Originally published: August 2017
A few years ago I decided to leave my home country and try my luck abroad. This wasn’t a spontaneous decision at all, rather it was the result of many years during which my disillusion and frustration with Malta had been growing and growing until I felt I had to take action or I would fall into a very negative perpetual state of mind.
Of course, I have many friends and dear family back in Malta, but honestly, I don’t miss living there. I make it a point to visit at least once a year and I usually have a good time catching up with friends and spending time with my family, but I don’t feel like I would like to go back and live there.
As you can imagine, several friends and family members ask me why this is so. I’ve finally found some time to really list the reasons for my moving away from Malta and why I don’t feel as comfortable living there as I do in other places.
While this post will be very honest, I’m afraid that some readers will find it too negative or downright offensive. Please keep in mind that is an honest outpouring of my thoughts and feelings and is no way meant to attack anyone or show any lack of appreciation. I did grow up in Malta and received many good things, I was blessed with a great family and a good education and also had lots of great experiences. However, as I grew older I started to feel that this was not the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life in, and this is an attempt to describe why.
Malta is described in propaganda as being an idyllic “paradise on earth” island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Surely life is incredibly good over there! Not to mention it’s a tax haven!
First of all, Malta is no tax haven if you’re Maltese. There are a few schemes designed to attract business and executives from abroad. These schemes have been widely used and abused, and that’s where the reputation for being a tax haven is coming from. The island is also famous for housing a great number of online gambling companies. These companies came to Malta due to the fiscal and regulatory incentives and they are by and large doing extremely well.
Online gambling is not something that interests me and in general, I don’t like the vibe that they have about them. I’m sure many Maltese will disagree with me on this, but this is my view on the topic. The gambling companies pay very well and usually provide attractive offices and perks to their employees. Due to them, property prices in the Sliema and St Julian’s area have risen to incredible levels (many would agree that it’s bubble stage already). A whole financial services industry has grown to support these companies.
The downside? Apart from the moral doubts of working at these companies or even incentivizing them to move to Malta, I see a lot of dependence on them. If another country were to offer better regulations and tax incentives, it is likely that many of these companies would leave, as they don’t have any significant ties with Malta. They are merely using the country. In the eventuality of them leaving, we will see serious repercussions on property prices and the financial services industry. Whether this situation ever plays out is anyone’s guess, but it’s definitely something that has always bothered me.
Now I don’t mean to turn this into an attack on gambling companies. They do well to seek out the best environment for them to operate so I don’t blame them for anything. I certainly didn’t leave Malta because of this, so let’s explore some other more important reasons for me leaving.
If I were to describe Malta in one word, it would be frustrating. There is no doubt that islands are (were?) blessed with natural beauty, great weather and beautiful sea. I think the small size of the islands is, however, a big problem for people like me. It is clear that you can find idiots in every country, but in bigger countries, you can mostly keep away from them. You can frequent different places, live in different areas, and generally live amongst people that you like. Not so in Malta, every time you step outside of your door you are bound to experience some kind of ignorance, be it illegal construction, irresponsible driving, and unprofessional behavior. There is no deeply ingrained culture of doing things the right way. Rather it’s more of a “whatever, if it barely works then it’s good enough”.
I acknowledge that I have trouble really describing what it is that frustrates me and pains me so much about living in Malta. I also know that most Maltese genuinely love living in Malta, and whenever I have tried to speak out against the way things are done, the usual reaction is to try and shut me up and tell me that things aren’t so bad.
I inevitably realized that there was no way I’m going to change the culture of a country. One of the best pieces of advice was given to me by a Bulgarian builder in Malta. In one of my moments of frustration, the builder, who was fixing some stuff in our office, overheard me complain about things in Malta. He calmly came up to me and told me “my friend, if you don’t like the menu, change the restaurant”. It was a seemingly joking and simple comment, but it rang so true for me that that was the moment that I decided to leave for good, and sure enough two months later I left.
