An Elephant In The Room

By Paul Oates

An “Elephant in the room” is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss.

It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to avoid dealing with the looming big issue.

Extending the use of idiomatic English, the picture of Prime Minister O’Neill shaking hands with Michael Somare at this week’s court hearing must be the epitome of the expression; ‘kiss and make up’. A customary talk fest and the sharing of food is a traditional Melanesian way of settling differences without offending the other side’s feelings.

In the recent political contest however, PNG was on the brink of what some saw as revolution or civil war. Surely it behoves all PNG people to ask where their nation is going and why? Placating the opposing political foes might feel good but doesn’t fix the problem.

At the risk of being falsely accused of insensitivity, it is suggested that the essence of the problem is the equivalent of there being an elephant in the room. Nobody just wants to acknowledge the elephant’s presence or discuss its name.

But what could the elephant’s name be?

‘Lack of direction’ some might say, yet there has been any amount of logical planning by successive PNG governments.

‘Corruption’ many complain is the problem yet this is nothing new and isn’t only restricted to PNG.

“I think maybe the spear needs to be fully thrown at the greedy politicians first before any else. You want something here, just pay enough graft and it is yours,” said Joe Deledio on the PNG Attitude blog on the 10th of February 2012.

‘Lack of sufficient funding’ is another favourite topic. e.g. ‘Nogat petrol’ (There is no petrol for police to drive to where the crime is being committed).

“The worst disaster, though, that continues since 16 September 1975 to this very day, is that of our lack of good governance.” Garry Juffa is quoted as saying on PNG Exposed.

But does the real culprit continue to stare us in the face and yet we continue to remain oblivious. Could we really be so blind? Are these statements merely excuses that are masking the inevitable conclusion, like a blindfold temporarily inhibits a person’s sight but still leaves them aware of what they already know?

Previous observations have raised the cultural differences between the so called Western world and PNG. If one could identify the essential difference between the two different points of view, it would probably come down to ‘Kastom’ the Tokpisin term for PNG culture and traditional values.

So can PNG advance as a nation using what Michael Somare originally referred to as ‘The Melanesian Way’?

Is the Melanesian Way really any different to other cultures?

‘Further fields are always greener’, is a saying that takes its logic from grazing animals that always seem to move on and apparently are never to be satisfied with the grass they have.

In many metropolitan countries today, office workers long for the time they can retire and spend their last years relaxing on the beach, fishing, playing sport, gardening or travelling in the rural countryside. Anywhere really, just away from all the concrete and glass buildings and the stress of modern life. In fact, the so called ‘essentials’ of modern life could be in the eye of the beholder since previous generations have had to do without tv, mobile phones and the internet and amazingly, actually survived.

To all those who wish they had all these desirable and seemingly essential trappings of modern life, the knowledge that you have to work hard and put yourself under increasing amount of life shortening stress to buy them is axiomatic.

There is therefore a conundrum that seems to be explained in a formula of inverse proportion: The harder you work, the more you earn, the more you spend just to feel good and yet the worse you feel about your quality of life.

Yet what is it that most people yearn for? A quiet life maybe, free of cares and woes?

Sorry, utopia just doesn’t actually exist. However if utopia did exist, city workers might well describe their dreams as longing to swim in a turquoise blue sea with white coral sands and a gentle tropical breeze slowly waving the coconut palms. Others might long for a camp fire at night and spinning some good yarns with their friends. Of course, there would be no bosses to tell you what to do.

For some reason, that all sounds vaguely familiar?

So back to reality………

If you apply PNG ‘kastom’ in a modern city or town rather than a village setting, how does it work in practice? Can it cause a quandary with those who practise it? Here are some examples:

If you work hard and earn a reasonable wage, what happens if you bring that wage back to your family only to find your ‘the family’ has suddenly expanded to share your good fortune? ‘Kastom’ dictates you should share what you have yet what does that do to your future incentive to work? Why work hard when you obtain very little benefit and only seem to support those who aren’t working?

If you are a manager or supervisor, and you find an employee that you are responsible for isn’t turning up for work, do you report them or in fact sack them? If the employee comes from your own area, would you hesitate? ‘Kastom’ might say you should protect your ‘wantok’ irrespective of what he or she has done yet is this a sufficient reason to undermine a business or work that others depend on for their existence?

The PNG Police Commissioner reported that at least half the nation’s budget is fraudulently stolen each year? Apparently, nobody has done anything to stop it happening or to hold those accountable, responsible. If you know of someone who has done something illegal, do you report them to the authorities? ‘Kastom’ implies you must defend your friends against others who come from another area, irrespective of who may have broken the law.

There can only be one reason to why this situation has been allowed to continue, year after year. Those who know they should do something are actually doing nothing.

Olgeta brata na susa; ‘Is this the ‘Melanesian Way’?

US President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read: ‘The buck stops here’. That referred to the fact that he was ultimately responsible for everything that happened in his country. What it didn’t mean however is that everyone else could sit back and let their nation collapse.

So where does the buck stop in PNG? At the top, or all the way down the food chain?

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