Time to re-align the Australia-PNG relationship
Dance to the beautiful sea

Lost in the non-linearity of PNG time


I’VE BEEN giving the Capitalists a hard time recently and perhaps rightfully so. And yes, around the world Capitalism seems to be having a hard time that’s unless you are a banker receiving government bailouts. These are indeed tough times.

The Western concept of time is that it is linear. The West borrowed this concept from its Judeo-Christian roots.

But most societies elsewhere around the world have always had a circular view of time. Thus the Mayan prophecy that the cycle of time ends in 2102 has been fuelling speculation amongst those with a linear view of time that the world will end.

If you have a circular view of time – every ending is a new beginning. Then one cannot waste time or have limited time because time is always available. Every ending also creates new time. But of course these aren’t the views of the modern Western-centric world.

Because of its concept of time as being linear, the Western world does not have patience for Papua New Guinea Time. PNG time is as Papua New Guinean as tribal fights and betel nut. PNG Time can described as regularly regular ‘lateness’ and ‘delays’ or ‘cancellations.’

A friend of mine recently described typical examples of the application of PNG Time. Scot described a typical village meeting where people (mostly men) are given the opportunity to express their opinion. The meeting would start later than initially intended too.

Men would debate and discuss the same point, repeating the same point, and describe the same matter until everyone was satisfied that the single point had been analysed thoroughly before they move to the next item on the agenda.

Some impatient people call this “beating around the bush” but it’s the Melanesian Way, based on the idea that time is not linear.

Of course, foreigners don’t have patience for PNG Time and understandably so. It is one of the most frustrating experiences for many. Time is money, as the Westerners say.


The clash of cultures that arises from these parallel concepts of linear and circular time manifests in the resource sectors. In their rush to exploit PNG’s natural resources, Capitalists take short cuts to getting consent from indigenous tribes.

In their slowness to respond to the forces of change, indigenous people take their time in adapting to change. The end result is the endless litany of so called ‘landowner issues.’

Proper social mapping and genealogy studies as well as consultations and communal agreements would normally take years or decades to settle. Businesses with a linear time that has schedules and deadlines do not have the patience for PNG Time.

They therefore look for people whom they can work with against those who are in a time warp. Many self described genuine landowners thus feel left out and moan about it in the media.

An example of this situation is the dispute over the ownership of Moran oil field in the Southern Highlands. The State and Oil Search continue to exploit the resource but have parked payments to locals in trust accounts pending settlement of land ownership rights.

This situation has persisted for years now, and it seems no one is in a hurry to address the fundamental issues.

The violence between Boera and Porebada villagers over ownership of land at the LNG site also highlights the dark side of sitting on issues.

Delays in legislative and policy decision making also creates uncertainty amongst Capitalists. This uncertainty prevents businesses from making investment decisions.

The fact is that the private sector creates jobs and job creation depends on investment decisions. Uncertainty therefore stifles expansion of the private sector and reduces employment opportunities.

One such piece of legislation is the Public Private Partnership Bill. This Asian Development Bank-sponsored bill has been gathering dust since last year although the consultation process began earlier.

The PPP Bill should see businesses investing over K50 million on infrastructure, utilities and services in partnership with the State. The legislation has already been drafted by Gadens Lawyers and is in the hands of the PPP Task Force headed by Ms Juliana Kubak.

On this critical issue of time, I’m siding with the Capitalists and the Western world. Our people need to shift how they frame their world in time and space. They must abandon the cyclical view of time.

Their failure to do so has been responsible for some of the failures experienced by the nation. In addition, their failure to shift to linear time has made them vulnerable to exploitation.

We can’t sit around discussing and debating fundamental issues for eons. For as long as these issues persist they are a source of division in our communalities.

And it is along this fault lines that foreigners enter into our society, divide us and walk away with our resources while we’re squabbling amongst ourselves over rice grains.


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David Kitchnoge

Thanks Martyn - Time is a secondary commodity to us. In fact, it does not feature at all.

The prized commodities for us are relationship, trust and consensus.

Hence, we take as long as it takes to do something provided these three things are achieved and maintained in the final wash up.


Martyn - You continue to rummage through the dusty closets where we have stored our deepest thoughts. Keep going.

My thinking is that time is relative. Call the measure convenient.

