By Savea Sano Malifa and Mata’afa Keni Lesa APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Jan. 3, 2012) - One thing you have to understand right from the start about Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi is that he believes he’s always right, never wrong. So that as far as he’s concerned anyone who questions him is either insanely wrong or an unforgivable idiot.

He feels this way because he believes he is chosen to do anything he thinks is right to move Samoa forward economically, never mind what anyone else thinks.

And that’s Tuilaepa, 66, Lepa-born and raised, happily married to Gillian Meredith, sired eight children, 12 grandchildren, devoutly religious, sometimes obnoxiously arrogant. However, deep down he’s alright. Below the tough veneer is a great, resourceful man.

Which follows that if today he wants to pass a law to change the way God thinks, that law will be passed without even a squeak inside Parliament.

Since the way Tuilaepa thinks, Parliament is just as superfluous as something trivial we can easily forget, since it is, after all, just a rubber stamp designed to jump when his hand is raised.

But that is how charmingly arrogant he can become. Such is his gift anyway. Arrogantly charming, charmingly brutal. Even those hunkering around him are well aware of this silent power he routinely unleashes without him moving a muscle.

And yet we can’t blame him; because if the truth is told, Tuilaepa, after all, was chosen to lead.

It all began when he graduated with a Master of Commerce from Auckland University in 1969.

He returned to Samoa and started working at Treasury as an Investigating Officer.

Then in 1978 he got a job at the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) General Secretariat, based in Belgium, and he and his family moved there.

And then in 1979 fate intervened. During a World Bank Conference in Yugoslavia he had a meeting with Samoa’s Minister of Finance at the time, Vaovasamanaia Filipo, and Financial Secretary, Alistair Hutchinson.

"At that time," Tuilaepa revealed during an interview for this article Thursday last week, "Samoa’s economy had nose-dived.

"So these guys asked me to resign and come back to head Treasury."

Apparently he did not hesitate. "I resigned and returned at the end of 1980," he said.

At the time Tuilaepa was 35. He was young, his job at ACP was promising unlimited possibilities, financial security, and above all, prestige.

Why then did he choose to return to work in a third world country offering nothing but a life of hardhip, uncertainty, undeniable obscurity?

The answer is simple. He returned because he cared. Deep down he loved his country.

Deep down he knew his roots were firmly planted in inalienable Samoan soil. Indeed, deep down he felt duty-bound to help in making a difference.

And then once again fate showed up. This time, Fatialofa Momo’e, Lepa’s Member of Parliament, passed away so that the Lepa seat was now vacant.

Now confusion arose. "I came back because the Minister wanted me to take over Treasury as Alistair was going to return," Tuilaepa reminisced.

"The nominations were closed for the by-election. It was the time … of the strike.

"I was approached by members of our constituency to resign (from Treasury) since the seat in Parliament had become vacant." His indecision did not last.

"I resigned," Tuilaepa said. "There was a candidate from Saleapaga and another from Lepa.

"(However) I won by a landslide. I’ve won every election after that one." Which is precisely why Tuilaepa thinks he’s the chosen one.

That was thirty years ago. He has been a Member of Parliament since, Prime Minister for the last 13 years.

And as a devout Christian, he believes every decision he makes is divinely inspired. Therefore he believes no one should stand in his way. That way he might have been likened to Hitler, Pol Pot or Stalin, if he had not been just as arrogantly adamant on keeping free thought alive and well in Samoa today.

That is his lasting legacy. It will survive. Not a bad achievement for a young boy from Lepa growing up at a time when the roads were miserably car-wrecking, buses took half-a-day to arrive, poverty was hell.

No wonder he pushed so arrogantly for the right-hand-drive change as if he was making indelibly sure that, that dark image in his memory was removed completely from his mind. One thing he needs to work diligently on now is poverty. That is the challenge confronting him now. Overcome it and all his other achievements will continue to shiner.

Now find out more about our "Person of the Decade." He says:

"I was born on 14 April 1945 in Lepa. My father was Malielegaoi Veni. My mother is from Aufaga where I hold the Lupesoliai matai title

I come from a family of 11 kids. There were four boys. Two died at young age, one died at 3 years and one died at 5 years.

One got sick and one drowned. My other brother died in 1998.

