Minister Sili passes the test

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, would have had to tackle some pretty tough challenges during the first year of his young political career. 

But none would have been more sensitive than the question of which side he stands on after his village of Salelologa agreed to ban any Chinese businesses being set up on their customary lands.

Sili would have been torn. As a chief of Salelologa and their representative in Parliament, he knows what’s required of him. He certainly cannot be seen to oppose what the Village Council has agreed upon. 

But as a Minister of State in a government that has been facilitating the influx of Asian-owned businesses as their existence depended on it, Sili has an obligation to ensure the very Chinese his village have banned are protected. 

Which means the Minister has a fine line to walk.

But his response to questions from the Samoa Observer in relation to the issue is a pass mark in our opinion. His tone is what’s needed right now as we navigate our way towards the future, seeking to find an amicable solution to these tough questions.

For the uninitiated, asked if he supports his village’s decision to ban Chinese businesses, Sili responded: “I can’t say if it’s a good move or not because it has just happened. What I can say is that we’ve known for a while now that there have been a lot of criticisms about the influx of Chinese businesses. 

“There is also the question what types of businesses do we want investors- Chinese – to bring. 

“My personal opinion is that the Chinese should be encouraged to establish businesses that are not being operated by our people. They can set up commercial farms and the like but they shouldn’t do the same thing as the people of Samoa because it becomes so hard for our people to compete. The government should really take a look at what kind of businesses foreign investors should start.”

Well said. Sili is correct and the timing of his message could not have been better. The fact is concerns about the influx of ‘new Chinese’ businesses are not new. They have been around for a long time now. 

But these concerns are not confined to Samoa. They are being expressed all over the world as people wake up to an unstoppable wave from the east that’s sweeping the globe with such force. No matter the country; you’ll find that the issues are pretty much the same. 

It has everything to do with locals becoming increasingly alarmed by the influx of foreigners taking opportunities that should otherwise be reserved for them. 

Now in response to this, two villages have moved to put a stop to it. 

First there was Salelologa and then Siumu followed. We can hardly fault the rationale behind the decisions. Take for example the explanation by the Tu’ua of Siumu, Tuu’u Fa’ase’e.

 Asked if he the decision is not harsh given the rising cost of living and how many Samoans are finding refuge in cheap Chinese goods, Tuu’u said it is about protecting the future of the village.

 “It’s okay for the time being but in the long run and the future of our children it’s not okay,” he said. “Our children are growing up and they are being well educated. Some of them have scholarships overseas so in the future when they come back and want to build a business of their own, where will they go?

“If we allow foreign businesses now to be set up, our children will not be able to have access to the lands when they grow up because the foreigners have taken them all. So that’s why the matai and faipule of the district decided that this is the best time to put a stop to it before it becomes a problem in the future.”

Tuu’u is correct. But how do we manage such concerns without being branded as racists, discriminatory, anti-Chinese among other less flattering terms?

We say this because history exists to teach us that this is a very sensitive matter. Some countries have adopted a welcoming attitude, which allows them to take advantage of the benefits and utilize the skills this influx of people have to offer. Others though have been less welcoming. 

In the Pacific, we don’t need to look further than Tonga, Fiji and Solomon Islands to see how such tensions can easily escalade into chaos and suffering. The riots there should always be a reminder about what could happen if we don’t tread with care.

It is why we say Minister Sili’s call on the government to revisit the question of what type of businesses foreign investors should be encouraged to invest in is not only sensible, it is timely.

“I think it’s important that we have to look at this for the long run to avoid any clashes between our people and the Chinese,” said Sili.

“You see if the Chinese businesses are allowed to spread out to the villages, in the next 30 years, I don’t think we will have any more Samoan-owned businesses. So it’s something that should be reviewed. 

“I wonder if now is not the time to allocate designated areas for those particular businesses in the town area because everyone can access them.”

In all honesty, that will be a great start. 

Let’s hope Sili’s boss, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, is listening.

When the issue was raised in Parliament last month, we said the government has to wake up and revisit its policies to ensure we don’t end up like Tonga and the Solomon Islands. 

The fact is we have to be realistic about what’s going on in the world today. 

It’s not just Samoa that is struggling with the Asian invasion which means that whether we like this influx of new Chinese or not, we cannot stop it. 

What we can do is ensure we capitalise by utilising their expertise and knowledge to help advance our people’s prospects in life. 

When it comes to businesses, the Chinese have a gift for it. Whatever it is, they know how to make it work. Our people need to find out what that gift is, why it works for them and adjust it so that we can be just as successful. 

At the same time, the government has got a responsibility to protect the interests of local people. It’s a tough balancing act but it’s one we need to get right. What do you think? Write and share your thoughts with us!

Have a great Tuesday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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