It’s wonderful to be with you. After two years of delays, we have earned our way here to celebrate youth achievement by becoming a highly vaccinated society. I could speak all day about all the progress we’re making together through our recovery, but the simple fact that I can see smiles instead of masks this afternoon says it all. And for those planning to celebrate afterwards, you have the freedom to dance the night away –– which is music to the ears of Tevita and Kuki, I’m sure. For now, let’s stick to tea.
For those deserving young Fijians who are nominated, this is a day you’ll long remember. Just like our national journey to free Fiji from the worst of the pandemic, there were no straight or easy paths that led you to these seats. Your personal and professional achievements took vision, self-belief, creativity, and –– let’s be honest –– some damn hard work. Long nights. Early mornings. Time away from friends and family which you dedicated to your business or your craft.
And no matter who leaves here with an award, there is no greater prize than knowing you have found your passion in life and you are willing to work at it.
If people are coming out to watch you perform or compete; if you have built a business that is employing people and helping them support their families; if you are growing food that feeds Fijians; if you are inspiring your fellow youth; or you are helping to drive technological innovation –– you have achieved something far greater than any award can offer you. You have a purpose that is serving others, and nothing in life is more precious. Guard it. Nurture it. And we will continue to celebrate it with you.
The National Youth Awards are our chance to recognise the achievements that your purpose has produced. I often say that our people are Fiji’s greatest asset –– and I mean it. Youth, especially, are the backbone of any nation’s progress.
Some countries are only getting older; their populations are ageing, birth rates are falling, and their societies are becoming less dynamic as a result. Fiji doesn’t have that problem. Our nation is getting younger; 62 percent of our population is below the age of 35. That is an advantage –– a huge advantage –– if we capitalize on it. Which is why we have made the investments that we have to empower the young people of this country.
We made education free for the first time; putting more children, especially, young girls into the classrooms of our primary and secondary schools. We expanded TELS and Toppers and engrained merit at the heart of both –– instilling belief in our students that their hard work took precedence over their gender, privilege, or identity. Today, we have more women in our universities than men. We are investing in young people’s ambition, through the Young Entrepreneurship Scheme, Youth Empowerment Grant and Youth Farm Initiative Programme.
And we are making sure that the goal of starting and raising a family is achievable for everyone –– through initiatives like the first-home buyer’s grant.
All that investment has helped to create the most talented, qualified, united, and innovative Fijian generation ever. The evidence of that is in this room. If we continue on this path, greater achievements await us. Because now more than ever we must stay firm in our commitment to unleash this generation’s potential –– as innovators, as experts, as entrepreneurs, and as leaders.
The pandemic was the worst crisis Fiji ever faced and it was young working people who had the toughest go of it.
None of you must try too hard to imagine the hardship of studying for years and then entering a labour market that was decimated by the pandemic-driven job losses –– you saw your friends endure it; some of you lived it yourselves. Along with every Fijian, all of you have had to lean on your resilience to arrive where you are today.
Government stepped up in every way we could, paying half a billion dollars in direct and indirect unemployment assistance on top of what was made available through FNPF. But we know there was no better antidote for restoring young people’s prospects than a recovery. That is why we took extraordinary measures to revive our economy and open Fiji –– open our schools, open our businesses, and open our border. We are now one of only three Pacific Island Countries that are open. And because of that, we are preventing these from becoming wasted years for countless young Fijians.
With our recovery fully underway, young people can find better jobs, use this time to develop skills and explore a multitude of paths now open to them. Through your curiosity and creativity, you can continue growing into the leaders you are destined to become. You can continue to serve your purpose; and your peers can serve theirs.
When I see so many talented young people here, in Fiji, doing such amazing things for themselves and the country, I feel a mix of emotions. Number one is obviously pride. I’m proud of my Government’s record, but much more so, I’m proud of what you and other young people have done with the support you’ve been given. But I will confess here, that my pride is tinged with some remorse. Because I can’t help but think of the young Fijians who faced vastly different circumstances in the not-so-distant past. Only three decades ago, many talented young people felt disillusioned and even endangered in Fiji –– so they left and took their talents with them. Imagine how much stronger of a country we could be today if we had made inclusivity a priority and made such investments back then. We can’t change the past, so there’s little use dwelling on it. We can only heed its lessons and focus on the future, and that’s what I’d like to speak with you about today; the promise of a hopeful future.
Many young people I speak with are anxious, and some of you may be as well, about the scale of the challenges Fiji and the world will face in the years ahead.
The climate is getting warmer –– you’ve endured storms in your lifetime that are unlike anything in Fijian history –– our oceans are being degraded, and the global fabric of friendship and peace is being torn by new conflicts –– like that which Russia has launched in Ukraine.
This group here this afternoon is a slice of enormous talent from a generation of enormous potential. These challenges are great, but together, you are greater.
To innovate is to find opportunity amid a crisis –– and no one is better equipped to find those opportunities than you.
Through a range of policies and projects, we are creating almost limitless ambition for developing a resilient and highly sustainable green and blue Fijian economy; an economy that speaks to our determination in tackling climate change, that leverages our local knowledge, and that creates opportunity and security for every Fijian.
No matter your calling, there is space for you in this national effort. This may include anything from sustainable forestry to marine conservation; from green shipping to oceanography. It could mean using your tech-savvy know-how to raise awareness for the cause of sustainability. All industries will need these skills. Society will need these skills. The world will need these skills.
The torch of sustainability and resilience is yours to carry forward. Because one day it will be you tasked with preserving the well-being of our future generations. I have every faith that you and your peers will be able stewards of that sacred responsibility when it is entrusted to you.
We will continue doing everything in our power to ensure you have solid and secure foundation on which to build.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have some excellent partners here today who have sponsored this event. I hope all of our young leaders here have the chance to connect with their peers and with mentors who can open more doors to more opportunities. This ceremony is a wonderful occasion, but it is not a destination; it is simply another step in each of your journeys. And I know the best is yet to come from all of you.
Best of luck to our nominees and congratulations again.
Vinaka Vakalevu. Thank you.