The Other Side of Tradition

In a little over a month I will be touching down in the motherland for the first time in over 3 years. I am so excited I can barely contain my joy at the prospect of spending time with my family, walking the streets of Apia, going to the beach and generally just being a Samoan kid again. Samoa is my home in my heart, as much as New Zealand is home to me, and to a certain extent Korea has become a surrogate home to me too.

As a Samoan child growing up in South Auckland, being Samoan was always a great source of pride and nostalgia. We are taught from a young age to respect the ‘fa’asamoa’ or the Samoan way. To make sure that we preserve our countries traditions and cultural customs. This sense of duty to our culture has manifested itself in the forms of various Samoan community organizations in New Zealand such as church congregations. Samoan associations within different public institutions such as schools, universities and even within public offices such as public ministries. Many point to this as a great success of Samoa’s diaspora community in New Zealand in managing to preserve its identity. All of which I agree with wholeheartedly. Our people are a presence in New Zealand that adds flavour and diversity to an exciting nation of people.

But recently as I’ve come to think of Samoan culture and culture in general I’ve come to question a lot of the motives of those that are in power in Samoa, and within Samoan communities in New Zealand as well. I know that this is something that is not unique to Samoa, which is why I’m really looking forward to researching this phenomena more after graduation in the Northern Hemisphere Summer, but culture is no longer just a subject that should be examined from an anthropological perspective. Especially in the case of the South Pacific. Culture now needs to be examined with a much more scrupulous political science lens for a number of reasons. To me not enough work has been done in the field that relates specifically to South Pacific cultures. And by my own bias, not enough has been done to place Samoan cultural traditions within the field of Political Science and IR in particular. As a Political Science major in my undergraduate degree and now as an International Relations major in my Masters degree, I will forewarn you. My position in this post is focused particularly from those perspectives. As a disclaimer I am not criticizing anything to do with the beauty that is our Samoan culture, but I wish to highlight an aspect of culture that to me is being misappropriated by our political elite.

In the past scholars who have examined the South Pacific in the political science field have generated a kind of discourse about the region as being primitive, and somewhat backward. The political instability, cronyism, the lack of transparency of certain governments have led to a somewhat eschewed picture of the political system of the region. Even worse, I would argue that the other side of this development is that any research that is conducted that tries to critically examine the political structure of our indigenous cultures, if even the slightest bit critical, is often dismissed by locals as being neocolonialist. And with good reason too. Just look at the less than ‘thorough’ work done by Margaret Mead in her infamous “Coming of Age in Samoa” which western scholars still refuse to accept was based on flawed methodology and by default had less than solid conclusions. However it still gave birth to a whole new group of scholars in Anthropology who attested to her work as a quasi-bible to the field. This sort of cultural misrepresentation has meant people of the South Pacific tend to reject or are very skeptical to any work done by outside scholars that attempts to map our region in any form or social science discipline such as Political Science or IR.

But this is problematic now because I believe that modernization has allowed for the maturation of particular ideas and processes within indigenous communities such as our own in Samoa, but the use of this knowledge is being hoarded by the elites. What I’m alluding to is the fact that palagi concepts and notions of political power, ways in which to exert influence and control over people are not just palagi concepts anymore. They are concepts that belong to everyone, including indigenous cultures such as Samoan culture, and its very existence is being exploited by the political elite in Samoa to subjugate our people. This is what I call the other side of tradition.

It seems rather intuitive when you think about it. Samoa’s hierarchical traditional political structure allows for a dominant chief to centralize control. And for many centuries our politics of consensus meant that our system was always conducive to this idea of a central figure being the leader of the nu’u and even the islands as a whole. But what’s different now is that certain leaders in Samoa have combined the traditional loyalty that a matai or chief commands over his or her village with palagi concepts of democracy and democratic institutions. This has led to the situation where Samoa is now an illiberal democracy.

What does this mean in lay man’s terms? Well think about it. Samoa at annexation in 1899 was actually on the brink of civil war. Chiefs fought for their authority, the passing down of Matai titles didn’t necessarily go down smoothly. The four aristocratic titles which had only ever been united in one person according to our oral history occurred just three times. The rest of the time life between the different camps meant that Samoa was constantly at war with itself. Now this is very important because the result of when Germany took control and followed by New Zealand’s bungled administration of Samoa,was that we stopped fighting each other and began fighting a common enemy. Imperialism.

When independence came around in 1962, Samoa was careful to try and meld together Samoa’s traditional form of governance which really boiled down to a central chief being in control of the affairs of his nu’u and aiga, with western ideas and the newly developing international norm of universal suffrage, and democratic participation, Samoa’s administrators at the time had to do enough to appease the United Nations concerns and New Zealand’s concerns as well that all of Samoa’s citizens would be given fair treatment and access to justice under the new Western Samoan constitution. Samoa did enough to satisfy their requirements by melding elements of the fa’asamoa with that of democracy.

