In this post I answer the questions, “Everyone knows Samoa is corrupt but isn’t that normal in third world countries? Can I still [invest/do business] over there, or is it foolhardy to invest?” with a description of how the Samoan Con works. It’s a mixture of ignorance and greed, with a clear warning . . . you WILL lose all. It’s just a matter of how and when.
I was approached by a wise man today who, like many before him, stumbled upon this blog while researching the possibility of investing into Samoa. First, he did due diligence. Many do not. Secondly he asked me my opinions directly, and listened when I spoke. I am available to explain how things work over there and he asked, so I answered. This post is a summary of my advice.
Before I start, I generalise and this will cause offense to some. I have no beef with every Samoan on the planet – just those who lie and rip me off, like the current Palemia – Tuila’epa. To me he’s a coward and a crook. He had to and did break the Samoan laws to evict me, and I’ve shown his true colours to the world through my fearless, damning and accurate blogging going back years. Incidentally nobody accidentally stumbles upon this blog by accident. A decade of blogging about Samoa from a Christian perspective with more than a million and a half words is not an accident of stumbling. Enter the phrases INVESTING IN SAMOA or CORRUPTION IN SAMOA (or similar) into any Search Engine like Google and you are sure to reach my work.
My new friend described his potential involvement in a Samoan venture (which he shared in confidence) and asked my opinions, essentially the above questions. He knew (or strongly suspected) that he was entering troubled waters. That’s why he did due diligence and called me for advice.
My advice was to explain two things – first that there are two distinct sectors of Samoan society – on-island Samoa, and the Samoan diaspora. Secondly I explained how things actually work over there. He had obviously read my words because he used the phrase that I use all the time to describe corruption in Samoa – extreme nepotism.
Samoans who have traveled offshore and particularly Samoans who were born or brought up outside of Samoa are much more savvy than the natives. Understand that this ignorance on-island is deliberately cultivated and supported by TPTB in Samoa as it is their direct interest to retain an uneducated populace*. Off-shore Samoans returning to Samoa with a taste of Western justice, capitalism and value-systems are actively ostracised by their own. Resistance to change is enormously strong on-island and outside influences are NOT welcome. Palagi who think and speak like me are not welcome, indeed are hated, but the greatest venom and hatred is towards their own who return with ‘subversive’ ideology from the West.
It’s incredibly hard for outsiders to understand how and the extent to which moral and religious values normally associated with the Christian faith (such as truth and love; integrity and equality; personal responsibility and accountability) are subjected to Samoan cultural norms thus become perverted. Because cultural norms have shifting goal-posts as long as it is a threat to those in control of a society, it is totally impossible for an outsider to gain influence.
Indeed, my new friend joined with me in sadness and recognition that I was speaking the truth when I explained that change for the better would take generations. Samoa’s pride and resistance to change is legendary and at the top of the pile!
So we discussed the possibility of commercial success, which (if that was his team’s goal) is certain to fail. It’s not that commercial enterprise is impossible in a corrupt society per se, it’s just that most venture I knew of and observed did. I know of two relationships that have lasted, one of them a crooked lawyer who knew how to ‘play the game” better than the locals, and the other a large aggressive, multi-national that specialised in working in third-world countries. I’m sure there might be a few others but the vast majority of ventures I observed failed and the inevitable occurred – the foreign investor “lost the shirt off his back” – the fear expressed by my inquiring friend.
My intent here is NOT to prevent people investing into Samoa . . . it is two-fold, being 1. To EXPLAIN how things work, and 2. To be seen as a thought-leader and authority on the topics I speak. There is no value (in my eyes anyway) in burbling on about something half-hearted. If it’s worth speaking, it’s worth getting it right. People like my new friend of today could potentially save themselves a huge amount of pain, anguish and money if they invest wisely (or choose not to invest) depending on their investment aims. I have no right to advise others on what to do with their lives or resources. I do though have a responsibility to explain what I know; that I have paid the price and speak as I do shows my credibility.
So how does the Samoan Con work?
A conman uses illusion and deceit to get from you what he wants without your permission. The art of the con is to trick another out of what is right theirs [yours] and for the conman to end up with the prize. There has to be a pivot point; a nexus; a turning point; the nub of a con by which the trickery or deception occurs. In politics it is the smiling face that is skilled at lies – vote for me and I will [whatever], and he does NOT. This con relies on the faith inherent in humans that authority can be trusted. In fact the opposite is true – the greater the authority of the conman, the greater we cannot trust. In business it is the deception that a product is what we think it is. Marketing of a crappy product as a quality one is the game. We trust what we see and are told on TV, thus we make ourselves subject to mockery. The magician uses sleight-of-hand often with distraction. When we know where and when to look we can often see the trickery in realtime, but for most his hands are faster than our eyes, thus we look in the wrong place and are fooled.
