WABAG - Paul Kiap Kurai was only 24 when in 1982 he nominated to contest the Wabag Open seat against Sir Tei Abal, a distinguished leader and one of Papua New Guinea’s founding fathers.
He knew he was no match for the experience and status of Sir Tei, who had served four consecutive terms in parliament.
But Paul had expected Sir Tei him to gracefully retire from active politics because his health was failing after a stroke.
Sir Tei had been elected to the first House of Assembly in 1964 and in 1968 made history after the Wabag Local Government Council resolved to return him unopposed to the second House of Assembly.
Nobody disputed this move even though it may have contravened people’s rights to vote for the person of their choice through secret ballot.
Sir Tei won again in 1972 - a landslide victory – and also in 1977. But by then those years of hard work were taking their toll on his health.
He suffered his first stroke in 1979 whilst attending a cabinet meeting in Madang. Then in 1980, he suffered a second stroke, the right side of his body becoming paralysed. He became frail, his speech feeble and he was forced to use a walking stick.
But politics was in his blood and he pressed forward as a national leader.
Paul Kiap Kurai’s’s father, Cr Kurai Tapus, as president of Wabag Local Government Council, had supported Sir Tei to enter the first House of Assembly in 1964 and continued to supporting him until he died in 1980.
Now Paul Kiap decided to stand against the great leader because Sit Tei was ill and may well retire.
In fact, there were another 23 candidates who felt the same way.
But Sir Tei surprised everybody when he turned up once more to pay his nomination fee. This time, however, he lost to senior district court magistrate Sir Albert Kipalan.
It was 15 years before Sir Albert lost the seat to the youngster Takai Kapi, 25, who had just graduated from UPNG with a degree in political science in 1996.
Kapi’s victory was challenged in court by namesake Daniel Kapi because for some reason his name was not on the common roll.
Then followed lengthy court battles, a by-election and appeals that proved exhaustive, expensive and dangerous for Takai Kapi.
On one occasion he was abducted at the Jacksons International Airport on his way to parliament. His astonishing, and sad, story is recorded in my book, ‘I Can See My Country Clearly Now’.
Takai Kapi’s Maramuni people wanted him in parliament because their area remained backward even though they were among the first highlands people to have contact with the outside world.
Gold prospecting expeditions twice went to the Maramuni area in 1930, four years before the Leahy brothers walked into Wabag.
Daniel Kapi eventually succeeded in convincing the courts to overturn Takai Kapi’s win.
Daniel was a son of the Piao Kumbin major clan and his house stands on the southern slopes of the central ridge, not far from Tole where chief Pingeta and 14 others met their end in a fierce encounter with the Leahy expedition of 1934.
He was smart enough to notice that Takai Kapi’s name was not on the common roll and successfully challenged the discrepancy in those protracted legal proceedings which resulted in a by-election.
Sir Albert Kipalan sought to win back the seat but the people voted in large number for Daniel Kapi for bringing ‘power’ back to the Wabag town area, where it has remained since.
The unfortunate Takai Kapi lost both his court appeal and the by-election, placing tremendous pressure on him. He started drinking heavily and became very ill and dying.
Back in 1982, Paul Kiap Kurai at age 24 was a exact prototype of Takai Kapi, the novice. He was not yet married, not properly established in the community nor did he have enough cash in the bank. He had just completed studies at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney in 1981.
But he threw his hat into the ring to contest the Wabag Open seat in 1982, coming a creditable fourth in the field of 24 candidates.
“I knew I would be disqualified if I won because I was the youngest candidate,” Paul told me. “But I stood anyway due to pressure from supporters.
“I enjoyed support and popularity and polled many votes riding on the back of my father’s success, good name and transparent leadership he had displayed in the 1960s.
“People felt that I too possessed leadership qualities and was capable of taking care of them.”
Paul told me that he had observed how his father was involved in local politics, supported Sir Tei Abal at the national level and how he delivered public speeches, resolved disputes, and received people from many parts of Enga to his house at Kaiap.
“I was always by his side and observed everything he did,” Paul said. “My father had many older boys but when he saw me always by his side, he told me to observe everything he did which I did and continued to fetch water for the visitors.
“I made up my mind at a young age to stand for public office one day. I was confident, I would win the.1982 elections but people may have turned away from me when they heard, my victory would be disputed in court. Also, the K6,000 I had was not enough to sustain my election campaign.”
People generally felt Paul, as a leader’s son, was capable of holding public office. He was open, outgoing and spoke clearly on issues of public importance. But he realised that to win he had to be firmly established. And he was not even married.
The political atmosphere during his father Kurai and Sir Tei’s time was different. They had been the early years of national representative parliament. But now, people’s attitudes were beginning to change.
Candidates had to spend big to lure voters. But right-thinking citizens with genuine concerns for the progress of Wabag needed to weigh the capabilities, experience and education of candidates.
