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Abal, Sir Tei (1932–1994)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published online in 2019

Sir Tei Abal (c. 1932–1994), politician, was born probably in 1932 at Sakalis hamlet near Laiagam, Enga, in the Western Highlands of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, only son of Monapale, a warrior and cultural leader of the Temanga clan. His mother, whose name is unknown, died during his childhood. After witnessing his father being murdered, Tei suffered frightening destitution, which probably initiated his lifelong poor health. A caring Yandamau couple from Wapenamanda eventually adopted him. Enga communities observed the ethic of ‘payback’ for favours and perceived injuries. In this patriarchal society, men gained temporary ‘big man’ status through their wealth, number of wives, civil and military leadership, and oratory. Social advancement could also come from association with foreigners. Living in the contrary worlds of custom and colonial law, Abal would never avenge his father’s death.

Abal had no formal education and did not see a white man until about 1945. When he became the ‘boi’ (servant) of a police constable, accompanying government officials on tours of pacification and census taking, he learnt about the Australian administration. He taught himself literacy in Pidgin, but never mastered written or spoken English. Trained as a medical orderly in 1947, he later supervised indigenous staff at Wabag Hospital. His marriage in 1954 to Nael, daughter of a village ‘big man,’ raised his status. He grew coffee, raised pigs, and prospected for gold.

As the Territory of Papua and New Guinea approached independence, influential expatriate Australian landholders and civil servants, notably the long-serving Western Highlands district commissioner Tom Ellis, promoted Abal’s entry into politics to do their bidding, while politics offered him the opportunity to promote the interests of Highlanders. He won the seat of Wabag Open in the 1964 national elections, was re-elected unopposed in 1968, and held the seat with significant majorities in 1972 and 1977. In 1966 he had successfully proposed the Development Capital Guarantee Declaration to safeguard expatriate properties after independence. As a ministerial member, he held responsibility for labour (1967), and agriculture, stock, and fisheries (1968–71). In 1968 he told a United Nations visiting mission that independence should be delayed until the Highlands had caught up with the more developed coastal regions, which had a longer history of colonisation. He travelled with a select committee in 1970 to investigate decolonisation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ghana, and Kenya. His fellow members valued his contribution to the cross-party Constitutional Planning Committee (1972–75).

Short and stocky, Abal was a ‘notable orator, with a broad smile and warm personality that won him affection and wide respect’ (Sinclair 2016, 411). As leader of the Highlander-dominated and conservative United Party (UP), which won more seats than any other party at the 1972 election, he was expected to become chief minister following the introduction of self-government (December 1973). Instead the pro-independence Pangu Pati’s Michael Somare negotiated a fragile multi-ethnic national coalition and formed an administration. Somare’s skill as a negotiator and his ability to defuse conflict were an object lesson for Abal and his shell-shocked party. He relinquished leadership of the Opposition to Matthias Toliman, an educated New Britain UP member. When Toliman died suddenly in 1973, Abal again took on the leadership, but showed little talent for it, his ardour focussed primarily on delaying independence rather than on the parliamentary contest. Amid the jubilation on Papua New Guinea’s Independence Day (16 September 1975), some Highlanders wept, and one cut off his finger in mourning. Abal was remarkably conciliatory, but wary of his nation’s destabilising regionalism. He was knighted the next year.

A modest man of ‘virile sincerity’ (Griffin, Nelson, and Firth 1979, 195), Sir Tei was critical of Pangu’s progressive policies but admired Somare’s political success. After Iambakey Okuk, a Highlander, claimed leadership of the Opposition in May 1978, Abal joined the Somare government with other UP members and became minister for public utilities (1978–79). Wary of friction and betrayals, he advocated a unifying single party state; the proposal was undemocratic and politically inept. Having suffered a stroke in 1979, he was partially paralysed by a second in 1980. After polling poorly in the 1982 election, he retired from politics. He died at his home at Keas Village, Wabag, on 14 March 1994, survived by his wife, three sons, and three daughters. After a service at Messiah Lutheran Church at Pawas and a state funeral at Wabag Community School, which he had established, he was buried at Keas. Over two thousand mourners came to show respect and gratitude. A son, Sam Abal, later represented Wabag in the national parliament, serving as foreign minister (2007–10) and deputy prime minister (2010–12) under Somare.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Denoon, Donald. A Trial Separation: Australia and the Decolonisation of Papua New Guinea. Canberra: Pandanus Press, 2005
  • Griffin, James. ‘PNG Politician Who Sought to Delay Independence.’ Australian, 24 March 1994, 24
  • Griffin, James, Hank Nelson, and Stewart Firth, eds. Papua New Guinea: A Political History. Richmond, Vic.: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1979
  • Hegarty, David. ‘The Political Parties.’ In Development and Dependency: The Political Economy of Papua New Guinea, edited by Azeem Amashi, Kenneth Good, and Rex Mortimer, 187–204. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979
  • Korugl, Peter. ‘Sir Tei, Man of Enga and PNG.’ National, 22 March 1994, 3
  • Sinclair, James. The Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Goolwa, SA: Crawford Publishing, 2016
  • Australian External Territories. ‘Tei Abal.’ 8, no. 6 (December 1968): 22–23

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Abal, Sir Tei (1932–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abal-sir-tei-28144/text35849, published online 2019, accessed online 22 October 2019.

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