Someone (with a PhD from Harvard and who was a Summa Cum Laude at his local Manila university) told me that he believes that part of the dynamics in terms of explaining why the Philippines is where it is today -- i.e., near or at the bottom rung of the Asian economies even after 25 years since the end of Marcos rule -- is that the majority of Filipinos (both the elite and the masa) do not subscribe to the pursuit of excellence (or a higher challenge) as a goal or as a standard to live for or to die for. In short, mediocrity (or Pwede Na Basta't Maka Sulong) is the day-to-day mode of Filipino life.
My question is: Is this observation accurate and correct? If it is, what is the explanation? Is it cultural? Is it an effect of colonialism? And if so, were the Spaniards a stickler for mediocrity themselves?
Johnny V. from Stanford
Yes, let’s blame everything on the Spaniards! After all, most former Spanish colonies are practically in the same rut we are in. Heck, you can even argue that Spain is in worse shape than most of its former colonies including the Philippines – what with its 20% unemployment rate right now and near bankrupt banks.
But on second thought, let’s not do that. The Spaniards have been gone a long time and it’s time to take ownership of our state of affairs. But in investigating your main question, I will steer clear of the discussion of culture also because many experts have already done that in the past and, frankly, I’m tired of hearing those experts pontificate about our culture.
So, let’s talk about you instead. ;-)
Actually, I think the question could not have come from a more appropriate questioner. Why do I think so? Because Stanford, regularly ranked today as the “dream college” by both parents and students, has become synonymous with excellence in higher education. In fact, according to the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, in 2010, Stanford is ranked among the top 5 in the world in the fields of engineering & technology, life sciences, health sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and arts & humanities. This achievement is truly remarkable because no other university placed in the top 5 across all these broad disciplines. (And what these rankings always overlook is the fact that Stanford is also an incredible powerhouse in collegiate athletics!)
|The Stanford University campus.|
However, determined to keep the university in operation, Jane personally took charge of administrative and financial matters at the university from 1893 to 1905, and she ran it like a housewife would a household because that was the only way she really knew how to run anything. She’s said to have paid salaries out of her own funds, even pawning her jewelry just to keep the university going.
It is common knowledge, though, that what really brought Stanford to its current perch is Silicon Valley, one of the biggest engines of the US economy, and that Silicon Valley, in turn, is what it is today because of Stanford. You cannot divorce the success of one from the other and you definitely cannot understand the rise of one without understanding the rise of the other.
But what was the original tie that bound the two together?
The answer, according to Professor Stephen B. Adams of Salisbury University who wrote about the topic in an Oxford Journal, is a sense of mission and regional solidarity. He explains thusly:
From the early years of Stanford University, the university's leaders saw its mission as service to the West and shaped the school accordingly. At the same time, the perceived exploitation of the West at the hands of eastern interests fueled booster‐like attempts to build self‐sufficient indigenous local industry. Thus, regionalism helped align Stanford's interests with those of the area's high‐tech firms for the first fifty years of Silicon Valley's development.We know now that this sense of mission and regionalism would give rise to the likes of Hewlett Packard, Intel, Cisco, Apple, Oracle, Yahoo, Google and thousands of other less well-known but equally excellent and cutting-edge companies, staffed by the best and the brightest who were attracted by the lure not only of wealth and glory but also the exciting prospect and pressure of competing, co-creating and/or cooperating with like-minded souls who are in pursuit of excellence.
Now, distilling the lessons from the success of Stanford and Silicon Valley, I humbly submit to you here that the key ingredients to enable a group of people to achieve excellence are (1) a sense of mission by those in leadership roles; (2) a “regionalistic” environment which produces a sense of solidarity; and (3) peer pressure of the positive kind. Take away any one of these ingredients and you’ll likely get mediocrity at best (or outright failure at worst).
Personally, I think many Filipinos subscribe to the pursuit of excellence in their own individual fields, and I don’t think I need to detain you any further here by giving you specific examples. Suffice it to say that the “someone” you mentioned appears to be one of them; otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered getting his PhD from Harvard. (In fact, like him, many Filipinos leave the Philippines not just to earn a better living but also to seek the best in their respective fields, advance as globally as possible professionally and thereby pursue world-class excellence in their craft.)
But then, you are probably thinking that if enough Filipinos are pursuing excellence individually, then the country should not be where it is today. To a certain extent that may be true, but I don’t buy that line of thinking completely. And, here, I’ll point to India as my counter-example.