Earlier, in the 1960s and 1970s, few highlanders travelled overseas, let alone lived and studied there. Paul Kurai had trained at ASOPA - the same institution where expatriate kiaps had trained – and this was regarded as a major feat.
Paul’s supporters reasoned that he had been to the ‘kone yu’ [land] of the white man and so was suitable to represent them. They wanted him to nominate when he had the chance.
It is interesting to note that up to this stage, people referred to overseas countries like Australia as ‘kone yu’ – but that was a separation that was about to change.
But not long before that, during the ‘first contact’ time, the people thought the explorers were dead relatives returning from the ‘timongo andaka’ [land of the dead].
They reasoned that those who could travel to ‘timongo andaka’ and return unscathed were brave indeed.
For example Nicodemus Kome, a Lutheran Church pastor from Sirunki in Laiagam. He was based at Kokas Lutheran mission near the present day Kandep High School.
People said Nicodemus Kome had travelled to the ‘timongo andaka’ and returned safely. His extraordinary story spread widely in Kandep when he was seen to ride on a huge motorbike on those newly built gravel roads of the 1960s.
“This man on the motorbike…. He went to ‘timongo andaka’ and came back,” people would say as Nicodemus rode past.
I myself heard such remarks when he came to Kiandi Lutheran mission in my village at Kondo on the Kandep -Mendi road.
Nicodemus had travelled to America with Lutheran Church missionaries. The experiences he shared when he returned were retold in the villages with great flourish and exaggeration, people fabricating details of adventure and mystery to suit their own fancy.
They said that to reach ‘timongo andaka’, Nicodemus had travelled roads that went through huge trees and sped through dark tunnels. On the other side, he met his dead relatives who told him to go back home because they were in a terrible place of great suffering.
It seems likely that Nicodemus had toured through Eureka in northern California where they drove through the giant redwood trees, or perhaps just seen it on television.
He would also have travelled on trains through tunnels. When Nicodemus related these experiences, people were amazed and contrived their own tales of these strange lands.
To them Nicodemus had surely been to ‘timongo andaka’. And who knows, Nicodemus may have added some of his own colourful detail.
But the years passed and soon wondrous fiction was cast aside as more and more people began to venture out into the world. People now referred to overseas countries beyond the shores as ‘kone yu’, land of the white man, rather than ‘timongo andaka’.
Paul Kiap Kurai’s father is said to have visited Sydney, taken there by kiaps to expose him to the world.
When the great chief and warrior died, the man who had travelled afar, he left a vacuum in the community. The people wanted to see his vibrant young son, who had followed his footsteps to Sydney and the place of the kiaps, to represent them in parliament.
But at just 24 years of age, unmarried and lacking in resources, Paul himself realised he was not ready. He had to establish himself in the community and launch his political career at that time.
He joined the Ok Tedi mining company as senior recruitment officer and in 1986 married a teacher from Monokam in the Ambum Valley. In the same year, he took over from Peter Piaoen as the Kamainwan councillor, a position his father had once held.
Paul Kurai then planned to challenge for the Wabag Council president’s seat, which his father had been first to occupy in 1963. He and Peter Ipatas, the Apulin councillor, vied for the same post competing against Leo As Kipalan who was president.
It was Ipatas who won, scoring just two votes more than Paul Kiap Kurai. Ipatas went on to become a knight and the Governor of Enga Province, a position he still occupies today.
Paul Kurai established himself as a successful businessman.
By 2012 Paul was well established in community, politics and business and decided to stand in that year’s national election against Sam Abal, the son of Sir Tei.
The other 17 candidates, some of them millionaires, posed a tough field. Eventually a public servant, Robert Ganim, former director of education in the province, won.
Sam Abal came second and Paul Kurai third after spending K500,000 on his campaign.
Paul did not make the mistake of thinking half a million was a lot of money. He knew it was but believed his popularity and generosity and vast tribal networks might give him an edge.
But they didn’t. In retrospect, he ought to have spent more money. That was the new trend - votes were bought as commodities. There were false names on the common role that were sold to candidates. Things were changing again. And not for the better.
Paul told me that a national identification system needs to be established to run fair elections in PNG. The national government must set proper voting standards to ensure fair elections. Leadership must be transparent and public funds spent in full view of the people.
“As a businessman now, I already have lots of money so why would I try to dip my hands into public funds or award contracts to my own private companies?” Paul asked rhetorically.
“Once people see that you are honest, transparent and true to your word, they will respect you, trust you, follow you and take ownership of the projects you establish. Peace will prevail,” he said.
He is proud that, as their councillor, he has provided stability and peace among the Kamainwan people of Kaiap for the last 40 years.
Will he stand for public office a third time?
“I doubt I will. But I cannot predict what will happen later. I am only 62. Look at Sir Julius Chan, President John Momis, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Nelson Mandela, and all these other world leaders over 70 and still active in politics.
“If Sir Tei Abal nominated even when he was really sick, then politics must truly be an unpredictable pastime.”