2019 People of the Year: Fe’esago George Fepulea’i
Fe’esago Siaosi Fepulea’i has spent the best part of his life serving the people of Samoa through many different roles.
For the 84-year-old, that is 65 years of service in roles including the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Ambassador for Samoa in Brussels and New Zealand and countless other senior positions.
But it was his last official role that perhaps summed up the courage of a man whose heart for his country cannot be questioned.
In 2017 the Government took a leap of faith to revive international flights for Samoa through its own airline, Samoa Airways. The decision by Cabinet was made on the recommendation by Fe’esago, who was the Chairman of the Board at the time.
When he retired, Fe’esago acknowledged Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi’s leadership in the matter, saying the Government made the right decision.
He said the previous arrangements with overseas airlines felt like Samoa was once again under colonial rule, referring to a joint venture between the Government and Virgin Australia.
In 2016, a Scoping and Feasibility Study for International Jet Services was conducted and released in 2017.
Fe’esago said this changed everything.
“I appeared before Cabinet over this study and I read out bits and pieces of the report and for the first time ever, I felt that we were once again under colonial rule,” he said.
“They were milking money from us, with their expensive airfares, both airlines; they were making millions from our people.” It was from there that motivated the Government to do something.
“There was no way we would continue down this path, with the unfair treatment we were getting from the joint venture. They took advantage of us,” he said.
The start was not easy with the Chairman noting that not all Cabinet Ministers were on board with the idea.
Still they persisted.
“The passion to revive Samoa Airways quickly reminds how our forefathers fought for the freedom we are now enjoying. I salute and applaud them, despite the lack of education; the blood and sweat of our forefathers speaks volume,” he said.
“Their determination, passion and patriotism led Samoa to where it is now.”
Fe’esago acknowledged that criticisms of the Government’s decision at the start were warranted, given the history of Polynesian Airlines.
But that was then.
Today is different, he insists.
“We learn from our mistakes and we move on,” he said. “At the time of the first airline, the Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, Churches and their Reverends, organizations were flying to New Zealand without any airfares.
“They were supposed to repay the airline upon return but never did. That practice led the closing down of the then Polynesian Airlines.”
Polynesian Airlines international operations slowly disappeared replaced by Virgin Blue, which later became Virgin Samoa, in 2005.
Still the desire was there for Samoa to get back into international flights with its own flag carrier.
The rest as they say is history.
Looking back today, despite some challenges along the way, Fe’esago is adamant the Government made the right decision.
“Our forefathers did not fight for our freedom for us to go back to this,” he said about the previous joint venture arrangements.
He said when the government announced the cancellation of the joint venture; Virgin Australia tried to get the Australian government involved.
“The Prime Minister adamantly told them no. We will not be bullied into anything and that to me; took a lot of guts.
“Too bad for them, they picked on the wrong guy. The Prime Minister stood his ground. Only those with guts can turn down threats from a big government and that’s exactly what we did.”
A devout Catholic, Fe’esago served the Catholic Church in Samoa with his work for the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
In 2016, he was presented a Papal Award by Archbishop Alapati Lui Mateiliga during Mass at the Immaculate Conception of Mary Cathedral in Apia. He was presented with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice.