I am a second-generation Filipino American born and raised in the US, and while I’m proud of what the Filipinos in the US have accomplished as a group in America (I read somewhere that we’re one of the most affluent minority groups according to the US Census), I keep wondering: Why does the Philippines suck? I mean, I’ve visited Manila and the provinces a couple of times in my life, and while the country does have some beautiful vistas, for an outsider looking in, it’s really, overall, a f--king sh-thole. Seriously, dude! And yet, why do those rich-looking Filipinos seem so f--king smug and arrogant and apathetic about the whole thing? And as a concerned Filipino, what can I really do?
Ilonglocano (Ilonggo- Ilocano)
Wow. I felt like you just hit me in the solar plexus. So let me catch my breath first…
There. Now, I should be fine…
Frankly, your questions are so loaded and will probably require many experts to even come close to answering with any sense of justice. I will give you my two cents, though, based on what I’ve learned (in the bookish and the real worlds) and my own limited understanding of things. Of course, my answer will in no way be exhaustive because I just don’t think anyone is capable of doing that.
But first, I want to thank you for being “a concerned Filipino.” Despite the language you used, I can sense the anguish in it, the pain, even the anger, because if you’re a typical Filipino American who grew up trying to find your own place in the world, you probably felt a bit lost and insecure and groping for your own identity and pride in belonging to a group – any group – that has reasons to be proud in a massive and rich Western country with no shortage of overly proud, even noxiously boastful, people.
Now, let me try to tackle your two main questions:
(1) Why does the Philippines suck?
I have many arguments to claim that the very premise of your question is wrong because, in many respects, the Philippines is, in fact, a really cool place! The people are generally nice and a lot of foreigners have fallen in love with the country for good reasons. You won’t appreciate their arguments, of course, unless, after stuffing yourself with great seafood, you’ve lazed around in a gorgeous beach with a buko juice within reach while the sun is setting.
Having said that, I will admit that I’m with you on this IF by “suck,” you’re referring to the pervasive, all-enveloping sense of poverty, filth, and disorder that characterize most of Metro Manila and, to a much lesser extent, even the provinces – characteristics which are all too visible to anyone from the developed countries. I also presume you’ve seen the richer and nicer enclaves in Makati, Bonifacio Global City, Alabang, etc., but felt they were too few, too overwhelmed, and too negligible compared to the more common ramshackle housing of the middle class, or worse, the tin-and-cardboard housing in the slums of the lower classes. If you’re like some of my friends, the impression you had was probably like: My God, how can so many people in the Philippines live like that? How did this level of abject poverty come to pass? And how do those rich folks living in mansions in those few enclaves stomach that kind of inequality anyway?
The short answer is: You have the “Filipino culture,” as shaped by geography and history, to blame.
Notice that I put Filipino culture in quotation marks. I did so for two reasons: (1) because “Filipino” is actually a fairly new concept, probably not even more than 150 years old; and (2) because that “culture” performs noticeably more differently in another context, as you yourself have noticed when you pointed out that Filipino-Americans comprise one of the most affluent minority groups in the U.S. and are collectively estimated as having a higher “GDP” than the Philippines itself.
But let’s tackle the impact of geography first on the Filipino culture because it’s the less thorny one.
The country is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands (to be more precise, 7,107 during high tide and 7,108 during low tide, says one beauty contestant), with the South China Sea on the west, the Philippine Sea on the east and the Celebes Sea on the south. With one of the longest coastlines in the world, the islands are (or used to be) mostly covered in tropical rainforests (hence, lots of trees and one of the most diverse collections of flora and fauna). And because these islands were formed over time by active seismic and volcanic activity, minerals are abundant – e.g., gold, copper, and nickel, to name a few.
With fertile lands and abundant water and water-based resources, it’s easy to imagine that the pre-Hispanic Filipinos did not really want for much in the food department. It’s also easy to imagine that, because the islands’ biological characteristics did not really change much from island to island, and with no harsh winters to contend with, there was not a lot of trading necessary among the different tribes which populated the islands. Maybe, as a consequence, there was probably not a lot of fighting either – thus, foreign colonizers, when they came, were quick to note that the natives appeared peaceful, fun-loving, and, yes, even “docile.”
And foreigners did come, attracted by the richness of the islands. And yes, those minerals, of course!
