A Response


Thank you for your reply and stimulating thoughts.

First of all, there’s no need to apologize for any misinterpretation on your part of my comments. I certainly welcome the exchange and the sharing of thoughts and ideas on what are becoming valid and legitimate issues especially in our beloved Samoa. Further, we are both still learning about the issue(s).

True, that I am somewhat biased towards western democracy as you inferred, and perhaps for the very reason(s) to which you alluded. The social maxim - “we are products of our environments” - certainly has something to do - though not exclusively - with my western democratic leanings and prejudices. I live in the US where democratic values and fundamentals are preached, forged, debated, challenged, scrutinized and “practiced”, so again, those certainly have had an impact on me. Similarly, I believe that your preferences for a cultural democracy for Samoa after NZ’s trends are/were influenced by your being a “product” of that particular environment as well. Can we excogitate a truce somewhere? Perhaps. Or the truth is that we may just be looking at the same thing through different lenses. Aye? ...

Anyhow, I concur with the fact that Samoa has a “cultural democracy” today especially with the infusion and incorporation of the faa-matai to a more modern political model. The present cultural democracy may very well be an appropriate transitional mode for Samoa into a more advanced form of democracy as found in western countries. The real problem however is how far and how long will such a limited, uninitiated and fragile assimilation last, and especially the challenges that come with it.  Let me digress for a moment.

Malaeotiafau’s claim that democracy in Samoa, NZ and Australia are all different is true, but only in a relative sense. Here’s why. Let me use as a preface the expression “E sui faiga ae le suia faavae” (Practices change but principles don’t). In other words, democratic practices in these countries are/may be different; the principles of democracy, as an ideology, on the other hand, are the same. The tenets and fundamentals like human rights, individual freedoms, rule of law, free elections, constitutional provisions, etc., all form the political foundation or substructure (faavae). The superstructure (faiga) are adaptations which are fashioned and customized based on the local socio-political cultures of these countries.

The main question therefore has to do with the types of superstructure (cultural models) that these countries build on top of the immutable substructure. How well they are custom-fitted and dovetailed into/onto the main substructure can determine the nature and success of their cultural political aspirations.

The best example is the law recently passed in Samoa that all Members of Parliament should have hereditary (matai) titles. The question therefore is: “Does that law violate democratic principles?” Well, based on the true model of democracy (substructure), it does. The independence of the Judiciary (if there is such a thing in Samoa) is/was not enough to initiate a review of this law, apparently due to Samoa’s customized and cultural  political framework. But even if that is the law presently - and not all laws are fair and just - sooner or later, someone down the road will challenge it based on the genuine democratic ideals. Seemingly therefore the divide between cultural and ideal democratic models will continue to exist in these fledgling experiments.

Personally, I think the success of these customized cultural models will largely depend on the people (citizenry) in their level of knowledge of democracy as well as their national psyche. If the people at large are comfortable - albeit in a passive way - with the system, then it can work. This is often true especially for a homogeneous society. However, I can guarantee that the sooner Samoan society (or any other for that matter) becomes pluralistic to the point where other races and peoples make up significant sectors of the general populace, the sooner these biased - if not racist - laws will be repealed and/or abolished.

The government seemed to have partially “resolved” this issue with the all-matai mandate after it required that the Individual Voters’ (“non-Samoans”) two MPs to have matai titles too. Still, we have to understand that the voters on the Individual Voters Roll are essentially Samoans too who trace their heritage and roots to the Samoan “genome”, one way or another. This seeming homogeneity helps in passing laws and regulations that favor the majority native population.

On the other hand, there have been some recent intimations to the contrary. First was the appeal by the part-Chinese voters to support their own “Chinese” candidate during the upcoming elections. Second was the objection of non-Christians to a proposed mandatory Christian course in the Samoan public school system. Again these conflicts between the superstructure (faiga) and substructure (faavae) are evident today, and will not go away soon, if at all.

I also concur with the village fono’s unabated jurisdiction on villagers and the loyalty of the latter to the former as more the norm in Samoa (re: the Madison quote in my “Migrant Matai” post). But I would also include the overall aversion of the two to the central government (in Apia) along the same lines.

The biggest conundrum, however, rests on the inability of the national government to create or fashion a better local government (in the villages). In fact there is no possible, probable or even at least an imaginable option. Perhaps there lies the security, invincibility - and arrogance - of the village fono as a force to be reckoned with in Samoa’s contemporary political culture, especially when its influence is felt all the way in the heart of the national Parliament which has simulated the format, configuration, composition and even the fono building and seating arrangements of its rural counterpart.

Conversely, the national Parliament, as advocate of the more democratic ideals, has the upper hand in other areas. For example, the rule of law reaches far into the villages and has been able to indict and even convict villagers and also incarcerate members of village fonos for violating “the law” (as spelled out by the modern legal system) and for committing atrocities. Moreover, the Constitution (supreme law of the land), although recently modified to provide, promote and advocate for the cultural and traditional, is still largely pro-democracy in its content, implementation and application.

Finally, the democratic movement is, and has, a global influence. It is fair to say that it is inevitable and also irresistible to most - if not all. Today’s technology makes this wave even more pervasive and ubiquitous. China is a good example of how modern technology is breaking the imposed barriers of anti-democratic regimes.

I think, in the end, the individual will reign over the community or the state. Christianity, interestingly, is based on the “individual” model too in accountability and finality. Hence, let me say unequivocally that Samoa will give up the faa-matai before it will give up Christianity.   And so the refrain “o le a’ano moni ua le toe iai ni matai” (the truth is that there are no more matai) of a popular song after the advent of Christianity in Samoa, rings true.

The yearn to be free, as an individual, is innate and God-given - free from all shackles whether it’s discrimination, racism, dictatorship, oppression or cultural and traditional influences and restraints. It is this freedom that democracy - as practiced in the “western” countries - has made its mark in the global political experience. It is also this broader vision of democracy as a political standard and blueprint in which we find heretical and unorthodox any inferior or "imperfect" emulation - including cultural democracies.

Having said all that, let me echo Winston Churchill who said:
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Simply, democracy is the worst form of government, but of all the ones that have been tried, it’s the best that we have.


PS: To an extent, I may be an idealist in the sense that although I am putting the US on an ideal democratic pedestal, it too, relatively speaking, can qualify as a “cultural democracy” - though not as extreme and heretical as Samoa’s.

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