Friday, May 14, 2010

Used Books and Second-Hand Clothes

Appeared in Steven's Window, a column in The National newspaper's Weekender. Published on Friday 14th May 2010, p.5.

The security guard was disinterested in me as I showed no enthusiasm that day. My wife pulled me into one of those large second-hand clothes barns in Port Moresby. This particular barn is located across the road from the PNG Institute of Education and next to Club 22. The tailoring company Luk Poy Wai was once the merchant there. Inside, as I took a peek, more out of curiosity than as a scavenger for second-hand clothes. I was there because my wife said we could find nice clothes since we had little money to spend. I truly disliked the idea out of my personal distaste for second-hand clothes. I’d rather buy new quality clothes that transform me to think for myself, than wear some else’s used clothes. The thing with me is that I can never rid myself with the awareness that there is more to life than wearing second hand clothes and thinking in those clothes.

My children had followed their mother into the second-hand clothes racks arranged in neat and tidy rows. It was a Saturday morning on the Easter weekend. The barn was one of the few shops open that morning. We had to find a new white shirt for my son to wear for his Baptism in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at Boroko the next day. Knowing how upset my son would be I followed my wife and the children to this second-hand shop. Whatever it was we had to get this white shirt.

It was not the second-hand clothes, the security guards, the customers, the cashiers, or the size of the barn that captured my attention. It was the sale of used books that attracted my attention. The racks holding the used books were next to the entrance. At first I thought it was one of those outfit selling books that have second rate intellectual content and are only good for pleasure readers; books that are unlikely to be recommended as text books in my literature courses at UPNG.

As it appeared, the books on sale were of both kinds, serious, and entertaining; some encyclopedia, children’s books, novels, and self-help books. I studied the encyclopedia, thinking how these could have been donated to the schools, instead of selling them for money. The longer I stood there I selected several books that I never thought I would find them in a place where second-hand clothes are sold. The books were sold for K1.00 to K2.50, depending on the size of the book. Books are not a priority in this second-hand clothes barn. A cashier and a guard, anxious and watchful, let me finish my business, without giving them any pleasure.

I spent close to K15.00 that day for 6 books, an amount that is insufficient to buy a new book of the same title in a bookshop. I was glad to spend my money on books that day. I even bought one book featuring Indigenous Maori women role models for my 14 year old daughter. The treasure I stumbled on to in this second hand clothes barn made my day. The books that I bought include: Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, Witi Ihimaera’s Bulibasha, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, Hingi McKinnon’s When the Kehua Calls, and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop. Of these writers I have met Angela Carter, whose other book I already have in my private collection. I met Carter when she gave her talk during her visit to the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in the early 1990s when I studied for my MA degree in English. Carter’s writings are intriguing exploration of folktales and modern day juxtapositions of feminist ideas to rewrite the gendered subconscious and transformation of the feminine self.

Then there is Witi Ihimaera, the senior Maori writer, a tall figure in Pacific literature, and a great friend I have so much respect and admiration for. I have followed Ihimaera’s writings since I was a second year student at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1985. His book Pounamu Pounamu, which means Greenstone, Greenstone was the first collection of short stories published by a Maori writer in 1972. Since then it has been reprinted several times. Ihimaera has since then published several award winning books such as The Matriarch, Tangi, The New Net Goes Fishing, Whanau, Whale Rider, and other books to make him one of the leading Pacific Island writer of our time.

The opportunity I had in meeting Ihimaera came about in a surprising way. I was in Honolulu several years ago at the University of Hawaii to participate in the 6th Fall Festival of Writers featuring the writers of the Pacific and the Caribbean. I was fortunate to be included as one of the Pacific Island writers, together with the two big names: Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt. There was also the Solomon Islands writer: Jully Sipolo Makini, one of few women writers of the Pacific. The Caribbean was represented by George Lamming via satellite, Michelle Cliff, and Nalo Hopkinson.

During the book signing ceremony at the University of Hawaii Bookshop I asked him to autograph his books Pounamu Pounamu, the Matriarch, and the Whale Rider. He asked for my name so that he could sign the books. On hearing my name he almost dropped his pen in disbelief. He said in embarrassment that he had read and followed my work all this time and never thought the day would come for us to meet. He told me also that his students at Auckland University were also studying some of my writings.

It was a great moment to remember as it was also the week I had the opportunity to see two films made from the writings of Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt: Whale Rider and Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, respectively. Both writers have always been my big brothers and role models.

The point of my story: Used books are as valuable as new books and second hand clothes.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Universities and Knowledge Production

First impression of the article is in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of PNG. 07 Friday 2010, p.5.

Here is what I think universities are and what universities ought to be doing. Universities are institutions where the production of knowledge and dissemination of that knowledge is pursued to achieve understanding and wisdom.

