Mar 24, 2011

Does the Philippines have a future in a technology-driven world and will Filipinos survive in it?

Dear Filipino,

As someone who has worked in Silicon Valley and who researches on and lectures about IT issues, I sometimes wonder what the future holds for the Philippines. It seems like we are only supplying resources (e.g., IT skilled labor) but not really in the forefront and "making things happen," so to speak.

So my question is: Do you think Filipinos will survive in an increasingly high-tech and competitive world?

The Filipina

P.S. By the way, I like love your new logo, too. But how come MuQ is in the logo while I’m not? Sob-sob-sob. :-(

To My Funny Brown Pinay,

First, I’m glad you like the new logo/banner.

Secondly, I’m really sorry that you’re not in the picture, but don’t you think it would look kinda silly if I were riding you instead of MuQ?

Thirdly, I feel bad not answering a lot of pending questions from readers, but I’m really super glad that you asked your question because it's of the kind I really want to write about.  Because if there’s one thing I am absolutely sure, it’s that Filipinos WILL survive. In fact, not only will Filipinos survive, we are on track to conquer the world!  Hah!

Yup, you heard that right! But don’t take my word for it – take instead the word of the former Secretary of Finance, Roberto de Ocampo, who, thanks to a reader who alerted me about it, has recently written about how Filipinos are really “The Chosen People.”
Consider that, according to some researchers, “in order for a culture to maintain itself for more than 25 years, there must be a fertility rate of 2.11 children per family. With anything less, the culture will decline. Historically, no culture has ever reversed a 1.9 fertility rate.”

The 2011 fertility rate estimate for Spain is 1.47, Italy 1.39, UK 1.91, France 1.96 and Germany 1.41, to name a select few. The average fertility rate of all Western Europe is about 1.5. In short, these nations are either on are perilously close to what population experts call an irreversible demographic decline. To put it more starkly, for example, by 2020 (or just nine years from now) more than half of all births in a country like, say, the Netherlands (1.66 fertility rate) will be of non-European Dutch origin. Furthermore, with the birth rate dropping below replacement, the population of such countries ages and the problems facing an aging population are numerous and startling enough to deserve a separate treatise.

Western Europe is not the only one experiencing this phenomenon. The US fertility rate is, at 2.0, just below replacement and Japan is at a worrisome level of 1.2. For Japan, this means a population decline of about 60 million in the next 30 years and an aging population that will have one out of every five Japanese at least 70 years old by 2020.

However, with the exception of Japan, the overall populations of the above-mentioned countries are not declining. The overwhelming reason for that is immigration (to which Japan is by comparison with others, still somewhat resistant). Guess who comprise one of the larger immigrant populations. Yes, dear—Filipinos!
De Ocampo concludes:
Now we have begun to creep into the world’s bloodlines. The 2010 World Series winning pitcher Tim Lincecum, 2011 best supporting actress Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, and R&B star Bruno Mars are all Fil-Ams. It may only be a matter of time before nearly every race on earth has some Filipino blood.
In other words, if you think all these advanced countries are going to go high-tech, Filipinos will at least be tagging along for the ride!

But actually, the truth is, if we play our cards right, we’re not just going to tag along – we can make things happen too, and to a certain extent, we have. In fact, we are really in the position to design our own “ride” – literally!

Now, what do I mean by that?

Well, what I mean is that we have the right ingredients already in place. We have, as you mentioned, the skilled laborers; we have creativity; and, believe it or not, we have years of experience in the transportation field too.

Let’s talk about these ingredients one by one.

First, the skilled laborers.

Many people think of the Philippines as this low-tech country exporting nothing but tropical fruits and basic natural commodities. But in fact, electronics exports accounted for a whopping 61% of the country’s merchandise exports in 2010 which totaled $31 billion. Of that figure, semiconductors comprised 71%!

And Filipinos are not just at the bottom of the high-tech totem pole either, for Silicon Valley has several Filipinos who have achieved substantial success in the field. Dado Banatao, of course, is just one of the more well-known figures, having co-founded Mostron, Chips & Technologies (acquired later by Intel), and S3 Graphics.