Living in Malta, at least as a local, involves sustaining yourself (whether you want it or not) on a constant stream of local news. You can’t escape the latest political mess, and the smallest incidence can make front page news. It is really an environment that discourages you to think big and expand your mental horizons. For many years I found it very stifling and I harbored a lot of internal anxiety, frustration, and anger due to this situation over which I had little control.
Since moving abroad, all these effects instantly disappeared and I finally felt free to be what I really want to be and rapidly increase my knowledge in the areas that interest me, such as investing.
They say that a person is the sum of the other people that are closest to him. In Malta, I always struggled to surround myself with people who would constantly inspire me and drive me to become a better person. Due to the small island mentality, there seems to be a lot of jealousy and people try to keep you in line. You’re best just being an average Joe behaving like everyone else if you want to live a good life there. Do something significantly different than the rest and you’re going to have a very difficult time indeed.
But come on Jean, you might say, what about the lovely “best in the world” weather that Malta is blessed with? Well yes, Malta does indeed have very hot summers and mild wet winters. The problem is that the vast majority of houses have zero insulation and in the winter months you can feel really uncomfortable due to the insane levels of humidity and cold inside. Although I always felt bad during the winters, reality really struck during my first experience of winter in the UK, when I realized that I was much happier in winter there than I had ever been in Malta. Like many other countries, buildings there are well insulated and have good heating, so you can stay in your flip flops and shorts inside in winter. In Malta, I would be wearing jackets, long johns and a beanie and I’d still be uncomfortably cold.
One other big pain point: the roads. Malta’s road surfaces are among the worst in Europe and are more befitting of a third world country than a country that presents itself as being a hub of innovation and being on par with its European counterparts. Last year I tried taking the Brompton to Malta to cycle around during our holiday but ended up walking back home after 200 meters. There are way too many potholes, bumps, and uneven road surfaces to be able to ride a bike like that comfortably without damaging it. Not to mention the challenge of staying alive when riding a bike in Malta.
Some of my friends have been severely injured due to irresponsible driving or bad road surfaces, and one of them even died by the roadside after being run over by a youngster driving without a license. I won’t even get started on the Maltese judiciary, but I’ll just mention that after eight years this man has not been sentenced yet. See here and here for more great examples of Maltese incompetency where justice is concerned.
A related aspect is the lack of good pavements. Unfortunately, Malta is not a walkable place at all. We grow up getting accustomed to getting out of our houses and into the car to get whisked to wherever we need to be. This leads to people exercising less and the resulting obesity issues. Malta has the highest child obesity rate in Europe, and I believe the walkability issue is a significant contributor to the problem. Owning a car is almost a necessity and gives you the independence to go wherever you want. Public transport leaves a lot to be desired, and it only comes in the form of buses. There are no car or scooter sharing initiatives at all. Of course, we can all see with our own eyes that traffic has increased exponentially during the past twenty years, to the point that you are now guaranteed to get stuck in a traffic jam every time you go for a drive, at any time except during the night. Given that in general people tend to keep their cars far longer than the European average, we have a lot of pollution from vehicles and that affects everyone’s health.
Back to the lack of paving. In other countries, I got used to walking a lot, but in Malta it’s impossible to run any errands on foot except if you’re going around the corner from your house. Pavements seem to be an afterthought and come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tiled, some have rough surfaces, some are super narrow etc. What this also means is that we have a big problem with accessibility. One of the main highlights of my trips to Malta is spending time with my 93-year-old grandma, and I would love to be able to take her out for a walk while we chat about our lives. Alas, it’s pretty much impossible given the state of the pavements and the very close proximity of cars and trucks belching out exhaust.
Lastly, let’s come back to the idyllic island thing one more time. During the past thirty years, there has been way too much indiscriminate development. Many ugly buildings were built and a good part of them were built in areas that were meant to remain in their natural state. The result is an overexploited island where very few green areas remain. As a kid, I used to go out and play soccer with my friends in the fields nearby. This was commonplace wherever you lived in Malta. Nowadays there is no chance that kids would be able to do that.
