We are honored to have this opportunity to interview Mr. James Naich from the State of Chuuk on his candidacy for the FSM’s upcoming constitutional convention. Mr. Naich has an extensive record of public service to the FSM. He was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the FSM Embassy in Washington D.C.. He also served as a delegate to two past constitutional conventions for the FSM.
TFB: To our understanding, you were a delegate to the last FSM Constitutional Convention in 2001. What can you tell us about your candidacy? Why are you running again – for the third time?
JN: I wish to express my gratitude to “The Fourth Branch” for conducting this interview. I hope this will be an informative exchange of ideas to your readership. Let’s make it an educational forum on the issues may come before the Convention. Let it not be a primarily campaign ad for me. This is not to say I do not need extra help. I do need to reach out to the voters of the Northwest islands. I am thousands of miles away from the NW, being presently here in the Washington, DC area. But that’s a different matter.
As a starting point, it is worth emphasizing that the FSM voters themselves decided to convene the ConCon. The purpose is to review the “supreme law of the land” and, if necessary, to propose amendments to the FSM Constitution. The Convention will establish the basis for the eligible citizens to determine whether or not to amend the Constitution.
The Constitution provides that, after every ten years, a question be put to the citizens in a referendum to choose whether or not to hold a Convention to review the Constitution. This is what happened. In the elections held on 5th March of 2019, the majority of the citizens chose to hold a ConCon. The Convention will not happen by itself or by the discretion of the politicians. It’s what the citizens themselves want to take place. It’s important to keep that in mind. This is a Constitutional requirement that shows the wisdom of the original architects of our government.
Responding specifically to your question, you are correct that I was a delegate to the third Constitutional Convention in 2001. I was privileged to also serve in the second ConCon that was held in 1990. I was still a boy when the first ConCon was held in 1975 on Saipan, then the seat of the government of the Trust territory of the Pacific Islands. This was the historic Convention that created the foundation of the present FSM Government. I was not a delegate to the first Convention; but I was grateful for a special opportunity provided by the FSM Congress to conduct a major research on the 1975 ConCon. You could say that I have some sense of what happened and the major issues that our Founding Fathers confronted in creating our country.
Our country did not tumble out of a vacuum. It emerged from the Trust Territory. A creation of the UN after World War II, the TTPI was administered by the US on behalf of the UN. In reviewing our supreme law of the land, it is important to keep in mind the history about how our country came about and the special circumstances under which it was created. The history tells us how Micronesia came together by the outsiders and how, with the toil of the hands – and the inspiration of the minds and hearts -- of our own founding fathers, a new nation called the FSM was created and blessed.
There seems to be some level of risk in our walking fast forward into the future and, kicking aside our national history into the ditch beside the road, we create something completely new that has no connectivity or resemblance to our past and the reality of our present existence. Creating a future without taking into consideration the past and present, however painful, is dangerous.
The Constitutional Convention is a heavy responsibility. To the best we can, let us not politicize it – for instance, to use it as a stepping stone to aspire to something higher and ambitious. Let’s hope that the delegates will focus their attention on the work of the ConCon to the best they can in the 45 days in which they are expected to complete their task. When other extra-curricular ambitions are thrown in the ConCon, I am afraid the Convention will become a koen or gurando or a playground.
You are right that I am running again for the third time to an FSM Constitutional Convention. Please pardon my boasting. The way I look at it is that the FSM Government has made a huge investment in me and I have been privileged to acquire an experience which I would like to give back to our nation in a way that I believe will be beneficial.
TFB: Can you share with us your experience from the prior conventions that would be beneficial to the Fourth Convention?
JN: You – or nobody else for that matter – will hear me asserting that I am a leading authority on Constitutional Conventions. I can only say that I have been privileged to be one of two living FSM citizens who participated in the last two ConCons, as I noted. Along with my fairly in-depth study of the first ConCon, I am familiar with the issues confronted and taken up in the last two Conventions. My representation of Chuuk in the Pre-Constitutional Convention of 2001 also equipped me with the practical knowledge of putting together or organizing a Convention, including the promulgation of its rules of procedures and identification of the requisite staff and attorneys to run the Convention.
