Sir Michael Somare & PNG by Ian Taukuro
Ian Taukuro was in Grade 6 at Korobosea Primary School, where my wife taught, whilst I was working at Air Niugini 1979–88. In 2017 he gave this to her as a commentary on the retirement of Sir Michael, and I’m sending it for publication, with Ian’s permission, as it is a universal essay on nationhood that should be read by all. I met Sir Michael only briefly when I was in PNG with the military in Lae at self-government, and Ian’s feelings seem poignant to me given the current state of affairs there.
I THINK WE SHOULD give credit to Sir Michael Somare, where credit is due. The deep gratitude, well, mine at least, goes to him for shepherding us all, as a people, on to the world stage as a nation called Papua New Guinea.
I am proud of that fact alone. That, in the eyes of the world, I have an identity. A singular identity as someone from that amazing, wild, adventure of a country whose people speak 800 or so different languages. I am someone from that island nation, surrounded by other islands, jutting out of the Pacific Ocean that was once viewed as a dark forbidding place—it had the grim nickname: The Last Unknown.
But one day in September of 1975 we earned a real name with an uncertain but bright future, and we were anything but unknown—and it was all largely due to the efforts of one man. Sir Michael was, in my opinion, the right man at the right time, in so far as attaining Independence for us without violence is concerned. Not many people remember that when we gained Independence, many foreigners who were still here, left our country thinking that we would descend into a huge civil war, because of our diversity.
But, at the time, there was a profound sense of unity among all our leaders who hailed from all regions of our country. Sir Michael was a uniting figure, whose charm, charisma and sheer force of will, held it all together as we plunged forth into the great unknown that day in September 1975. I still have some memory of the day because my father took myself and my elder brother to the old stadium to see the Australian flag being lowered and our brand-new beautiful bold bird of paradise being thrust up enthusiastically into the sky.
I remember the array of soldiers. The straight-backed royal prince from England who was there. The towering frame of Gough Whitlam and, most of all, our champion, Michael Somare, beaming and buoyant with pride as the changeover ritual was completed. Even the sound of his voice on the radio at the time had fire and steel in it.
At the time I had no idea what all the fuss was about. But I have since grown up and cherish the fact that I am a citizen of a unique country. I am a Papua New Guinean. I have rank and status among all other citizens of all nations of this world. Because of it, I am today a driven man with obligations and children to fend for, with steady eyes focused ahead on their future well-being in the ever-changing world.
Maybe those are the same essential things that propelled Sir Michael in his approach to the huge challenge of forging a nation of one, out of an incredibly diverse population—Identity—Future—Prosperity. Those who mock the pomp and ceremony of the farewells accorded to Sir Michael Somare, perhaps look at him through the lens of the years since Independence in 1975, and the economic and developmental issues that continue to frustrate our progress. Yes, there were instances of controversy while he was at the top. I suppose in the court of public opinion in this country the man will remain a respected but tainted individual, which is something that any person in a long-lasting position of political influence will always bear as history shows.
Yes, he could and should have done more to influence how the country grew to make it into a more inclusive society of equal wealth distribution and protection of purely PNG interests. That is agreed.
But you tend to see things clearly when you look back on what transpired, and I suppose we do tend to overlook that Sir Michael is only one man. He started something for all of us. Something good and nice that could and should still flourish if we all take the time to nurture and care for it responsibly.
After all, we live in a democracy where everyone is entitled to a fair share in economic productivity and, at the same time, we also have an equally fair responsibility to do what is right to ensure that those who run our public institutions and those we elect into office are honest and, if not, held accountable. That’s the shared ideal and the burden of ownership we desperately need to take on if we ever want Papua New Guinea to really move forward in leaps and bounds.
Sir Michael brought us to the table as one family—when a family sits down together at meal time, everyone seated has played a role in ensuring the meal is prepared. Everyone is supposed to contribute to what you eat at that table, right? You don’t just sit back and wait for a few to make the decisions for you. You get involved. You work. You contribute. The fact that our table is still not laden with the wonderful things to satisfy us all, is because we all have not played a part in helping to build our nation. Over the years we have developed a sense of complacency on a national level that has led us to become incredibly forgiving of serious instances of encroachment on the ideals that created our nation.
The proud young nation of Papua New Guinea is now a playground for foreign interests, weak government authority and self-satisfying leaders. We, the people, are the hapless pawns in it all, continuously misinformed, always led astray and perpetually trod on. As a people, we appear to be losing or have already lost our sense of self-respect.
Our sense of nation is fleeting, you catch a rare glimpse of it at international sporting events only. It lifts and swells the heart and then it’s gone. After that, it’s back to the ‘me and mine’, not ‘us and ours’ attitude. It certainly wasn’t like that when we gained Independence.
I think we owe it all to ourselves and the legacy of Independence, now fully bequeathed to us by the departing Sir Michael, to do the absolute right thing this election cycle, and vote with neither your stomach nor your pocket, but with your heart and your conscience. 2017 presents us with a great opportunity to arrest our continual slide into apathy. Let us, as one people, recover our sense of nation, of being one people, desiring to move forward, together, for everyone’s benefit, as was the grand hope of Sir Michael on 16 September 1975.
Thank you, Michael Thomas Somare, leader and fellow citizen, for your service to our nation.