Government interfering with family affairs: matai sa’o

An overseas matai sa’o (family paramount chief) has reacted angrily to a newly passed law prohibiting the future bestowal of the titles upon non-residents of Samoa. 

The amendment to the  Lands and Titles Court Act 2020, passed on 15 December, is not retrospective but requires that all future recipients of sa’o titles be "domiciled" in Samoa. 

The prohibition is not retrospective but it has drawn the ire of an overseas matai sa’o who told the Samoa Observer it represented Government interference in family affairs.  

The first version of the proposed legislation included a cap of five matai sa’o per family but was instead replaced by the ban on overseas family chiefs in its third reading. 

Independent M.P. for Lotofaga, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, said the inclusion of the ban was “out of the blue” and was not accompanied by adequate consultation. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi said that the ban was designed to protect the integrity of the title system. He said it was “quintessential” that elected sa’o reside within the village and with the family that owns the title. 

Fuamatu Fetui Ioane, 71, the matai sa'o for the Fuamatu clan of Fagali’i village told the Samoa Observer he was “very shocked” to learn of the new law.  

He questioned why such drastic changes were passed with seeming such haste by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi and with only four dissenting votes in the Legislative Assembly. 

Not enough time was spent to allow sufficient public input on the bills, said Fuamatu, a Fagalii native who lives in Aasu, American Samoa.

Over the last 11 years as a sa’o, Fuamatu said he has frequently traveled to Samoa to attend village council meetings and see to additional family duties. 

 When he is not in Samoa, Fuamatu instructs a younger brother who lives in Fagalii, to carry out certain tasks.

“I was very shocked [by] this new law. I don’t think enough people in this country were consulted on these new laws,” he told the Samoa Observer from Aasu.

“The decision to choose a matai sa'o is up to the individual family. It is not within the Government’s jurisdiction. 

“If the family chooses someone who does not live in Samoa, then that is who they choose. 

“Of utmost importance is for the sa’o to serve and take care of the family with love and with honesty.”

The new Act’s provision limiting non-resident matai reads as follows: “The matai sa'o given the responsibility of serving the extended family should be domiciled in Samoa and be present in the family and village to carry out duties expected of a matai sa'o.”

Fuamatu described the law as “stupid.”

“The Government has no business with that. That is a stupid law. If the family chooses someone who lives outside of Samoa then that is what it is. Like what I have been doing: I attend the village council meetings each month, I serve my family, my village and my church” he said.

“I have not been able to travel to Samoa because of the COVID-19 restrictions since the lockdown started.”

The changes, Fuamatu said, are so fundamental that the Samoan public was not given enough time to dissect them adequately and provide informed opinions to the Government.

“I have never faltered in serving as the sa’o, by carrying out my duties to serve the family, village and the church,” he said. 

“While I am not there my brother is carrying out my duties [according to my instructions].

“These new laws were not made well. They were not done well. They really rushed these laws through. 

“Why? The laws were not made honestly. I oppose that law and who knows what [the] motive [is] behind these laws.”

When Samoa sought independence in the 20th Century, public debate was extensive and the people of Samoa were given the opportunity to voice their views and opinions before independence was achieved, he said.

“So why would they rush something like this? For so many years we have been without these laws then suddenly all these laws were quickly rushed through and so close to the elections. We were not given adequate time to discuss the laws, to make sure everyone agreed with them,” said Fuamatu.

He criticised Members of Parliament who refrained from voicing their own opinions and continued to allow the Prime Minister to speak for them.

“It’s like the Prime Minister rules everything and if he wants something done, then that is what is done. No one is allowed to offer a dissenting opinion,” Fuamatu said.

“I would like to come over but that will have to happen when the borders open. The matai sa'o has to be active and attend meetings and serve his family, village and church. 

“That is a decision that belongs to the family. Why is the Government telling families what to do? No. The Government has no business.”

He is hopeful that voters will choose a new government in the April elections.

Last week Tuilaepa during his regular programme said that having matai sa’o living overseas was hampering families taking care of their business. 

“They need to be here because they have to be present every day, because a matai sa’o deals with the decision making role of families, every single day,” the Prime Minister said. 

“So when something arises, the family cannot decide on something substantial before [their] overseas matai sa’o agrees."

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