Everything’s been built up, and as I said, it’s been one huge land rush with developers making big money while they exploited every inch of the island. Of course, this constant development has also brought with it a lot of air and noise pollution, apart from visual eyesores. We are now seeing an increasingly high rate of respiratory diseases, and frequent complaints about noise due to construction. Gozo, the other island, is currently at a very nice balance between nature and man-made buildings, but I’m afraid that the developers will turn their greedy eyes there next.
How about the famous Smart City? Rather than attracting all the big IT companies and making Malta another silicon valley, as was originally promised, it’s been sitting there mostly empty. Moreover, it seems likely that it will soon be turned into another luxury apartment complex. This land had been given to the Smart City developers on condition that it will be used for ICT purposes, but it seems that the new fashion is to completely disregard such contracts. Real estate agents are already selling apartments on plan even though it is still technically an IT office center and there are absolutely no building plans in place to turn it into an apartment complex. Something similar happened just last year with the former ITS complex in Pembroke. Such free-for-all practices are very common when it comes to building and development.
It’s not only big developers who are the problem though. Many individuals have also constructed illegally while the authorities have turned a blind eye. There is a whole village of illegal properties in Armier bay, and no political party has done anything to remove them over many years.
To make matters worse, much of the remaining countryside is taken up by hunters who occupy whole swaths of land. Yes, in Malta bird hunting is a very popular past time, and incredibly just a few years ago a referendum to ban this barbaric practice in spring failed to get a majority backing. Any walk in the countryside is sure to be accompanied by the sounds of guns as the hunters try their best to blast every bird out of the sky.
No wonder you will hardly see any birds in Malta. Illegal hunting is a widespread and serious problem, with poachers specifically targeting raptors (birds of prey) and Herons as well as rare migratory birds such as the Greater Flamingo, Black Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill, among others. Moreover, as I mentioned, hunters occupy a lot of public lands and block off access to hikers, mountain bikers and the regular folk who are out to enjoy a bit of countryside.
Sometimes people will challenge me by posing the question: “If Malta is so bad, why do so many foreigners fall in love with Malta and want to live here?”. I think that’s a very interesting question that merits delving into.
First of all, Malta is a very very unique place, for many reasons. It has a rich and varied history having been under the rule of several nations and cultures. Its size and geography is also unique, as is the fact that Maltese people have their own language. I can definitely see how these exotic qualities can be such a strong attraction for foreigners.
They would have never have experienced such an environment before, especially if they come from a big city/country where things are much more impersonal. Landing in Malta you tend to feel very welcome as people are very friendly and ready to help out, it feels like everybody treats you like family. This leads to foreigners saying hey, this is an awesome place to live in. Back home I’m just a number and nobody cares about anyone, but here everybody is so involved in each other’s lives, this is something special! I totally see why a foreigner would feel like this. I myself sometimes wish I were a foreigner so I could feel that way. If you don’t speak Maltese there is a better chance of insulating yourself from the daily gossip and mannerisms that end up getting on one’s nerves.
Here’s the thing though. While I acknowledge that some foreigners do move to Malta, love it and enjoy living there for many years, many others try the experience and leave after 3-4 years because they just can’t take the way things are done there. It’s one thing living a life of work-beach-party (Malta is the best place for that) and quite another when you decide to settle down, start dealing with the authorities, buy a house and try to get contractors to deliver quality work, etc etc.
People who are used to not having to struggle to get simple things done will start to get pissed off at how much time they’re spending dealing with seemingly innocuous tasks, and eventually end up leaving the island. Of course, the passage of time also amplifies the feeling of living in a very small place that acts like an echo chamber and innovation is stifled by the local way of life and culture, and that can also lead to one deciding to leave and live in a more open environment.
I guess I’ve written more than I meant to, the reality is that I really struggle to put my feelings into words, and that is why I don’t frequently share my thoughts on the subject. I prefer to focus on the positive things I have in my life rather than acting all pessimistic. My feelings about Malta at the end of the day are genuine sadness for what was once really an idyllic place that has been destroyed over the years. I would love to say that I hope to one day return, but I really can’t see how the culture can change and the harm due to construction undone.
