Looking at the economy in Daru, Papua New Guinea (PNG), a few questions come up. Why is it that Chinese residents who have run a business for less than 10 years have been able to control the economy, while the local people still trade in the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago?
Mekha Eho\’o, my host, explained that a unique trait of Melanesians was that they could live without money.
“The Western world is a capitalistic world that pursues materialistic happiness, while the Melanesian world is [based on] a ‘wantok’ system that believes happiness exists in human relationships,” explained Mekha.
Wantok in Tok Pisin, the official language of Papua New Guinea, derives from “one talk” in English, and means one language, literally meaning that people speak the same language.
PNG has the highest linguistic diversity in the world. The country, which occupies half of the island of New Guinea, is home to 840 languages. With so many languages, different languages might be spoken in two villages separated by just 5 kilometers.
Consequentially, linguistic similarity is very important. In a society where the concept of ethnicity remains strong, sharing the same language indicates shared tribal and regional origins.
The concept of wantok has also expanded beyond people speaking the same language and can be interpreted as close friends, neighbors, comrades in arms, compatriots, and all kinds of strong social ties.
But in the big cities, people from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds live together. The concept of wantok has also expanded beyond people speaking the same language and can be interpreted as close friends, neighbors, comrades in arms, compatriots, and all kinds of strong social ties.
“In the wantok system, you protect the people in your wantok without asking for anything in return or payment,” explained Mekha. “Fellow wantok [members] are expected to help and protect each other.”
Wantok-ism is a universal societal system among the Melanesian people of PNG. However, wantok as a concept is not a monopoly of PNG. The idea of wantok also exists in Indonesian culture. When I came to PNG, the Indonesian ambassador, a Batak man, welcomed me like I was a family member, because we were fellow Indonesians. Likewise, the Chinese people who own supermarkets in Daru were immediately hospitable towards me, even giving me instant noodles for free, simply because my ancestors came from the same province as they did.
For Mekha, wantok is an ideal way of life for Melanesians. “All problems can be solved when the warring parties sit down together as wantok,” he said.
The people of PNG, especially those living in the hinterlands, can indeed live without money, because they live in tribal communities on customary lands. They have land for farming, rivers or seas for fishing, and forests for hunting. When the members of a tribe go hunting, the kill they bring bag is not for their own consumption, but for distribution among the tribespeople who do not hunt.
This is the original wantok system, and can be thought of as a traditional social security net.
Mekha said that an Indonesian friend once asked him why the friend had not seen any development during his five years in PNG. Mekha replied: “We are not a materialistic nation. For us, what is more important is building human-to-human relationships.”
Mekha added that wantok was an investment for the people of PNG. “If you have sustenance, you share it with your wantok. Then one day when you need help, you just ask your wantok for help. Isn\’t that also the logic of saving, investing, and insurance in the West? The difference is, we don\’t calculate profit and loss like in the West,” he said.
Saving money is not an established habit in PNG society. Many people who get a salary spend it immediately and run out of money that same day. Most of the money is distributed to members of large families in their wantok who do not work.
Likewise, when people trade, there are always members of their wantok who come to their shop asking for this and that. The wantok system does not allow the traders to charge members of their wantok who come to get goods from their shop.
The worst impact of this system is nepotism. The boss usually recruits subordinates who come from his own wantok, regardless of whether they are competent or not. High corruption is also due to the elite paying a debt of gratitude to their wantok.
However, Mekha considers wantok to be a part of PNG identity that should be preserved. He regretted that the PNG government sent the country\’s best students to study in Australia, which glorified individualism and materialism.
On the other hand, Mekha had found that the system in Indonesia was balanced. Indonesians, in his eyes, were neither completely materialistic nor blindly devoted to wantok.
“Wantok is still important, they must still be [supported]. But they are not number one. My main priority now is my own children. They are my main investment for the future,” he said.
(This article was translated by Kurniawan Siswoko).