All these means, of course, that we have the knowledge capital.  And I strongly believe we also have the creative capital, which, as mentioned earlier, is the second ingredient. 

Kenneth Cobonpue's Phoenix
(Source: TopGear Blog)
In fact, just a few days ago, I read the Inquirer article about Kenneth Cobonpue, a well-known Filipino furniture designer. Apparently, he just outdid himself and designed “Phoenix” – a concept car made out of bamboo, rattan, steel and carbon fiber -- which has drawn raves in a Milan exhibit entitled “Imagination and Innovation.” I saw the picture and it looks awesome – indeed, “a bird posed to take flight.”

What I didn’t like about the Inquirer article is the lead sentence which says in part that “Cobonpue has designed what must be the first and only bamboo and rattan car in the world.”


Because it’s not true! And this brings me to the last ingredient I earlier mentioned: years of experience.

Actually, the honor of “first and only” bamboo ride rightly belongs to the – note the following adjective closely – out-of-school youth and the former mayor of the remote municipality of Tabontabon, Leyte who actually manufactured public taxis made out of bamboo!
Want a ride aboard the bamboo taxi of Tabontabon, Leyte?

And if you think it’s just superficially bamboo, you’re wrong: It’s 90% bamboo!

But wait, there’s more: According to John Voelker, Senior Editor of
The ECO taxis built by Tabontabon Organic Transport Industry [TOTI] come in two sizes: ECO1 seats 20, whereas ECO2 carries eight passengers. Each is said to run for eight hours on a gallon of biodiesel, which in this case is derived from coconut oil.
Did you read that? The thing actually runs on biodiesel! How about that, my dear Pinay?
Honestly, I was floored when I first read about it on Fast Company. I couldn’t believe it because Tabontabon, Leyte does not exactly exude high-tech. In fact, it’s a poor farming town and is considered a fifth-class municipality by Philippine standards!

I said though that the third ingredient is years of experience. Well, these ECO taxis were built in 2009, so a couple of years do not exactly years of experience make.

But by years of experience, I am referring also to our decades of churning out our very colorful jeepneys (a portmanteau of "jeep" and "jitney") which started when the American forces left us with hundreds of surplus jeeps used during the Second World War. We stripped them, elongated them, re-roofed them and made them culturally our own.  That should count for something, right?

FAAIE's enviable jeepney: The Ambassador
As you probably know also, the jeepney used to be notorious as a smoke-belcher, but it has since evolved over the years. Nowadays, there’s even a lot of interest in making them more environmentally friendly and high-tech by making them electric-powered. You better believe it -- e-jeepney is on the way!

In sum, I want to emphasize that we do have the ingredients to not just survive but to thrive in an increasingly high-tech world. All we need now is a cook, a really good chef.  And I hope purpose-driven businessmen will step forward to play that role. Additionally, I hope the government will also step up and at least play the role of sous-chef.  We really need them to up their game big time.

Because believe me, I strongly think that demand for Philippine-made rides will increase, especially from Pinoys abroad because, at least Stateside, I am really sensing a growing pride about their ethnic background among Filipino-Americans. For instance, the Filipino-American Association of the Inland Northwest, which is involved in various humanitarian and socio-cultural activities, has bought a club jeepney. So as a group, they now roll and roar aboard the machine they proudly call The Ambassador.

Good for them! And honestly, I envy them because I too want to roll with one -- and because MuQ has been wanting a break from carrying my heavy bum bum.  What do you think I should call it? (I meant the jeepney, not my bum bum.)

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at

Mar 16, 2011

For MuQ: Who are you really, how do you pronounce your name, why do you look lazy, etc.?

