NOOSA - English scientist Isaac Newton admitted that, if he “had seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, was a reflection that we all benefit from the work of great people who came before us.
Last month, one such person was lost to the world.
Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was a giant of Papua New Guinea and, indeed, the world because of his significance to the decolonisation movement.
As a leader, he was a determined visionary.
As an individual, he was an unpretentious, empathetic man of the people.
When Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam travelled to PNG in 1973, he met the visionary.
Then chief minister Michael Somare used remarks at a public event to set out, in no uncertain terms, the realities of the coming independence.
He told Whitlam he had to realise that the transfer of power from Australia to PNG was only one aspect of self-government and independence.
“Localisation of decision-making is very important, but, at the same time, we must establish new policies,” Somare said.
“It’s quite useless for black faces to replace white faces only to implement existing policies.
“Our new policies must have – as the main objective – the establishment of the kind of society we want in Papua New Guinea.”
At that time Sir Michael was chairing the committee that would produce the foundational charter – the Constitution of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.
As his speech continued, Sir Michael foreshadowed the national goals and directive principles that would be embedded in the Constitution and the challenges future Papua New Guinean leaders would need to continue striving to overcome.
“We are now starting to build this new society,” he said. “We have set new improvement goals which will allow our people to, as a whole, to benefit from economic development.
“We are setting investment guidelines to ensure that our people gain from any investment.
“We do not want foreign investment that exploits our resources without substantial benefits to us or which disrupts the social life of our people. Nor do we want foreign investors who dominate our economy.”
Sir Michael’s foresight is demonstrated by these sentiments not seeming out of place in 2021.
They also highlight that there is still much work to be done in addressing the systemic challenges of the global economic system, problems not solvable by a single person or nation.
‘Papa bilong Kantri’ (Father of the Nation), or simply ‘Papa’, the endearing moniker bestowed on Sir Michael by Papua New Guineans, reflects his paramount importance to the attainment of independence and also infers something special about his personal qualities.
All over social media the past few weeks, people have posted stories about the time they came across Sir Michael.
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to speak with him briefly after he addressed the NBC press club in Port Moresby in 2017.
The event had been a jovial celebration of the Grand Chief – he spoke well and from the heart and even enjoyed a humorous exchange with Sean Dorney about the time he had the Australian journalist deported from PNG.
As the event wound down, I introduced myself to Sir Michael and said he may recall meeting my father – Keith Jackson – who worked at the NBC in its fledgling years.
Sir Michael said he did and inquired if Keith was still alive and – pleased to get an answer in the affirmative – asked that I pass on his regards.
Online and offline, across PNG and around the world, there would be thousands of people recalling similar cordial encounters with this man of the people.
His vision and empathy were among the qualities which elevated Sir Michael above the rank of politician to statesman and leader.
During my association with PNG – both from afar and living in Port Moresby – I have been privileged to have met many Papua New Guineans of my generation who have the flames of Sir Michael’s qualities inside them.
In their own way, many are already leaders and soon more responsibility will be thrust upon them to confront the challenges and pursue the principles highlighted by Sir Michael all those years ago.
As we mourn the passing of the Grand Chief, it is also important to celebrate him, his achievements and his legacy.
The best way to honour a giant is not to stand in his shadow, but to stand on his shoulders.