In the two months since I’ve moved to Malta, I have conducted a great deal of my private and public business on the black market. “The black market” being a blanket statement for any alternative, untaxed economy, or discussions about doing alternative, untaxed things. Like payments between “friends,” in cash, with no signature required. I am not a pirate. I, like the majority of Maltese citizens, have simply found this to be the most accessible and efficient way to get things done. Contracts, receipts, validation, certification…I’d say that around 60% of daily Maltese transactions actually use a paper trail (that’s transactions of any size). I’m not sure who really gets taxed and how, but the considering that this minute country has the 15th highest GDP in Europe and only a 3.9% unemployment rate, I am also unsure of who’s concerned about it.
Not following rules in Malta is fun! It means you can drink a bottle of wine next to sea while sitting in your car, drive on the sidewalk when the bus is in your way, and get inordinate discounts on purchased items simply for making the cashier laugh. It means you can find a rental flat without proof of income. If your friend is a nurse, it means your mom gets to move to the front of the line at the hospital. In Malta, following the rules is like being the nerdy kid at the front of class. Sure, you might get to Harvard. But you won’t get an invite to a party Saturday night. And Maltese parties are not something to miss…
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I met my first rule-following Maltese person. He is the owner of one of the largest shipping/ marketing/ construction/ importing/ exporting companies in Malta, the type of company that has made-and-broken entire markets on this little island. We’ll call him Henry of Family Co. It’s thanks to Henry that Maltese people eat cheap bananas. Family Co. also owns big names in Maltese architecture, transport, real estate, and advertising. When I arrived to be interviewed for a content marketing position with his company, I was curious as to how Henry had grasped hold of so many influential markets. After sitting in front of him for five minutes, I knew. And it was not the way I expected.
Rule Breaking Based on Cultural Urgency
There’s a certain cultural sense of urgency in Malta: When a business person wants something, whether it’s a new car or a new contract, they want it NOW. People in Malta are constantly starting companies and groups only to give up once they face too much red tape or a lack of immediate interest. Walk through any neighborhood to witness the gorgeous half-empty, under-construction houses for an example of what I mean. Sometimes these empty houses are a result of urgency: The builders wanted something done, so they didn’t follow the rules. And when it got too hard, or too expensive, or their rule-breaking was discovered, the project was dropped. It’s part of the system here to pick up and leave things. I think that’s why so many foreigners come here to fund or propel their career, staying only a few years.
Introducing the SMRF
So what about companies like Family Co.? How have they sustained success? From what I can tell, they rebel against the system by following its rules. Ironic, no? To do so takes great courage; imagine competitors make millions in quick company boom-and-busts while you slog along, doing things the right way. These people are scary and powerful. I call them Scary Maltese Rule Followers (SMRFS).
In fact, I have now met two other Maltese people who lead local organizations with scope, clarity, goals, and success. They act like Henry (differently than many of their Maltese counterparts): they’re transparent, boasting, short of smiles, disinclined to take a day off, and Type-A goal makers. I feel like a puppy dog caught drinking from the toilet bowl when I’m around these people. From what I can tell, Henry and the other two Scary Maltese Rule Followers have found success because they ignore cultural urgency, taking instead the straight-and-narrow path of highest resistance. Their actions mean they cannot be denied, faulted, or undercut. By living resiliently toward their goals, these people demand respect. They’re brilliant and forceful, side-stepping the Maltese penchant for charisma to create infallible structures.
The Power of SMRFS
Like a good King, most people dually love and hate SMRFS. SMRFS provide jobs. They engineer “share-bait.” They and their friends have the ability to create long-term change in a country relatively young on the “modernization” front. SMRFS are focused enough to be patient. Companies run by SMRFS spawn direct and indirect followers that elevate Malta much further than its miniscule geography. It’s not easy to get on the good side of a SMRF; you’ll need fortitude, to say the least.
What’s the point? In Malta, there is a black market economy. You can live on this economy, work with its freeholders, in a largely uninhibited way. But if you want to get anything done, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with SMRFs. I’ve developed a short guide for harnessing the power of a SMRF. And I’d love for you to comment here: What’s your experience with the Maltese black-market economy? What about SMRFS? And words of advice?
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
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Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.