I CAN TELL YOU THE REASON for the story of declining services, declining prosperity and the declining well-being of the people of PNG. It’s very simple. As coined by a group of Papua New Guinean intellectuals many years ago, the problem is the Melanesian Way.
There. It’s been said. The big, sacred pig which has loomed in the background, not named but recognised by many. The concept touted as a uniquely appropriate philosophy and rationale for social management.
The real nature of the beast in modern-day PNG is not positive in today’s complex society. Tackle this elephant, PNG, or at least recognise it for all its facets, positive and negative. Of the latter there are many.
Recognise it for the handicap it has become in the struggle for modernity and fair distribution of the nation’s wealth.
Three decades of increasing puzzlement, critical editorials and irate declarations by political leaders will have been three wasted decades unless the whole experience is realistically appraised.
That and an appropriate antidote developed to the wounds on the body of what is still a young nation.
The Melanesian Way is the way of a fragmented multi-tribal society. It’s a Way which facilitated the existence of such societies whilst they remained divided, multi-lingual, local, warlike and competitive. In PNG’s case, this was a society that existed successfully and independently for tens of thousands of years.
Within this society, land sufficient for the clan’s subsistence needs was the single and prime fact of life. The clan’s land must be protected and opportunistically extended. Without land and hunting and fishing resources sufficient to its needs, the clan or tribe was nothing.
Such a condition would occur as the result of bad planning by leaders, inept political moves and physical weakness in battle. The result would be annihilation of the clan or tribe.
The anger of ancestral spirits would haunt the remaining, fugitive remnants of the people, no matter that they might be absorbed into other clans sympathetic to them. It was the absolute end, and such an end was never to be contemplated.
From when infants lay at their mother’s breast, they learned that, within the clan, all were brothers and sisters. Outside the clan, all were enemies. Within the clan was solidarity and trust. Outside the clan was the enemy.
Thus evolved a set of ethics and moral appreciations that, within the overarching customary system, provided a practical set of safeguards and an acceptable level of justice.
A dispute-resolution system evolved, which, while often draconian and violent, worked within the culture. When a lie was told to some other clan or a pig stolen from an enemy, these were not crimes, nor even misdemeanors, to one’s clan brothers. Only within the clan were such acts classed as crime.
Disputes arising in the clan could be fatally disruptive, and a long-winded methodology involving mediation, negotiation and the payment of some form of compensation-in-kind evolved.
Even though this was sometimes inconclusive, and inevitably long-drawn-out, it was preferable to fighting within the clan, weakening it in the eyes of neighbours and providing opportunity for attack.
Here, then, is a concise outline of The Melanesian Way. It served the people well, providing a functional system of social security for so long as they remained out of communication with the developing industrialized, class-based, nationalistic polities of the rest of the world,
But ‘The Way” is demonstrably not compatible with the course of modernization in which PNG has now been engaged for 70 years. It is not compatible with the rise of a new nation amongst a competing world of nations, not tribes and not clans.
The tribal ethical matrix, where honesty is confined to a limited number of relationships and by nature encourages nepotism, combined with the propensity to talk and procrastinate rather than to face difficult problems, constitutes the sacred cow that too few want to recognise.
It is time to kill the sacred cow. To look at life straight in the eye. To begin to keep pace with the rest of the world.
Directness, honesty, discipline and responsibility in government are the marks of an effective, fair society. Social history and ancient customs belong in the curriculums, museums and storybooks, to be honoured for their positive contribution to the past, not in their capacity to manage a modern nation.
The Way will remain in locations where the peoples’ representatives are unable to provide a modern counterpart for as long as present conditions of corruption, nepotism, laziness and outright theft from the state remain conditions of life.
But for the educated, rising generation of thinkers, who must by their generational effort bring the ship PNG into line within the great, competing convoy of modernizing, industrializing societies, it will be a great weakness perpetuated if it does not address the antiquated set of values represented by the Melanesian Way which are plainly at the root of today’s widespread social deprivation.