As mentioned impliedly above, the first to colonize the islands were the Spaniards, and that was the time when the misery of the indigenous population started in earnest. Ostensibly in the name of Christianity, the conquering Spaniards claimed the islands for the Spanish throne, baptizing their new territory “Las Islas Filipinas.” And through ruthlessness, tricks, treats, and the Church, the Spaniards were able to brainwash and pummel the natives into submission or otherwise negotiate some semblance of peace with local leaders in order for them to solidify their rule and milk the islands for their selfish commercial pursuits.
What’s really remarkable is the fact that the Spaniards were able to this with very limited head count. For all intents and purposes, they just had small garrisons scattered across the archipelago. Why did they face very little opposition during their conquest and their centuries-long domination? Well, because the natives didn’t have a common language (your parents, an Illonggo and an Ilocano, can't even converse without a third language like Tagalog or English!) and were primarily tribal and clannish, so they also didn’t share a common political structure (can you blame them?). And the Spaniards realized they couldn’t let go of this inherently beneficial advantage: thus, they decided to administer the islands using the locals’ ethnic languages, not using the Spanish language; after all, Spanish was the language of the ruling class and they didn't want the natives to learn it. They also relentlessly and tirelessly made sure the locals knew their “proper place”: by constantly hammering to the brown natives that the latter were inferior in all respects to the white Spaniards, and they must therefore always be submissive to the Church and their authority. Thus, by the end of Spain's corrupt, inept and heavy-handed, patronage-politics rule, only a very small percentage knew Spanish with some facility: the elite five or so percent.
These local elites were for the most part comprised of the "mestizos." They were the progenies of the "cross-pollinating" wealthy locals and the conquering class and erring friars, and many of them were sent by their parents to study in Europe. They were beneficiaries of the largesse of their Spanish patrons, and invariably these largesses meant grants of vast tracts of land – which easily translated to substantial passive but non-creative, non-entrepreneurial income. They knew they were the elite and they, of course, had elitist tendencies as well. Interestingly, however, while they were known as the “ilustrados” or the “enlightened ones,” they actually referred to themselves as “Filipinos” even when the term was meant to refer only to Spanish creoles, those who were pure Spaniards but were born in the Philippines. The national hero, Jose Rizal, was one of these ilustrados, and he was also the one who really popularized this heretofore alien concept called “nationalism.” However, because these mestizos were sentimentally far removed from the “indios” (the ethnic local masses), it would actually take a poor artisan from Manila who spoke Tagalog named Andres Bonifacio and his Katipuneros to really begin the armed revolution against Spain.
And what Bonifacio started, the young general Emilio Aguinaldo finished, culminating in an “official” proclamation of an independent “Republic of the Philippines” in 1899 in Cavite. However, it was a fragile “republic” (which was mostly comprised of the Tagalogs really) because it had practically no purchase whatsoever, or very little support if at all, in the vast southern regions of the country or even in the non-Tagalog regions up north, which had their own peasant-led mini-revolts. And to make things worse for the leaders of the new republic, the world powers didn’t care about them really. Because when the Spaniards realized they were going to eventually lose Cuba and the Asian archipelago they'd ruled for so long, and with the Americans declaring war on them in 1898 and subsequently destroying their fleet in Manila Bay, they decided to negotiate not with the locals but with the Americans, who agreed to purchase the islands in late 1898. The revolutionaries would rise up against the Americans too, but through merciless campaigns, superior firepower and a disorganized opposition with no common language, the Americans would easily prevail and would later turn the country into an experiment of their own version of “benevolent” imperialism.
Aside from imposing English as the common national language to be learned by everyone, one thing the Americans did that differentiated them from the Spaniards was to somehow politically “unify” the islands by putting up, for the first time in the archipelago's history, a “national congress” for the Filipinos. Naturally, the wealthy elites saw this as a great way to extend their power not only in their respective provinces, where they had their own personal fiefdoms because they already had solidified their control at the local level, but also nationally. So what power and wealth the elites had during the Spanish period, they in fact increased dramatically during the American period. And the American administrators, generally hands-off in the nitty-gritty of administration and uninterested in upsetting the local social structure or in making Philippine society more egalitarian, were only too willing to become friends with the country’s national elites.
Unfortunately, this socio-political structure did not change after the Japanese invasion because the elites were the first to become collaborators, or even after Filipinos and Americans, fighting side by side, ousted the Japanese from the country after the Second World War. Unlike the ultra-successful American project of busting the old elitist socio-political structure of Japan which turned the country into one with a more equal distribution of wealth and power, in the Philippines, which was a "friend" becuase it was part of the American Commonwealth, the order of the day was to restore the country to the status quo before the Japanese arrived. Thus, the wealthy and highly connected national elites were the ones ultimately rewarded by the Americans with more power and lucrative contracts for rebuilding the ravaged and war-torn country. The poor indios’ plight remained practically the same.
