Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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.

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