You see, India has a lot of excellent and super-successful individuals who have thrived particularly well in countries like the US and the UK. But despite significant personal achievements of these expat Indians and the considerable economic progress of the country, India still has a significant portion of its population mired in extreme poverty. Why? I’ll give you three reasons: (1) Because the elite Brahmin class does not really exhibit a true sense of mission to help members of their lowest class, the Dalits or the untouchables; (2) because India’s still pervasive and rigid caste system produces a low-trust culture and therefore a weak sense of solidarity among its people; and (3) because there is not enough peer pressure among the powerful and rich Indians to do the right thing.
Case in point: India’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, just built the most expensive, most ostentatious personal residence in the world. According to Forbes, it is a billion-dollar, 60-story palatial building in Mumbai, which, depressingly enough, is actually home to the largest population of slum dwellers in India. It’s weird saying this because I might come across as just envious (and to a certain extent, I am), but I honestly almost feel sorry for this Ambani guy – for obviously, he has some demons he’s dealing with.
Do you get my drift here?
In any case, I think your question actually involves generalities. In other words, you’re really asking whether Filipinos, as a group, are pursuing or are capable of pursuing something large-scale, something grander for themselves: i.e., an excellent and advanced economy undergirding an equitable and just society. In other words, something like what the Singaporeans or the Koreans or the Taiwanese have, to a large extent, achieved.
So, applying the Stanford/Silicon Valley model of success I discussed above, I have to ask: Do Filipinos in power generally have a sense of mission?
Well, by its very definition, the word “mission” -- which is often seen as a companion word to “vision” – is suffused with idealism and therefore connotes lofty ideals and aspirations which transcend one’s selfish interests. And I doubt, honestly, whether the past and present leaders of the country (with the exception of a handful) had or have them, or even if they did or do, that they took or are taking them seriously enough.
The in-your-face corruption, the giving and accepting of bribes, the brazen system of patronage and vote-buying, the unbelievable violence – all these belie a sense of mission among the people at the top of the public pyramid. And when even the country’s privately wealthy make their money not really through invention and production of high value-added goods and services but through sale of imported consumer products to a local populace getting subsidies in the form of remittances from their OFW relatives, through passive collection of rents, through relentless milking of precious and limited land which inevitably leads to its eventual destruction and depletion, or through their connections to the people in power, you also realize that the country’s elite are just, mission-wise at least, as bankrupt.
(I remember a “game” I once played with a friend who belonged to one of the country’s most prominent families and who is very knowledgeable about the Philippine society’s elite. Highly self-aware of the nature of his own family’s membership in the group, he said to me: “Name any rich family in the Philippines and I will tell you how they arrived at their wealth through their connection to, help or blessing of a former or present President.” Not that there are no families who made their wealth more impressively, but during our exchange, I failed to stump my friend.)
But surely, we cannot lay the blame solely on the feet of the elite. We all have our fair share in everything wrong with the Philippines, of course, and we rightfully cannot get a free pass especially because there’s more than enough blame to go around. So what about the rest of us, the masses?
Sadly, the Filipino masses (where, for the sake of expediency, I would lump the middle class) have been fickle, feeble and feckless too. Collectively, we, too, seem to have no sense of mission. For instance, we kicked out the Marcoses from power but we allowed them back in without asking them to commensurately pay for their sins first. We elevated Cory to the presidency (and near-sainthood) but we did practically nothing to support her administration. We are supposedly educated but we put up with – and actually enrich! – the likes of Willie Revillame who bring out and institutionalize the worst in us, not to mention elect his ilk to positions of power. (Quite honestly, that last example is not just being mediocre – it is macabre!)
As for having a regionalistic environment which produces a sense of solidarity, with over 7,000 islands and dozens of languages, Filipinos are supposedly already “regionalistic”, so there has to be a checkmark here in our favor, right?
Unfortunately, it appears to many from outside, or even to many among us, that our regionalism does not quite extend beyond the superficial. Indeed, Filipino solidarity is often seen as merely skin-deep, quite myopic and frail, if not totally non-existent. Why? Because the sense of mission, as discussed above, is also merely skin-deep, quite myopic and frail, if not totally non-existent!