And this little excursion into history is my roundabout way of explaining why it is hard for the indios, the typical Filipinos, to feel “nationalistic.” How can you be nationalistic when other Filipinos speak a language different than you? How can you be nationalistic when you see your national leaders getting richer as you get poorer? How can you be nationalistic when options are limited because you are not of the mestizo class? How can you be nationalistic when you lose or can't get a government job because you don’t have a relative, a friend, a patron in power? How can you offer your loyalty to a nation whose government is way too corrupt? How can you be nationalistic when your stomach is growling, or worse yet, when your kids are whimpering in agony for the same reason? Chances are, you would also think of survival first before nationalism, right?
In his 1987 article, “The Damaged Culture,” James Fallows discussed this “failure of nationalism” at length. He concluded: “Nationalism can of course be divisive, when it sets people of one country against another. But its absence can be even worse, if that leaves people in the grip of loyalties that are even narrower and more fragmented. When a country with extreme geographic, tribal, and social-class differences, like the Philippines, has only a weak offsetting sense of national unity, its public life does become the war of every man against every man.”
Ilonglocano, I think your feelings when you visited the Philippines were in fact shared by Fallows over 20 years ago because he wrote:
“Most of the time I spent in the Philippines, I walked around feeling angry--angry at myself when I brushed off the latest platoon of child beggars, angry at the beggars when I did give in, angry at the rich Filipinos for living behind high walls and guardhouses in the fortified Makati compounds euphemistically called villages, angry as I picked my way among piles of human feces left by homeless families living near the Philippine Navy headquarters on Roxas Boulevard, angry at a society that had degenerated into a war of every man against every man.”
Many Filipinos hated Fallows for this lurid, ugly portrait of the Philippines he saw then, but I liked Fallows’ analysis because he was also very lucid in his criticism of the American role in the stagnation and decay of Philippine society. In his essay, he said: “In its brief fling with running a colony, America undeniably brought some material benefits to the Philippines: schools, hospitals, laws, and courts. Many older Filipinos still speak with fondness about the orderly old colonial days. But American rule seemed only to intensify the Filipino sense of dependence. The United States quickly earned or bought the loyalty of the ilustrados, the educated upper class, making them into what we would call collaborationists if the Germans or Japanese had received their favors. It rammed through a number of laws insisting on free ‘competition’ between American and Philippine industries, at a time when Philippine industries were in no position to compete with anyone. The countries that have most successfully rebuilt their economies, including Japan and Korea, went through extremely protectionist infant-industry phases, with America's blessing; the United States never permitted the Philippines such a period. The Japanese and Koreans now believe they can take on anybody; the confidence of Filipino industrialists seems to have been permanently destroyed.”
That’s why if there’s one thing I envy about The Korean, aside from his more robust, more engaging blog, it is the fact that his former home country is in much better shape than mine.
(2) What can you do as a concerned Filipino?
If you feel helpless and hopeless at times, know that The Filipino completely understands you. Sometimes in fact, I feel the Philippines should just break up into smaller countries. Why not? Belgium is close to breaking up, and it has a population almost just a tenth of the Philippines. Yugoslavia, which only had a total of 23 million at its height, was broken up into six countries. The Philippines, on the other hand, now has about 100 million.
But is this the solution? Probably not. The solution is for concerned Filipinos, whether inside or outside the Philippines, to show its concern by pushing for good governance and reform, becoming more active in politics, supporting well-run charities, following the rules – even the most mundane ones like traffic rules and what-not. Do not litter, do not spit everywhere. And show some – for lack of a better term – love.
Actually, come to think of it, it is probably the best term. You and I need to show more love, and not just curse the situation. Many Filipinos lack the most basic: sanitation, clean water, decent housing, even food. They are very, very poor.
The country doesn’t suck. It's those morally and intellectually effete elite who care only about themselves, who are afraid to speak up, who manipulate the system, who are in cahoots with each other to rape the country -- they're the ones who suck. It’s those Filipino people – rich or poor, man or woman, based locally or abroad – who don’t care about helping the Philippines and about doing something even just one tiny bit about the present Philippine situation (and I can imagine they sometimes include you and I) – they, sir, are the ones who suck!
Got a question for The Filipino? Email him now at firstname.lastname@example.org.