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Is PNG’s regression to tradition a response to elite failure?

Chris Overland
Chris Overland


ADELAIDE – It’s a reasonable point made by Phil Fitzpatrick that most societies operate on the basis of achieving some level of balance between the various competing forces within them.

However, to my mind at least, the larger issue is that Papua New Guinea, in common with much of the former colonial world, is a socially regressive society.

By this I mean that the way these various societies work (or, more often, don't work) is directly related to the extent to which traditional social norms have been resumed in the post-colonial period.

This is most strikingly obvious in Africa where, for example, the appalling atrocities in Rwanda reflected a very long standing antipathy between two rival tribal groups which had been suppressed but not extinguished by the colonial regime.

Once the order imposed by the colonial power was removed, then the suspicions and hostilities of the past rapidly reasserted themselves.

In a similar way, we see Russia, freed from the ideological constraints imposed by communism, now reverting to its traditional posture in relation to Western Europe, which is one of suspicion, paranoia and distrust. Vladimir Putin has brilliantly exploited this situation to claim and retain power.

To some extent, even the USA is regressing to the role it played pre-World War II, which is that of a powerful but fundamentally inward looking nation, more concerned about promoting its business and economic interests than assuming a wider global role.

As President Calvin Coolidge famously said: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."

I am sure that Donald Trump would heartedly endorse this sentiment as he practises his "art of the deal" over trade with the rest of the world.

So, I would contend, that PNG is in its current state mostly because of the impact of traditional cultural norms.

Australia simply wasn't there long enough to truly entrench the sorts of values and ideas that are necessary pre-requisite for a viable representative democracy.

Indeed, you could argue that these values and principles now are often more honoured in their omission than their observance in our current political culture in places like Australia, the UK, the USA and Europe.

In his book ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, philosopher AC Grayling, asserts that representative democracy is really just a way in which the legitimate needs of the often ignorant and inchoate masses are carefully balanced off against the interests of a dominant elite (typically made up of the wealthiest segment of the population).

Whenever this delicate balance is disrupted by, for example, the elite forgetting that they hold power only at the express will of the masses, then things can get really ugly.

So, says Grayling, the ruling elite have to balance off their needs and wants against those of the masses they purport to lead.

Right now, in PNG and elsewhere, it seems that the ruling elites have chosen to forget this important observation (assuming they ever knew it).

Little wonder then that post-colonial societies fall back upon the cultural values and traditions of the past, even if this includes things like tribal fighting.

At least those engaged in the fighting understand the rules that pertain to it, which is more than can be said for the dysfunctional "democracy" which purportedly is there to further their interests.


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Philip Kai Morre

PNG has been open to western culture for more than 100 years but the highlands is yet to celebrate its third generation of contact with westerners.

As such maladaption occurs and there are spectrum of disorders, mainly cargo cults, political manipulation, economic frustration and social disorder.

We are trying to adept to a money based society and we become slaves and victims of money based society.

Truly we are regressing backwards as Chris Overland has stated but in different forms, including decline of moral values and norms, regulations of customary laws, lost of some of our good customs, problem solving skills and knowledge, gender roles and responsibilities,land cultivation method, celebrations and more.

We are in a transitional phase and a confused world and are disoriented.

We need to have a culture of morality and social mobility and empowerment to work towards holistic human development.

We need to have a proper political system that respects the aspiration of common people in promoting sustainable development.

Our mode of production must be culturally and kin based and at the same time we must embrace contemporary changes and development to compete with the rest of world.

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