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Land of many colors

September 11, 2019


THIS week I am in a part of what may be considered an “enlarged” Southeast Asia. The annual regional conference of the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association is being held at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and I am here for the first time.

The British Commonwealth is an international organization composed of former British colonies and (some current) dependencies as member states. We come together as one big family of nations sharing a high degree of common heritage and even similar social and political systems, to try to address issues of common interest, such as education and development. PNG is a Commonwealth member state, as its official head of state is Queen Elizabeth 2nd, represented by a governor-general locally.

Since nearly half a century ago, the judges and magistrates in Commonwealth countries decided to form a professional association of their own, with Queen Elizabeth 2nd, who is also the head of the Commonwealth, as patron of the association. A decade ago, I was appointed in Malaysia as a justice of the peace, and that qualifies me to join the association. I have been a member of the association’s council since 2015. Every year we gather together in a Commonwealth country to exchange views on issues pertinent to development of the Commonwealth judiciaries. This year, the conference was opened by the governor-general of Papua New Guinea, representing Queen Elizabeth, who is both queen of the host country and also patron of the association.

PNG is an intriguing country for many of us who grew up in the latter part of the last century. I remember many friends of my parents would at some point set out for PNG to “seek new ventures.” For the country is indeed endowed with many natural resources, ranging from minerals and timber to seafood and petroleum. Many adventurous merchants would come from all around the world to prospect for their luck in Papua New Guinea. Some struck gold (literally), but many would of course have to continue with their adventures.

Above all, Papua New Guinea is a land of many colors. It has more than 800 tribes and at least as many languages, making it the country with the most diverse languages in the world. English is apparently the working language here, with the national anthem sung in English. The delegates to the conference were treated to rounds and rounds of cultural performances, with the vibrant colors of the various Papuan New Guinea tribes resplendent in all their glory. Even the famous “mud men” clad from neck to toe (the head was masked) in dried, grayish mud came out to greet us in an almost silent and eerie slow dance.

For at least some tribes in Papua New Guinea, the baring of breasts, at least in ceremonies and special occasions, is apparently a common practice, and should not be viewed disparagingly with culturally colored lenses. I was informed by friends who visited Papua that this was the case, but seeing it in a cultural performance is quite an eye-opening experience, largely because many of us have been sensitized in our admittedly conceited cultural environments, that such a breast-baring practice is to be frowned upon. But if we humble and rid ourselves of any prurient interest, this is nothing more or less than a cultural expression indigenous to the host country. So, I included the photos of some of these cultural performers, covered or bare, in my social media postings, and so far these have elicited no negative comments or actions. For me, if we are to respect the tenacity of all cultures, then we should accept cultural expressions in all forms, whether we are “sensitized” for or against it.

As I mentioned above, PNG has long been an active member of the British Commonwealth and has long participated proactively in the myriad activities of the Commonwealth, such as the hosting of this conference. It is also a member of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), having hosted the APEC summit last year. My APEC Business Travel Card also includes Papua New Guinea as one of the countries where I do not require a visa. For many years, PNG has been a candidate member state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), but the candidacy has made not much progress due, as I understand it, not to any strong objections from any member state, but simply because of neglect or oversight. It is time, I think, that both PNG and Asean member states redouble their efforts in welcoming the neighboring country into Asean, as we are apparently at the cusp of doing so with another candidate member state, Timor Leste.

Asean is in a sense a “coalition of the willing,” with flexible but consensus-driven stance on various international issues. Starting out with only five members half a century ago, Asean has had the foresight to welcome four continental Southeast Asian member states toward the end of the last century. Since then, it has been quite a successful venture, with the new member states integrating their previously more closed economies with the economies of the rest of Southeast Asia, culminating in the formation of an Asean Economic Community in recent years. Vietnam, for example, has risen up to become a large economy to reckon with. Welcoming Papua New Guinea into the Asean fold would, for example, open up new avenues and opportunities for cooperation with countries of the Southern Pacific, with which Papua New Guinea has longstanding, intimate relations.

PNG has gone a long way in forging a nation out of its various tribes, much as Asean has worked hard to forge a regional international organization with member states of various cultural backgrounds. An Asean with Papua New Guinea as a member state would add to the vibrance and outlook for Asean and its people, so that together we can realize a zone of peace and prosperity.

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