The Samoan uses deception from the outset the same, taking advantage of a deep cultural difference. His wedge is based on the natural trust that we (Westerners) have towards those who are friendly and smile, knowing that we are generally gullible. It’s not that we are all fools. Far from it. It is that the openness, generosity and friendliness of the Samoan creates the impression that he can be trusted, and this is then leveraged in the Samoan Con for [usually] financial benefit. There is also a string of cover-up and distraction techniques that follow a Con as surely as night follows day.
The nexus in the Samoan Con is the difference between the conman’s and the victim’s understanding of the “Samoan smile”. We see trustworthiness. The reality is that most Samoans see the Palagi (or ex-pat Samoans) naturally as targets.
Now this does NOT mean that there is no love towards us; or that every Samoan wants to rip off the Palagi but this reality exists and is the social default. Samoans as a rule work exceedingly hard to protect their claim that they are generous, and honour the Palagi as an honoured guest in their country, but this is usually done for show, and always, without exception, if there is any doubt in a situation, the Palagi is to blame and a Samoan is trusted over a Palagi.
Palagi are seen as a source of wealth – we have it; they don’t. It’s not a blame thing – it’s just the way it is.
I learned how natural this thinking is when having spent only a couple of weeks in rural Samoa with nothing (by that I mean money/resources/support) and I went to Apia. I saw a Palagi girl walking down a footpath and everything in me screamed, “Go! Go get her and bring her into our village. She’s got money. We want her! Let us be the ones to give her a rural Samoan experience she will never forget [in a nice way of course].” I was shocked at how quickly I, a relatively wealthy man in New Zealand had succumbed to this mindset that someone from outside of Samoa had something I wanted and needed and thus would do almost anything to get – her money.
Samoans have a saying about their own – “when a Samoan looks at a Palagi, he only looks at their pockets!”
So I tried to explain to my new friend how things really work in Samoa.
- Samoa comes first. Always. He was and always will be an outsider, a foreigner. This should be a huge red flag to most investors, but the significance escapes many. As a direct consequence of this, it is not if but when the value gravitates to the local Samoans.
- One needs to know who one is dealing with to know how he fits into society. In the West this is unimportant. In Samoa this is critical. We assess a business situation by monetary and legal means. In Samoa it is through relationships. When we are dealing with a religious leader we view things in context of the religious power structures in which our contact fits. Likewise with the village involved, but also the family in which the business will be conducted. This is a totally foreign concept to a Western businessman but is vital;
- It doesn’t matter who an investor deals with in the first instance, he will ultimately be dealing with King Kong, the PM, Tuila’epa. This is simply the way it is over there, for we must culturally take the gold up the chain – or at least see as it goes up the chain. Post Tsunami aid workers were mortified to see allocations of medicine go to the High Chief for distribution to his family and friends first. Business opportunities always go to the politicians FIRST. This is the cultural norm there. Of course Tuila’epa is top of the tree thus he wins no matter. If Tuila’epa gives the nod, it happens. One doesn’t need to bribe him – the locals have their own way of doing this but we must accept and acknowledge the way things work. Hypocrisy and greed – sure. Reality – yes.
- Value is measured differently in Samoa and this brings about huge tension. Time is money in the West – not so in Samoa. An asset (no matter the value) like a vehicle represents say a thousand hours of labour and improved functionality in a business to a businessman, thus has a measurable and high value. In Samoa, labour is cheap but looking good is of huge value. If an asset represents embarrassment it will be discarded, trashed or similar even if trashed over a small slight. “You’ve got money! Go get another one!” is the thinking here. I looked around at physical items I worked hard for and saved for only to see them stolen, trashed or mistreated with callous disregard. Shaming thieves when caught was a huge crime on my part even if the crime hurt me. It’s a MASSIVE cultural difference that cannot be underestimated;
- We say in the West, “It’s not what you know but who you know!” In Samoa it goes much further . . . it’s who you know and what your relationship is to them, more specifically what power you have over them, or they, over you. This is hard to understand for us in the West. We want to deal with the oppressed. We want to help the underdog. We seek justice and democracy and work with abstracts. Samoans cannot do this, so the moment our backs are turned they will take what you have given them and pass it up the chain of command – be it money, goods, opportunity or whatever. This respect of authority (especially when it comes to the religious leaders) grates with us but it cannot be undone by outsiders and there is no will from the people for change. The consequences for rocking the boat are too high.
