A Matai (chief) is supposed to lead, preside and ........ SERVE!

Public servants serving badly

This post is inspired by a recent editorial in the Samoa Observer titled “We need public servants, not public lords.”  The title is self explanatory especially to anyone who understands the present problem (in Samoa) of “public servants [abusing] their power, showing blatant disregard to the very people they are employed to serve,” which, in effect, sums up the finding of a report recently released by a Government committee.

The behavior and pattern - of public servants behaving and acting like public lords - is a universal one.  It’s a vice among some.  And though there are similarities in its origins and manifestation in different cultures and societies, some cultures experience and perpetrate the problem in their own unique ways and patented methods.  Samoa is a good example.

Let me theorize on a couple of reasons for the seeming prevalence of this contagion in Samoa.

1. First, the primary cause may be rooted in the culture and traditions.  Samoa, traditionally, has a rank and status-based culture. The native expression “O Samoa ua uma ona tofi” (“Samoa has been classified”) is a reminder of the status and rank demarcations within the socio-political and religious lives of the people. Samoan society is therefore highly stratified.  Within this stratification we find a trident that proves detrimental, at least to public service in the country.

First, in the traditional system (which is still alive and well), there are the “royals” - “kings” and “kingly families”, nobles, matai (chiefs), paramount chiefs, taupou (daughter/s of chiefs), manaia (son/s of chiefs), faletua and tausi (chiefs’ wives) - and then the commoners.
Second, in the modern sector, there are government posts (PM, MP’s, Ministers, Associate Ministers, CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s and all other “O’s” out there) middle management managers and supervisors, etc., and then the rank and file employees.
Third, adding to the above mix, is the religious prong consisting of the clergy (church callings such as pastors, ministers, deacons, lay pastors, etc.).

The trident becomes an instrument of entitlements, privilege and honor, and is often addressed during introductions of public speeches and traditional oratory, as mamalu faale-talalelei (religious honors), mamalu faale-malo (governmental honors) and mamalu faale-atunu’u (traditional/cultural honors).

This means, for example, that it’s possible for a government official (e.g. a Minister) to possess concurrently the prestige and honors of a government minister, a traditional chief and/or a clergyman (e.g. a deacon). Unfortunately, with this triple endowment, the penchant and obligation to serve become secondary if not completely abhorred.  The government official views himself more as a head honcho and big boss. In another culture, place and time this public servant/employee would maybe do the honorable thing of serving than be served.  However, in Samoa, where the ala i le pule o le tautua (path to chieftainship is through service) is still the norm, this person/matai will think that his servitude years are done.  Now that he’s a matai, he feels that he’s made it to the top of the proverbial socio-political ladder and it’s time for him to reap and enjoy the rewards and entitlements.

Again, the seeming hesitation to serve is sustained more by the public servant's traditional matai status than the other two (government and religion). So, although the religious and government positions/callings typically predispose him to serve, being a matai/titleholder often becomes a convenient contrariety.  And even with today’s trending shift of the role of the matai to serve, than the traditional one of being served, old habits certainly die hard with these chiefs.  The problem is only compounded by a law passed last year that all Members of Parliament are required to hold a traditional chiefly title to be a legal and bonafide legislator.  A matai title serves as an official validation for one’s position.  In other words a title and role of a CEO, a Minister, Associate Minister, manager or supervisor mean very little within Samoan society without a concurrent matai title. Hence, as a social, political and business norm (not so much the religious), you find that these higher-uppers have matai titles.  They may be bestowed as honors by their aiga (family) but they’re also validation stamps for their other more modern titles and positions.

The editorial presents this scenario about serving first and status and honors after..

“For example, if you’re the son of the king but your job is to clean the bathroom, well you are not there as the king’s son, are you?”

I agree. His status as a king’s son should not be portable and/or ubiquitous. In the Samoa context, however, as a “king’s” untitled son (without matai title), chances are that he may and still will clean bathrooms. But give him a matai title and he will be a different and transformed person. With the title, he gets a promotion. He is a kahuna. A big fish. A fish too big for the septic tank. He will not clean any more bathrooms.  O Samoa ua uma ona tofi, and a matai is not supposed to clean bathrooms. So, in essence, a matai title (in Samoa more so than abroad) is a potent emancipation and freedom pill.  Freedom from most obligations including and especially serving.

2. Besides this classified and stratified character of Samoa’s traditional society, the status and honor mentality stemming from Samoans’ near obsession with royal lineage and affiliation (aiga/gafa tautupu) may also have something to do with the lordly  reluctance to serve.  What I mean is that Samoans, as individuals and as families, have this proclivity of tracing their gafa (genealogy) to one of the royal families, if not THE royal family.  (This behavior is rather common among Samoans living abroad where their lineages may not be immediately known and understood or scrutinized.)  As a result, Samoans often inhale and exhale the aroma of nobility and wear the royal halos and therefore insist on being served than to serve. So it is not uncommon for a receptionist to subconsciously recite her lineage as the daughter of Oa’uekupugamaikupua’ooukouumaoisumu and then continues to play Solitaire while an old man of the lower pecking order from kuaback keeps waiting to see the manager (who is also a matai) or be told that he is at a very important meeting, when he’s actually playing Solitaire too in his $600K office.

This lordliness and wannabe attitude among the people gives rise to the pervasive expression and notion of “fia tagata/kagaka” (giving off the attitude of being high and mighty) and possibly to the trendy counterpunch “E le valea fo’i gei fagau” (These children/descendants are not stupid.)   But then I wonder if the latter expression can also be used to justify and rationalize the reluctance to serve.  When some people commit to serving continually while others don’t, the former may get to the point where they would say “Oh we’re not stupid to keep on serving while others just want to be public lords and lordly lords!” LOL!!  Sa’o a?  Ia ‘aua ne’i musua e fai mea lelei ma mea tonu. Auauna pea ma le alofa.

So when a public servant develops an attitude of neglecting/ignoring his/her responsibilities - or being reluctant - to serve, it's usually because he/she feels that he/she has moved up to a royal class (through chieftainship) or has hereditary royal blood.

Funny that as I was writing this post, in the back of my mind were the following lyrics from the refrain of the current hit by one of my favorite contemporary singers, Lorde (pun not intended):

[That] we'll never be royals
It don't run in our blood
That kind of luxe just ain't for us.

Ia fika ifo ia e ‘oe!  :)

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