Friday, November 06, 2009

Raging anti-Asian sentiment in Papua New Guinea


ANTI-Asian sentiment is raging within the marginalised sector of Papua New Guinean society. It is being fanned by mistaken and misinformed notions that these foreigners who, by now, have succeeded in growing roots here are the cause of their money-related misery.

For them, Chinese, Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Japanese, Indians, Sri Lankans, Taiwanese and South Koreans belong to the same bunch of marauders who invaded the country and are now gradually taking away from them, in one way or the other, a lot of economic-based opportunities like jobs, businesses, and even commercial land and real estate.

Ironically, a similar adverse view would not necessarily apply to the white people – Americans Europeans, and yes, Australians – who are also here in PNG precisely to eke out a living.

The locals’ immediate targets are the Chinese who could be found all over Papua New Guinea, particularly in urban centers like Port Moresby, Lae, Goroka, Mt Hagen, among other places, where they operate flourishing small businesses from trade stores (retail shops) to fast-food outlets.

Obviously, the Chinese are the most visible in the community. While you seldom find them working as employees of business or government organisations the way other Asians do, you would see them instead behind busy counters of variety stores and fast-food bars.

Over the years, these entrepreneurs have grown in numbers although their coming here has not been noticed much as they just materialised in trickles. They did not come here to look for jobs as other Asians do, but to set up small enterprises using their own funds, if not capital from compatriots who are already established traders in the community.

Their success story in PNG is the same worn-out story line that I’ve heard of, or learned, about the Chinese in the Philippines. They were already in my home country even before the Spanish colonization began in March 16, 1521, and had co-existed with the colonisers in harmony since then, doing what they did best – trading.

So it was no surprise that even after the Spaniards abandoned the Philippines in 1898 to give way to the coming of another coloniser – the Americans – the Chinese had already entrenched themselves both in cities and in far-flung areas in the country, selling their goods to the locals and in so doing, helped enliven the economy of a rather sleepy rural community.

On the other hand, the other group of Asians came to PNG as professionals whose line of expertise have landed them sensitive jobs -- either as managers or administrative officers -- in banks, financing companies, import-export businesses, manufacturing entities, IT and telecommunications, among many other commercial and business concerns.

Many more came as skilled workers and technical people. Occasionally, they would serve as buffer workforce that assured businesses, factories and technical enterprises of uninterrupted operations even during times when one or more of their local counterparts would suddenly disappear from the workplace for reasons only God would know about.

These sensitive workplace functions are jobs which up to now have remained “off-limits” to most Papua New Guineans for the simple reason that they don’t have the necessary education, training, expertise, aptitude and proper attitude for such kind of responsibilities.

It is true that PNG universities and higher learning institutions have churned out new batch of graduates year in year out, but who are sadly unprepared to work the job. Unwilling to wait for this untrained workforce to learn the rope of the trade, employers are forced to fill the vacancies immediately and the only way to do this is to recruit from overseas. And employers – both local and foreign – are well aware of this anomaly.

There would not be much issue against Asian professionals and skilled workers who, since the recent past, have been arriving in Port Moresby in droves due to various developments in many sectors of the economy -- from mining and fishery to banking and finance, from gas-and-oil concerns to telecommunications.

The flurry of job-making in many industries led by mining, oil and fishery has deluged the labor department with some 14,000 work permit applications to date, and the number is rising. By they way, these could have been jobs for Papua New Guineans if only …

For instance, it was revealed the other day that at least 7,000 jobs reserved for citizens in the LNG (liquefied natural gas) project could not be filled up with local workforce as there are no qualified applicants from their rank.

So, the only way for the LNG project to fill up such positions is to hire foreign skilled workers, according to Labor and Industrial relations secretary David Tibu, who just testified before the bipartisan parliamentary committee hearing to look into the riots that broke last May and targeted Asian-owned-and- operated businesses.

