During an interview with the Savali Newspaper, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was asked to comment on a number of issues raised in relation to Government’s development plans for 2015 and over the next few years.
Q: Prime Minister, what do you think of the many criticisms from the public, of the Government’s efforts to achieve its development objectives towards an improved quality of life for all?
PM: Thank you for raising this important issue. It gives me the opportunity to report and ensure accountability to the public. It’s simple enough for those who genuinely want to understand how Government is implementing its development framework, and its aims to create an enabling environment for the creation of jobs for the hundreds of school leavers each year. For the critics of Government, this might be a bit harder for them to understand.
The Government isn’t just focused on major development programs either, it’s vitally important for us to promote an enabling business environment for the private sector, so new jobs can be generated for the growing population of youth. Don’t forget that jobs are created with every major development project, such as the infrastructure projects initiated by Government to build roads and bridges, as well as through the foreign direct investment projects such as Yazaki automotive wiring. Numerous roads projects have created a big demand for construction companies, which has seen an increase in the number of these contractors going in to business, who in turn hire a large number of youth – both skilled and unskilled. The most vocal critics of the Government’s plans are those who are already in the higher income brackets and do not have to worry about jobs and futures for their children.
Q: One of the most common criticisms is around the number of development projects that are being funded through loans, the Government might not be able to pay back. Would you like to comment on this?
PM: As you know, 2015 is a pre-election year. There will be many attempts to discredit what the Government has done and what it proposes to continue towards completion. I have on numerous occasions, emphasized Samoa’s capability to service its loan debts. Multilateral financial institutions and other Governments continue to open their doors to support Samoa’s efforts because we continue to attain and maintain good policies for macroeconomic stability.
Before the HRPP came in to office, Samoa had loans amounting to US$15 million which it could not repay. No Banks were there to support Samoa. That was the reason why I traveled to Geneva when I was first appointed as Minister of Finance to initiate a Round Table dialogue with financial institutions and Governments to explain to them that a new Government was in place with formalized policies and guidelines to ensure improved financial governance and macroeconomic stability. These round table meetings were necessary to reestablish the trust and confidence of the international community in the new leadership of our Government.
Such reforms at the time led to the establishment of the Central Bank, responsible for monetary policy as well as the restructuring of the revenue base for the country. I maintain that Samoa is not facing problems with servicing its debts. It also had its debts written off 8 years ago because of its demonstrable capability to maintain macroeconomic stability and commitments to reforms. I am well aware of the outcomes of the development projects the Government is embarking on, the challenges which led to austerity measures in the eighties and the hard trek back to recovery then and efforts that went to rebuilding our flailing economy. It is not easy to forget because I had inherited the responsibility to get Samoa’s economy back on track then.
Q: What do you think of the accusation that the Government has sold the Faleolo airport to China?
PM: It is a fact that no country can sell its airport to another. This is indeed a simplistic assumption and one which in my view is intended to cause ‘ill feeling’ among all parties involved.
Also, the opinion is shortsighted – why would anyone want to forego opportunities for employment, livelihoods, and enhanced tourism development for improved economic growth?
Tourism made a significant contribution to Samoa meeting the criteria for graduation out of Least Developed Country status in 2014.
It seems that the accusers would prefer to see Samoa in a state of continuous poverty.
Q: There is also the contention that the Government has not publicized the airport development project because of some secret dealings with China – please explain.
PM: I am baffled with this conspiracy theory. It’s been many years since the issue of the airport redevelopment was first mooted. This includes the runway, the apron and the airport terminal building. I have consistently commented also at least ten times on these plans in my recent weekly Thursday media interviews. In my New Year’s message I had also touched on the important infrastructural developments for 2015 which included the airport terminals.
Infrastructure is the basis of economic growth for any country. It also provides many important opportunities for its citizens. The accusations which are meant to be disruptive, only reflects the lack of depth and forward thinking of the accusers. It also demonstrates how self-absorbed these accusers are when the rest of the country, namely the general population who live outside of Apia, are appreciative of the major developments supported by the Government for everyone in Samoa.
The airport development project involves the upgrading of the runway and apron, being funded through grants from the World Bank and a loan from the European Investment Bank; and the construction of the terminal building funded through a loan from China. Both components are complementary to one another.
Q: What is the Government policy on the sale of any Government asset?
PM: Before any asset is sold, Cabinet has to make the final decision on a proposal to sell or privatise a Government asset. A competitive bidding process follows, this ensures that the Government gets a good return for the sale of the asset and that the buyer is capable of operating the asset commercially for profit. A good example has been the sale of SamoaTel to its current company entity Bluesky. The sale of the second licence to Digicel has enhanced healthy competition, which has resulted in competitive connectivity rates both locally and internationally, enjoyed by every user in Samoa. Even with the sale of SamoaTel, there were endless criticisms – how does the public feel now about the quality of telecommunication services? Maybe you can answer that from your experiences.
Q: What about the reported offer by the Government of Japan to finance the airport terminal building through grants yet the Government has opted for a loan from China?
PM: Japan has consistently assisted Samoa through grants in the areas of sea transport, educational institutes and schools, management of natural resources and meteorological services, disaster risk management and energy. As a result all our ports were upgraded by Japan, interisland ferries provided over two decades, the seawall was constructed, the fisheries wharf and complex built, improved management of forestry resources and meteorological services and support provided for our energy needs. The Government of Japan also built the current airport terminal.
I acknowledge, and am very grateful to the Government of Japan for the long years of support.