[Before "regular programming," I just want to say this: It's always a struggle to write something characterized by levity (even pettiness) in the wake of a disaster so horrific and so shocking like what happened in Japan last Friday when a massive earthquake, and the tsunami which it caused, destroyed entire cities and towns and claimed thousands of lives.  And to make things worse, the disaster appears to be far from over, what with the ongoing threat from the nuclear facilities which were badly damaged. I hope nobody will find this a cheap and crass shoutout, but I really have been very impressed so far by the way the Japanese people have reacted with unbelievable amount of collective calm, courage, dignity and discipline in the face of such great national suffering, destruction and death. And readers from Japan who chance upon this blog are probably thinking that, half a world away from the epicenter, I am really very fortunate that I can continue blogging about relatively silly matters, and I hope nobody takes it as my callous indifference to their plight.  My wife was an exchange student in Japan in the 1990s and she has "family" there -- even a loving "Japanese mother" she calls her "Okasan" for acting like one to her -- and  I too have extended family and friends there. That's why I do want to say in this blog, from the bottom of my heart, that our family's prayers and thoughts go out to the Japanese people affected by this continuing tragedy. -- The anonymous blogger behind AAF!, otherwise known as The Pinoy, The Filipino or TF.]

Dear MuQ,

For this time (and I hope, this time only), I want to be the questioner because since we changed the banner/logo of the blog, you've begun to upstage me, and I'm beginning to feel kinda jealous. I'm supposed to be the blogger here answering all sorts of Pinoy-related questions, but now, I'm getting asked questions about YOU!

The questions range from the metaphysical (who you are) to the practical (how your name is pronounced), et cetera. Maybe some chubby Midwestern buffaloes are probably just curious and want to flirt with you, but one prominent Filipino muralist is even openly challenging your Pinoy cred and claims you're actually Chinese!

While I respect his work, the same artist referred to your droopy eyes too!  He thinks you have the "Lazy Look" (knowing you, you probably love that alliteration!). And probably because of that look, he thought my reading pose while I was on top of you is, well, quite lazy-looking too (notwithstanding the fact that I was pictured busily reading a book). Thus, with the two of us appearing lazy to him, we supposedly perpetuate, according to him, the misguided stereotype that Filipinos are lazy!

So what say you, The Buffalo Gigolo?

Your BFF,

Dear TF,

Wow, I feel important – very important! Imagine: I get to actually write my very own post in this blog and not just submit planted questions?

Thanks for this opportunity, but where do I start?

TF: Well, why don’t you start from the very beginning. First, introduce yourself.

That’s a good idea. Thanks, TF!

Well, you could say I was first conceived in January of this year because my Creator -- you, of course! -- wanted to write about a beautiful Ford supermodel, but no reader had submitted a question which he could answer and somehow discuss her success story.  Then you thought a planted, perfectly worded question would do the trick so you made up a fictional questioner, the Made-up Questioner, or MuQ in short – i.e., moi.

At that time though, except probably for cojones the size of humongous lansones, even in the mind of my Creator (you), I had no real attributes, no identity, no face, no character, no personality, no nothing -- except a name which happens to be a nice, short and sweet initialism or acronym. And, of course, a job: to ask the perfect questions at the most perfect times.

But I didn’t know if I needed to sound like a lowly vassal, a disciple, or a rap star wannabe. I didn’t even know if I had to speak collegiala Taglish or have a British accent, although I knew I would have hated it, like, if I had to, you know, speak like, you know, a Hollywood star or something.  In short, neither I nor you knew what I was going to end up as.
The previous logo and banner of the blog.

Luckily, you as my creator met a creative guy. He’s an artist who has served as art director for several top advertising companies in the world. He’s also active in the Filipino OFW community in Europe, organizing sporting events for the hyphenated Filipino youth. As a musician, he volunteers his talent, treasure and time to make sure that worthy fundraising projects, all aimed at helping less fortunate Filipinos back in the Philippines, are successful. His name is Peter Molina.
Peter's different AAF! logo studies.

Peter liked the AAF! blog so much that when he was approached about it, he decided that, for a token fee, he’d help upgrade the logo and banner of the blog. It took quite some time because of his busy schedule but he subsequently came up with several “studies” for the new logo, all of which were nice. Most revolved around Jose Rizal because the Philippine national hero is the original figure which graced the top banner of the blog. But the last of the studies actually ended up taking the prize because Peter did not just create a logo – he, probably inadvertently, also conceptualized the personification (or in my case, the "animalification") of a fictive character created solely for this “Ask blog”. And the character looks like someone who fits the name "MuQ"!