Educated Papua New Guineans who are themselves gainfully employed would understand why there’s a need for professional and skilled expatriates in PNG’s economy. And they do appreciate Asian professionals being in their midst as they have proven to be a vital cog in the wheel of the industry.

Which brings to mind this question: Who are these people harboring hatred against Asians and are now agitating the government for their immediate expulsion from the country so they could takeover whatever enterprises these Asians have been successful with?

When the first anti-Asian riots broke out in Port Moresby and in urban centers in the Highlands last May, causing massive destruction to Asian-operated businesses as a result of violent looting, it was seen that the main players were nobody else but the local people who were either jobless, opportunists or just plain scum of the society.

As they assembled at the town plaza to prepare for their assault on Asian-operated trade stores, the decent and well-meaning members of the community cowered in fears at home, already precluding that the next several minutes would turn out violent. And they were not mistaken.

Last May’s anti-Asian rioting in Port Moresby and in key urban centers was the result of the participants’ basic awareness of what has been going on around them for so long: That their number is growing and there are no jobs for them; government services like healthcare, education and most importantly shelter, are not reaching them despite the massive tax revenues and royalties that the government generates from mining, oil and logging operations.

They have swarmed in settlement villages on the outskirts of the city and urban centers despite the lack of facilities for health, sanitation, source of clean water and most of all, a decent source of livelihood because back home in their own far-flung villages, there’s no presence of government and life was equally hard and desolate. So, being in the settlement would at least bring them close to the sources of economic opportunities like jobs, electricity and water. But in reality, this is not so.

Everyday, for lack of things to do, they would converge in the town square, or in spots next to the entrance of Asian stores and watch others enter the shops. And looking at the Chinese proprietor running the store counter manned by locals, they realised that he’s making a lot of money by the minute as hinted by the sound of the cash machine that seemed to never stop dinging.

In their mind, that money should have been theirs.

Aware of this kind of grassroots’ mentality, certain unscrupulous individuals from equally unprincipled NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and BCOs (community-based organisations) have taken advantaged of the marginalised sector’s ignorance and credulousness.

The NGOs/CBOs fed them the idea that the business these Asians are running right before their eyes are theirs – they are an enterprise exclusively reserved for them, and that it’s about time that they take it back from these foreigners, and banish them from the community for good.

Believing that it is as simple as that, the unsuspecting settlement people willingly took the bait. Last May, after a brief public rally where they were prepped on how such presence of Asians in the community was depriving them of their source of livelihood, short of stealing jobs from them -- they struck.

In one coordinated move, they attacked the shop workers and ransacked and looted the whole place of everything that was there for the taking before leaving it in total wreck.

The other day, the May incident was probed by the bipartisan parliamentary committee to know the reasons behind the violent rioting and looting that cost substantial losses and damages to the victimized Asian businessmen. Of course, without looking far, they would immediately see what triggered the people to attack the Asian proprietors: Grumbling stomachs.

But one thing is certain and this is bad news for anti-Asians: PNG is a flourishing economy; it is the new mecca after the Middle East for jobseekers and wealth-makers from Asia. This means many more Asians will be here for good.

China, now one of the biggest investors in PNG, has just signed a number of deals with the government involving massive economic interests related to the multi-million dollar LNG project. Not to mention, the Chinese-bankrolled billion-dollar nickel project in Madang that would surely assure many jobs for Chinese skilled technicians -- jobs that could not be filled up by locals.

Construction work at the nickel mine site is in full swing, involving about 3,500 workers – both local labor and Chinese expatriate technical people.

Another billion-dollar project that is now emerging in Madang is the PMIZ, short for Pacific Marine Industrial Zone. It is a tuna processing zone that would involve at least seven canneries bankrolled by foreign capital. The processing plants are projected to employ at least 30,000 locals and expat technical people.

But then again, PMIZ is expected to be populated by Asian investors, the very same group that some vested-interest-anti-Asian NGOs/BCOs are trying to block from coming in for some dubious reasons.

