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The true inside story of the saga of the PNG flag

The 'Kumul' flagHAL HOLMAN | Extract from The Phoenix Rises Eternal

In this month’s Una Voce, the journal of the PNG Association of Australia, there is an article, ‘The PNG Crest and Flag’ by Geoff Littler. There is much more to this story, which we can reveal here…..

BECAUSE there was no course or school for graphic or commercial art in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (as it was known then), I decided to introduce one; which I did with the help of the Adult Education Society.

There was a fee for persons outside our Department of Information and Extension Services but I offered my Papua New Guinean staff free access and ran periodic lessons for them during working hours.

My national staff had joined the art section with no prior art training of any real benefit—even in their attendance at primary or high school levels.

Sadly, with two of the employees, Tabua Bama and Esau Reuben, the lessons during working hours fell on deaf ears. They were proud and took umbrage at any suggestion they lacked expertise or knowledge. They never asked questions for fear that they would reveal their ignorance.

The others were different— they soaked up every scrap of information and were frequent questioners.

Independence was approaching and I was asked to contact the Office of the House of Assembly to discuss designs for both the national crest and flag. The assignment would entail enlisting the aid of the PNG artists in my art section and together we were to come up with a series of designs to submit to the Committee for Constitutional Development.

The Committee at the time was travelling throughout the country to discuss the future constitution of an independent nation. The flag and crest were just two of the many items to be addressed during their tour.

There was a tight deadline to produce a folio of ideas to submit for approval. When the Committee arrived in Lae we were invited to attend one of their sessions and present our suggestions.

We took a flight across the Owen Stanley Range from Port Moresby and booked into the main hotel in Lae. With me was Esau Reuben, my second in charge. Esau distanced himself from the New Guineans in the studio. Like most coastal Papuans, particularly Moresbyites, they considered it degrading to be spoken to in Pidgin English.

The job was made more difficult because not one of the PNG staff could be considered a designer. Nevertheless they deserved to be given the chance to come up with a design.  Several designs for both the flag and the crest emerged out of this, and they were carefully mounted and framed to maximise their chances of acceptance.

Because of my departmental director Lisle Newby's orders not to proffer any of my own designs, I refrained from producing a piece of finished artwork for the flag or the crest.

Instead, I selected a series of images that were the obvious choices, such as a Bird of Paradise, the Southern Cross, the Union Jack and so on. In addition, there were lots of possible variations of stripe and colour.

These I prepared in the form of felt cut-outs to be adhered to felt backgrounds, and they were instantly interchangeable. This was also an effective way of having the Committee participate and almost guaranteeing a favourable outcome. It was a simple matter then to develop the best design from the material at hand.

Pidgin English came to the rescue at the Committee meeting. We were to strut-our-stuff at 10am the morning after our arrival. Esau Reuben and I sat on hard benches in a sauna-bath atmosphere outside the conference room. When the call came and we entered the air-conditioned room we were snap-frozen.

The members of the Committee were all Papuans and New Guineans except for John Middleton OBE.

The chairman was Minister for Information Paulus Arek. Paulus knew me for we had earlier established that, during the war, I had stayed in his village with my company overnight.  The following day we had moved on to Pongani prior to our final destination – a confrontation with the Japanese at Buna.

At that time, Paulus was a boy, who had warned us not to sleep under the coconut palms for the falling nuts could be deadly.

Quite a few of the Committee members were New Guineans and spoke only their local language and Pidgin. Paulus spoke to the Committee in English and then in Pidgin, so the New Guinean members could understand. 

He announced that Esau and I had been sent from Port Moresby on the authority of the House of Assembly and would present proposed designs for the flag and the crest for their consideration.  He then turned to us.

"I feel that we should ask Esau Reuben, who is a Papuan, to speak first,” Paulus said in English.

“Mr Reuben, so that we can all understand, could you please address the meeting in Pidgin?"

Esau, who had been buoyant and smiling until then, froze as if a sudden shock wave had struck him.  There was an embarrassing silence.

"I'm sorry sir," he said. "I can't speak Pidgin English."

Paulus paused and said: "Well in that case we will have to ask Mr Holman to address the Committee. “Can you speak Pidgin, Mr Holman?" (He knew I did.)

"Certainly, Mr Chairman."

"Then let's get on with it, please proceed.”