The totality of my experience in government service will be brought to bear on my work in the Convention, if I am lucky to be elected. For instance, I was in the foreign service of our country for about thirty years. I was exposed to the emergence of our government as an independent nation and the expansion of its diplomatic relations in the world community under its own constitutional framework. My active engagement in issues of local governance and leadership conferences over the years have also given me a perspective on the issues facing a constitutional government. I would like to believe that the experiences that I have gone through in my government career would be valuable asset.
TFB: One can argue that former delegates should give the new generation an opportunity to be elected to the ConCon, and should not run again. How do you respond?
JN: I am sure that the argument could be advanced. And there is a certain appeal or merit to seeking out the bright lights from our young people. I am not, in principle, against the idea of engaging our young people in the work of our government. They have just as much duty or responsibility to come to the aid of our country. It’s their country, after all. They must be made proud guardian of our land.
But how do we go about engaging them? Do we engage them simply on the basis of their being younger? How about the “older” folks who can still contribute beneficially to our government or society? Do we brush them aside simply because they have gone over the age-bracket or have gone down the downward slope? What should we do with the wealth of experiences and wisdom that they have accumulated over the years?
I am in favor of innovation that energetic and young people are often believed to have. Let us be open-minded to the new ideas of our young people. Let us also avail to them the practical rudder of wisdom and experience by which they can steer and navigate our canoe in this vast ocean. In constitution-making as it is in real life-living, you must have that rudder to avoid the extremism between youth and old age. The experience of old age prevents you from running aground on reefs. The vigor of young age enables you to move energetically around and about. Do you blame the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, for finessing his law of averages? I rest my case.
TFB: Is there a key amendment that you are most interested in?
JN: To be sure, there are many issues with our Constitution worth revisiting. When the FSM Constitutional Convention will commence and complete its work in 2020, the FSM will be approximately 45 years old since the Constitution was written. We are still a young country. But the recurrent question will be the purpose or intention of placing the mechanism for amending the Constitution in the supreme law of the land in the first place. What’s the point of having the mechanism if the threshold for changing the provisions of the Constitution, when absolutely appropriate and necessary, are too high to effectuate the appropriate and necessary changes? I am not saying anything new and fancy here if I say that when it comes to passing amendments to the Constitution, it is the minority that calls the shot; it is their views that prevail. In other words, it is that minority that rules our Constitutional life.
We should give credit to the founding architects of our constitutional government for their wisdom in incorporating the provision in the Constitution to have a Constitutional review every ten years, if that’s what the majority of the FSM voters desire. To me, this is one of the beautiful features of the FSM Constitution that many constitutions, including the US Constitution, as far as I know, do not have. We should be grateful. This is an indispensable inheritance that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1975 handed to us. They did not want the future generations of the FSM to be victims of history; so what they did was to devise the Constitutional review, thereby enabling every generation to decide for its members how they are to be governed by their supreme law of the land. But what is the point of having this Constitutional review mechanism if it cannot be used?
Do not get me wrong here in suggesting that we take another look at the provision of the Constitution for passing amendments. I am not proposing that we make it easier to effect wholesale changes to our supreme law of the land every ten years for the sake of making changes. Perhaps we consider adjustments for improvements as may be necessary, not changes for the sake of changes. The Constitution must be for the living; it cannot be a museum keepsake! That’s one issue I believe needs to be looked at carefully.
TFB: Here is a list of possible amendments/issues that could be addressed in the ConCon. Where do you stand on the following –
A) Congressional seat for women?
B) Dual Citizenship?
C) Pathway to Secession?
D) Congressional term-limits?
E) Lowering of 75% threshold for passage of Constitutional amendment?
JN: These are issues that should be carefully defined and further analyzed to test their full merits for possible incorporation in the Constitution. Let me briefly touch upon each of them.
As to the Congressional seat for women, I am in full support if the FSM Constitution has not extended the benefit of granting the right to the women to run for the FSM Congress. Let’s begin with the basics: are the women excluded from the opportunity to run and sit in Congress? If they are, let’s not sit handsomely, let’s knock out those “gender discriminatory” provisions from our supreme law of the land. The Constitution must not discriminate against anybody, including the women. Are we together on this? I hope so.
But what exactly do we mean by Congressional seat for women? Will this be a specially reserved seat? The question must be raised or addressed sincerely -- with open mind. Let’s not hide behind nice sounding clichés. Let the details of the issue be laid out in the twilight, so that we address the possible menace to our constitutional or democratic life.