I come from an EFKS background. I was born to an EFKS family, some of my relatives are pastors and were missionaries to Papua New Guinea.

I came to Apia in 1950. At that time we had to catch a ride at Falealili and Falefa, so we had to walk from tua. I came because there was an old lady who came for a wedding at Lepa and when she came, I followed.

So I came and stayed in Apia for school and when school finished, I’d go back to Lepa.

I studied first under Brother Felise, when that closed I went to Marist Brothers and SJC. We started the school at Lotopa in 1960.

In 1963, the UE was introduced formerly and so I started the SJC Form 6. The same time Taposa and Samoa College started their Form 6.

There was a decision to have one Form 6 to maximise resources but there was no agreement among the schools. There was competition and each school wanted to start their own Form 6. So I was the only one in my Form 6.

The brothers (felela) helped but I took UE correspondence through the Wellington Correspondence School.

So I went to New Zealand in 1964 and spent one year at St Paul’s College. From there I went to Auckland University and finished in 1969.

When I came back I started at Treasury as an Investigating Officer. In 1978, I went to Belgium to work for the ACP General Secretariat as an international employee. In 1979, there was a request from Samoa for a meeting during a World Bank Conference in Yugoslavia, Belgrade.

So we met with Vaovasa and Alistair Hutchinson and at that time, the Samoan economy had nose-dived. So these guys asked me to resign and come back to head Treasury. So I resigned and returned at the end of 1980. Not long after I arrived here, Fatialofa [Momo’e] died and was buried at the beginning of 1981.

So our seat [in Parliament] was empty. I came back because the Minister wanted me to take over Treasury as Alistair was going to return.

It was at that time when the [Public Service] strike happened. In April, the nominations were closed for the by-election.

I was approached by members of our constituency to resign since the seat in Parliament had become vacant so I went but there was a candidate from Saleapaga and another one from Lepa, who was a Fatialofa, but I won by a landslide in the by-election. I’ve won every election after that.

When I came [into politics], I made a decision I was an independent.

In a few months, Parliament was disbanded. Strategically I saw at that time that party politics was quite strong and I did not have the means – that’s why I went as an independent, I didn’t want to show my hand. Not long after, a General Elections was held and I again ran as an independent.

If you look back in your paper at the list of candidates, Lepa is missing.

Somebody had put my name down as an HRPP candidate but I told them to remove my name since I hadn’t declared my allegiance and that I was going to run as an independent. Sometimes you have to be ahead especially since party politics was very strong and I still did not have the means.

So I wanted follow Fatialofa’s style of being low key and not wanting to be too well known and I got through again at the beginning of 1982. Now in 1982, there were four changes [of government]. There was the change from Tupua to the HRPP, then to Vaai, then to HRPP. So it was after all those changes that I declared and cast my support to HRPP.

It was very interesting for me to observe the movement of candidates. In fact Tupua should have won that year. We had one member – I didn’t know he was watching me – who was moving around. Close to the day of reckoning, I didn’t know he was waiting for me so that he can make his decision.

I only found out later and I told him that I was here [HRPP] instead of being there. He stayed and the HRPP won by one member. So when Vaai fell, it shifted.

I did play a very big role inside the HRPP party. Tupua wanted me to come over, so I met him and I said no, I would stay here (HRPP).

At that time, the declining economy was a major issue for me. In fact we were bankrupt at the time. We faced many problems, especially with policies. I can say that the PM was relying on his Ministers but at that time, it was close to the elections of 1982 so it was difficult for the government to come up with revenue measures.

It was difficult for the government to rectify the deficit and yet there was strong demand from the public service for a [pay] rise so when the government rejected, they went on a strike. The truth is the strike gave HRPP the opportunity to get to the top.

We have to face the reality that in the end, it was essentially a question of food for their mouths. At that time the economy was dead, it was a time when most people at Public Works will sign in and do nothing because there was nothing for them to work from.

Orders were rejected. It was difficult for Tupua to respond because he was relying on his Ministers and the Ministers were of the thought that when people are hungry, they’ll come on their knees but people were defiant.

That strike opened up the opportunity for the HRPP.

At that time, the HRPP started throwing in alternatives, people weren’t not so much looking at leaders, but were beginning to look at policies.