An example of this is that in Samoa, no one is allowed to stand for parliament without a matai title. So you must possess a chiefly title if you wish to make a mark in Samoan politics. However something else persisted which to me has been the real reason why cronyism is still existing in Samoa. The constitution of Western Samoa left a lot of power still within the hands of the local chiefs. Local villages still have the power to set rules within their own village tradition and custom. Any political strategist can see the potential pitfall of such a devolved sense of authority. The central government can set particular laws on things such as national taxation, however on issues of individual rights, a village council can still banish an individual, a family or even go as far as stripping titles which carry land with them from a person.

In defence of culture though, this practice is a continuation of centuries of political development within Samoan tradition. However the problem is this. Now this also extends to voting itself. A village council has the power to mobilize voting blocks. Therefore any person that lives within that village must vote in a general election according to the directive given by the village council. There is no secret ballot in Samoa’s villages. The village council effectively controls entire blocks. So how does this manifest itself as seats in Samoa’s fale fono? (parliament), Well lets look at the fact that since 1982, two years before my birth Samoa has known only one political party as its government. The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) have governed Samoa. Which is kind of an ironic name as many in Samoa believe that the HRPP are the biggest violators of Human Rights. Samoa it is argued, is now being run by an elected dictatorship.

Samoa’s current Prime Minister the Honourable Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is perhaps more powerful than any other Prime Minister in the South Pacific. He and his party have manipulated the fa’asamoa or Samoan traditions of ‘consensus’ decision making by appealing directly to the traditional bias of Samoans. The international community laud Samoa for its strong stable ‘democracy’. But the term democracy being applied to Samoa is not only misinformed it’s down right offensive. Samoa’s people are not free to vote the way they like, they are not free to contest elections without fear of reprisals. A candidate who stood against the Prime Minister in the last election in his home electorate was told by the village council that if he ran against the Prime Minister and lost, he would be banished from the village. When asked by the Samoa Observer whether this was a tad harsh, the village council replied that it was tradition.

Unlike other countries where people’s human rights are obviously being violated in more violent forms, Human Rights groups refuse to even look at Samoa’s condition for fear of being accused of being neocolonialist. And by accepting things such as Samoa’s robust ‘political system’, and lack of civil unrest in comparison to other states in the South Pacific, the people of Samoa are left to live their lives under a haze of political control veiled in traditional preservation.

So when it emerged this week that in Samoa a teenager is being held in prison awaiting charges of defaming the Prime Minister because of a video he made making fun of him, and as appalled as I was at the mere fact that his Human Rights were being unashamedly violated by his own village council which turned him in, I was more appalled at the lack of response from the Samoan community. But at the same time I realised that this was something that the people of Samoa had no fault in.

Our people have been conditioned to believe that we are in fact the superior Polynesian group as we are fully independent, without civil unrest, political stability and one of the strongest economies in the South Pacific. But very few of us appreciate the other side of tradition. That side is that we are being socially herded toward following tradition over common sense.

In the 1990s Singapore’s PM Lee Kuan Yew is well known for sparking what was known as the Asian values versus Democratic values debate. He argued that Asian values and democracy were in conflict with each other. Asian values emphasized collective action, suppression of the rights of the individual for the benefit of all. Sacrificing for the future as Asia’s economies become little miracles. The Tiger economies of Singapore, Korea and Taiwan in particular were able to flourish under harsh dictatorial regimes. Samoa faces a very similar debate today, but the difference is, no one is prepared to talk about it openly. Our tradition does go against individual human rights. We need to acknowledge this and begin a national dialogue about this issue. However I fear that any attempts by anyone outside of the upper echelons of political power in Samoa will be shutdown in the name of tradition. So I’m also very weary about posting this opinion piece as I’m sure many people would react violently to what I’m expressing.

Here’s what I’m expecting to hear. “You don’t understand the fa’asamoa properly”, and “Typical rubbish coming from an overseas born Samoan who knows nothing about our culture” and “Keep your palagi ideas to yourself” but here’s what I have to say to all of those criticisms.

Sa foai mai e Le Atua i tatou uma taleni eseese, ia te a’u lava, sa foai mai le gutu, o mafaufauga ma le poto. E lē mafai ona faimai se tagata ia te a’u e le taulia ni o’u mafaufauga. Pe afai na loto Le Atua oute lē tautala i upu oute malamalama iai, ole a le uiga ole gutu ma le mafaufau sa foai mai ia te a’u? Afai na lē loto Le Atua oute tautala i mataupu faapenei, ua leva ona aveeseina lo’u malamalama ma Le atamai o lo’o foai fua mai iā te ia. E taua uma taleni ua foai mai e Le Atua, ma e taua lava ona faaaoga uma taleni a tagata.

We were all given different talents and abilities from the heavens. Mine has always been the ability to speak my mind clearly, I was given the gift to understand these palagi concepts and relate them to being Samoan. No man has the right to deny me the use of my gifts, and I intend on using them as best as I can to ensure that the marginalized Samoan has a voice.

As a people we need to stop dismissing the ideas of ‘other’ Samoans. And we need to realize that tradition should not be an excuse for autocracy. Unfortunately this is the path that we are beating today if we choose to continue to ignore what’s happening right in front of us.

See you soon Samoa! You will always be my first love.

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