Without further ado I began to explain in Pidgin the complicated story behind the submissions and the designs. In spite of my efforts to wax eloquent, the Committee members sat stone-faced.  They were obviously not impressed.

Finally the Esau and I were sent out of the conference room while the Committee deliberated about the crest. The suspense was awful and Esau was devastated. He was a very proud Papuan and this blow to his ego was unbearable. There rift between us had widened to a canyon.

When we were called back Paulus Arek expressed regret that the Committee had rejected all submissions.

"Mr Holman, this committee will sit again in Lae for the last time tomorrow morning.  Perhaps you can find time before then to come up with something else."

There were suggestions of what might be suitable motifs, and it appeared the preferred image was a Bird of Paradise. With that the meeting ended.  We were politely ushered away and the door closed behind us.

I had brought brushes and art equipment with me for the two of us.

“That's the end of any thoughts of relaxation this evening,” I said to Esau. "I don't think they would take too kindly to blank sheets of paper in the morning. We’d better come up with something good!"

I was quietly pleased for it meant that I could now submit a design, which previously director Newby had disallowed.  It was dawn when I finally laid down my paintbrush.  It was still too early for breakfast so I decided to walk around Lae before turning up to the dining room.

Soon after I did, Esau joined me.  He looked exhausted and his eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

"You look like it's been a rough night, Esau." He nodded and picked up the menu. I tried to start a conversation by describing what I’d seen on my walk but there was flinty silence.

After breakfast I mentioned to Esau that that we should meet outside the conference room at nine o'clock.  He nodded and we parted.  I spent the last half hour cleaning up my design and headed for the conference room.  Esau was sitting on the bench outside the door.

"Hi!"  I said with forced brightness. "All ready?"  He nodded. 

I soon realised he was empty-handed.  "Have you left your work behind?” I asked.

“I couldn't think of anything,” Esau said angrily.

"Not to worry, I've got something here to show them, so at least they can't complain. Besides, I can ask for more time if it’s not to their liking."

When the door opened, and we were called in, the members were signing papers.  Not one of them looked up.  I fumbled with the catch on my briefcase and took out my work.  The members began to look up and Paulus Arek spoke. 

"You have some new work to show us, Mr Holman?"

PNG national crestAfter a short preamble, I revealed the design.  A murmur of approval went around the table.  John Guise jumped to his feet.

"Gentlemen, that's it!  That's the crest our country needs!" At that he marched up to the illustration and saluted.

The design for the national crest had instantly achieved the unanimous approval of the Committee.

I then unrolled the felt designing kit I had put together. After securing the basic felt background rectangle, I applied each alternative design symbol – bird of paradise, southern cross, union jack and the rest.

I was guided by their comments and suggestions and there was lively participation as the flag reached its rough form with their approval. We were ushered out with thanks.

This was where the design for the PNG national flag emerged.

But it was a politically sensitive issue and the design found its way to Moresby and into a competition – where it evolved into its present form.

As late as 2005 Esau Reuben was claiming his participation in the design of both the crest and the flag. He had nothing to do with either. He was a spectator.

But Lisle Newby, the Director of Information, was zealous in his dedication to exalt the feats of what were then termed "local officers". Only their feats were to be considered newsworthy in press releases issued by his department. He lauded even insignificant feats in the patronising praise usually reserved for toddlers taking first teetering steps.

I went off to Sydney to meet my new in-laws and, upon my return to Port Moresby, asked whether the finished artwork of the national crest had been presented to Parliament for final approval.  It had not. It had gone missing.

Leo Byrne, the Administrative Officer disclosed that he had seen it “shoved behind the Director’s filing cabinet”. When I asked for it, Lisle Newby was taken aback and angry, but handed over the artwork which was soon after accepted by the Constitutional Development Committee and published in the Government Gazette as the national crest for what would soon be an independent nation.

It was a great moment for me and I contacted Jim Leigh, head of broadcast services, to tell him he might have a news story.

"Well that all depends, Hal," he said, avoiding my gaze. "Was a local officer involved in the design?"

He also pointed out that it would be improper for an expatriate to be seen as instrumental in the country's flag design therefore the rough design we’d agreed in Lae was to be turned into a colouring competition.

Black outline drawings of my “test flag” (as it was called) with the Southern Cross and stylised Bird of Paradise were to printed and circulated widely throughout PNG in a colouring-in competition.