1982 was the most unstable period in our politics. At the end of that year, Vaai was removed by a Court action, and Tupua came back. But despite Tupua’s attempts, the stigma of the strike stuck with him. When Tupua was sworn in, the HRPP boycotted because we had the same number as them.

We were still waiting for the result of some by-elections and when Fuataga won, we were ahead. When the budget was tabled, the HRPP rejected it and so there was no government. The Head of State opened up two choices, either disband Parliament or appoint Tofilau.

We didn’t have a government for over seven days. So Tofilau went and met with the HOS for the possibility of another election. That’s when Malietoa turned around and said I’m going to swear you in. So he was sworn in on the 30th.

Tofilau repointed his Cabinet and there was one position that was vacant so I was appointed to Associate Minister of Finance and Minister of Economic Affairs and Civil Aviation. Few months later, Cabinet was reshuffled and I was appointed to be the Minister of Treasury. That’s when Cabinet was sworn in on 30th December 1982.

When Parliament was called 24 hours later, that’s where the swearing in of the old man (Tofilau) by Malietoa was regularised.

In February, I tabled my first budget where I laid down a rigid, tight programme of economic reforms which has carried on since then, building the economy.

In April, I went with the Treasury and Economic Affairs CEO to Geneva to meet with Heads of Financial Institutions of the world and government representatives. We made presentations to them to restore their confidence in Samoa that all the measures are in place to stablise the economy.

That’s when the doors started to open again, that’s when we started to access donor partners who had otherwise shut the door on us because of our poor economic policies. To them, they were wasting their money on Samoa.

We spent several weeks with Hans Kruse, Kolone Va’ai and Mose [Sua] in Geneva for meetings with donor govt and financial institutions to convince them that Samoa is back. We came back in May and that’s when the economy started to grow.

We established the Central Bank – keep in mind that at that time, our foreign reserves were dead – so the CBS was established to manage the foreign reserves in a most technical manner in accordance with monetary guidelines and to make sure it’s in line with fiscal policies.

Then we started publishing independent reports in 1984 that were previously unavailable. And that process has continued up until today. Even our foreign debt, these guys [CBS] are watching it to ensure we don’t fall back to the problems of 1979 and 1982. That’s why I keep saying in Parliament that so long as we [HRPP] are here, there is nothing to worry about.

We came into power because of financial problems, we managed those problems and we have in place clear guidelines for our country to follow. We now have over T$300million worth of foreign reserves, equivalent to about seven months of imports. Even our debts, there are measures in place to guide our debt servicing capacity.

There are financial institutions that are overly cautious at times. In 2003, there was an evaluation [by the World Bank and IMF] on the economy and they said they were a bit worried.

They gave a recommendation to stop a number of developments that were due to take off. These included Aggie Grey’s Hotel, the SamoaTel building, joint venture with Virgin Blue and the building of the DBS building. So we talked and I said to continue [with the projects].

These guys didn’t understand that at the end of the year, we get money from our relatives.

And so the projects proceeded, in the end the results were very positive. There was no decline in the economy, instead it grew.

Even the road switch. You published the concern by the Governor of the Central Bank that the economy will be severely affected. And when the switch was done and a report came out that there was a surplus, so I said to him, that’s why I told you to stop being afraid. Many people ask me, what is the secret?

To me, the secret is teamwork between the PM, Cabinet Ministers and the public service. It’s not something that is attributable to one person; I have to respect the public service. Overseas countries hold Samoa in very high regard because we have a very educated public service. We’ve benefitted from our scholarship schemes.

Such things are not acknowledged by many people yet little do they know that is the secret. It’s about teamwork. Cabinet Ministers and I deal with policies but the implementation of policies is so important. So when the public service is slack, the leadership is questioned.

That’s why when you [Samoa Observer] have digs at me, I smile when I see them, because they are important reminders. Sometimes when CEOs travel overseas, it’s important for them to learn. That’s why it’s good to have you [Samoa Observer] to challenge them so that they don’t just go for the sake of it, but they should learn.

Their contribution is widely acknowledged, it’s in our nature to speak and express ourselves, I feel very proud when I talk to some palagi and they tell me that a certain CEO from Samoa has been doing well at such meetings. So I tell them that that’s what Samoan people are like.

