The Absence of “National Identity” Within PNG

In early December 2007 I remember having a beer (which led on to a whole lot more) at Lamana GC and literally bumping into a person who was an Economist working for the National Government. From his facial features I profiled him to be in his early 30s and from the Southern Highlands. After apologising about my clumsiness we started chatting and I asked him where he was from.

He paused, looked me in the eye, and replied “I’m from Papua New Guinea”. Seeing my bemused look, he went on to explain that he didn’t believe in provincialism or tribalism – as far as he was concerned Papua New Guineans should not term themselves as Engans, Tolai, or Papuans. We should call ourselves Papua New Guineans and nothing more.

As we debated the concept, his drinking buddy who was a lawyer and also from the Southern Highlands, butted into our conversation and started bemoaning the population explosion of “ol Hagen insait long Mosbi“. His rant climaxed as we all observed a prominent Hagen businessman make his way toward the bar which resulted in him stating to the both of us that “Mi man Souths! Nau bai mi lainim ol Hagen long pasin bilong pait“.

Two Southern Highlanders. Two young professionals. Two polar-opposite views regarding one issue.

National identity within PNG is an ironic and corrupt concept – if those are the proper terms to use. I say that because in an almost warped and perverted manner, it seems that our lack of national identity strengthens the nation. I know – it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Let me explain.

PNG is a tribalistic country. By that, I mean that we are a nation made up of many different tribes who in turn practice different cultures, and speak different languages. We are the most culturally diverse country on Earth – that’s a fact that nobody can deny. In amongst all these different cultures there is one underlying common distinction, one concept which in one way or another is intrinsic to every PNG culture – the extended family, the clan, and the tribe.

It is a social construct that has been around for centuries.

More recently (pre-independence), with the arrival of the white man, the drawing up of arbitrary geographical boundaries, and the growing free movement of peoples around the country, our grandfathers and fathers begun to identify themselves as being from a particular part of PNG – whether it be Simbu, Manus, or Milne Bay. That social construct has only been around for a couple decades.

And what of the social construct of Papua New Guinea? It was established 33 years ago as of this year.

The extended family, the clan, and the tribe is nowhere else stronger than where it originated from – long ol ples bilong ol manmeri. With 85% (an educated guess) of our population still living in rural PNG, the extended family is the fundamental building block of our diverse society. The rural PNGean, and thus the majority of PNGeans, still walk the same paths their ancestors did 200 years ago. To many of these people, the influence of the National Government is non-existent. The Government has not been able to fulfill its constitutional duty to offer pastoral care to many of our people since independence – not because of a lack of willingness to do so, but a lack of infrastructure.

Indeed, the only possible and plausible explanation as to why the nation of PNG has been able to survive as an entity to this day, 33 years after its inception, is not because of our National Government – It is because of our people.

In fact, when one actually thinks about it, the average Papua New Guinean owes his loyalty firstly to his extended family. Secondly, he owes it to his village. Thirdly, to his clan. Fourthly, to his tribe. Fifthly, to his province. And in the magnificent glory of last place – to the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

I mentioned earlier that our inability to be united or have a national identity is, in the most bastardise of ways, a strength. How?

The wantok system is an apt reflection of where the Papua New Guinean and his loyalty lies. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you heard or read a complaint about the wantok system? It is prevalent in our society and nowhere else does it evoke as much emotion, personal opinion, or relevance to the PNGean than in the political arena.

For example, many people are still untrusting of the number of Sepiks in hierarchal positions within the current PNG Government and many more attribute this to the fact that our current Prime Minister himself is a Sepik. It’s always been like that. When Paias Wingti became PM in 1985, many coastal people were alarmed by the number of Highlanders who were awarded leading positions within the Government. Similarly when Bill Skate briefly took the helm in 1997, many Highlanders were concerned about the propulsion of Papuans into the top echelons of government offices.

Our lack of national identity, or to put it into another perspective – our extremely diverse society, almost acts as an invisible ethnological watchdog on the prominence, affluence, and dominance of a particular tribe within PNG – politically or socially.

