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Burying (or ignoring) the wisdom that comes with age

New kiaps early 1960s
Cadet patrol officers new to Papua New Guinea watch police parade at Sogeri in March 1950


TUMBY BAY - The last batch of Australian kiaps in Papua New Guinea was appointed in the early 1970s. They were the tail-enders of a fraternity that shared a working experience that was decidedly uncommon in modern times.

As a loose cohort they continue to share camaraderie through continued interaction at reunions and other social events and through social media, where they interact on their own website and through other social media sites like PNG Attitude.

A significant majority of them maintain an abiding interest in Papua New Guinea.

There’s nothing unusual about that, people with common experiences tend to be drawn to this kind of sentimentality and nostalgia and often gather together to remember and celebrate their past and discuss what has happened since then.

What is unusual about the old kiap’s endeavours however is the nature of that shared experience and the continued relevance it has to the place where it occurred.

There are, of course, other groups that worked in Papua New Guinea, teachers, agricultural officers and the like, but they very rarely had the all-encompassing experience of governance that the jack-of-all-trades kiaps had.

Many of the old kiaps would argue that there is a real and untapped value in their comprehensive experience that could be put to good use if those in power were prepared to listen.

That the powers that be and potential recipients of this potentially rich bounty resolutely fail to even acknowledge that such a resource exists is a continuing matter of chagrin for many of the old kiaps.

The operative word here is ‘old’. Even those tail-enders from the early 1970s are now reaching their final decades. Their use by date is visible on the horizon.

The reports of deaths of ex-kiaps is now a regular occurrence; not many months go by without another making their final journey to the patrol post in the sky.

Whereas such passings were once greeted with surprise, the responses now have a hint of the inevitable about them.

A casual enquiry from one kiap to another about the state of their health these days usually gets a response something like ‘still vertical and breathing, how about you?’

History is replete with the incidence and unpleasant consequences to societies of ignoring the wisdom of their elders.

It begs the question, why does society insist on burying its wisdom over and over again?

And make no mistake, wisdom does come with age.

As people age they tend to reassess their lives and experiences over and over again in a process similar to the trendy de-cluttering of houses so popular among the neo-materialists.

This constant refining and shedding of the superfluous, irrelevant and inconsequential, both intellectual and physical, results in some pretty clear thinking about what is important in life and how best to achieve it.

But if you’re an apparatchik in Canberra why would you listen to a bunch of old beer-sodden colonial farts?

Or if you’re a politician in Port Moresby why would you listen to a bunch of old white male colonials?

Why indeed?


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Paul Oates

Bik Man oa Bik Het? (An obvious Leader or someone with an inflated ego)
In these days of increasing information availability, Chris Overland has pinged the issue about having the practical experience to know how to use the available information.

One of the many strengths of Tok-Pisin is its ability to go straight to the heart of the matter. That is, if it doesn’t embarrass someone directly. The expression ‘Bik Het’ can refer to a classic ‘tok piksa’ of someone who has a swollen ego. I think we can all instantly think of more than a few political leaders who clearly believe they know what to do and how to do it.

Therein lies the possible core principle of some of a PNG Kiap’s role.

When placed in positions of power, there was usually no hesitation in attempting what in a so called ‘western society’ would be ludicrous to start without huge resources and officially accepted tertiary qualifications. When a District Commissioner or senior field staff required a road, bridge, school, hospital, airstrip, town census, agricultural and cultural show or anything else initiated, a simple direction was issued down the line of command and it happened. If the DC issued the direction there was no question of it not happening either.

When we made the move, voluntarily or otherwise, back to our previous society, we immediately hit a brick wall of what Mr Parkinson, (That’s the one who is famous for identifying Parkinson’s Law), refers to as ‘The Abominable No Man’ syndrome. These shallow creatures have been known to lurk in places of government power and prestige and, like a readily coiled, poisonous snake, immediately pounce on any new and innovative idea (that maybe they hadn’t yet thought of), and attempt to squash it flat or diminish the idea and the person who raised it.

As an example, having returned to Australia with a family and accepting my fate, I joined the Department of Defence. I was required at times to deliver the pay packets of Defence employees who worked in various establishments around Sydney Harbour. This could be a time consuming and sometimes even a dangerous exercise in bad weather, that took the best part of a day and required a Navy workboat, skipper and Naval Policeman as a guard.

During a regional Defence conference, I innocently raised the idea of paying everyone by direct credit into their nominated bank account.

It’s fair to say this suggestion was looked on as rather revolutionary. Senior uniformed officers took me to task, inferring that my youth and obvious lack of experience showed that I didn’t know how crucially important delivering hard cash to those at the front line was.

Now some readers may well laugh at that since there could not have been any closer experience to the so called ‘front line’ nor practical isolation as the role of a rural Kiap.

I was told afterwards that my intemperate suggestion was costed and revealed significant local savings in the millions. That was a poor substitute for being hung out to dry in front of a senior defence conference. Comments said behind my back, but loud enough to be heard, were; “They gave them too much power up there!”

