There are parallel and sometimes conflicting legal systems in Samoa: the state system and the local matai (chief) system.  The state system being a relatively recent incarnation and the matai system being a traditional hierarchical structure used for many centuries.  Both have laws (formal and informal), courts, judges and punishments.

Outside the capital city of Apia, the matai system reigns supreme.  For many centuries it has maintained order in the rural villages.  Samoans attribute their long history without internal conflict and widespread crime to the matai system and the common culture of the people.  They note this difference in other Pacific nations which have experienced civil unrest between ethnic groups.  I would say that a lack of civil unrest is more a product of homogeneity.  The low crime rate, however, is directly related to the matai system.

There is palpable respect for and obedience to the village elders and matais.  This is a result of Fa’a Samoa (“Samoan way”), a traditional system of expected behaviors and responsibilities, which is interdependent with the matai system.  Hulking adult Samoan males turn into cowering and apologetic children in the face of an angry mother.  Of course, crime does exist in the villages.  Mostly, petty theft and domestic violence and abuse. Both difficult to thwart with any kind of legal system.

The matai system trumps the state system in the villages.  A vanload of police entering a village to enforce a law contradictory to the local matai system are potentially welcomed by a hail of rocks and turned away.  There is no recourse for the state.  No state law is effective without consent from the village matais.

In the capital city, though, the matai system is somewhat degraded.  And resistance to the police remains.  Take a recent fight between rival high schools.  It escalated to the point where a bystander was hit by a Molotov cocktail and the lone city cinema was destroyed.  The students continued to fight with complete indifference to the police. (In response, the state has banned ALL sports matches for ALL schools indefinitely.  An overreaction and counterproductive in my opinion).  To be clear, this incident is an aberration, but the mentality that drove it persists.

So it’s possible that a nation with the fewest formal laws and strongest informal traditions produces the greatest order.  At least insofar as the villages are concerned.  But in the most ‘developed’ portion of the country where traditions have diminished, crime is greater and a marginalized police force is expected to stop it.

The Deputy Prime Minister frequently states: Samoa is not prepared to sacrifice its culture at the altar of globalization.

Thus, it is disconcerting that in the capital city, where development has occurred the most while at the cost of some cultural traditions, civil order is the most difficult to maintain.

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