LIFE in 25th MOST CORRUPT nation on EARTH

Transparency International has ranked Papua New Guinea (PNG) 139th out of 168 countries with a score of 25/100 in its latest Corruption Perception Index for 2016.

Above: Anti-corruption activists protesting against a corrupt government in 2015

PNG was ranked alongside Bangladesh, Guinea, Kenya, Laos, PNG and Uganda (all scoring 25 out 100 and ranked 139).

This year’s ranking makes PNG the 25th most corrupt nation on earth.

When I was in primary school in the rural rainforests of southwestern Papua New Guinea, I used to stand at attention with my right hand across my heart every morning when the flag was being raised at school. Even if I was walking late to school, I would stop at attention if I spotted the flag being raised at the school 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 continue standing at attention to recite the national pledge.

The flag and the pledge meant something to us. They were a source of national pride and the hope that one day we’d be contributing to nation building. For us, that meant the opportunity to further our studies and live our dreams.

Decades later, I found myself being 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 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 the US$ 19 Billion PNG LNG Project.

I always wonder, even to this day, what has become of all my peers at Kamusie. I believe for many of them, the PNG Flag must seem to be a monumental let down. The words of the national pledge it seems are just meaningless words to those in power.

Of course as a betelnut vendor (buai seller), 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 someone else. 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.

Above: Child suffering due to failure of the government to respond to the effects of the 2015 El Nino drought. Pic by Sally Lloyde

There are three sets of culprits in PNG. The very intelligent predatory elite who manipulate systems to siphon off wealth of the nation and the filthy, stinky thieves and shady petty and violent criminals are the obvious ones. The third set is the rest of us (me included) who tolerate the predatory elite and the petty and violent criminals.

One of the collective sins of Port Moresby residents is getting on the wrong bus to the right place. In Port Moresby one can get on a bus that takes you to your destination via a different route. It’s a cheaper option. For K 2.00 you travel direct instead of having to change several buses. And the reason we have to change several buses is because the buses do not complete their designated routes. A combination of the lack of traffic enforcement and the complacency of the travelling public makes travelling in the city very expensive.

Even if there is traffic enforcement, it is usually because the traffic officers are looking for spare cash, which they collect as bribes in order to waiver fines.

Over a year ago I visited a hospital to see a friend. Despite the severity of his condition, the medical registrar was not available at the ward to attend to him. Out of desperation his family asked me 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 well the next morning. The registrar saw him afterwards but that happened only after a nurse was bribed in order to contact the registrar.

My friend is 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 the right place.

You have to do wrong things to cure sick people.

In PNG, the national psyche as reached a consensus that the ends justify the means.

Thus even in Churches, a donation from 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 his or her job, we bribe the person. 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 sanitized all that filth.

“What’s new?” some people ask.

Em normal ya!” many say. [Pidgin expression 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 to be rather 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 personally don’t feel let down by anyone or any institution. Again 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 corruption?

Politicians aren’t going to fight corruption. The system that produces politicians i.e. 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 having 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, its also about replacing a system that fosters corruption.

It is therefore with much interest recently that I observe views shared by fellow Papua New Guineans regarding Singapore’s rise.

What most people don’t talk about though is that Singapore’s rise wasn’t just because of Lee Kwan Yu’s anti-corruption stance but also 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 therefore 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 and that is to be spectators watching our nation self-destruct!