TRANSPARENCY International has ranked Papua New Guinea 139th out of 168 countries in its latest Corruption Perception Index.
PNG is the 25th most corrupt nation on earth ranking alongside Bangladesh, Guinea, Kenya, Laos and Uganda.
When I was in primary school in the rural rainforests of south-western Papua New Guinea, I used to stand at attention with my right hand across my heart every morning when the flag was being raised.
Even if I was walking late to school, I would stop at attention if I spotted the flag being raised at the assembly.
At Kamusie Primary School, the flag was everything. We’d sing the national anthem to the beat of the traditional Western Province bamboo percussion drum. We'd stand at attention to recite the national pledge.
The flag and the pledge meant something to us. They were a source of national pride and a symbol of the hope that one day we’d contribute to nation building. For us, that meant the opportunity to further our studies and live our dreams.
Decades later, I found myself as a street vendor in the nation’s capital with no idea of where my life was headed. All those primary school values about nation building and allegiance to the flag evaporated as the daily struggles of life in the city took precedence.
I was a street vendor during PNG’s golden age of economic growth due to activities related to the construction of PNG’s $US19 billion liquefied natural gas project.
I wonder to this day what became of all my peers at Kamusie. I believe, for many of them, the PNG flag must seem a monumental let down. And the words of the national pledge seem meaningless to those in power.
Of course as a betel nut (buai) vendor, I fell into the category of social outcasts. I remember how at medical school, the lecturers would warn us not to end up being buai sellers.
It would be too easy to blame this or that. We all love to blame. But I don’t blame anyone or any institution.
I believe in collective responsibility for this issue. Everyone in PNG is responsible for the country being classed amongst the corrupt dirt bags.
There are three sets of scumbags in PNG. The very intelligent predatory elite who manipulate systems to siphon off the wealth of the nation is one group.
The second are the rank and file lawbreakers: violent criminals and filthy, stinky petty thieves being the most obvious.
The third group is the rest of us (me included) who tolerate the predatory elite and the criminals.
In Port Moresby, you often have to get on the wrong bus to travel to the right place.
To save a couple of kina you would otherwise pay to go direct, the cheaper option of travelling from A to B requires several changes of bus. This is because buses often do not complete their designated routes.
The drivers get away with this because of a lack of enforcement and the complacency of the travelling public.
And even if there is enforcement, it is usually because the traffic officers are looking for spare cash, which they collect from the drivers as bribes in order to waive fines.
A couple of months back I visited a friend in hospital. Despite the severity of his condition, the medical registrar was not available in the ward to attend to him. Out of desperation his family asked me – a former medical student - to intervene.
I wrote an illegal prescription for diuretics and went and ordered the drugs from the pharmacy. After explaining the dire situation to the pharmacist the drugs were dispensed.
My friend was recovering the next morning. The registrar saw him later only after a nurse was bribed to contact him.
My friend is now well but the whole process to cure him was utterly corrupt, including my own actions.
And that, my fellow countrymen and women, pretty much sums up the predicament of our country.
You have to get on the wrong bus to get to the right place.
You have to do wrong things to cure sick people.
In PNG, the national psyche has reached a consensus that the ends justify the means.
Even in church, donations from the proceeds of corruption are called blessings because apparently someone had been blessed and wanted to bless others.
In PNG, corrupt behavior is tolerated because the alternative would inevitably lead to conflict.
Rather than pestering someone to do their job, we bribe them. The alternative is to be in conflict with that person and nothing gets done.
Port Moresby is probably the only place on earth where bus and taxi drivers have gone on strike in order to avoid traffic regulations.
PNG is an expensive, inefficient and corrupt country and we’ve internally normalised and sanitised all that filth.
“What’s new?” some people ask.
“Em normal ya!” many say. [Pidgin for that's the way things are.]
Others simply convince themselves that, as patriotic Papua New Guineans, they love PNG no matter what and those who say negative things should be deported. I find such blind patriotism pathetic.
I wonder if my peers from Kamusie would stand with their right hands across their hearts if they came across a flag being raised today. I wonder if they feel let down like their peers around the country.
I don’t feel personally let down by anyone or any institution. I don’t want to blame others because that is too easy and doesn’t address anything.
I believe we are all collectively responsible for this mess and to point fingers is to absolve one's self of the responsibility to address the issue.
That indeed has been the problem: we blame others for corruption and expect those who we label as corrupt to someone solve the problem. That is the most counter-intuitive rationale.
How can you expect someone who benefits from corruption to fight it?
Politicians aren’t going to fight corruption. The system that produces politicians, that is, the electoral process, is corrupt. How can you expect corrupt people and a corrupt system to solve the problem of corruption?
By the same token, what hope is there for a population that tolerates corruption?
I do not believe in fixing a corrupt system. I prefer to have it replaced. That is the natural order of things. Everybody knows that there are some things in life you can’t fix – you replace them.
Addressing corruption isn’t just about replacing people, it’s also about replacing the system that fosters corruption.
It was therefore with much interest last week that I listened to Lawrence Stephens, the chairman of Transparency International, tell the story of Singapore’s rise.
What most people don’t talk about is that Singapore’s rise wasn’t just because of Lee Kwan Yew’s anti-corruption stance but also because of his benevolent dictatorship.
Singapore not only had a change of people at the top but a change of the system to enable it to have low levels of corruption and social and economic progress.
The question for Papua New Guineans is to ask ourselves whether we want to continue to score 25 out of 100 and be ranked in the toilet pit of nations or to replace not just the people but the systems that enable corruption.
There is an alternative, of course. And that is to be spectators watching our nation self-destruct.