IT is most unfortunate and quite insensitive of Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Abal to make a comment which appears to promote regionalism.
While presiding over the change of guard in the secretary’s post from Gabriel Pepson to Michael Maue on Monday, Mr Abal made comments to the effect of “one Highlander going out and another coming in”.
Mr Pepson, who vacates the post, is a Western Highlander. His successor is from Simbu. The fact that he himself, the third Highlander from Enga, does not help matters any.
At least one senior Foreign Affairs official attending the function took the minister’s comments to imply that since the minister is a Highlander, the change of guard had been orchestrated to ensure the smooth replacement of one Highlander with another. Knowing Mr Abal, who has had a chequered career in the civil service including as a diplomat, such an implication would be farthest from his mind and indeed his character.
An officer of the Foreign Affairs Department was disappointed and spoke out. We are certain many more harbour the hurt silently because regionalism is a dirty word in this department.
The minister’s comments certainly do not go down well in PNG where the divisive regional animal has run riot at all levels of society – from jobs in the public service and business down to selections for places on sporting teams or even spaces in schools.
More especially, Mr Abal’s words, however inadvertent, make the new secretary’s work all the more difficult. Here is why. In a former life, Mr Abal worked his way to the top of the civil service serving under superiors from different parts of the country. He should know what effect flippant comments such as those he uttered on Monday would have on serving officers.
The department is made up of different people from different regions of the country. Staffed fully by citizens, the department was once the epitome of efficiency, professionalism, courtesy and cultured behaviour.
The department’s diplomats to the rest of the world were as good as the best of them out there. And then somewhere along the way the department lost the plot and floundered.
Many a good officer from the department will today point to “regionalism” as the animal that got in the clockwork and set the department back. Promotions and demotions were done, not on merit, but on who pleased the boss or especially on who was from the same region as the immediate boss.
And so, in a climate such as that, the minister’s throwaway comment would invite resentment. People would think, quite unfairly, Mr Maue got the job because he was a Highlander.
This is quite inaccurate and an injustice to Mr Maue, who began his career in this department and rose to be first assistant secretary of the then Economic Cooperation Division before he was named Ambassador to France. Returning from there, he was made secretary of Commerce and Industry before returning to the Department of Foreign Affairs and being named Ambassador to Japan.
He is well qualified for the job. The argument goes that there are several other officers, attached or unattached, who can fill the shoes. Since it has fallen to Mr Maue, it would be best if no suggestion were made there might have been influences other than pure merit, which is what the officer complaining of the minister’s comments alluded to.
And so the minister can understand the extra-sensitivity with which this particular matter is treated in his department.
To his credit, realising he was speaking about regionalism, Mr Abal quickly followed up with a call for unity to be promoted as enshrined in the Constitution, claiming that the “regionalism animal” must be killed before it split the nation.
Mr Abal’s father, Sir Tei Abal, is remembered for standing up for a united Papua New Guinea.
Tony Ila, another founding father, says Sir Tei was famous for the one question he always asked of some person sitting next to him each time there was a vote in the House of Assembly: “Pikinini, em bilong ol o bilong mipala?” (Son, is this for them or for us?) Them referred to Australians and us meant PNG. Ascertaining which way would most favour PNG, he always voted for mipala.
The baton has passed on to the son and it is incumbent upon him to ensure in word and deed that mipala remains that all inclusive, united and single entity for which the old man strived – not merely in name but in its character and very soul. That, sadly, is missing, even after three decades.