What About the Wantok System?

Andrew Murray, Sydney College of Divinity, Australia



The terms “wantok” and “wantok system” elicit a wide range of feelings, from heartfelt thankfulness for close relationships to near despair when the wantok system intervenes to disrupt transactions in modern society. The terms are ubiquitous in common speech in Melanesia, but surprisingly little used in academic literature, unless dismissively. From the perspective of Aristotelian political philosophy, the affection felt between wantoks is the binding glue of the pre-political communities to which the people of single language groups belong. It is not to be dismissed. The challenge is to unite these communities into a single political community or country in a way that both acknowledges the value of the pre-existing relationships and enables a much broader range of relationships with different rules to flourish. There are signs that this is beginning to happen, and suggestions are made about how it could be fostered. Aristotelian political philosophy offers ways of understanding and dealing with these issues that are not available in modern political theory.


The terms “wantok” and “wantok system” occur surprisingly infrequently in the academic literature. When they do occur, they are often used in parentheses and with reference to difficulties experienced in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, such as failures of development projects or corruption in government. In common speech, however, the terms are ubiquitous and display a wide range of meanings and elicit a wide range of feelings. A wantok, literally “one talk” in Tok Pisin, the most widely spoken official language of PNG, is the speaker of a common first or indigenous language and so is a relative, friend, or neighbour in a manner that encompasses communal culture and kinship.

The wantok system is a network of relationships and obligations which we will explore shortly. A question frequently asked in response to discussions about political or economic development in PNG or Melanesia generally is: “What about the wantok system?” This article will explore the associated meanings and feelings with a view to gaining a more nuanced understanding of the wantok system its place in Melanesian life, its value, the problems it causes, and how we might answer the question, what about the wantok system?

This article will work from an Aristotelian perspective and illustrate how the wantok system would be viewed from within that context. The writer has argued elsewhere that an Aristotelian political philosophy is more sympathetic to the cultures and needs of Pacific island peoples than that of the early modern philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and G.W.F. Hegel.1 In particular, Aristotelian philosophy acknowledges pre-political communities such as families, villages, and clans as the foundation of human society, rather than beginning, as early modern philosophy does, with an imagined solitary individual. Further it proposes a political community built on affection rather than on the fear that forms the basis of the modern state through its control of the instruments of force. Aristotle also envisages a political community that can function well without the massive economic engines of modern Western states.

In his Politics, Aristotle examines the formal possibilities of human association beyond family and clan, that is, the possible ways in which a political community might constitute itself. He acknowledges that it is not strictly necessary to form these larger communities. They are founded “not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well.”2

While it is natural for human beings to move in this way, it does not happen by nature. Human beings must use their reason to establish the best ways to organise themselves. The best is not the same everywhere but is defined by the pre-political communities out of which the political community or country springs and by the material conditions in which they live – factors such as the character of the people, their current arrangements, culture, geography, history, and contact with other peoples. It is from this perspective that we will examine the wantok system.


One way to explore popular perceptions is through the press and here we will survey some of the uses of wantok in the Papua New Guinea newspaper, the Post-Courier. It is used with warmth of feeling: “I was privileged to spend the night with my good wantok … and his wife at their house” (3 December 2004). Pride is also expressed: “PNG’s wantok system is one of the most vibrant customary social support systems operating worldwide” (8 April 2008). Particularly telling are the expanded uses of the term. It enters into the names of sporting teams such as the Mendi Wantok Off-Cuts (27 March 2012) and of businesses such as Highlands Wantok Supermarket (5 March 2013). Commercial interests attempt to package their products in a friendly manner: wantok moni is a way of transferring money using a mobile phone (6 June 2013), and “wantok fares” are offered by Air Niugini (5 February 2007).

There is also ambivalence, as was expressed in an article on 5 June 2012:

Papua New Guinea’s wantok system can be a blessing and a curse. And this is where the problem lies. Many critics and detractors of the wantok system argue that it is the biggest obstacle to development, change and progress in Papua New Guinea and is probably one of the underlying reasons for corruption that is eating away at the heart of our society today. This may be true, but one thing is certain. The wantok system that we have today has been tried and tested down the centuries and is the foundation on which more than 800 unique cultures and more than one thousand tribes stand.

