From rural village to Samoa’s highest office

A new book tells the story of Tuila‘epa Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi's path to a premiership that has led to an unprecedented period of political stability, economic development and social progress in Samoa

The 2016 Samoan general election resulted in the Human Rights Protection Party winning 94 percent of the seats in Parliament. How could a political party win such an overwhelming mandate? Is Samoa now a one-party state? What are the consequences for a parliamentary democracy when there is no opposition? How can a leader manage a large backbench of ambitious MPs? Is it time to quit when you are ahead?

These were some of the questions Prime Minister Tuila‘epa Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi faced as he set about forming his fifth administration. In his new memoir, Pālemia, you will find some answers. 

There is little written about successful political leadership in the island nations of the Pacific. Too often we hear about failing states, political unrest and unconstitutional takeovers. Here was a good story waiting to be told. 

Pālemia, published by Victoria University Press, tells how a boy from a remote, rural village became Prime Minister of Samoa and documents his path to a premiership that has led to an unprecedented period of political stability, economic development and social progress in Samoa.

During the past two years, I have been working with Tuila‘epa to compile the memoir. I have been privileged to spend many hours with him recording his memories, thoughts and observations; hearing about his personal life story as well as his time as Member of Parliament, Prime Minister and regional leader. His detailed recall of dates, people, events, conversations and dialogue is remarkable. 

Together, we have written Pālemia. It aims to tell a balanced story that documents the history and places in context the life and political career of Tuila‘epa. Woven into the narrative are accounts of village life in the 1950s, the education and training of a matai (leader) and the recent political history of Samoa. There are also fascinating insights into the conduct of international relations and diplomacy at the highest level.

In my time working with Tuila‘epa, I have learned much about Samoa and the key figures and events in its recent political history. Also, I have learned the importance of the Fa‘asamoa (Samoan custom and way of life) and fa‘amatai (customary political leadership) and how they underpin Tuila‘epa’s premiership and the governance of Samoa. The Fa‘asamoa is a living culture that is adapting to the modern world, enabling Samoan people to negotiate with the agents of development and create their own meaning. 

O le Ala i le Pule le Tautua (The road to leadership is through service) is a saying that defines the route Samoans must follow to become matai. Tuila‘epa’s leadership is anchored in the Fa‘asamoa, his family and his religion, and grounded in service to family, community, his nation and to the wider Pacific region. 

Tuila‘epa has successfully negotiated the world of the Fa‘asamoa and has been honoured with a string of chiefly titles. He has also successfully negotiated the fa‘apalagi, the European world, completing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Commerce at the University of Auckland, working as an expert in trade, transport and communications at the ACP Secretariat in Brussels, qualifying as a chartered accountant and a partner for Coopers & Lybrand (forerunner of PwC) and holding senior financial management roles in the Samoan public service before embarking on his political career. 

Tuila‘epa was awarded a Doctorate in Laws, honoris causa, from Victoria University of Wellington in 2012 in recognition of his achievements in Samoa, the Pacific region and the world at large.

As Prime Minister, he has blended customary leadership with the skills of modern management, public administration and governance. He has moved beyond the old system of politics, based on patronage and village loyalties, which was an obstacle to modernisation, and has initiated a wide range of reforms to Samoa’s economy, society and public administration.

In my view, Pālemia is not hagiography. It is a ‘warts and all’ story of a political life told from the inside.

There have been turbulent years. A political assassination, cyclones, tsunami, economic crises and local political dramas have punctuated Tuila‘epa’s premiership. And he has often been the target of criticism by journalists, academics and politicians from Samoa and elsewhere. As Prime Minister, he has not always been in a position to speak out and balance the public account. 

Pālemia reflects the recent political history of Samoa and the complexities and challenges faced in the governance of a Pacific Island nation in the 21st century. 

It was launched in Samoa on May 31, 2017 on the eve of the celebration to mark 55 years of independence. The New Zealand launch is planned for August 7 at Victoria University of Wellington. Prime Minister Tuila‘epa Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi will attend and speak.

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