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The Melanesian Way redux: cultural impasse


WITH RESPECT, and with the hope that I shall not hurt Reg Renagi's feelings too deeply, I am impelled to respond to his last commentary on my Melanesian Way article.

A great many Papua New Guineans, perhaps most, take a dim view of critical expressions voiced about PNG by foreigners; especially when it is known that the foreigner was present, working and interacting in PNG in pre-independence times.

This is understandable. Australians feel the same way about Pommies who speak or write negatively about Oz. Kiwis are very touchy about what Aussies say about the Land of the Long Lost Vowel. And Sri Lankans (I was born of a long-established colonial family there) are similarly touchy.

Enough said, except to say that I try to be objective and avoid pejorative rhetoric or argument in my references to life and times in modern-day PNG.

Nonetheless, I have to say that a great many PNG'ians - mature, experienced, wise in the ways of the world and of PNG itself - bear an invisible chip on the shoulder.

A chip which occasionally grows into a log, a log which bridges a chasm so deep and dark that the individual doesn’t care to look down, and crosses with eyes to the front.

In this chasm lie a number of the components of the Melanesian Way, which we characterise more commonly as kastom and its major component, wantok sistem. I sense Reg is walking along this log, eyes steadfastly to the front.

I have written twice, recently, about the way or the system: once in PNG Attitude and also in a soon-to-be-published booklet, Guide to PNG. In the booklet I say that the way and its main component, the sistem is a linkage based upon shared tribal and linguistic heritage which, in its clan or family-based sense provides a number of crucial safeguards and benefits:

"One's physical health, welfare, and one's safety in time of trouble, one’s protection from the dire influence of sorcerers, one's support in old age; assistance both in obtaining permission to marry and in provision of the necessary bride-price; assistance with school - and university - fees when needed ... all are guaranteed under the overarching laws and observances and beliefs constituting kastom of which wantok sistem is a major component."

Papua New Guineans, and among them many who contribute to PNG Attitude, often advert to the negative effects of the wantok sistem and occasionally, and rightly, as Reg has done, to its positive attributes, which are many, and which in a land where little is done for the people by their government, may be seen as the glue which holds society together.

However, if you look down whilst crossing the chasm, gaining your instant recognition will be a willingness to tell a lie to avoid an awkward or unpleasant outcome; and a willingness to take what is not yours, provided that it is not the property of a blood relative.

These are facts of life in PNG, facts confirmed almost every day in the pages of the two national daily newspapers.

Consider, for instance, the alleged fraud just exposed in the country's major bank. This is not something new. I once experienced adeptly-covered-up manipulations of large sums - drawdowns on an aid project - during the transfer of the sums from the foreign currency account to the bank's head office and then to the provincial branch where the project account was located.

Just one instance among a great number I experienced over many years, but it was one involving large sums, as opposed to petty cash or fuel card manipulation, or the surreptitious changing of new tyres and battery for old on a company utility.

These are everyday affairs in private enterprise in PNG, and certainly not confined to the much castigated public sector.

Reg suggests that the real reason for the poor state of affairs in PNG is that Australia left it too early to find its way, and few will disagree with this in principle.

Nevertheless it must be recalled that the sixties saw an avalanche of independence across the colonial world and, contrary to what Reg. says, there was international pressure for Australia to divest itself of its major colony.

Australians, themselves only freed of the colonial yoke of Great Britain in 1901, were in large numbers opposed in principle to their colonial occupation and rule of PNG seventy years later.

PNG is a lovely country, one which has blessed me with much happiness, contentment and friends in abundance. But it’s a country where lies and stealing come too easily to too many. To the everyday worker, whose depredations are minor; but just as easily to the powerful and the influential, whose depredations may in effect run into tens of millions.

As well, the culturally-imprinted inclination to avoid taking hard decisions by virtue of lengthy discussion leading to a vague consensus - often a resolution to launch "a revolutionary program" or a "ten-year target" or a "capacity-building exercise" - holds ordinary people in an apparently unbreakable paralysis, a slowly-worsening quality of life in a land with so much to offer.

This characteristic is not the result of the actions or deficiencies of the Australians as colonial administrators, nor of their government.

It is certainly not the outcome of 135 years of dedicated work throughout the country by the various Christian churches.

It is a cultural problem, and only Papua New Guineans can deal with it. But first they must openly and willingly recognise it.


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Reginald Renagi

Paul's comments are noted and hopefully this new initiative will go as far as it can to get full community support to achieve a positive outcome. It is time a fresh new political leadership is in office to take PNG to a whole new level either before or after the 2012 polls.

