For the public good
Kevin McQuillan meets the PNG-born public servant who settled in the Cook Islands, and is now in NZ. He is also the driving force behind a PNG cocoa project.
For more than 20 years, Papua New Guinean Jonah Tisam worked in the Cook Islands as a senior public servant, before moving to Auckland, New Zealand, and completing a PhD.
He says that PNG is an unknown quantity for many in the Cook Islands region, and that it is regarded more as a part of Asia, than the Pacific, despite its membership of the Pacific Islands Forum.
“That’s also the case in NZ, although Kiwi business people talk highly of PNG and its potential,” he says. “Recently, there’s been more interest from younger people (in NZ) because of the mining boom … they are seeking employment opportunities,” he tells Paradise.
Born in Wandumui village in Wau, Bulolo district, Tisam attended secondary school at Asaroka Lutheran High School in the Eastern Highlands, where he excelled as an athlete, was captain of the Aussie Rules football team, and played basketball and volleyball. He went to the University of PNG, graduating in 1979 with a commerce degree, followed by a masters in public policy and management at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.
“I have had various work experiences, from accounting to business management, policy advisory, project management, project design, strategic planning, research and managing aid projects – some in PNG and others in the Cook Islands,” he says.
Tisam left PNG in 1991, fulfilling a promise to his Cook Islands wife, Violet, that if he failed to win a seat in that year’s general election, they would go to Rarotonga. He says he liked the place (Cook Islands) for his children to grow up. “It has all the facilities and easy access to good schools, hospital, running water, 24-hour power supply and good sporting amenities.”
In the Cook Islands, Tisam worked in various capacities with two former prime ministers and a deputy prime minister, and was the collector of inland revenue.
After 20 years in the Cook Islands, he moved to Auckland and completed a PhD in public policy at the Auckland University of Technology in 2015.
“I am doing some business consultation work with consultants from Australia, NZ, the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea while supporting cocoa development in the Labuta LLG area (in PNG),” he says.
“Surprisingly, after 20 years away, I found very little had changed in PNG, that is why I initiated a cocoa cooperative for the local farmers in our area.
“I am now in a position to help the farmers to grow cocoa and improve quality so we can export overseas and manufacture most of what we produce in the country.
“Since 2014, I’ve been able to return regularly because of the project. I also have a little house in Bukawa, that I am maintaining in the hope that my children (he has four) will come back to spend time in the village again, getting to know their PNG family and see how great PNG can be.”