I remember when my daughter who studied law in Vanuatu told me that one day when they were having a class, the lecturer got carried talking about law in the Pacific. He said; All the law societies in the Pacific are good except one I can’t stand. That’s Samoa, they think they know it all.

Later he asked if there was a Samoan in the class, when he realised that my daughter was there, he laughed and said; Well really, it’s the only society that questions what we do.

Which is a good compliment about the nature of our people. We always question things. We don’t just accept things lock, stock and barrel without questioning it first. On leading the government and going forward, the amendment to the Electoral Act about eligibility, to stop an MP from jumping from one side to the other.

That’s what’s happening in PNG. That sort of thing destabilises governments. It’s like what happened in 1985 to the HRPP.

The amendment last year was made with the view in terms of the future.

I remember someone said to me, why do you need to do this when you’ve already got the majority, why do you need to supress the opposition? I said to that person, we don’t do it to suppress the opposition. We do it to stablise the Government.

You would recall that it’s when we got two-thirds majority [in 1985] that the HRPP nearly fell apart. Stability is not ensured by a party when it gains majority. That is the most dangerous aspect when you have more than the majority.

You remember that when you ran in the election, you went and told your constituency that you were running for the HRPP, that’s why people voted for you based on your promise. If you change your party, it’s justifiable – on the equity side – to surrender your seat and have another election.

That’s the spirit in the amendment of the electoral act. It will ensure stability in the future. People don’t think much of it now but in the future when many other governments are unstable, we should continue to be the stable country.

At one time I spoke with the Head of State, I told him that if there was one biggest contribution for the stability of Samoa into the future, it is the bill to amend the Constitution. That is the biggest contribution we have made.

Women in Parliament:

Plan for women to have 10 per cent of seats. Five members. To achieve that target, we need the fix number to be movable between 49 to 54.

In the case that all 49 members are male, then we’ll select five women who contested based on the highest percentage of votes polled.

So the women will still have to go through the same baptism of fire.

The idea is that there will always be five women in Parliament. But if of the 49 members and five of them are women, then we will not activate the amendment.

Without that amendment, we can never achieve 10 per cent. Who knows, we’ll reach the end of the world before that number is found.

Healthy development

Another healthy development I’ve noticed is that a growing number of people with higher education are entering Parliament. I think that’s a very good insurance policy for the future of our country.


Education, Unemployment and Poverty: Is there a policy to eradicate poverty?

PM Tuilaepa: "It’s a deep issue especially since it evolves in our culture, in terms of trying to develop an individual.

I feel that the free primary education policy is a big help heading to the future.

New Zealand and Australia have started paying for school fees. It’s not going to end. When these countries decide to pull out, the government cannot tell the people to go back to where we were. It means the government will have to take over that responsibility.

Secondly, local educational institutions are asking the government to take on the burden of salaries for teachers. There are many schools who pay for their teachers, including private schools. I’ve been asked by private schools to look into it but I’ve told them to wait.

Keep in mind that the policy [to help private schools] started with $100,000 and now it’s grown to $6m. So eventually it will grow.

The secret to erasing poverty is education. That’s the crux of the matter.

Question: Are there repercussions for Samoa in joining the World Trade Organisation? Are there guidelines to help Samoa?

PM Tuilaepa: "The truth is we cannot produce everything. We import most things.

There are no more countries who continue to dump their goods on other countries because they don’t send it for free.

Governments impose incentives to subsidise those goods that are dumped.

So no government will continue to do that especially when they’re part of these agreements. The agreements ensure such things do not happen.

That’s why the negotiations took a long time. The other big issue is the trade in services, we’ve got a lot to gain from trade in services.

It includes immigration policies for our people heading overseas. The thing is that we need jobs, we don’t know if that’s why the initiate such job schemes to make goods cheaper. These jobs give our people money they could never have earned before.

Question: Will such schemes as the RSE scheme in New Zealand continue?

PM Tuilaepa: New Zealand is a bit worried about the new scheme in Australia. So there has been a suggestion to send the ones who haven’t been to NZ to Australia but we’re keen on sending the people who have been to NZ to Australia because they’ve developed enough expertise.

But Australia has said that NZ fears they might miss out when the workers go to Australia.

These are the kind of impacts of our decision with one country that also affects another country. We want to maintain our good relationship with these countries.

