Volume 19 Number 1
At Loggerheads With the Corrupt
01 February 2006
Having laid down his guns, Joseph Wong is working for a corruption-free logging industry in the Solomon Islands. John Bond tells his story.
JOSEPH WONG WAS practically born into the logging industry. A Chinese-Malaysian from the island of Sarawak, he grew up in a community heavily involved in the industry and, as soon as he reached adulthood, that became his occupation.
First he worked in Sarawak. But as the logging opportunities dwindled there, he looked to the Pacific, where Chinese-Malaysians dominate the industry. Soon Wong found employment with a Malaysian logging company in Papua New Guinea and, after a few years, formed his own company.
Tragically, the logging industry is a major driver of political corruption, environmental destruction and social instability in many Pacific countries. Logging companies often get their way by bribing officials and making agreements with uneducated villagers, then stripping their land of forests for a fraction of their worth. If difficulties arise, money is usually the first method of persuasion and, if this fails, there are stronger methods. 'I had five guns,' says Wong, 'and my driver was a former army sergeant. If we couldn't get our way by money, we used force.'
In 1999 Wong was working in the Milne Bay area of Papua New Guinea. A group from the area was planning to go to an Initiatives of Change conference in Sydney. One of them had met Wong and invited him to join them. He accepted the invitation.
'The care I received during that conference made me realise that this world is a lot better than I thought,' Wong recalls. 'I felt I had a real home, where I could share my pain and hurt. The way of life that was being discussed of love, honesty, unselfishness opened my heart and filled the emptiness. I felt able to talk about the way I was living. I felt purified, and started to listen to the voice deep within me.'
He returned to Papua New Guinea and got rid of his guns. He then calculated the amount of money out of which he had defrauded the tax authority. It came to one and a half million kina, at that time the equivalent of US$600,000. Two years went by before he found the courage to go to the tax officials and admit his fraud. The authority decided not to prosecute, and he repaid this sum in instalments over two years. He cancelled a licence he had obtained by bribery.
These steps opened the eyes of the Papua New Guinea authorities to the methods of the logging companies, and they set up an inquiry, which roused the resentment of other logging companies. He was no longer welcome at their meetings and parties.
This hurt him. But his new approach to life opened up other avenues. 'In the past, I despised people in prison. Now I realised that if I could change, so could they. They could become responsible citizens and build a better country. So once a week I would go to the local prison, have a meal with the prisoners, and we would talk.'
Back at the Forestry Department, Wong started encountering difficulties. He was told he must make an appointment for every visit. When he asked for an appointment he was questioned at length. Then his work permit, which had been regularly renewed for 12 years, was delayed month after month. The message was clear. Some people wanted him to leave.
He decided to make a fresh start elsewhere. He moved to the Solomon Islands to become Managing Director of Sylvania Plantation Products Ltd (SPPL), a company working in logging and palm oil production, owned by a Malaysian parent company. He was allocated 38 per cent of the shares in SPPL.
He adopted three principles-transparency, local participation and sustainable development.
Transparency was the first challenge. When he went through the company's records, he discovered many dubious transactions and missing files. He went to the government department, told them he believed there had been wrongdoing, asked their help to find the missing information, and offered to pay whatever the firm owed. These steps started to build trust between him, the department, the other shareholders, and the Solomon Islanders on whose land his company was working.
He then worked out how the landowners could gradually increase their stake in the company. 'As investors, we have a timeframe in which we expect to receive an adequate return. After that, I believe the company should be handed over to local people so that they can use the infrastructure, develop the business, and bring long-term benefit to the country. I do not believe that foreigners sitting in an air-conditioned office should decide on long-term projects far away,' he says.
SPPL was included in the listing of his parent company on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange, along with three other logging companies they owned in the Solomons. Wong believed that the four companies should be locally owned.
He called a special Annual General Meeting seeking shareholder approval to transfer them to the Solomons, but failed. 'I then offered to buy the majority of shares in the four companies. We agreed a price and the sale went through in June last year. Now I am transferring the four companies to the Solomon Islands, appointing local people as directors, and I will offer the shares for sale to Solomon Islanders.'
This is a courageous move, because he is well aware of the extent of corruption in the Solomons. 'The Solomon Islands New Forestry Bill, which regulated forestry, was never even approved by the Cabinet, such is the power of the logging industry,' he points out. 'And we constantly see imported logging machinery mysteriously exempted of duty. When I challenged this, the Solomon Forest Association put pressure on our buyers to refuse to deal with us.'
As a result of his stand, landowners are turning to him for advice in their negotiations with logging companies. 'I advise them to start by asking what the company will do to restore the land once logging has finished.' This has provoked strong opposition from the logging industry, and he has had to withdraw from the Solomon Forest Association. 'But it is pointless to go on making a few people rich and many poor,' he says.
Wong is now working to build a team of business people who will develop a climate of integrity in Solomon Islands commerce. And he is helping young Solomon Islanders who have launched a Clean Election Campaign. About 150 of them have come together, and divided themselves into 12 teams to visit every village in the country before the national elections in March. Their aim is to rouse a determination at grassroots level to elect people of integrity to their national parliament.