People ask: “Why would that name fit?” Well, because it is pronounced like “muck” which rhymes with buck or luck.

And “muck” is also perfect because it means “a moist sticky mixture, especially of mud and filth” or “dark fertile soil containing decaying vegetable matter.” In short, “dirt” – i.e., my favorite stomping grounds when I want to, as the Brits would say, “muck about” or “spend time idly.”

But then, by saying that last phrase, I guess I just confirmed that muralist’s very charge, huh? That is, that I’m lazy, right?

I hope not.  But if that’s what he thinks, who am I to ask him to think otherwise?

After all, I’m just a [fictive] carabao, a lowly beast of burden. I’m not a truck, a tractor or a car, even if my kind has been serving like those mechanical beasts many centuries before they were even invented. I don’t perform tricks like the dogs do, nor purr and act cute like the cats to get what I want.

But what that artist probably doesn’t realize is that as a carabao, I have no sweat glands, so I have to cool myself after long hours of working under the sun by lying in a filthy waterhole or mud or muck. That muck, caked on to my sexy body, protects me from bothersome tropical insects who can’t seem to get enough of tasty me.

I’m probably wasting my time saying all these things though because again, who am I really to argue with that famous muralist? Us carabaos are not even supposed to complain. We’re supposed to be docile and just work hard. We're supposed to just carry heavy burdens. We’re just supposed to plow hardened soil, rain or shine, to soften them for another round of planting. We’re [sniff] just supposed to provide milk and when really necessary [sniff], offer our meat and our hides for you guys. We’re just [sniff]…

TF: Hey, calm down, dude. Don’t cry because you’re going to make me cry, too!

I’m sorry but I can’t help but feel bad, TF. Why does this guy think I look lazy? It’s bad enough that the scientific community gave us a long, ugly and tongue-twister of a scientific name -- Bubalus bubalis carabanesis – but now I’m supposed to just accept additional abuse too because of my droopy-looking eyes?

Besides, he’s unfair and quite misguided in his anthropomorphizing because what applies to humans does not necessarily apply to the animal kingdom. Besides, has he ever thought that those droopy eyes were the result of tiredness, not laziness?  Besides, I happen to think those eyes are my best assets because they make me look approachable and harmless among the female members of our specie. And here's another more important besides: I have massive horns, you see, and I don’t want female carabaos to think, well, that I’m “horny”!
TF & MuQ: Happy together!

But it’s true, TF: I like my dreamy look in Peter's work because it makes me an enigmatic character. And truth be told, like you, I’m really a dreamer.

TF: But what about your Pinoyness? He questioned that too. He thinks you’re of Chinese origin.

So what? Just like millions of Filipinos, right? Should we strip those folks of their Pinoy kinship and connection too?

Let me remind you: Carabaos have been around since pre-Hispanic times in the Philippines and I have just as much right to be considered Filipino as he has. Doesn’t he consider himself Filipino too despite his Spanish name or, presumably, mixed ancestry?

Tell me this: How many centuries does it require to be considered native to a place? We’ve been the primary source of material for the armor of pre-colonial Filipino warriors. Some of my Filipino cousins were even exported to Guam in the late 17th century, and Guamanians considered my cousins Filipino, not Chinese!

And actually, do you know what else Guamanians did? You’re right -- they made the carabao their national symbol!

That’s called respect, bro. As in R-E-S-P-E-C-T!  And sadly, we don’t get it that much among Filipinos, nowadays. We’re seen as too provincial, too rural. We’re of the lower class.  No, make that lowest class.

That's why if somebody is ugly, he/she "looks like a carabao."  If somebody is a slowpoke, he/she is “as slow as a carabao.”  If somebody speaks broken English, he/she is said to speak “carabao English.”

It hurts, bro. We deserve better treatment. Besides, we’re supposed to be the country’s national animal – Ang Pambansang Hayop – right?  Believe me: I can't help but feel envious of my distant relatives -- those spoiled cows -- living in India.

But you know what?  It’s a good thing The Big Guy above gave us thick hides and even thicker hearts. So we are able to endure all the slings and all the slights.