If a villager misses the dry time, he can't clear bush in time for gardens before the rain. If the rains come early or late then garden plans change accordingly. Timing is important even for subsistence farming.

Circular or not, that moment has been 'lost'.

So what really is PNG Time?

Today, are we rushing in too soon in some things or too late in others.

Being early is just as bad as being late.

Who have we handed the decision-making role to, and have they sought our consensus?

Will we be the master of our Time?

Peter Kranz

Paul - This is interesting. Some beliefs and mental constructs seem to be relative (cold, pain, love, friend,) some are perhaps universal (up, down, bad, good, lie).

I admit to being a bit of an argumentative bugger. But some things are worth exploring in the wide, wonderful, and free world of mental experiments.

And the more cultures you have at hand, the more interesting it gets.

Peter Kranz

Martyn and Paul have struck something very deep here (forgive me for waxing philosophical).

Is human intellect and logic universal or culturally-determined?

This is worthy of much further investigation. Many great minds have pondered this (Sapir, Whorf, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, Lévi-Strauss , Malinowski etc.)

I think PNG may have a great contribution to make to this debate.

Paul Oates

Peter - I believe it could be statistically proven that human ideas and aspirations do indeed mirror one another throughout the ages. Parallels are common in every society.

The only real difference between any group of humans is a traditional culture and a level of achieved or acquired technology.

Peter Kranz

Paul - You say "wherever we come from and therefore everything we do is based on common, human ideas" arguing a commonality of human thought and logic.

Is this true? Do all of humanity share the same logic, thoughts and mental constructs?

Is 1+1=2 true on a planet where two things never hang around to be counted?

Say there's always just 1 here and another 1 over yonder, but you can't ever bring them together (like opposite poles on a magnet)?

Paul Oates

Martyn - Why not extend your very pertinent explanation of the human concepts of circular and linear time? Why create a schism if one may not exist?

We are all members of the human race wherever we come from and therefore everything we do is based on common, human ideas.

The notion that one should debate something until an agreed solution is reached is traditionally a human trait. Look at what most Parliaments have been set up to do and are often labouriously successful at it.

In times of war and emergency however, it is sometimes not possible or desirable to have lengthy debates as decisions must be reached and acted upon quickly. Melanesian culture recognised this when in times of conflict the clan appointed ‘fight leaders’.

Business decisions may sometimes require speedy decisions based on the exigencies at the time. The nature of many business decisions come down to opportunity and being a step ahead of the possible competition.

Conducting business in a foreign country might also have international implications and significant national implications.

Decisions of this nature shouldn’t be rushed and the nexus between ethical business decisions and those of national significance should not be overlooked.

The essence of the problem is twofold: (1) How to resolve what is a reasonable timescale in which important decisions can be effectively considered and made to the satisfaction of all major players, and (2) Who makes this decision?

The nub of the dilemma is that no one has yet come up with an effective answer that satisfies everyone. In a modern democracy, the will of the majority is the accepted answer.

Peter Kranz

Martyn - This is very interesting. I have sometimes thought that time is a western intellectual construct which may not be universal.

But there is a difference between absolute time (as measured by the movement of stars and planets, the half life of radioactive elements etc) and our perception of time which varies with age, culture and circumstances.

No one has been able to come up with a clear definition. It's only by convention that we divide a day into 24 hours, one hour into 60 minutes etc. But what is it behind the measurements?

If a butterfly only lives for five days, does each minute seem like an eternity of years to it?

Perhaps Ray Cummings was closest when he said "Time... is what keeps everything from happening at once".

If you really want to twist your mind into knots, try reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking or About Time by Paul Davies.

While you make a valid point about the clash between PNG and western perceptions of time, I think there is something to be said for the 'circularity' of traditional PNG debates and meetings.

It allows for changes, accommodations to different points of view and ultimately consensus about an issues which is often lost in the western debating tradition of winners and losers.

There is a Philosophy Department at UPNG - maybe they could investigate the cultural aspects of time as perceived by different peoples? Sounds like a good research topic.

PS, The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco explores one man's dilemma when marooned on an island in the middle of the international date line.

I believe Western Samoa are about to experience this for real as they shift themselves to the left of the date line. The SDA's have a real problem in Samoa - which day is the Sabbath?

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