The writer is clearly torn between adherence to a cultural system that is and has been for so long fundamental to the lives of so many people, and the difficulties that it causes in a time of change, difficulties that include disruption of attempts at development of the country as a whole. In the writer’s words, it is a blessing and a curse at the deepest levels.

Complaints against the effects of the wantok system are frequent. Many equate it with nepotism, which occurs when someone in authority gives a position or privileges to a clan member rather than to a more competent or deserving person. This makes it difficult, for instance, for people with otherwise good qualifications to find employment (24 June 2010) and conversely corrupts the businesses or government agencies that employ less than capable people (30 March 2006; 9 March 2010). Within organisations, bonds and reciprocal obligations between members of the organisation can also divert it from its purposes. Complaints are made about the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary’s ability to discharge its constitutional duty (16 August 2005), about incapacity in the Defence Force (31 December 2012), and about “prison escapees roaming freely around the country” because of protection by their wantoks (7 December 2012).

Problems internal to the wantok system are also raised: people given to gambling, knowing that their wantoks will support them (5 January 2012); women abused by their husbands without the protection of the law (10 July 2009); movement of people into settlements without land or work because their wantoks are there (28 February 2013); acceptance of inappropriate medicine from a wantok rather than going to a doctor (11 April 2008). At the political level, we hear that “people are not electing the best person during national elections. [They] vote for their hausline, tambu or wantok and this habit is alive and well” (2 November 2006).

Some writers show insight into what is happening and why the complaints arise. An economy based on money changes the way that people can reciprocate (14 January 2009) and life in urban areas among different peoples and with a cash-based economy puts the wantok system under stress (8 June 2012). Paul Barker put it in different terms.

While the public demands the provision of the best staff and services, under the prevailing system of patronage leaders appoint wantoks and mates to key positions in exchange for support. Some politicians blame the community and custom for pressuring them, but this is a cop-out. A modern state cannot function on personal favours and obligations, but requires firm policies, procedures and standards, followed transparently. (17 July 2009)

The issue here is change and, in fact, momentous change. A system that worked well for small closed communities living in tightly defined geographical areas is challenged when it is drawn into a developing political system that embraces many peoples and that has to deal with imported ideas, technologies, and economies.

What might be the solution? Some call for ethical standards (13 May 2013) and for appointments on merit (9 May 2013). A rule at Port Moresby General Hospital states that there is “no entertainment of the wantok system” (12 June 2013). One writer in the Post-Courier had a broader suggestion:

The concept of wantoks needs to be extended, to broadly encompass the idea of Papua New Guineans being an actual united race of people. All Papua New Guineans must consider themselves part of one great wantok race. This is not such a hard thing to do. Whenever a Papua New Guinean sees a fellow countryman overseas they recognise and greet each other first and foremost as Papua New Guineans. They know that, in the wider world, their tribal origin matters much less than the fact that they are from the same country. They are both essentially wantoks regardless of what tribe either may originally come from. When the Kumuls played against the Junior Kangaroos recently in Port Moresby, there were no Engans in the crowd, there were no New Irelanders, no Taris, no Papuans nor Sepiks. There were only Papua New Guineans urging on the Papua New Guinean team. (15 November 2005)

These discussions and many like them carry a great amount of wisdom. The wantok system is deeply entrenched in Papua New Guinean culture and will not go away. It gives people a sense of belonging to a community and the obligation of reciprocity ensures that people are looked after. It does, however, create difficulties when it is joined to modern systems of governance and organisation. During the remainder of this article we will rely on the academic literature to examine these issues and look at possible ways forward. This is not to say that a solution to the tensions will be easy or come quickly, because the change being experienced by Melanesian peoples is enormous. Especially in the case of PNG, it is complicated by a large population of extraordinary diversity and by geographical obstacles. We should, however, appreciate the large volume of intelligent discussion that is going on at the popular level.