So the Samoan Con is overt in one sense that many Samoan leaders know how to play the game to trick but it is also deep and subtle in other ways. Samoans are skilled opportunists taking advantage of the cultural differences between those with wealth (generally Palagi from the West). I could (and have) talked until the cows come home about examples of cultural differences and manipulation but lets go through the quintessential Samoan/Palagi business engagement and reveal where the nexus, or turning point is used to relieve the Palagi of his resources. I now recount a fictitious but plausible situation.
Dave and his wife Mary had always wanted to enjoy the Island lifestyle and they actively prepared for helping in a practical way. “We have so much in the West and they are so poor over there in the islands, we’d love to do something to help” Mary would explain to those who would listen. The kids having left home, they spoke to their longtime friend and neighbour Tasi about helping her family back home in Samoa.
They loved the relaxed, friendly environment whenever they visited Tasi’s family and while being treated like king and queen when in Samoa was a little unnerving at first, they recognised that this was the cultural norm and respected it.
When they suggested that they might build a resort over there on Tasi’s family land she was over the moon and preparations were made in Samoa almost the day it was mentioned. Plans were drawn up and the excitement in the entire village was palpable.
Dave would become a Matai for sure, Tasi was saying and the boys of the village would all be at his service, forever. Unlimited labour. The help that would flow on to the rest of the village appeared to be unmeasurable – if Tasi was to be believed. Dave’s church experience would mean that he would be elevated to a Pastoral assistant. Mary’s skills in teaching would be much welcome in the village school and life would be a dream – or so it seemed.
Those naysayers from back home would eat their heart out Dave and Mary thoughth for the first month or two in Samoa. But it didn’t last. The various boys of the village were helpful and stayed around only as long as the free beer and smokes did. The school came to expect Mary’s help and palmed off more work than she expected. Yes, Dave was bestowed a matai title and with that came responsibilities. He came to see that his share of the responsibilities were a little more than the others, but he put that down to misunderstanding.
The resort did well and it was obvious that their financial input, even their presence gave the village a huge boost. Morale as well as wealth had improved noticably. Unfortunately expectations too seemed to lift a little too. After a year or so, the requests for a little assistance here and there had grown to a steady stream of requests for money.
Then the big one came, a request for funding of a church hall – if Dave chipped in $30,000.00 the village could match that and the Pastor would be a very happy man. Torn, because he wanted to help and knew how important it was to the people, he didn’t have that sort of money.
But he had to find it, because he was a matai, and the Palagi and it would be a huge shame to the village if they didn’t do what the Pastor had proudly announced to all and sundry.
Dave’s answer, when delivered, was taken gracefully, but from then on things were different. It was a subtle ostracism that grew. All that had been worked for slipped away and the resort found it harder to find workers; the ones that came from other villages didn’t like it and reported abuse. The requests for help dried up except for minor help from the truly desperate, and eventually Dave & Mary, despite their best efforts at reconcilaition realised that ‘the party was over’x.
They relocated back to their native country bitter and broke, knowing that it was their fault – everything. They were the ones who brought shame on the Pastor, and the village, and Samoa. They didn’t understand and only came to suck the life out of Samoa, like all other Palagi before. Dave’s matai title was still valid but it meant nothing now, to the Samoans and to the Palagi.
In this story, the setup came with Dave & Mary’s attitude. They wanted to help. This, while natural and probably loving in some ways was born in ignorance and outworked arrogance. Patronising Samoans doesn’t work, for it pits wealth against need. It’s pride. From Samoa’s perspective though, the arrogance that “they have the Palagi” [and can thus afford a $60,000.00 church hall when they couldn’t] was their downfall.
The nexus (or connection upon which the trouble turned) was a cultural difference. This is a repeating story throughout the physical islands as well as throughout time. When the missionaries came, Samoa embraced Christianity. The Con was that Samoan culture always prevailed, thus Samoa mo Samoa still rules and Churchianity runs rampant even today. Legion are the philanthropists & businessmen who have gone to Samoa, invested and given yet like the sailors of old have ended up on the rocks of Sirenum scopuli.
Those seeking to invest in Samoa will run the gamut of con artistry. The higher the contact in political power, the more assuredly deception will be knowing and the more sure that loss will occur. It’s not a matter of if . . . it is how and when. To give practical examples of this claim I note the level of business accumen that we are dealing with here.