Inasmuch as we want to ensure that the constitutional guarantees are extended to all of our citizens, including women, we must also guard ourselves against the threats of what could be termed “constitutional parochialism” – i.e., injection of special consideration or dispensation in the supreme law of the land which is supposed to treat everyone equally. If we are to grant special due to the women in the Congress, why are we not doing the same to the outer islanders; our citizens residing in Portland or Hawaii, for instance; our traditional leaders; even our citizens preferring same-sex life styles? If we extend a benefit to one group of citizens, we ought to do the same to all. Let us beware of the diseases of constitutional parochialism.
Women representation is a complex, potentially emotional, issue. Let’s take it in with an open mind in all its relevant aspects. Let’s try to avoid sensational, simplistic and “quickie” sociological experiments as constitutional panacea or solutions.
I’ve been associated with the issue of Dual Citizenship, long before it became a popular issue. I began whispering about DC on the margins of the 1990 Convention. At the time, it was still considered a bad thing for diplomats to encourage their citizens to become citizens of other countries. My colleagues in the FSM Department of Foreign Affairs were stealing looks at me, as if I was up to doing something in the middle of the night that I should be ashamed of doing. It’s all about the issue of loyalty – whether our people would continue to be loyal to the FSM if they become citizens of other countries, such as the US.
I was the guru of consular work in the late 1980s in our Embassy in Washington, DC and my on-site exposure to the circumstances of our citizens in the United States led me to believe that it would be a matte of time for many of our citizens, trying to make ends meet or wishing to take advantage of the benefits of American citizenship, to chose to leave the FSM and become US citizens – considering that the FSM Constitution does not allow Dual Citizenship. I felt then, as I still do now, that Dual Citizenship would be one solution. But it has to be done with utmost care.
The issue of Secession is one to approach very, very carefully. Some folks may look at it as a matter of right, i.e., that individuals or groups of individuals should have the inherent right to disassociate themselves and re-group and form a new, perhaps better union or federation. Is this not one of those “inalienable rights” that the gentleman from Monticello in southern Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, spoke of? So, the American colonies decided to revolt against Britain and after dumping containers of tea in Boston Harbor broke away from England.
But we cannot just transplant America’s experience and let it be washed up on the beaches of Ifaluk or Losap or Mokilla or Lelu for our people to run away with, without any questions being asked. We must raise the tough questions about Secession in the context of the FSM’s own history and circumstances. The late Kikuo Apis, who was one of the Pohnpei delegates to the Convention of 1975, commented on the issue of Secession by asking why it has to be glorified in the highest law of the land, especially for a young country trying to breath life into its own. Placing the so-called right to secede is like giving a sharp knife to an adolescent to stab himself.
Given the fact that the FSM was created out of the fragmentation or breakup of the Trust Territory, we have to approach the “right” with due diligence. The right must be balanced with the obligation to protect oneself. It’s more than just loyalty to one’s country; it’s a matter of obligation for self-preservation. Are we prepared to promote the evil of constitutional falling dominos in the FSM?
The concept of legislative term limits is not a new subject in the FSM. We have already practiced term limits since the birth of the FSM in both the executive branch and the legislative branch. But what do we want to do with this issue in Congress? I can see well-meant citizens agitating and clamoring for limiting the length of service in our national legislature. We should not shriek from realistic, well-intended proposals for improvement in all branches of government. We should also take the care to ensure that we do not bring about change to multiply our woes. By making term limits mandatory, are we not, in effect, robbing the citizens from their right to choose? This is one element of the issue of term limit. There are many other issues riding on the matter of term limits. Let us further discuss and deliberate openly.
I have shared some thoughts as to the desirability of taking a closer look at the required threshold for passing proposed amendments to the FSM Constitution. I will take a break on that issue to study it further.
TFB: Mr Naich, do you have any final words to share with our readership?
JN: Besides reiterating my appreciation for your time, I do would like to encourage your readership or the membership of the Fourth Branch to exercise your civic duty in the matter of the Constitutional Convention. I ask you to do this, whether or not you are from the Northwest – although I shall be grateful if you vote for me. The greater issue is for us, as citizens, to carry out our civic duty and responsibilities. Thank you.