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Attitudes to National Identity in Melanesia and Timor-Leste

A Survey of Future Leaders in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste


Michael Leach, James Scambary, Matthew Clarke, Simon Feeny and Heather Wallace

This book examines the attitudes of tertiary students in Melanesia and Timor-Leste to national identity and key issues of nation-building. Their views are pivotal to understanding the challenges of building a more cohesive sense of national identity and political community in these states. Melanesian countries show a relatively high degree of similarity in their responses to the surveys on national identity carried out by the authors, but with key differences attributable to particular historical, regional or linguistic legacies of colonial rule. The ongoing importance of traditional authority and kastom/ adat in conceptions of political community and identity is evident in all four case study sites, and in each case matches indicators of respect for modern state authority. Although different for each site, the authors’ findings also illustrate the importance of students’ geographical region of origin, language orientation and gender in explaining key differences in attitudes towards national identity. The book demonstrates that strong levels of national identification and pride persist among the future leaders of the countries surveyed, even in the face of ongoing regional and linguistic divisions and weak state capacity, suggesting a strong potential basis for nation-building agendas if wider challenges of democratic performance, service provision and regional development can be addressed over time.


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Chapter 3 Vanuatu


Introduction Vanuatu achieved independence in 1980, soon after Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Like these other Melanesian nations, Vanuatu faced at independence the formidable challenge of grafting a Western system of parliamentary government, based on Weberian rationalist principles, onto still highly robust and deep rooted traditional systems of political and cultural organization. Comprised of an archipelago of about 80 islands, with an estimated 80 to 100 languages spoken across the country, and a segmentary society based on autochthonous clan systems, the task of con- structing a unifying sense of national identity around a centralized state would be a considerable challenge. In addition, the unusual legacy of joint British and French colonial era resulted in parallel education systems and a broad socio-linguistic division between Anglophone and Francophone Ni-Vanuatu that has endured in varying forms and potency throughout the three post-independence decades. These factors have combined to produce – at least after 1991 – an unstable multi-party system with adverse ef fects in key areas such as health, education and overall economic perfor- mance. Despite having considerably greater success than some neighbour- ing Melanesian states, the cultural processes of forming a cohesive political community to support the development of a functional state still remain a key challenge. This chapter presents new survey (N=298) and focus group data on attitudes to national identity among tertiary students in Vanuatu. The find- ings cast new light on the attitudes of likely future political and professional elites towards regional, ethnic, intergenerational and linguistic faultlines in...

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