This happened and, eventually, a Yule Island schoolgirl named Susan Kareke was announced as the winner of the “PNG flag design competition”. To rub salt into the wounds, I was ordered by Newby to photograph the girl raising the flag, as her design, for the first time on our department’s flagpole. For this she was awarded the OBE. 

Susan Kareke continues to be given credit for designing the flag. In 1998 she threatened to pull down the flag on Independence Day unless she was granted a house, a car and a pension for life.

Then, on 22 September 1998, John Middleton OBE wrote a stunning letter to the Post-Courier newspaper.

“I was a member of the Constitutional Committee of the second House of Assembly that chose the flag and the following comments may be of interest. On our first tour of the country the committee was asked to gather flag designs from the people.

“However, in spite of extensive advertising, we found little enthusiasm for a new flag and only a few designs were submitted, none of which were regarded as suitable for a national emblem.

“The Australian Government then suggested to the committee that we have a flag designed and take it on our next tour to get the people’s comment. Actually the question changed from “do you want a flag?” to “do you want this flag”.

“This did cause considerable debate and certainly far more interest. When a sub- committee (of which I was not a member) went to Yule Island, they brought back an adaption of this flag which everyone thought very suitable.

“The original “test” flag was actually designed by a Government artist Mr Hal Holman in conjunction with the Committee. It was three vertical bars of green with a gold bird of paradise, gold and blue, with the Southern Cross.

“A school girl, Susan, had drawn a diagonal line across the test flag and reduced the colours to two, red and black. She explained she did not like the colours and layout of the original flag as they were not traditional.

Hal Holman with Ingrid and me, February 2015“Much more traditional and festive was red and black and the diagonal was also more traditional, she thought. Anyway, the committee agreed and the flag was recommended and eventually accepted as our national emblem.”

And that is the true story of how the PNG national flag was created.

Hal Holman was later awarded an Order of Australia and PNG’s Order of Logohu for his contribution to design, sculpture and art in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Now 93, and in failing health, he lives on Queensland’s Gold Coast. ‘The Phoenix Also Rises’ is an unpublished memoir


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Iru S Ora

Thanks for sharing your story about the flag of our beloved country Papua New Guinea. Now a little more of how the flag was designed.

Here's a recollection of one of the flag's chief designers, Hal Holman OL OAM - KJ

Liberty Joku

PNG law student here. This is saddening for me to read as I am working on an Intellectual Property Law assignment.

I had wanted to know a little about the history of the flag in order to answer the problem question and, while this is news to me, I wish I had found this sooner because I read in the comments that Hal passed on in 2016.

It would have been nice to let him know, if it meant anything, that there was one more person out there that now recognises and respects his contribution.

In my opinion, he deserves much more recognition than what he was given. Truly sad. May he rest in peace.

Thanks Liberty (what a glorious name you have). I know Hal would have appreciated your support and kind words. There were some in Australia who challenged his story, perhaps for some personal glory of their own, only they would know.

In any event, Hal was well recognised some years before the end of his life. He received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2004 and, in 2008, the Order of Logohu (OL) from the government of PNG, receiving the award from then high commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani (see first link below). The second link is to my obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald - KJ.

Weslee Currie

Thanks for the clarifications here. Like most Papua New Guineans, I have always thought our national flag was designed by Susan Karike. And then later I read about this plus others including Elaine and wonder who really was the designer.

I do tend to believe in this story as it briefly gives us an understanding from the start to the finished flag.

A lot of the people know Susan as the flag designer. Whether the flag really was designed by Susan or modified by Susan or designed by someone else should be of national interest as we are debating about a piece of history.

An investigation team should be established and thorough investigations should be done and finally declare who the real flag designer is for our history.

Lawrence Apini

Hi I'm sorry to hear that.
He is a great man . He is part of PNG History and should be remember.
I Thank him for choosing the Bird of Paradise .

Lawrence Apini

Appreciate if you can tell us why you chose the Bird of Paradise in your design? You know for every art competition you will have to give a brief a brief explanation or reason why you choose the Bird of Paradise.

Understand that from your original explanation that the " Bird of Paradise, our unique bird, is turned towards the islands to represent one unified country".

Would much appreciate if you can tell us what inspired you to choose the Bird of Paradise in your test flag design or why choose the bird instead of cassowary, cuscus, turtle, kangaroo etc.