Japan will be extending the Apia wharf this year as well as implementing an extension of the water supply project to cover all areas served by SWA that do not receive treated water. They have also given priority to the construction of the regional climate change centre at the SPREP headquarters. Only after completion of these major projects can they consider another project of similar scale.
The airport terminal building was also submitted to the Government of Japan two years ago but because of the scheduling of projects and the budget resources available in any one year, the airport building project has had to be pushed back. Pipeline projects are discussed with the Government of Japan on an annual basis from which activities are selected for funding and implementation.
Currently, the Government of China has made US$4 billion for concessional loans available to 10 Pacific countries with diplomatic ties to them. The President of China reaffirmed these resources, during the Sino-Pacific leaders summit held in Fiji in November 2014. I had the opportunity, during both the bilateral and regional meetings, to voice Samoa’s request for more concessional loan terms. Officials of the Ministry of Finance have already begun the process for the re-negotiation of loan terms so that they are in alignment with Samoa’s medium-term debt strategy.
Samoa is a country that is constantly prone to natural disasters, therefore we must make considered decisions on the most effective and efficient ways by which we will utilize assistance that is made available for our development.
The speculation and suspicion against any one country/Government with which Samoa engages should and must be dispelled. Every partnership the Government has with all of its development partners is based on trust and mutual respect. It is politically incorrect to apply different treatments to the development partners with whom we work.
I think that the real essence of the criticism lies in the simple fact that development, progress and growth by any Government speak for themselves and influences how people will vote.
But that isn’t why we go for the developments we have been implementing, and will continue to implement.
God has given us the responsibility to plan and implement the most appropriate development framework for Samoa and its people. We have done just that and we are grateful to all our development partners for the immense support prior to and in the last 5 years.
Q: What is the explanation behind the proposed legislation for the sale of passports as printed in the Samoa Observer?
PM: There is no, and I repeat no, proposed legislation to enable the review of the current Passport Act to allow for the sale of Samoan passports.
That accusation is just asinine. How the Samoa Observer continues to print such baseless information is beyond me.
The issuance of passports is governed under the Passport Act. The purpose of attracting foreign investors such as Yazaki into the country is governed under the Foreign Investment Act. An incentive in the same Act is the reduction of the number of years, for any company involved, to become Samoan citizens – from 5 to 3. This is common practice in other countries with similar interests, such as Australia, NZ and Fiji, who want to attract more foreign direct investments. This is important for Samoa as a country with few assets, save for its land, people and oceans that could be operationalized to generate employment and incomes.
Since the establishment of other incentives schemes in the last 50 years, we have seen very little foreign direct investment save for Yazaki and the Lamana Group of Papua New Guinea.
If, in the next 50 years, we are able to attract 3 or 4 new foreign investment companies, we should all be singing ‘hallelujah”. The challenges we continue to face in attracting foreign investment include economies of scale and isolation from markets for our products.
There is always the possibility that this type of incentive is attractive to some business people because some prefer to visit countries where their businesses are based but not necessarily to live permanently.
Other challenges faced in using this type of incentive are the fact that because Samoa is the host country for the business, I have to provide written assurances as leader of the Government to facilitate travel through transit countries to enable the issuance of appropriate visas.
Q: One other criticism is the fact that we are selling a lot of our land to the Chinese – is this correct?
PM: The accusation is a blatant attempt at inciting fear in people. 80% of Samoa’s land is customary owned, under the Constitution these lands can never be sold.
Land however can be leased for development purposes. When the lease expires, the land is returned to the matai owners including any assets that had been developed on the land.
The issue involved many public consultations throughout the country that were facilitated by the late Rev Oka Fauolo as Chairperson of a select Task Team. From these consultations the recommendation was made to Cabinet that the public had accepted the aims and implications of the legislation, which was subsequently passed in Parliament.
Leasehold arrangements are more cost effective for business owners than the outright purchase of land.
To me the accusations smell of racial discrimination. Would the complaints be voiced if the transactions involved palagi developers from other parts of the world?
Q: What about the pyrolysis energy project involving the burning of rubber tyres and its impacts on the environment?
PM: Cabinet has not approved this project. There are so many issues that have been raised from across the whole of Government. Cabinet relies on the technical and expert advice from officials in this matter and will make its decision when all the relevant information has been submitted for consideration.
Q: The source of the information as published by the Samoa Observer is a person called John Gagged – there is a suggestion that the informer is a public servant.
PM: I do not believe that such a person works in the Government. Those who have perpetuated such misinformation have vested interests in sensationalism to earn their living, through the sale of their newspapers with false information. If you will recall, the letter provided to me by a police officer triggered the Commission of Enquiry into the Ministry of Police and Prisons. That informer was directed by Cabinet to be re-engaged; she was suspended unfairly by her former boss.
Q: Is China funding the Apia Waterfront development program?
PM: Technical support is currently being provided by NZ.
Samoa is looking at securing investments for this project once the planning and design phase is completed – but any other offers will be considered.
Q: What suggestions do you have regarding ways to encourage the printing of only factual information?
PM: There is a saying that once a sow breaks through a fence and eats Niuean taro; it can never be stopped from repeating that.
My office is open to all media agencies each week for our consultations and Cabinet decisions are regularly distributed to them. Despite my open-door policy, the media continue to publish information without any supporting evidence.
The Bible states that the greatest sin in God’s eyes is to create disharmony and antagonism amongst brothers, which brings unrest and instability, and plant the seeds of mistrust and fear through the perpetuation of false information.
There are also many opportunities extended to the media by the Government to seek responses on any queries that require clarification – after all, there are always two sides to every story.