Michael French Smith, author of Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, suitibly described the lack of national identity within PNG in the following paragraph:

Above all, the idea that the people of Papua New Guinea were all members of a single nation and that this identity transcended narrower affiliations—with family, kinship group, village, and speakers of the same language—had not taken hold. There had been no prolonged, popular struggle for independence in which disparate groups throughout the country might have forged a sense of unity or acquired a stake in new national institutions. The nation, too, was an unfamiliar concept to many. Indeed, some Papua New Guinea peoples did not regard themselves as having ceded their autonomy and accepted subordination to the greater power of the state“.

Sir Michael Somare, the father of the nation, understands that there is an absence of national identity within PNG and there is a need to rectify that void. Recently he wrote a letter to the Ausralian Rugby League and National Rugby League concerning his Government’s wish and support of a PNG franchise professionally competing in the NRL. The following is an excerpt of that letter:

Rugby league contributes enormously to strengthening national unity and identity. Today’s Papua New Guinea faces many challenges. The people need a national focus that will mobilise and unite the people, promote national unity and respect for a country of 800 different cultural backgrounds. I believe that having a PNG team competing in the NRL competition would certainly achieve that outcome. My government, therefore, is determined to give this endeavour a priority and hereby express our commitment to pursue same“.

There is undoubtedly a need to develop a national identity of Papua New Guinea – a common thread that interwines itself within and amongst our many unique cultural and social fragments to form a single united garment. A place of common unbreakable ground – of acceptance, respect, solidarity and unity.

So, where are you from?

~ by Tavurvur on October 29, 2008.

5 Responses to “The Absence of “National Identity” Within PNG”

  1. A good point you’ve made there on the Wantok system being an ex officio watchdog. I’ve never thought of it that way…all this time my thinking was that if we could get everyone on the same page somehow, then we could progress faster like the example of Singapore.

    Here’s a link:

    A very well thought out argument. I’ve been wondering lately though if the government could push as hard for medical infrastructure as they do for an NRL team and possibly the TV station as well (I’ll admit I am benefiting from the TV station). Or is using sports and media important as well in creating that unified Identity? In other words which is more important the health of our people now or a National identity to be seen in the future?

    Although I ask the above question I’m seriously torn, because I am involved so much in media.

  2. Thanks for the link Emmanuel!

    I’m quite impressed by Solomon Kantha’s work – top stuff! Professor Fukuyama raised some very important points- particularly the importance of the individual and national identity. The people must first reach a common realisation before national identity can be accepted and built upon. Sometimes I think that PNG’s national identity lies in our diversity (as I blogged about) and that quite possibly we may be pursuing a phantom if we compare PNG with Western states. We’re simply different!

    The media does have a role to play in nation-building -no doubt about that. The media nowadays can hijack elections in some democratic countries. it is a powerful tool and possibly having the new TV station may prove to be a positive medium in transmitting national identity. We have to be careful though, because a government owned TV station also faces the danger of being a tool for propaganda.

    And you pose a valid question – should the government be pushing as hard for medical infrastructure as it has for its’ TV station? My personal opinion is that if there were no people there would be no TV Station.

  3. Tavurvur, in your perspective and discerning article you state:”The Government has not been able to fulfill its constitutional duty to offer pastoral care to many of our people since independence – not because of a lack of willingness to do so, but a lack of infrastructure.” I think you need to say more about why the infrastructure is not there. The little bit I’ve seen of rural PNG since independence demonstrates a dire decrease of government services to villagers in the last thirty years. I have particularly in mind a town like Angoram and the surrounding villages. I tend to think that if the central government delivers, this will foster a national identity. David

  4. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry it took me so long to approve and reply it but I’ve been living the life in a little village a bit smaller than Angoram (as you knew it-its changed considerably now), and now that I’m back in “civilisation” – a computer almost feels alien.

    I think you are right concerning government, tangible rural development, and national identity. There is a link there – namely that if the people can see tangible developments and services that enhance and enrich their daily lives, national identity will be fostered.

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