But anyway, the future job market scenario doesn’t look good for the members of the marginalised sector. There’s no way for them to be able to fit into the emerging industries. So it is no surprise if they would hate Asians more, and with instigation and provocation from the NGOs/BCOs, they would continue to pester them with their racist chants and sloganeering and violent rioting and looting for the media’s consumption.

Maybe, they would benefit from economic windfall if the government succeeds in involving them in various spin-off ventures arising from LNG, mining and fishery projects.

Again, this is a very complicated process as many project owners came to discover later and were dismayed over it because it added up to the cost of their operations and it did not come cheap.

With the quality of education the country offers to its young citizens from where many graduates leave the university clueless as to their chances in the job market because their training was not geared towards the reality of landing a job or making them self-employed, what are their chances under the present scenario?

Like that of the marginalised sector, it’s bleak.

Labor Sec Tibu has stressed at the parliamentary hearing: Vocational and apprentice training are not being pursued as vigorously before, and the big challenge for the government now is to enforce an honest-to-goodness vocational and apprenticeship training to meet the number of jobs on offer at LNG, mining and fishery projects.

Meanwhile, businesses must do what they have to do to protect their investment – hire Asians by all means.

Truly, I find it mind-boggling that PNG can’t even supply these ventures with home-grown welders!

So, what to do?

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  1. Anonymous1:26 PM

    What a twisted article! No mention of the illegal immigrants, the bribery and corruption bought in by the asians. during my time there I knew of excellent PNG welders all taught on the job. But no sign of that by the new industries.
    I doubt the silence of skilled PNGns can last forever.

  2. IT appears that you have the eternal problem of those who can gain work skills and thus employment vs those who can't or choose not to put forth the effort to become employable. As long as there is that gap there will be problems.
    It should be viewed as a blessing that someone would bring in a vehicle that will create jobs ie mining, fisheries etc as that gives those who will put forth the effort to become employable an opportunity to work and support their families.
    We, all over the world are battling the Illegal immagrant situation as people struggle to find a means to subsist and take care of their own.
    I know people who have left their homes and family behind for years at a time just so they could work and send finances back so the family can eake out a living.
    Wouldn't you rather be near home and family than thousands of k/m away?
    I agree with anonymous above, the skilled workers should be making some noise and right behind them there should be some govt/institution or what ever training people to work. When you learn a skill or to perform a job you don't take away from yourself who you are.. Get all the skills you can, you are the better for it.
    I read another of your articles about the Aus. Conv. Core teaching people to work to make PNG a better place and you are looking for tourism to give a boost to the economy.
    It is funny as I just this minute got off the phone with my son and he leaves tomorrow for no body knows how long. He has to go where the work is and leave a wife and 3 sons behind. But he has learned the skills to do the job (Because he wanted to know and do better) and people come after him to fill the job.
    Everyone, GO For It!

  3. Anonymous8:00 PM

    I lived in PNG when the earlier Cantonese speaking Chinese were there. These were original Chinese traders who ancestors were brought in by the Germans before 1914. Most of them left around the time of independence. Since then, it seems, PNG has been swamped with other Asians, including many Mandarin speakers from the mainland of China. With them has come an increase in bribery and corruption; certainly an increase compared to what occurred in the 'old days'.
    While many of these new-comers are legal immigrants, it seems a good many are not. The government claims it is worried about this and that it is doing something to remove these illegal over-stayers and businessmen. The illegal Asians know full well that the government is unable or unwilling to remove them and so they feel confident that they can stay on and run illegal business and accept employment without the proper documentation.
    Consequently, it's no wonder that many Papua New Guineans are angry and feel the need to force the government on the issue by demonstrating. While I don't advocate violence and arson, you can be sure that this will accompany such action because of the organizers' inability to control the crowds.
    The Filipino who wrote this article [in rather poor English, I might add---I know many Papua New Guineans who can write better English than this!] has written with bias, has denigrated Papua New Guineans and tried to cement his position and those of other Asians in the country. This attitude and others similar to it, will only further inflame the anger and frustration of Papua New Guinea's people.