I AM EXPRESSING my grave concern over views expressed by politicians regarding comments made by researchers and academics in an attempt to silence them.
In some countries where democracy is not supported and valued, people with critical views based on sound analysis are exterminated or deported if they are foreigners.
This would be bad for the development prospects of Papua New Guinea if we want to become a wealthy, wise and prosperous nation.
Current comments made by politicians about contributions attributed to Paul Barker, the executive director of Institute of National Affairs, at a National Research Institute-hosted budget forum last week are uncalled for.
The budget forum was looking at the implications of the PNG government budget for the sound development of our country. The forum was a venue where the public was invited to hear the views of experts who carried out sound analysis of the 2014 budget.
It sought to inform the public and decision-makers such as politicians so they might understand some of the dynamics and the possible outcomes of budgets passed by parliament.
The point made by Paul Barker, as I understood it, was about the opportunity costs of capital, where if you do one thing with the money you have, you cannot do other things.
So the question was, on what basis were decisions made on building new infrastructure in the National Capital District, such as the Paga ring road project, when the maintenance of other roads and services were in dire need of maintenance. Who would benefit from that road and who is missing out?
In the same vein, politicians berated three researchers from the National Research Institute who made a valuable contribution to the discussions on the recent UBS loan made by the current government to purchase Oil Search shares.
Papua New Guineans in a democracy need to question our leaders on such matters so the decisions they make are in the best interests and well-being of the wider majority.
So rather than trying to silence researchers and critics, politicians and their advisers should look at the arguments and debate the ideas, putting to the public their own positions.
In that way, the public can be better informed; likewise putting pressure on leaders to be accountable and to make better decisions for our people and country.
In a democratic country, various institutions have a role to play and their independence must be respected. The governing institutions such as the parliament, executive government, opposition, courts, and police, all play a vital role in governing the country.
In the same way, the business sector such as private and public enterprises, their boards and management, financial institutions et cetera have to perform their roles without interference, guided by the legislations and values developed over time that they operate within.
In the same way academics at universities and in specialised research institutes - whose work in creating knowledge has been long evolved based on the principles of free thought, critical opinion and debate - must be respected. We also have a critical role to play in the community and the development of our country.
It is difficult to attract as well as retain well qualified foreign academics at PNG’s universities and research institutions. It is even more difficult when our government tries to put a clamp on free thinking and debate, the cornerstone of academia.
The quality of teaching and learning at our universities is quite poor, and such comments and decisions of government do not help.
Finally, I want to warn our politicians and leaders on a growing culture of surrounding themselves with “yes, yes” people as advisers and bureaucratic leaders.
There are also many carpetbaggers who praise our leaders for every decision they make, whether it is good or not. I am reminded of the fairy tale about the ‘Emperor With No Clothes’.
If you do not hear and appreciate dissenting views, you will not see the fallacy of some of the ideas and decisions you make.
Silencing critics is not the answer. Engage in the debate of the ideas – shoot the message, not the messenger.
Dr Thomas Webster is Director of the PNG National Research Institute