P.S. While in this post I focused on the negative things about Malta that led me to leave, there is, of course, the flip side. There are many great things about Malta, and I do still think that it is a very good place for digital nomads to spend some time in.
It’s been more than two years since I wrote this post, and I’ve interacted with many people about the subject both in the comments section as well as over email exchanges. Unfortunately, not only has the situation in Malta not become any better since I wrote this, but things took a nasty turn for the worse.
The obvious big news item was the killing of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2018, followed by several scandals in the political scene. During the last few months of 2019 we’ve seen Malta in the worldwide news for all the wrong reasons, with several top members of the governing party being forced to resign due to their misdeeds and connections to the murder.
As we close off the year, prime minister Joseph Muscat has been named ‘Person of the Year’ for organised crime and corruption by a consortium of investigative journalists.
— Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (@OCCRP) December 27, 2019
Dr Muscat joins a list of previous winners of the OCCPR’s yearly prize that includes strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan’s Ilhan Aliyev, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
“Under Muscat’s leadership, criminality and corruption have flourished — and in many cases gone unpunished,” the OCCPR said.
The organisation highlighted the way Dr Muscat had acted throughout the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
I had intentionally avoided politicising things with my original post, as I don’t consider myself a supporter of a particular party in Malta, but things have really gone to new extremes with the Labour party in government led by Dr Muscat in recent years.
Not only have things become worse in Malta, but the country’s reputation overseas is at an all-time low due to this government’s shenanigans.
What is quite impressive to me is that the Maltese population by and large has been quite passive during this whole debacle. Not to mention that probably around half of the population still doesn’t think that anything irregular has taken place in the past few years, as witnessed by the kinds of comments you can see on the OCCPR’s announcement post. The kind of brainwashing on display is at least on par with that you would expect from people in communist countries with no access to outside information. To see people defending the prime minister and his cronies while hurling abuse at any detractors, Maltese or foreign, is just sad.
One would hope that the Maltese will choose better people in leadership, independently of which party they’re from, and avoid further damage to the country. It’s worth keeping in mind that right now, the Maltese economy seems to be doing very well, however I am of the opinion that this boom has not been very organic nor is it built on solid ground.
If we take an honest look at the last 15 years of growth in the Maltese economy, we would find that the big driver has been an artificially favourable tax system designed to attract foreign companies to relocate their business in Malta and thus gain huge tax benefits. That drove an influx of foreigners needed to staff the relocated companies (most of them online gaming companies), which in turn drove up property prices and helped build an impressive financial industry to service these aforementioned companies. If one of these pillars were to be affected by the scandals rocking the political scene, all the pieces will fall like dominoes causing a serious crisis in Malta.
Taking the Decision
Over the years since I’ve written this post, I’ve received many emails from (mostly young) people who identify with my feelings and are struggling with taking the decision.
I want to make it clear that while we live in an era where travel is very easy and affordable, uprooting yourself and moving to another country is still a significant psychological and logistical challenge for most people.
Here’s a copy of an email reply I sent to a person who reached out to ask for advice on how to approach the decision. I hope it can be of help to others in the same stage of their lives.
Every person who decides to leave their home country will have the fears and worries that you mention, that is perfectly normal.I had the same concerns myself when I was in the same situation. What I did was to sit down in a quiet place for an hour or so, take a pen and two sheets of paper. On one list the pros and the other the cons about moving. Take your time and let your heart and mind both outpour onto those two pages. When you’re done, you should have a clearer picture of what you should do. If it’s still not clear, assign a rating of 1-5 or 1-10 next to each point that you list, with 1 being of least importance and 10 being essential for you. Then add the scores up and hopefully one should be significantly higher than the other.Know that you can’t control what you’ll find on the other side, but you owe it to yourself to at least seek a betterment of your situation if that’s what you need to do.I have yet to come across anyone who regretted leaving a negative environment that bothered them (job, country, etc) but I have met plenty of older people who have significant regrets about not taking a chance on a better future when they were younger.
- Bloomberg – Why the EU is furious with Malta – covers problems that I mentioned in the post and other big issues that surfaced in the past year since I’ve written this post.