The regionalistic environment referred to by Prof. Adams is the ethos which says, “We, in this region, are in this mission together.” It’s the “us against the world” mentality which fuels a spirit of solid camaraderie and unity strong enough to overcome self-doubt, systemic problems and external attacks.
|(Source: Korea Times.)|
When people are lining up in droves, driven by a conviction that they’re doing something noble for the greater good, you’ll get an atmosphere that produces peer pressure. And as already mentioned above, of course, I’m talking of pressure of the positive kind: the kind which puts the onus on the skeptics, the doubters, the apathetic, and even the selfish, to put on a public face at least and for once do the right thing in a crisis situation.
But even in a non-crisis situation, positive pressure inspires the intrinsically driven, the ambitious, and the idealistic to sustain their efforts to achieve even more – for themselves and for the larger group to which they belong. This positive pressure does not repel others; to the contrary, it attracts the right and the bright people, thereby enhancing the elements which further benefit the group.
In his work on how nations achieve competitive advantage, Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School introduced the concept of clusters which, like in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, are critical masses or “groups of interconnected firms, suppliers, related industries and specialised institutions in particular fields that are present in particular locations.”
According to Porter’s Cluster Theory, clusters enjoy unusual competitive success in a particular field because they affect competition: “first, by increasing the productivity of companies based in the area; second, by driving the direction and pace of innovation; and third, by stimulating the formation of new businesses within the cluster.” In other words, Porter is just basically saying, in management consulting lingo of course, that success is infectious, that success begets success.
I mention Porter at this juncture because this infectious dynamic is what’s needed in the Philippines right now. Indeed, the Philippines really needs to achieve a critical mass of sorts, a cluster of like-minded institutions and souls who will pressure each other positively to create a spirit and atmosphere of genuine desire for reform and succeed socio-politically and economically. If it can’t, the country will continue to be stuck in the morass of mediocrity.
So I guess, that last sentence answers your question: We are not pursuing excellence as a group. In most economic development studies, we are mediocre -- i.e., stuck in the middle of the pack, or worse (however, to say we are at the bottom is also overstating things and quite erroneous). [Edit 03/07/11.] And I'm sure you didn't need me to answer this for you -- your Harvard PhD buddy already concluded so.
But if you haven’t noticed, one thing about many Filipinos – including this Filipino despite his decision to immigrate to the US – is that they will not give up on the Philippines. And because these Filipinos will not give up on the country, the country will not run out of chances to get better either.
And here, I offer as an example the experience of the Naguenos as a group.
Naga, as late as 1988, was a poor, sleepy, third-class city in the poverty-stricken region of Bicol until an enlightened young mayor, Jesse Robredo, took over the reins of the lcal government. As soon as he did, change was almost instantaneous and the pace of progress thereafter was furious, so much so that just a decade later, in 1999, Asiaweek dubbed Naga as one of Asia’s Best Cities and its Most Improved.
How did Robredo do it? You bet! By leading with a sense of mission and by promoting regional solidarity!
Specifically, he instituted transparency in city affairs and finances, among others. Then, he rallied, cajoled and convinced many others in the community to join him in his ambitious mission to lift the city by its own bootstraps. In the process, he got, among others, the local Rotary Club to feed the poor children and expectant mothers; the local schools and universities to participate in more aggressive community building not just traditional education; and even the Catholic Church to sell land to the city at below-market rates for squatter housing. He also reached out to the leaders of surrounding towns and municipalities to push for the development of "Metro Naga" and discuss ways to share burdens and resources to improve everyone's lot. Most impressively, believing citizens have to have a direct stake in government affairs, he also shepherded the passage of an Empowerment Ordinance to allow non-government groups to form a People's Council which chooses representatives to the city government's committees.
By all accounts, Robredo and the people who rallied around him were so successful that officials from other cities, perhaps feeling the “peer pressure,” started trooping to Naga to learn the city’s model of governance, which led to the establishment of the Naga City Governance Institute (NCGI). At the launching of NCGI in 2009, World Bank country director Bert Hofman was effusive in his praise, remarking that the city “is one of the shining lights of good governance in the country today.”
If you visit the website of Naga (http://www.naga.gov.ph/) today, you’ll appreciate why Hofman said that. Despite the small size and limited budget of the city, its website, I think, can hold its own, in terms of aesthetics and substance, against the websites of much bigger, much richer cities all over the world. The website, which captures the welcoming, progressive and hopeful zeitgeist of the city, is inviting the Internet surfer to see/meet/ invest/live/experience/study in the city – the city that “SMILES to the World.”
The challenge for P-Noy and the people around him is how they can ignite the spark which will replicate on a national level what Naga has accomplished on a city/regional level. It will be difficult, sure, but man -- God knows how much many people like myself are just dying for that to happen!
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