in front of the Grandmaster’s Palace and after reading a plaque on the wall of that palace. That plaque is inscribed with the citation from President Roosevelt, praising the courage of the Maltese people during the siege and bombardment of WWII. Given my background as the child of Maltese immigrants and the fact that I had just written a book about my parents growing up in Malta during the War, I felt somewhat proud and satisfied to be a Maltese citizen.
During that stay in Malta, the exchange rate for Australian Dollars to Euros was very favourable. It had been steadily rising from a low of seventy Euro cents to eighty-six Euro cents due to the economic crisis Europe was experiencing. I thought that I would lock in some savings and exchange some Australian dollars that I could use at the end of that current visit. I saw a newspaper advertisement for a term deposit posted by an investment bank offering three and a half percent interest per annum and decided to deposit the money with that bank instead of leaving it in my savings account, which was paying less than one percent per annum. The offer in the newspaper was for a three month term. I went to the investment bank’s office and spoke to a rather beautiful young Maltese woman.
“Hello, I would like to enquire about the 3.5% interest offer for a three months term deposit.”
“Yes. That is still available.”
“So, I can deposit my money, and after three months, I can get it back with interest at 3.5% per annum?”
“Yes, after three months you can withdraw you money.”
“If I leave it there for more than three months, it won’t be automatically reinvested and locked up for another three months, will it?”
“No, after three months you can get your money out.”
“Okay, so I’ll deposit this money and after three months I can take it out.”
Due to Malta being an English colony for one hundred and sixty-nine years, English is one of Malta’s two official languages, along with Maltese. It is prudent however, to always remember that English is a second language to the Maltese. It is easy to fall into a false sense of security because the Maltese speak English so well, but sensibilities are different. Sometimes, you can think they understand you, and they think they understand you, but they do not.
After three months, I went back to the bank to withdraw the money so that I had enough to finance the remainder of my stay.
“Sorry, you can’t withdraw any money from this account now because you first need to give three months’ notice.”
“You need to give three months’ notice. You can give notice now, and withdraw the money in December.”
“I’ll be back in Australia by then. I actually need the money now. I thought you said I could withdraw the money after three months?”
“You can. But you have to give notice.”
“There seems to have been a misunderstanding here. I thought I made it clear that I wanted the money after three months.”
“Sorry, but I made it perfectly clear that you need to wait three months.”
“I don’t think so. You see, if you had made things perfectly clear, we would not be having this conversation!”
So as not to run out of funds, I then had to transfer more money from Australia to Malta at the lower exchange rate that was now prevailing. Before I left Malta, I returned to the bank and asked if I could give the necessary three months’ notice of withdrawal while I was in Australia, so that the money would be available to me when I returned to Malta the following year.
“Yes, here is my card. You can email me the notice of withdrawal.”
Back in Australia, I was preparing for my next visit to Malta. It can be a little problematic, living in two different countries, and things like car registration and insurance, health insurance, future bill payments and statements, mail redirection etc. need to be organised. It is unfortunate that everything seems to be organised on a twelve month basis. Things like telephone and internet are especially problematic.
Anyway, I emailed my new friend at the investment bank and requested the release of my funds in three months. I waited a week but received no reply. I emailed again. This time I received a reply stating that “my colleague will ring you”. I thought that this did not sound good.
I was lucky to be at home when the phone rang from Malta.
“Hello, is this Mr Rupert Grech?”
She asked the usual identification questions about date of birth, address, email etc., “for security reasons”.
“I am sorry, but because it is a large amount, I cannot accept your request to transfer the money into a savings account with another bank. It is for security reasons.”
“What do you mean”?
“You can transfer a smaller amount, if you like.” I could hear in the conciliatory tone of her voice that she wanted to be helpful.
“Well, how much can I transfer?” I thought that if I got some of the money into my savings account, then I could sort out the rest when I got there.
“I am sorry. I can’t tell you that; for security reasons.”
It seems that, these days, the expression: “for security reasons”, is the simple, ubiquitous, magic catchphrase of qualification any official uses to excuse any bureaucratic, intrusive practice, no matter how inconvenient or ridiculous it might be. “Oh, sorry. We need to waste a whole lot of your time asking lots of personal questions over and over again; for security reasons. Then we have to have multiple delays in order to make you wait interminably; for security reasons. Now we have to blindfold you, strip you naked and make you hop on one leg; for security reasons.” The very annoying aspect of all this is that the villains seem to have systems that easily facilitate their criminal behaviour and effortlessly circumvent processes, while these security procedures simply inconvenience everyone else.
Back to the telephone conversation.
“So, you can’t tell me the maximum amount I can transfer from my term deposit to my savings account?”
“No. Sorry. For security reasons.”
“Okay. Let’s say I wanted to transfer one thousand Euros. Could I do that?”
“Yes.” She spoke in a very soft voice, as though she did not want to be detected. I am sure she was trying to be helpful again.
“So, do I need to keep guessing amounts until I reach the maximum allowable, because you can’t tell me the exact figure?”
“Sorry. I can’t tell you. For security reasons.”
“This sounds a bit ridiculous. All I want to do is give notice of transfer of my money from a term deposit, in my name, to a savings account, IN MY NAME. Why would anyone but me try to do that? Why can’t this be done?”
There was a few seconds silence over the phone.
“For security reasons.”
We eventually agreed that if I opened a savings account with the bank, then I could give three months’ notice of withdrawal for the money in my term deposit and they would deposit the full amount into this new account, in their bank. I could then transfer that money from the savings account in their bank, to the savings account in my other bank. Phew! I was beginning to wonder if 3.5% was worth it.
Malta is a wonderful country with very friendly and helpful people. But you need a sense of humour.