At last we come to the point. Did we former field staff uncover a basic law of human nature which, demonstrably remains hidden by either omission or commission? Has our society become so moribund and cluttered that any initiative or practical suggestion has to successfully filter through numerous levels or ‘red tape’ and those in vast numbers employed in vitally sensitive positions that it tends to be stifled or ameliorated before reaching a logical decision?

If the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’, then let’s hope this lesson doesn’t die with us.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm hoping that no one "as stupid as a turnip" ever made it into the kiap ranks; although I did come across a few with brains the size of a walnut.

It's interesting how Trump now seems to epitomise stupidity.

He has effectively proven that being stupid is no hindrance to success - even the dumbest can now aspire to the presidency. That's pretty smart.

Being greedy, cunning, manipulative and crafty 'trumps' intelligent every time it seems.

Trump isn't the first stupid person to become president however, I can think of dozens of others and we've had a few beauties in Oz too. So has PNG - and I'm thinking in the present tense here.

Bernard Corden

"The value of old age depends upon the person who reaches it" - Thomas Hardy

Chris Overland

It is a delusion of old age that wisdom is a necessary outcome of our life's experiences.

Alas, the evidence for this does not stack up very well. It is entirely possible that, having started life's journey as stupid as a turnip, we remain that way into our dotage.

That said, a person who has regarded their life journey as a long term learning experience is much more likely to become what we call wise than a person whose life has been the endless repetition of the same thing.

Just look at Donald Trump. I defy anyone to mount a sensible argument that the ill educated, marginally literate "stable genius" in charge of the White House is a wise man.

70 plus years of life have merely taught The Donald that he is entitled to respect, even homage, due to his inherited wealth and privilege, as well as his self proclaimed mastery of the deal.

The Donald is an exemplar of those politicians who fondly believe that their basic ignorance of things like history, economics and even politics itself is no impediment whatsoever to their ability to govern effectively.

Who needs to hold a body of useful knowledge in their heads these days? You can just google it and become an instant expert.

Much as I find Wikipedia and Google useful, I know that the trap with using them is that one may mistakenly believe that you then know more than you actually do.

This is because the knowledge they impart is simply one piece of the much bigger puzzle of history or technology or economics or philosophy, not the whole story.

The getting of wisdom is indeed a labour of years and decades.

As for we old kiaps, I guess that some of us, perhaps most of us, might be counted as wise to some degree.

My only point of reference is myself and I feel wiser on some days than upon others. I rarely feel stupid although my IQ tends to plummet when confronted with power tools or things mechanical.

Mostly, I just feel bemused or saddened by the apparent inability of human kind to learn anything much from history, much less pay attention to things like the need for civility or forbearance or empathy or understanding in our relations with others.

The current leadership of PNG appear to know little or nothing of their history, much less care about it.

Consequently, why would they have the slightest interest in the musing of the colonial officers who once governed their country?

From their point of view, we represent the dismal echoes of an authoritarian regime long since consigned to history, so our insights are bound to be tainted by the paternalistic and sometimes racist nature of that era.

That view is mostly wrong but not without a grain of truth and, as we all know, a grain of truth goes a very long way in this post truth era.

So, I guess our wisdom will go to the grave largely unnoticed.

A sad lesson of history is that the wisdom of the ancients is almost invariably only properly understood and valued posthumously

Paul Oates

Ahhh.. Michael, what possible inducement could I offer in order to have people download that theoretical 'App'?

In what now amounts to the 'Old Days', there was a culture of respect and politeness that encouraged the passing on of relevant information from generation to generation.

The essence of the problem now is that until a problem is correctly identified and agreed upon, an effective solution cannot be achieved.

'The Attitude' has posted a number of effective solutions to known problems over the years however how many of those suggestions have been taken up by those who are responsible for the problem in the first place?

How do you convince a person about a problem when they are part of the problem?

Kain olsem wantok, tenkyu tru lo liklik tingting blo yu.

Michael Dom

Hey, Paul, why not create the app?

Call 'Kiap itok', and offer pearls of wisdom for those who wrangle with PNG's various customs, peculiarities, and the Melanesian way of life.

Philip Kai Morre

Inventions comes at an early age with knowledge, creativity and a gifted mind and as we grow older we become wise.

Wisdom is accumulated knowledge and experience of the past. Young people need to listen to the advice of older people in order to get enlightenment and be authentic.

Philip Fitzpatrick

An apt song from Clint Eastwood's new film 'The Mule'. Eastwood is 88 years old.

Don't Let the Old Man In

By Toby Keith

Don't let the old man in, I wanna leave this alone
Can't leave it up to him, he's knocking on my door
And I knew all of my life, that someday it would end
Get up and go outside, don't let the old man in

Many moons I have lived
My body's weathered and worn
Ask yourself how old you'd be
If you didn't know the day you were born

Try to love on your wife
And stay close to your friends
Toast each sundown with wine
Don't let the old man in

Many moons I have lived
My body's weathered and worn
Ask yourself how old you'd be
If you didn't know the day you were born

When he rides up on his horse
And you feel that cold bitter wind
Look out your window and smile
Don't let the old man in

Look out your window and smile
Don't let the old man in

Paul Oates

The funny thing about the 'wisdom of the elders' is that you can't download it as an 'App'.

Instant gratification is ruining our society like never before.

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