An entry in the Rivers Prize
EVERY TIME I HEAR that a man is brutally murdered by gun-wielded gangsters or a woman is pack raped by a gang of senseless men or a politician has stolen millions of kina belonging to the people, my mind wanders to the memories of my childhood when virtuous morality was the priceless keystone of the tribal unit’s existence and prosperity.
Until about the end of the 1970s, amity was the dominant tenet that fostered the virtue of the clan. Peace and harmony abounded.
People cared for one another and provided for each other’s needs through well entwined family ties and clan links.
People would welcome strangers to their home and provide accommodation free of charge. They could travel long distances without being harassed and robbed along the way.
Women and girls would tend gardens miles away from home without fear of ambush and rape by marijuana addicted boars.
Young people took to heart the wisdom of the elders and enjoyed tangible outcomes from the diligent application of these good words.
There was total respect for law and order. Government services like schools and aid posts were well looked after. There was great respect for government workers.
Of course there were tribal fights, but people fought with less dangerous weapons - namely bows and arrows and spears - and fewer people were killed. And that happened mostly before the territorial governance by Australia.
When the colonial administration started wielding its power, tribal warfare eased and peace was at its zenith right up to independence in 1975 and in the years thereafter.
From the beginning of the 1980s, however, immorality and pernicious behaviour has been eating into the fabric of society. The once land of paradise has become a scary shithole.
The question that lingers in the heart of every noble citizen today is, can Papua New Guinea ever relive the virtuous morality – the priceless keystone of human existence and prosperity - that once prevailed?
Simply put, can peace and harmony be revived in PNG? I feel sure the answer is ‘yes’, but only if we really understand the root of crime and violence that pervade PNG today.
Why is this? Why do people take to crimes and violence? What is the underlying factor that drives people into such pernicious behaviour?
Papua New Guinea as a nation has been through much social, political, economic and cultural change since the infiltration of western civilisation 130 years ago.
Modern technology, health, education, politics and commerce supplanted the old customs and traditions; one of the most influential changes being the western system of commerce and economics.
Trade and finance are critical factors in the modern world. A modern society and its people cannot prosper without trade and finance.
As we continue to advance, the demand for finance becomes so critical that people cannot live without it. In fact, money is the ultimate means to living the modern lifestyle.
People who have money can afford a good and satisfying life. They can afford decent accommodation, meals and clothing. They can afford education for their children. They can afford medical care. They can travel from one place to another.
For any Papua New Guinean, to enjoy a meaningful and satisfying life in this modern society implies having access to money. And to have money, one must engage in the cash economy. People must be employed for wages in the formal sector or be self-employed in the informal cash economy in pursuits such as market gardening, the betel nut trade or poultry farming.
There are people who find it difficult to be involved in the money economy. They are rejected, forced out or led astray because they do not possess adequate education or job training or they come from disadvantaged families.
How are these people going to meet their needs? Are they going to fold their hands and wait for miracles to? Or are they going to starve to death?
Human beings have the wit to innovate when their lives are at stake. When the established institutions and systems do not enable them to obtain what they lack, they resort to other ways - be they moral or immoral - to survive.
The two most common pathways for these people are begging and theft. While some choose to be beggars, most choose to be robbers. To them, violence becomes necessary when human obstruction is in the way.
Most violence in the home today is related to money - or the lack of it. A mother with a swollen face will tell you her husband punched her when she complained he did not give her enough money to cater for the household.
A man with a broken arm will tell you his wife attacked him because he didn’t give her any compensation money he received for her to buy new clothes. Such stories are common.
People get murdered for a few lousy kinas.
Unemployed females go into prostitution to support themselves and their families.
All these pernicious behaviours are linked to one thing, and that is poverty. Poverty is the root of the immorality that we experience in PNG today.
If people have the necessary means and ways to meet their needs then there is no reason for them to turn to crime and violence.
Of course there are other reasons for crime, for example white collar thieving from the state coffer by bureaucrats and politicians because of their greed and gluttony. But the most predominant reason is poverty. Poverty is the underlying factor that drives people into crime. Crime and violence are symptoms of poverty.
According to the UNDP country profile, 37% of PNG’s population lives below the poverty line. In real terms, 2.8 million people out of 7.5 million Papua New Guineans earn around four kina a day. The poverty line is roughly around K15 per day and K4 is almost four times below the poverty line. No wonder PNG is rated as one of the poorest nations on earth.
As the gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen, more and more people are forced to steal or take by violence, meaning that the rate of lawlessness is worsening.
We haven’t seen the worst of crime and violence yet because most people can still fall back on the subsistence sector or wantoks – PNG’s welfare safety nets.
But there will come a time when the subsistence economy is supplanted by the cash economy and wantokism perishes like many other customs and traditions.
This is the time citizens may take up arms against the state and the rich, and a new degree of lawlessness, far worse than we experience today, may arise.
When poverty is perspicaciously addressed, we will contain the rate of lawlessness in PNG. Peace and harmony will prevail.
How can we address poverty? Is there a Melanesian Way?
The Melanesian Way is a philosophical ideology of the affairs of the dark skinned people of the South West Pacific. It was coined by the late Bernard Narakobi, lawyer and parliamentarian in his book The Melanesian Way.
The only authentic custom common throughout Melanesia and befits the notion ‘Melanesian Way’ is wantokism.
Wantokism can be best described as a welfare or social security system whereby each member of the clan ensures that everyone else, including the widows, disabled etc, has food to eat, clothes to wear and shelter to live in. It fosters an individual’s security. Nobody is in need or want and therefore the entire community is in harmony.
Modernisation has warped, tainted and disintegrated traditional tenets and values, including wantokism, to the extent that to revive them in their pure state would be impossible.
Most of the remnants of custom and tradition that Papua New Guineans continue to embrace are not as sacred and pure as they were before the influence of western culture. They are all blemished.
Wantokism has been tainted to the extent that its application in today’s society entails what I call parasitical exploitation – wantoks milking wantoks.
However the concept itself, that the clan provides for the needs of its members, can form the basis for addressing poverty which will then indirectly address crime and violence.
As a professed Christian, it is tempting for me to suggest the biblical principle that good and evil start from man’s heart. If only man changes from within then peace and harmony will prevail.
But this notion is viable only when man’s physical needs are adequately met. The lack will turn a good person into a bad person and I have witnessed such.
It is imperative to point out that PNG cannot rewind the clock. It has to move forward with the rest of the world. Issues of law and order and poverty are inevitable. They cannot be avoided. We have to accept the realities, deal with them and keep moving forward.
The most appropriate way to kill two birds with one stone is to introduce a welfare benefit like Australia’s dole system. Welfare will reduce poverty and at the same time enable peace and harmony to tower over lawlessness.
In essence it is an equitable sharing of income derived from abundant resources to foster appeasement among all communities and sectors of society.
Translating the concept into workable policy is the a problem for the experts. However there are two important points that are worth highlighting.
The benefit shall cease as soon as the beneficiary finds a permanent employment and the benefit shall be severed permanently the moment one is found guilty of any criminal offence in a competent court of law.
The latter will serve as a deterrent from committing criminal offence.
There can never be a utopia. Even the best policy will not eradicate lawlessness and poverty. These issues have always been in existence even in the richest and most affluent societies and PNG is no exception. Nonetheless, at least we have a dream of dealing with them and reliving the Paradise.