The numerous complaints about the abuse of power by the matai or Sa’o (titular head) of the family prompted a call by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi to review their roles.
He asked the Samoa Law Reform Commission to initiate a discussion paper on the issue. Prime Minister Tuilaepa wanted to address the “abuses of powers of a Matai Sa’o (titular head) of the family.”
“The terms of reference are a response to common complaints of abuse of power by the Matai Sa’o primarily related to matai titles and customary land which has resulted in numerous disputes between family members and the family Sa’o,” the report says.
Following public consultation in Upolu and Savai’i, S.L.R.C made recommendations to the government. Two options were given for further consideration. One, is the multiple Sa’o to continue to be permitted and secondly to limit families to one Sa’o.
According to the S.L.R.C report, most of the legislative measures recommended are consistent with the majority of views from those consulted, which strongly advocated that any legislation should reflect as much as possible the roles, duties and expectations of a Matai Sa’o that are common across families in Samoa, despite differences in how a Sa’o is perceived in different families.
“Due to the sensitive nature of this project and the approaching general elections which was the main focus of the public during that time, work on this project commenced in March 2016,” the report reads.
“Public Consultations took place over a four day period in Upolu and Savaii in October and November 2016 on issues raised in the Discussion Paper, with over 700 members of the public in attendance, indicating high levels of public interest.
“To garner as representative a view as possible, public consultations were carried out with selected constituencies participating on different dates. Public notices of the consultation were issued for extensive broadcast on television, radio and social media.”
The Report sets out the Commission’s recommendations for reform on the key issues raised in the Discussion Paper and in public consultations.
“In response to issues arising from families having more than one Matai Sa’o, the Commission provides some options for reform for the government, given the complexity of the matter and the diverse views of those affected.”
According to the S.L.R.C, the concept of matais or Sa’o abusing their power in decision-making has been a common issue for years in the Land and Titles Court of Samoa.
“Often allegations are made about a Matai Sa’o making significant decisions affecting the welfare of the family, without adequate or prior consultation with all extended family members.
“These disputes often relate to the use, settlement or leasing of customary land, allocation of matai titles, or allocation of family funds under the control of the Matai Sa’o.
“There are also numerous claims of the Sa’o being biased in their decision-making and treating family members unfairly or providing special treatment to other family members, and bestowing matai titles to ineligible recipients or those who have not served the family.
“Other concerns raised were in relation to the mass bestowal of matai titles that is often exacerbated by multiple Matai Sa’o within a family and also situations where a Matai Sa’o residing overseas opposes decisions made by matai or the Matai Sa’o living in Samoa.”
According to the S.L.R.C the purposes of this report, the Commission distinguishes between matai and Matai Sa’o, to make it clear when additional or different duties, powers, appointment or removal procedures exist between the two.
“When the Commission refers to ‘matai’ generally however, it refers to matai titles entered in the Register of Matai established and kept under the Land and Titles Act 1981, and does not intend to capture titles held as a complimentary honour only.”
Finally, the Commission received an overwhelming number of submissions to change the term “Sa’o”, “Matai Sa’o” or “Pule”.
“It was perceived by the majority who attended public consultations that the terms ‘Sa’o’, ‘Matai Sa’o’ or ‘Pule’ infer that the Sa’o has absolute authority and the sole authority over family members as well as family properties (pule i tagata toe pule i eleele).
“In addition, the Sa’o is perceived to be always making the right decision, as in the literal translation of ‘Sa’o’.
“However, this is not the correct interpretation of the role of the Sa’o in the fa’asamoa.
“Suggestions by the public of suitable terms that better encapsulate the role of the Matai Sa’o as a custodian or trustee of the family, whose authority derives from and depends on the consensus of family members.
“The Commission acknowledges the sensitive nature of this project as with all matters that touch upon our aganuu ma le fa’asamoa, especially in regards to the importance of the Matai Sa’o within the fa’asamoa.
“Therefore, great care has been taken to ensure that all recommendations for reform (legislative and non-legislative), take into account Samoan custom and tradition and its importance in Samoan life.
“To this end, the Commission notes that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach and that each family, village and community may practice fa’asamoa differently; E talalasi le atunuu. E tofu le nu’u ma lona faasinomaga, tofu le nuu ma ana talatu’u ma lana mau.”