A nation is dependent on a university to supply the manpower it needs to propel forward. Each university is established through an Act of Parliament to carry out its duties and responsibilities. A university endeavors to fulfill the national expectations by being mindful of the objectives it has set for itself to deliver as a corporate entity through high academic achievement and excellence to promote the well-being and progress of the nation. Government universities are institutions operating on public funds to carry out their duties and responsibilities.

In recent times a three men Committee investigating the performance of universities in Papua New Guinea released a report of their findings. The report was damaging to all public universities highlighting key areas where public universities seem to fail. The report suggests that the quality of graduates has dropped to a point where our graduates are viewed as half-baked products of a poor system. Many of us with more than 10 years of teaching feel accused of under performance and under achievement in terms of the graduates we produced.

An independent review of Papua New Guinea’s six universities, as reported in the media made 13 recommendations for the Australian and PNG government to take into account. The reviewers were particularly critical of the public universities, framing them within a blanket generalization as failing to meet the demands of the industry more than the social well-being and progress of the nation. Prudence tells me there is more to this report.

Several questions beg answers from the conscience of the graduates of public universities: Does this mean that national progress happened without the input of universities through their graduates? Does this mean the bureaucracy machinery is still operated by poor quality graduates and half-baked certificate and diploma holders? Does this mean the civil society organizations and service providers have no graduates from our public universities working with them to improve the quality of life and understanding of their rights as free and proud people? Does this mean that the academics with more than 20 years of service in some of the public universities have failed in their duties to produce top quality graduates who now head departments, executive positions in the public and private sector, and who are now also national leaders? Does this mean that the degrees our graduates have are not recognized by universities around the world? How did some of us, most of the national academics teaching at the universities, get our Masters and PhD degrees in prestigious international universities in the world?

The views about universities failing to produce quality graduates is an old sentiment worth paying no consultation fees to individuals with no teaching experience at these public universities in the last 20 years. Many of us live the struggle and difficulties faced every day to deal with uneven ratio between teaching staff and students due to increased number of students every year, unavailability of teaching resources and technology, cramped office spaces with poor ventilation, small prison-like classrooms and offices, poor employment conditions, and unpopular management decisions that dampen the spirits of hardworking academics in some of these public universities.

The issue of output is determined by the condition of the machine itself, to use a metaphor, if I may. If oiled, greased, and checked by the operators, the machine will maintain quality production. The public universities have had little or no development to their physical infrastructure, improvement in teaching and research facilities, and are left to pity themselves against an imperative propelled in the direction of the new kids on the block. Yet, the public universities are the ones who produced the graduates who now teach in these new universities? It makes no sense to argue that the degrees awarded in public universities are associate degrees. What is an associate degree then?

Public universities are by design created to serve the wider or specialized national interests. They must exist and operate to serve the people of Papua New Guinea in two ways. First, stand as higher institutions in Papua New Guinea, for the people to have their children earn a university degree so that they too can participate in national development through their children’s contribution.

Second, public universities exist on the basis of history and the merit of each institution to produce teachers, medical doctor, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and specialists in different fields. In as much as possible they are not to reduplicate their courses and purposes for which they were first established. Duplication and replicas are against the spirit of government funded universities, established under their own original Acts of Parliament. The point is made when public universities find themselves under the spotlight to cut and save costs every year, restructure academic programs, and manage resources and facilities with the knowledge that the national government is not going to increase funding any more than what it already gives.

I have been part of the University of Papua New Guinea for many years. I am proud of UPNG’s long tradition of academic excellence and intellectual foundation set up by the founding professors and administrators of the University of Papua New Guinea in 1963. University of Papua New Guinea adorns its academic credibility as the national university in Papua New Guinea with high academic tradition measured by producing more under-graduate degrees holders who go onto earn Masters, PhDs and other qualifications in prestigious international universities in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Europe, Japan, China, Singapore, and elsewhere. The few who have gone far afield away from traditional training grounds in Australian and New Zealand universities know that the University of Papua New Guinea is the benchmark of academic standard.

Everywhere I go in our country I have not failed to see a UPNG graduate in charge or is part of a team working hard to build PNG.

Fiction and Reality Juxtapositions

The published version of this article appeared in Steven's Window, a column in the Weekender magzine of The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea. Friday 30th May 2010, p.5.

I recommended Moses Maladina’s Tabu, (a fictional account of an interracial affair in colonial Papua) to students studying my course on literature and politics in Papua New Guinea. I have two reasons for doing so. First reason has to do with how writers use fiction to rewrite history from their own perspectives. The second reason is that the colonizers went through great lengths to legislate their conduct and relationship to those that they colonized.