The current Prime Minister, Tuila’epa along with a high profile business-woman named Octevi, from CSL in 1999 sold the entire .ws namespace for a song to private interests. Let’s just gasp at this for a moment . . . they sold the entire rights to the ,ws namespace! No other country on the planet was that stupid! It’s utterly incredible! In 1999 I started buying domain names for investment purposes knowing that this was the future. These fools sold the crown jewels in a criminal act for a pittance. H*ll’s teeth, even back then I would have given my eye teeth to buy what they sold for 10x what they sold it for. It’s like selling the goose that lays the golden egg for a dozen normal eggs! Talk about eggs – yet they are running their country!
OLP has run a series of damning posts about the incredible stream of corruption within Samoa’s political (and religious) leadership going back decades. Multi-million dollar frauds year after year after decade after decade, and one incomplete prison yet another repeating Con job. No doubt New Zealand or Australia will be asked to help out to complete the project – money all gone!
While living in Samoa, I was privy to story after story of lawyers running off with clients’ money; foreign aid money (and assets) going sideways; business partners distraught with lies and deception coming to me asking for help when the Samoans failed to deliver as promised or simply disappeared!
Another thing to realise is that it is not possible to run a profitable, successful business in Samoa when the cards are stacked against you at all levels of business. Taking your ideas and copying them is par for the course. Bye, bye Palagi! The government going into opposition or closing you down in order to monopolise or push benefit to the politicians of the day again is normal practice. Deceit and outright fabrications are normal. We cannot conceive of someone giving us their daughter as a bonus, bringing us into their family, wining and dining us as part of their family then screwing us over. This again is normal conduct for many Samoans with influence, and this is their cultural entitlement – why? Because they helped you, they ‘own’ you.
Samoa is different – very different!
I conclude with the stereotypical response from Samoans to threats to their innocence or intentions. Chief among these is the frustrating phrase, “Oh, but not all Samoans are like that!” I’ve blogged about this more than once . . . whenever I heard that, nine times out of ten, it was the speaker of that sentiment who was the next one to rip me off. Nine times out of ten.
Understand also that shame is a huge driver of human conduct in Samoa. All three control structure (central government, local government and the religious leaders) use fear as a control mechanism. When an outsider causes shame (no matter who is right or wrong) Samoans will unite to deal with the threat to their reputation. Nothing, and I mean nothing will come in the way of Samoans protecting the reputation of their own. This is the reason why Tuila’epa had no choice but to get me out of Samoa. He can and has handled exposure of corruption for years. My book Corruption in Samoa meant nothing to him, except that I named his mistress, one of his top CEOs and called him out on that. That hurt. He reacted. Samoans in Samoa always win.
I cannot advise investors on their own investment opportunities. They have their own agendas, goals and relationships but I can say that:
- The Samoan Con is real;
- It is actively utilised to bring in assets to the country by those in power, the higher the more crooked and knowingly the Con is perpetrated;
- Those in power will benefit personally, whether we like it or not;
- Abstracts such as business contracts, commitments, integrity, honesty and truth are flexible in Samoa, a strongly relational and corrupt society;
- It is a cultural norm to see Palagi (foreigners) as targets;
- It is exceedingly rare for foreign investors to succeed in Samoa, particularly long-term, and lastly;
- Sadly, those who invest, and lose are not the ones who do due diligence and take advice.
There are exceptions to the above advice, which pretty much hints strongly at avoiding investment . . . if we seek to give, Samoa makes an artform out of receiving and saying thank you. Take the matai titles and roast pigs and kudos that comes from a ‘cargo cult’ by all means.
If we seek lateral benefit, looking at our investment as a gift to gain something ‘sideways’ then (if we truly understand what we are doing) I would endorse such investment. This would be rare but to use gifting or investment into Samoa as a form of sponsorship is to me a perfectly valid activity.
I went to Samoa out of obedience and learned through the experience. I paid a high price for that learning, losing all but gained an understanding of an entire country and culture that I could have never had any other way. Whether or not I would do it again is moot because I was simply being obedient to the call, but I do not wish upon any the pain that others have felt through not knowing or understanding the above and investing only to lose all.
I trust that the above has been helpful. If so let me know or leave a comment. To Samoan detractors or their political leader, don’t waste your time with your venom. I deal only with truth. Again, unfortunately I must repeat that if ever I am found suicided you will know from this post whence the order came – the top.
* As an example of this, Samoa’s educators have been advised for many decades to introduce English education into the schools at an earlier age than ten. Yes, yes, yes, are the words, but anything started always fails. The elite have their kids educated offshore or in private/elite schools. Funny that eh? Anyone would think this was a conspiracy and deliberate dumbing down of society!