A good strong Garibaldi character is needed in PNG but the situation is not right as the military has been deliberately weakened by political indecisiveness and incompetence from the last three governments, including the current regime.

Reginald Renagi

Do not get me wrong here. I am not even saying that only a PNGean is qualified to comment on PNG and the way it is being governed at the present time. This blog is for anyone who has something positive to say whether he/she has been to PNG before or not. I do not mind whether they are good or bad comments as long as there are some good solutions for both PNG and Australia to work together towards improving our relations as well as improving the way PNG is being governed.

This is a free blog and I would like to see more Australians and PNGeans giving their opinions here than as Colin puts it, the same old people commenting here. This will only improve over time as more people find the PNG Attitude blog though either 'word-of-mouth marketing or through just plain surfing to us.

I do enjoy them all whether I agree with them or not. I also note some PNG Attitude bloggers do put up some very good comments on other PNG related blogs. They attract a fair amount of response which I feel is a good thing as it stimulates discussions of what PNG people now feel very strongly about the way their country is being run.

Reginald Renagi

John, Phil, Paul & Colin:

As my name came up several times here in the response to the last Melanesia Way article and this one (hope it's not an April Fool's joke by John Fowke), thought I better put in my two toea'a worth of comments before the Easter weekend passes us all by to fresh new blogs.

No John, my feelings are not hurt nor am I that miffed Phil. I know you all mean well but I think some of you got me wrong. Let me again qualify what I said before.

There is nothing wrong with what JF wrote in his first Melanesian Way article, but other than trying to kill the sacred cow which is what he coined as the system PNG has now. There are many variations to this but it all comes down to just two: the good and bad parts of the Melanesian Way, if one accepts JF's premise.

The Melanesian Way needs to be clearly defined and John only made mention of those traits that are assumed to be obstacles to PNG's future progress or long term development. Its all right but it does not clearly give a widely agreed definition of just what is the Melanesian Way? It is fraught with danger because we will just end up with many different definitions and other variations on a theme, so I will not even try it here.

The Melanesian Way is more than just the corruption bit or the poor governance of running PNG by the current political regime. The sacred cow is made up of so many different parts to a whole system of running an independent country, and is a very complex system of merging two different cultures, but a locally a modified West Minister government system. While some parts of it is just peculiar to PNG and may not be found in other Menanesian countries, there are some common threads in the way certain politicians think; or may act in the way some Melanesian leaders go about leading their country.

This may not be a good analogy but it's like saying: lets kill the Aussie way because of the 'larikanism' or the high level graft that goes on in the corporate sector, or the racist attitudes of some sections of the white Australian communities towards its own aborigines, Indian students or those of Asian extractions, and so on. But what is this Australian Way? Is there such a thing as the Australian Way. I do not think so and similarly for the Melanesian Way.

Australia did not have to be cowed by pressure from the UN in the early 1070s. Had Australia taken some time (15 to 20 years) and care, it would have ensured PNG was properly prepared for self-government and Independence say in the 80s or the 90s than perhaps the country would now have a very good government and efficient public administration system with a more educated and competent politicians, beauracrats and a lot happier people.

Had Australia not rushed PNG by giving away the country too early to the so-called "Bully Beef" club members than PNG today would have a well-developed infrastructure, transportation, health, education system with a strong law and security mechanisms in place. PNG would be in a better situation now.

As a result of the then Australian government's lack of foresight, PNG is presently a failing state. Billions of AusAid money is just good money down the drain only to prop up a corrupt system of political clowns and thieves robbing their own people with foreign transnational corporations and special interests. Australia can stop it if it wants to but is only wasting its taxpayers money as it tries to catch up for lost time.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think I was sort of with you on the medal thing, or at least I was indifferent enough to agree with you. The Pindiu tennis thing is outa my league, although I was briefly a member of the Balimo Tennis club. And I suppose you've yet to fend off the fogiefulminations crew.

The only way you can define PNG's present malaise is as a horrible can of worms. The solution is a non-violent popular uprising led by Reginald Renagi.

Other than that I reckon we should just go back to kicking ideas around and wait and see what happens.

PS, I think we knew who you were referring to but since you stuck the stick into the beehive and stirred it around it was the only response possible.

Colin Huggins

Dear Mr John Fowke. I decided that in 2010 I would refrain from comment, but every morning I look at the comments on Keith's informative blog. Same names always on comments that I often wonder about.

The only person who seems to make any sense to me is Reginald Renagi. He lives in PNG! Do you?