How did you know this bird is a representation of one unified country? Did someone told you to choose this bird instead of all the mentioned animals? If yes, then who was this person or whose story inspired you to include the Bird of Paradise in your test design?

Hi Lawrence - Sadly, Hal Holman OL OAM died in 2016. I think he would have told you that the Bird of Paradise is the best known symbol associated with PNG, and clearly the committee that approved the design agreed with him. If you want to know more about Hal, you can link to my obituary here - KJ

Alois Boyd Patma

Very interesting piece of history. I think over 95% of PNG does not know this story. Thank you the late Hal Holman for sharing this very important history.

As far as the national flag is concerned, it would be a good idea to publish the original entries/designs and compare them to the Susan flag.

I guess the late Susan may have dome some significant alterations/modifications to have been recognised as the designer.


Thanks Hal for the design.

K Taipu

Thank you Hal. Truth and history is out.

Pamela Oberman

Great read - loved the story and its history of how the flag was born.

Dephney Wazi

Thank you sir for designing our national flag.

Karen Arufe

This needs to be put out publicly and Susan and Elaine need to be honest with their works. The schoolgirls did the colouring but the design was done by someone else. I believe no schoolkids at that time could draw anything as good then.

I have four children and have met Elaine and it's quite disturbing when she claims she is the right designer but what happened back then PNG needs to put right.

Rodney Tomuriesa

So it appears that the Test Flag was very different from the Susan Flag. Test has vertical bars...Susan had diagonal like. Test had different colours from Susan colours. So give credit to Susan too.

Elliot Raphael

I'm glad a great deal of information have finally been provided as to who really initiated the design of our national flag. It now gives Papua New Guineans the opportuniy to decide who started it all. The debate though looks far from over. I happen to have come across a Elaine Kaumu on the Facebook some time back, who claims to be the original designer. She says she'd done it in 1975 as a school girl then when the competition for a national flag design among school children nationwide was advertised. Let's put this to rest.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Hal for your story. I personally have no idea about this. What I know is the Susan Karike story.

I believe you and others in the likes of Tom Shacklady deserve recognition and mention in PNG history books when it comes to our national symbols like the national flag, national crest, national anthem and others.

Students in the PNG education system are currently learning about these national symbols with no clues at all about the people responsible one way or another in these national symbols.

Michael Kabuni

Thanks Hal Holman for your contribution.

Hope this story becomes popular and you get the recognition you deserve.

Hal was awarded the Order of Logohu a few years back and was delighted that his artistic contribution to PNG - which covered so many work - had been recognised. Amongst other monuments, he sculpted the busts of PNG prime ministers which I think are in the Botanic Gardens; the crest at the National Court; and a magnificent Bird of Paradise fountain that adorns a crossroads in Port Moresby. I'm visiting him on Wednesday and will convey our readers comments to him. He is very frail now and I'm sure they'll cheer him up - KJ

Mali Jones

Wow. This is truly and absolutely fantastic to read and actually find out about the true historical and beginnings of our National Flag and Crest.

I have always believed it was designed by the Yule Island girl. Please give credit to the person who deserves it the most, Hal Holman. Thank you and God bless you.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

Thanks Hal for the background information on the national logo and flag. I simply didn't know this.

I am thankful to Jim Fenton and Lloyd Warr who have sent me old pictures of Kandep when they were kiaps there in the 1960s.

I have shared some of these historical pictures with friends on Facebook. And two of the pictures are on the cover of the new book 'Remember Me & Other Stories from Enga Province'.

Today's piece in PNG Attitude blog by Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare is a masterpiece that is beneficial to young people to understand their history and compare it with the present situation in this country.

Kobby Bomareo

What an amazing history about PNG crest and flag, thank you Holman for the story unfolded.

Your story revealed that you and Esau were in Lae for the crest competition, but you've missed something here, do you know who did the actual PNG crest that you have modified and presented to the committee.

It's good that Susan Kare was named in person for the flag,but it would be fair to name the initiator of the crest.

We Morobeans know who that person was. We do have the original black and white scroll with us.

Finally I am pleased that you've spoken out, otherwise it will become a mystery for generations to come.

Please do not hesitate to contact me on this email: [email protected], so we can identify the initiator of the crest.

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