Then, pretending as if we’re not tired or not hurting or not affected, with our characteristic pluck and poise, we plod along, plow ahead or plot a plan.

TF: Thanks, MuQ!  For a supposedly lazy creature, you answered my question quite non-stereotypically: i.e., quite thorough and in -- I apologize for saying this -- non-"carabao English".

You're welcome!  And you're forgiven this time (but this time only). ;-)

Got a question for MuQ The Filipino?  Email him now at

Mar 9, 2011

Are Filipinos becoming the newest heartthrobs in the US of A?

Dear Filipino,
Big MuQ, TF's sidekick.

Did you see that HuffPo piece about Asians, including many Filipinos who were specifically named in the article, turning into America's newest heartthrobs? 

Sigh. I wonder when it's going to be my turn...


Dear MuQ,

Keep dreaming, brother!  Keep dreaming -- nothing wrong with that at all!

Yes, I read it several days ago and I found it really fascinating.  I actually wanted to write about it but you weren't around to ask the planted question as my sidekick! Where were you anyway? (Okay, okay -- in fairness, I'm just making you my scapecarabao; I've been really too busy lately to do much writing.)

As I said, it was a fascinating article and I don't really know what to make of it.  I'm sure social scientists, and moreso the casual observers, would have tons to say about the article, or even just this paragraph alone:

Just when we start to feel envious about the Whiz Kids' superior academic and virtuosic abilities, we quickly console ourselves that the price they pay is social awkwardness and having no fun. Asian Whiz Kids and their Tiger Moms surely abound. But frankly, this model is rather old. The newer, more interesting strand of Asian American is... the Heartthrob Asian.
"We"?  Who's "we" in the article -- the white dudes?  And then, the article continues:
You may have seen cool Asians on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance in dance crews such as JabbaWockeeZ, Kaba Modern, and SoReal Cru. Justin Bieber's backup band is the Filipino American R & B group Legaci. Sam Tsui, a Chinese American singer/pianist/songwriter and student at Yale who's amassed over 85 million views on YouTube, appeared on Oprah and ABC World News. 21-year-old Filipino American singer/guitarist Joseph Vincent Encarmacion appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show.
Iyaz gave a shoutout on a Youtube video to 21-year-old Filipino American AJ Rafael and friends for covering his Billboard hit "Replay." And of course, there's Bruno Mars who's half Filipino. Harry Shum Jr. of League of Extraordinary Dancers is on Glee. In January, Billboard created a new chart for emerging artists in social media, which was topped by Traphik, a Thai American rapper, and was peppered with Asian Americans.

21-year-old Filipino American guitarist/pianist/singer and YouTube sensation AJ Rafael from Moreno Valley, Calif. received over 50 million views on YouTube; had become 29th most subscribed musician of all time; has over 11 million plays on MySpace; and when he came out with his EP on iTunes album charts, he debuted at 115. (This was on his own, without labels and millions to back him.) His iTunes sales pays his bills.
Talented and charismatic, Rafael performs regularly to packed concerts of screaming teens who know him from YouTube. Last summer, he toured Hawaii, Sydney, Melbourne, and Toronto.
The article's quite long and Filipino names are sprinkled all over it -- and they're new names too and not the more known ones like Arnel Pineda and the like. The article even opened with the story of 10-year old Filipino-Canadian Maria Aragon who just sang a duet with Lady Gaga in her Toronto concert.

The cool dudes of the Far East Movement.
And the other groups mentioned in the article, aside from Legaci, also have Filipino members -- including the most successful Asian American group, Far East Movement (also known as FM), which managed to break into the mainstream pop scene with the single, "Like a G6," which reached #1 in iTunes and Billboard Hot 100 charts. FM's DJ Virman is the only Filipino American but the rest of the group are "adopted Filipinos," at least food-wise.

Pretty amazing, no?  Considering a Jewish blogger, Ilana Angel, had also earlier gushed over Manny Pacquiao, her new "celebrity crush" (her words, not mine), maybe there really is a trend here. 

So who knows?  Maybe soon, you, MuQ, are going to be the next celebrity and buffalos from the American plains will soon be rampaging to get close to you!