Question: When does our LDC status end?

PM Tuilaepa: "We start operating on our new status in January 2014. We are still eligible to LDC. This year and next year are the final years."

Question: Talk about some of the HRPP’s key strategies?

PM Tuilaepa: "One of the biggest strategies is the phasing out of Ministers and MPs from government boards. We want to increase outsiders so that politics do not influence the final decisions by statutory boards.

Question: What about political advisory committees

PM Tuilaepa: "Those are political appointments, such as the Fa’a Faleula."

Question: Why is the Aleipata Wharf no longer used?

PM Tuilaepa: "I’m not aware of it because I haven’t been given a latest update. I’ll have to talk to… I haven’t been notified. Unless there is something serious, then they will notify me.

Unless there is a situation especially given the rough weather at the moment. It’s probably something like that. There hasn’t been anything to draw the Cabinet’s attention to anything serious happening there.

The wharf is something that should’ve been done a long time ago, it’s unavoidable going to the future. We’ve also been talking with American Samoa that they should build a wharf closer to Aleipata. At the moment, when the ferry arrives in American Samoa, it has to go all the way to its main wharf.

We want to cut the cost of travel. We have to look at all the alternatives to cut the cost especially with fuel prices being so high at the moment.

It makes economic sense, so we have to continue to develop these connections between the two points of Am Samoa and Samoa.

We should also have a landing strip. We want to develop Polynesian interisland travel, ie Aleipata to Pago and back. We’re looking at building a landing strip at Aleipata during this Parliamentary sitting.

Question: Can you tell us about Virgin Samoa?

PM Tuilaepa: The only thing is that we’ve changed the name. We were asked and then Cabinet met and discussed the idea. Polynesia is a big region. The only way they’ll know the plane is from Samoa is when the name of Samoa appears on the aircraft.

Polynesian continues to serve between Samoa and Tutuila. We’re also talking to New Zealand about reviving the concept of a regional airline for Samoa, Am Samoa, Niue and Tonga to promote inter-island travel. That’s another way to develop tourism between the islands.

Question: What’s the idea behind the Polynesian Leadership Group?

PM Tuilaepa: The Polynesian Group has been in the pipeline for a long time but we are staring very slowly. We don’t intend to start with a big bang, saying we’re going to do this and that. It’s a new concept and it’s better to start slow.

We want to start small. The intention is that small is beautiful but it’s a potentially powerful force in the future, especially given the vast Pacific ocean from Hawaii to New Zealand. It’s a diverse group with diverse background.

We want to promote the interests of Polynesia per se. There is a mix up. There are some suggestions that there are only two groupings in the Pacific, Polynesia and Melanesia. The people who are Micronesian are actually Polynesian.

Question: Is there a threat of the region splitting?

PM Tuilaepa: "We need to be cautious."

Question: What about concerns about China’s growing influence in Samoa?

PM Tuilaepa: There are countries who give us a side glance about our relationship with China. But you recall when everybody looked down to China, we still went there – at the time of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi. I remember the day I went to brief Tamasese when I was with Treasury about the budget.

I was stopped outside and told to wait until the Chinese go to see Tamasese. So when the Chinese left, I was inside when Karanita came and asked; Lealofi, what did you tell the Chinese men? Tamasese said; I told them to go and build their embassy.

When he was reminded that he’d already said yes to Taiwan, Tamasese said; Do both. Reminded that it’s either one or the other, Tamasese said; Let’s wait and see who comes first. So China was the first to react and Taiwan never bothered because they were too late.

China can never forget how Samoa helped them at the time. That’s why they always help. In 2005, they forgave $80million.

We are asking China for help because the other donors cannot fund these things. With other donors, building and sports are not in their line of grants.

I remember meeting [Kevin] Rudd and I said to him, Rudd I notice that you are very worried about China’s influence in the region but you cannot do what China is doing. He didn’t say anything. The problem with all these people who are saying a lot about China is that they cannot offer the kind of help that China is giving.

Question: What would you say to Barack Obama about China?

PM Tuileapa: Obama does not understand the reality of the Pacific. He doesn’t understand. He can say whatever he wants but the reality is that they cannot match what China is doing to help the Pacific. That’s the simple answer.

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