1. The Kokoda Track has been virtually trodden into the ground various military experts.

2. Salamaua. Some time ago, commentary of the Jay Gatsby era was getting to the point of "ad nauseam". Planes flying in for weekend "soirees" in the 1930's!

Please Mr John Fowke, keep the Pindiu (1969) Lawn Tennis Club out of your comments. It was our court and we had fun there. What else did one do in those days for entertainment and sport?

You were not a member and perhaps if you did apply for membership, we may have blackballed you!

Paul Oates

Without wishing to cast any nasturtiums, before you can provide an appropriate answer you have to define the question.

If the question is: How can PNG blend its traditional cultures with modern concepts of personal liability, accountability and responsibility, then there is no easy answer. If there was an easy answer, everyone would have already figured it out.

Humans and their behaviour patterns are no different the world over. Adults are really only children that have more experience. If we choose to learn from our experience then that's the beginning of wisdom.

PNG leaders have to establish where the boundaries are. This is an empirical operation that uses the old theory of brinkmanship, i.e., 'How far can I go before someone makes me stop?'

Clearly PNG was not ready for the Westminster style government that was imposed on it leading up to Independence.

Younger PNG leaders are now starting to challenge the status quo and the integrity of the older 'big men'. This is the first real break from a village and clan culture that has existed for thousands of years.

Where this new initiative leads will determine where PNG heads in the next few decades.

The first real litmus test of a potential change in political direction will be whether the move to reduce the Ombudsman's powers succeeds of fails.

John Fowke

Deary me, Paul and Phil, you are a touchy pair!

I think it's pretty clear that I meant foreigners in general. I certainly didn't intend to asperse all the dimdims who left PNG before independence!

Maybe I have established a reputation for casting aspersions because of the correspondence about the medal for kiaps and the tennis court at Pindiu, but I assure you it was not my intention to malign you two, or any individual, at all.

I do hope that Reg, when he takes aim at what I wrote, doesn't take it personally, although he is quite entitled to do so, despite my first sentences.

So, just in a sentence or two, how do you two define the often-mentioned and very real malaise which grips PNG today?

And what, in a sentence or two, not a sermon, do you respectively propose as practical and, in the circumstances, practicable, pathways to reform without violence or mass hypnotism? In the time remaining before 2012?


Phil Fitzpatrick

I think I would go along with Paul on this one, I left in 1974 and these days only poke my head up there a couple of times each year.
It also occurs to me that saying all Melanesians are culturally impelled to be habitual liars and thieves is a bit like saying all Muslims are terrorists. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party might be inclined to agree with that sort of generalisation but I don't think it washes with sensible people. I can also see why Reg is a bit miffed by the comments.
In my experience nothing is ever black and white and people are never bad or good, they are all somewhere in between. It's the same with the Melanesian Way and, for that matter, the Australian Way.

Paul Oates

Crumbs John, if we understand your thoughts correctly, the only people who are sufficiently entitled to express an opinion about PNG, and who the PNG people will accept opinions about their country from, are those expatriates who stayed on for many years after Independence.

Who could possibly form part of this very select fraternity of PNG Attitude readers who may be fully qualified to provide opinions about PNG?

Are you sure this isn't 'situating the appreciation'? This seems to be a rather general and broad dictum about a very narrow field of experience?

It seems to fly in the face of commonly accepted and healthy methodologies whereby people anywhere should try and obtain as much information, advice and suggestions as possible from a number of different sources before forming their own ideas.

When it comes to understanding cultural perspectives, practical experience will certainly help any writer provide a better approach to conveying information to his readers.

If however, the subject matter happens to be something the writer has indeed some experience with, it may not be always possible to have the author have your implied qualification.

Public law and order and government operations are something that a great many have experience with and ideas about. Such topics as these can therefore be expected to transcend cultural backgrounds when good governance and government services are concerned.

When it comes to understanding the Australian culture, many from other backgrounds do find it a trifle hard to interpret. We have tended to 'knock' those we like and to remain somewhat tight-lipped with those we don't.

Kiwis in particular understand this culture and newcomers often mistake Australians and Kiwis having a good time as a fair dinkum argument.

Aussies respect those who are prepared to stand up for themselves but have in the past tended to dislike those who try to push their ideas down other's necks.

Its a fair bet that PNG people are eminently capable of being able to sort out the 'wheat from the chaff'. By providing some alternate perceptions and reflections, PNG Attitude articles can surely only be beneficial to those in PNG who choose to read them?

Younger PNG leaders are currently doing some very worthwhile and constructive 'navel gazing' about where they as a country and culture, wish to go. I wish them and their country all the best.

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