In the book, Maladina considers the colonial period under Lieutenant Governor Hubert Murray’s administration. This is juxtaposed against the postcolonial period under the Sir Julius Chan’s period as Prime Minister. Murray’s period was marked by unpopular administration policies and colonial legislations, especially the Eurocentric and ridiculous laws enacted to protect the Europeans more than to protect the ‘natives,’ the subject of such legislations. Sir Chan’s period was marked by the Bougainville Crisis and the Sandline Affair controversy.

Sir Hubert Murray passed the Ordinance on the protection of white women in the Territory in 1926. The legislation came to be known as the White Women’s Protection Ordinance. According to Amirah Inglis: “It was a piece of legislation discriminating in its provisions, harsh in its penalties, and startling out of character with Murray’s rule and its effect on Papuans, no history of colonial Papua, can be complete without an explanation of it. The White Women’s Protection Ordinance was the most significant expression of one aspect of the relations between black and white in the colony, the fear of sexual attack by black men on white women and girls: the “Black Peril”. The extent of this fear is perhaps hard to believe today, but any reading of the papers of the day will uncover it.”

Tabu, is a historical fiction centred on the legacy of a love affair in colonial Papua New Guinea. The novel opens up with the execution of Sitiveni (Stephen) Goramambu, the first indigenous man trialed and hanged in Port Moresby on the 29th of January 1934 under the racially prejudiced law. It was a law created, not to protect white women in the colonies, but to protect the property of the white men, and his prejudice against the black men in the colonies.

The period of Murray’s regime was marked by the European fear and anxieties about Papuan’s transgression of the colonial space, property, and comfort zone. Such transgression was considered dangerous and damaging to the ego, pride, and authority of the European male in colonial Papua. As is clear in Amirah Inglis’s book Not a White Woman Safe: Sexual Anxiety and Politics in Port Moresby 1920-1934, published in 1974 by the ANU press.

The link between Maladina and Murray’s action is that what Murray did was similar to what Maladina is doing now, by sponsoring a Bill to amend the Constitution in order to protect the interests and actions of the leaders, rather than the general interests of the people of Papua New Guinea.

It seems to me that Maladina is repeating what history has taught us about the creation of legislation that is biased towards the ruling authorities in the pretext of creating laws to protect the interest of the majority of people. Maladina had learnt from Murray’s experience that all he needs to do is get the National Parliament to amend the Constitution so that the powers of the Ombudsman to investigate leaders who breach the Leadership Code are erased. The real reason for making the amendment to the Constitution is not to make the work of the Ombudsman effective, but to disarm it from operating as a watch dog.

Soon after the second vote a cross section of the society spoke out about the danger to PNG society this amendment would make. After the third reading takes place to amend the Constitution it will open the floodgate of corruption, nepotism, and abuse of office. The new amendment in Section 27 subsection (5) of the Constitution will also affect the Section 16 of the Organic Law on Duties and Responsibilities of Leaderships. Inserting subsection (5), essentially, stops the Ombudsman Commission from intervening, investigating, or holding leaders responsible for questionable conduct, false pretence, squandering, and misuse of public funds. This is a ploy considered mischievous by the Ombudsman Commission “of the view that this proposal is not clear in terms of the mischief it seeks to address.” The new amendment to the Constitution removes the teeth of the public watchdog.

The Ombudsman Commission is against the Constitutional amendment as noted in its public lecture at UPNG on Friday 23 April 2010. It is now public knowledge that the Ombudsman Commission had rejected all of the proposed amendments that Maladina had submitted for the First Reading in Parliament. Maladina then withdrew the proposed amendment because it was not in concert with the spirit of the Constitution.

It is reassuring, however, to know that we are a conscientious people, able to speak against sectorial interests and manipulative leaders at work in denying the spirit of the Constitution that bind us together since 16 September 1975. It is also reassuring to see civil society organizations such as Community Coalition Partners Against Corruption, NGOS, and Transparency International (TI) mobilizing public support against Parliament making amendments to the Constitution in the next sitting of Parliament.

I am left to think fiction imitates reality. Murray made a mistake that tainted his political legacy. It seems to me the ghost of Sir Hubert Murray has reincarnated itself with the sole purpose of reaffirming the rearranged psychological conditions, postcolonial anxieties, fears, and contiguous tensions between the rule and the ruled. Is Moses Maladina about to do the same (as Murray) in pursuing the amendment to the Constitution by getting the Parliament to pass it?

What is a possible intervention against the proposed amendment? A constitutional intervention is possible if the Ombudsman Commission, as an authority entitled under Section 19 (3) of the Constitution, can make an application to the Supreme Court to give its opinion on any provision of a Constitutional Law.