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Proposed law will cause family conflict: Professor

A proposed law to limit the number of matai Sa’o to five per family will incite conflict among families which already have more titleholders, an expert has warned. 

The former Vice Chancellor of the National University of Samoa, Professor Fui Asofou So’o, said the practicality of a proposed change to the bestowal of titles could cause major conflict for families. The Professor said conflicts would be especially heated among families that have, after three generations, have bestowed multiple holders of a single title. 

The Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 sets out the proposed change to restrict the number of matai Sa’o per family. 

A Professor in Samoan Studies, Fui, said the idea to uphold and retain the dignity of the matai system by having one title holder may be a preferred option but in reality the situation is different. 

“There is an implication in [the Bill’s] statement that the dignity of the matai system could only be upheld if we limit the number of title holders,” he said. 

After many discussions on the issue with different generations, Fui said there was no definite agreement on the number of title holders needed to retain the dignity of the faa’matai system. 

He explained that people are very aware that there are some villages and families that have had multiple title holders for up to three generations. 

Some matai titles, he said, have up to 300 people bestowed with the same title. 

“On the one hand you have a figure and on the other how do you get people to agree on it,” he said. 

“There are different dynamics in every family. 

“In some families [multiple title holders] keeps the peace within families because if one side is not given the title a petition will be filed in Court. 

“I think it's going to cause more problems than peace in some cases…”

He pointed out that for families that have had three generations of multiple title holders there is uncertainty as to how a five title limit could be divided amongst 300 title holders. 

He also said the jury remained out on whether there was a formula for retaining the dignity of the matai system through limitations. 

“Where is the justice in having a number to limit the number of matai holders when there is no peace?,”. Fui questioned.  

“If this is what’s to be done to manage the family [to have multiple holders] and keep the peace then do it.

“That is the difficulty of putting a number in the legislation.

“What is the justice in that figure if it cannot accommodate the emotions in the reality of things and how do we manage it.”

While he agrees that a figure to limit the number of matai title holders would uphold the integrity of the faa’matai, he said the problem is there is not one simple solution to doing so. 

In his view, Fui said the decision on who should hold a title ultimately rests with the family, however he said if the “village is not on top of things to manage the disputes of families” to arrive at a number current practice would continue. 

He added that given that there are different dynamics inside families, another reason why families continue to bestow multiple titles is for the purposes of keeping the peace. 

Fui said that, while the majority of families have multiple title holders, there are also families that have limited themselves to one or two title holders. 

The proposed change in the L.T.C. to limit the number of matai Sa’o holders does not give a definite guideline of how the new change will be enforced. 

According to Fui there are means in the current system of the L.T.C. that allow a majority of family members to reach agreement on a number of titleholders. 

For those that might not agree with the majority, he pointed out there is a Court of Appeal to which opposing parties can seek recourse. 

“I’m not too confident that having a number legislated for everyone to follow will be the answer,” he said. 

“The reason is because I’m not sure how that will be done and given three generations [of multiple title holders] some families have 200 current holders so how do you reduce that to five? 

“That is the issue and difficulty.

“And we need to give people the opportunity to discuss so they can arrive at a decision on how they want to do it…” 

Fui said there is also a social and economic dimension to the holding of multiple matai titles. 

The academic said some believe that the more people holding a title the less a financial burden lies on a given single individual. 

He used an example of instead of a $10,000 contribution for the sole title holder that amount, when among five others who hold the title, reduces their financial commitment to $2000 each. 

The Professor noted that generally around the town area there were fewer matai holders per title. But in farther out areas in villages there tend to be more holders per title. 

“There is an economic aspect to it and maybe that itself is sufficient justification to keep the system as is,” he said. 

“To keep it as no set number; regulating it from anywhere; and just [leaving] it to the family, this is a social system evolving continuously.”

He said some families are not so concerned about more than 10 people holding a matai Sa’o because families claim that “some title holders will be useful while the others are given the title so they can get benefits from it”. 

“It’s part of the system and it’s a way that that person lives on [to get cultural benefit from holding the title],” he said. 

“It is just a speculation alone [...] that around town generally those living in the area are not too fussy to have too many matai holders because they work and can afford it (the matai contribution). 

“But further out in some villages they are fussy with how many hold the title because this is what they live on and [a] way to sustain life…”   

Finding a solution to maintaining the integrity of the faa’matai system and restricting the number of matai Sa’o, Fui said would require healthy and neutral discussion to allow for the many different dynamics for each family. 



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