An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
PAPUA New Guineans today watch in awe as men fly through the heavens towards the stars. We envy nations of the world as they develop mighty economies and obtain great scientific, military, infrastructure, arts and sports achievements.
On a development spectrum, Japan is positioned at one end and PNG at the other. On the eve of our 39th celebration of independence, it seems that reaching Japan is impossible.
After nearly four decades of sovereignty, our skilled workforce is as good as that of any country and PNG has earned billions of kina from minerals, hydrocarbons, fishing, agriculture and forestry.
And the country still has an abundance in untapped natural resources. Also, we are well supported with aid from our friends offshore.
Despite these ample inputs, PNG’s development indicators are amongst the poorest in the world – poor even against third world countries that do not have the resources and development support that we enjoy.
The majority of our people live below the accepted United Nations poverty line. In the early 2000s this country was even on the brink of being declared a failed state. It seems with age PNG becomes messier.
Discussions by academics, church leaders, politicians and ordinary citizens as to why the country is doing badly point to the following factors: corrupt politicians; an equally corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy; the clash of culture with norms of modern development; chronic law and order problems; and an ever-increasing population growth.
As I work on this article, the television is discussing how prime minister Peter O’Neill is refusing to be interviewed by police over a K72 million kina dishonestly paid to a law firm. Only last week, there was a scandal about a K3 billion kina loan from an international bank.
Since 2000 such ills in government have become too frequent and ordinary Papua New Guineans are giving up hope of redemption. However they still attend the polls every five years to cast their votes.
By the 1960s, when the major colonial powers of Europe were giving sovereignty to their colonies, Australia was not eager to give early independence to Papua New Guinea. However international bodies such as the United Nations pressured Australia to do so.
At the time Australia correctly reasoned that PNG was not ready for self-rule. Their recent experience in World War II had also shown Australians that New Guinea should remain under Australian control as an effective buffer between Asia and the Australian continent.
By the 1960s, the Aussies were especially mindful of the powerful presence of the populous Indonesia, particularly due to Indonesia’s claim to Dutch New Guinea. Today this conviction hasn’t changed - The National newspaper (5 June 2014) headlined ‘Aussies wary of Indonesia’. The warm and cold nature of Australia’s relationship to Indonesia makes PNG a most important ally for Australia.
But back then, despite Australia’s reluctance, pressure continued to mount for early independence for PNG and from the 1960s Australia gradually improved its development of PNG in preparation for self-rule.
Many in Australia reasoned that Australia had left it too late and that PNG was not politically and economically ready to rule itself but, in 1972, the Australian government gave self-government to PNG in preparation for an independence that was not too far away.
Between 1972 and 1975 not only was there a rush for independence but many Aussies left our shores for their motherland. Many stories are told of tearful separations of Australian and New Guinean families who had lived and worked side by side for years.
On 15 September 1975, my mother and I freely shed tears of sadness - as did hundreds of other South Simbu people gathered that day at the Gumine Station - as we watched the Australian national flag lowered for the last time.
This same scene was witnessed in government outposts, towns and cities across PNG. The next day, in Port Moresby, our first prime minister Michael Somare declared the independent state of Papua New Guinea.
This announcement was relayed by an important official through a loud speaker from the central grandstand at Sir Hubert Murray Stadium as hundreds of warriors dressed in traditional regalia beat kundu drums and clapped, whistled and shouted.
The feelings of grief the day before had changed to excitement as we watched our new bird of paradise flag hoisted high. My mother held my hand softly and said: “My heart is painful, I am not happy”.
On our way back to Salt Nomane later in the afternoon, many people talked of uncertainty and emptiness.
This hasty departure from our shores left behind an innocent, unskilled people and a vastly underdeveloped new nation which had been born to fend for itself in the twentieth century.
The take-over by unqualified Papua New Guineans contributed greatly to our subsequent fate.
First, there was insufficient progress in the development of the country’s infrastructure and its economy. Its institutions of learning and health, and its huge agro-forestry and marine resource potential, were not sufficiently developed. An exception was the construction of the Highlands Highway in the 1950s and the development of Panguna mine in the late 1960s.
Apart from these two worthy national developments, there was no downstream processing or manufacturing of any sort but the land continued to supply raw materials to our colonial masters and their trading partners for their own development.
There was not much economic opportunity at the grassroots level. Growing of coffee, copra, rubber and cacao were encouraged but the big holdings and much of the processing were owned by Australians.
Rice was discouraged because Australia grows the crop. This was despite the fact that Papua New Guinea’s climate and soil could grow rice as a staple and major export cash crop. Much timber was taken. In the 1920s and 1930s, billions of dollars’ worth of gold had been taken. They still happens to this day, legally exploited under commercial and government agreements.
The Papua New Guinean people were barely developed and trained at a high level. By the 1960s, there were few university graduates amongst the three million people.
Papua New Guineans who worked as labourers on plantations had learned few sophisticated skills. Many expatriates doubted the capacity of the people. The reality that Papua New Guineans would one day fly jumbo jets, become lawyers, engineers, scientists and hold PhD’s in every discipline was unimagined.
Papua New Guineans running their own country was unthinkable. Many of the foreigners who came here had poor educational qualification themselves. But they became instant bosses when they set foot in Papua New Guinea. Their certification was their Caucasian casing.
Secondly, until the 1970s, racism was unmistakably evident among many expatriates. The outsiders who came here thought of themselves as superior and mostly kept to themselves. They made little or no attempt to understand the hundreds of cultures that existed then as they do now.
Until the early 1960s, there were sporting clubs, bars and other utilities only for the whites. Black people were not allowed to drink alcohol. There were few whites and they felt intimidated by the surrounding masses of black people.
There were exceptions. The Leahy brothers, Jim Taylor and others unashamedly mingled with the people and even married into the tribes. Today we see many legacies of these associations.
There were some expatriates whose job it was to understand the people’s culture. American anthropologist Paula Brown studied the Simbu culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The missionaries were the only other people who put in any real effort to know the people’s culture and their language. They also built tangible social infrastructure such as schools, health centres and roads in the many rural areas where they settled.
Thirdly, about a million highlanders, one-third of PNG’s total population at the time, did not understand independence. Although the colonists had been in PNG for more than 100 years, the central highlands had only been explored in the 1930s.
After being ‘discovered’ in 1933, the highlands area remained pretty much closed to outsiders. It stayed that way until World War II. There were tribes in the Southern Highlands that made first contact only in the 1950s.
When the idea of independence for PNG was introduced into the highlands in the late 1960s. there was genuine fear among the people that the few who understood what independence meant were coastal people and that they would dominate after the white men left.
The highlanders wanted independence delayed to give themselves a better chance. Highland leader Kondom Agaundo told a United Nations visiting mission in 1962: “I have heard you want to give us self- government. I ask you not to give it. When I feel strong I will ask for it, but I do not want you to force it on me….”
Many Australians like Michael Leahy were of the view that PNG was not yet ready for self-rule. Some predicted PNG’s imminent plunge into chaos.
Finally, there was another momentous development taking place which harried the prospects of self-rule. Young New Guineans who had some education formed the first indigenous political party, Pangu Pati - Papua and New Guinea Union Party! Many Australians called them dangerous radicals, these early politicians like Pita Lus, Albert Maori Kiki, John Guise, Kondom Agaundo, John Momis, Michael Somare and John Kaputin among others.
However, this development was taking place among a small minority of the three million people. The majority, who had never been inside a classroom, were in the dark. The highlanders’ main exposure was as cheap labour on plantations in the 1950s and 1960s.
Between 1972 and 1975, there were great expectations amongst the small early elite as they took up positions previously held by expatriates. They thought that now the white men had left, they would take power and acquire the wealth. This was in essence cargo cult thinking and the beginning of our demise.
The untrained Papua New Guinean mind did not know how to govern and work the administration efficiently or effectively. Most members of parliament at independence had not completed tertiary education and did not understand parliamentary procedure.
Thirty nine years have passed and the greed for money and cargo lingers. Our politicians today are well educated with much experience in government, public administration and business but they continue to engage in bad governance and corrupt dealings.
Since about the year 2000, our politicians and their unelected collaborators have been vigorously engaged in corruption.
In ending this tragic story, we ask where PNG is placed today as a truly independent state among the nations of the world. Was it ready when given independence?
Papua New Guinea today remains among the least developed nations. Corruption as a chief contributor to slack development is intrinsic everywhere every day.
The gap between an underdeveloped Papua New Guinea and an advanced Japan continues to widen. If we do not change, chaos leading to failure is imminent. PNG’s early nurturing flaws indeed contributed to its fate today.