MuQ:  Cool! Can't wait! But what took Americans so long to recognize our -- ahem! -- coolness and good looks?

"I love dogs too!  Wanna exchange recipes?"
I know -- makes you wonder, right?

But if you have forgotten your history, allow me to remind you.

After the Americans colonized the Philippines a little over a century ago, they had to showcase their newest subjects in a grand manner.  And what better way than to do so at the 1904 World's Fair held in St. Louis, Missouri?

According to Virgilio R. Pilapil of the Filipino American National Historical Society, "[t]he St. Louis World's Fair was the grandest of all Fairs and the Philippine Exhibit took the honor of being the largest and most popular one at this Fair."

And guess why? Because we were all supposedly head-hunting savages! And we ate dogs -- yum yum!

(Hmmm...I wonder what The Filipina is preparing for dinner tonight -- Adobong Bulldog, Great Dane stuffed with Kangkong, or the usual Chihuahua Curry?)

Oh, sorry, I was daydreaming about food again. Where was I? Yes, the history behind our coolness, of course!

Going back to the St. Louis Fair, the Igorot Village, in particular, was a huge hit because the Igorot appetite for dogs was supposedly insatiable, this despite the fact that Igorots ate dogs only occasionally and for ceremonial purposes. But there was no shock value there, so they were asked to butcher dogs and eat them daily.  And Pilapil adds:
The city of St. Louis provided them a supply of dogs at the agreed amount of 20 dogs a week, but this did not appear to be sufficient, as they had also encouraged local people to bring them dogs which they bought to supplement their daily needs.
So, as you can see, Filipinos used to be just "objects of curiosity" in 1904, to put it mildly, to be fed with dogs.  But fast forward to today, and if you believe HuffPo's article, hey, guess what?  We've now become "objects of desire" -- or at least, our Filipino music stars are.

Justice Tani, The Filipino's
newest celebrity crush.
Personally, I'm not going to be complaining, brother.  And neither should you.

But if you ask me, my newest "celebrity crush," to borrow Ilana's term, is the country's first Filipino chief of a State Supreme Court, Madame Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye of the California Supreme Court. 

Believe me, bro: She's pretty and she's smart! (I don't want to be accused of objectifying women, but I read a lot of comments on articles when news of her nomination broke last year and I happen to agree with many commenters: She's hot!)

But while her success story is truly inspiring, her parents' story is even moreso, for they were the ones who toiled the sugar cane and pineapple farms of Hawaii as well as the fields of California's Central Valley so she could get her education.

So here, I'll join you in dreaming: I hope that someday I'll find myself fortunate enough to be arguing a case in the august chamber of the Court with Chief Justice Tani presiding.  I'm sure my knees will be quivering, especially if she flashes me her signature smile.  And I know I better be prepared because I sure won't like her smile turning into something scary. Ay yay yay!

And MuQ, I expect you to be there to give me moral support -- okay? -- even if you, my fictive water buffalo, are already being revered as The Buffalo Gigolo.

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at

Mar 3, 2011

Is mediocrity really the goal and standard for majority of Filipinos?

Dear Filipino,

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

Dear Johnny,

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.
It is even more remarkable that Stanford made it this big despite its relative youth when compared to Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge – its present “peers”. In fact, after its founding by the railroad tycoon and politician Leland Stanford and his wife Jane in 1891, the fledgling university almost went under because of problems involving its finances following the death of Leland in 1893.

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.)
Here, I am reminded of how ordinary South Koreans rallied to save their country from complete collapse during the Asian currency crisis of 1997 by lining up in droves to donate their own personal gold -- their family heirlooms and trinkets and jewelry – in order to refill their emptied national treasury and repay the country’s loans to the International Monetary Fund. To say it was remarkable is to understate things: According to Michael Breen of Korea Times, even “couples handed over wedding rings” and “old ladies contributed treasured possessions” such that “the international price of gold dropped to the lowest in 18 years”!

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.

(Source: PlanetNaga.)
Today, Naga is the country’s most awarded city and is the model of good governance, having won around 150 relevant international awards.  It has also been attracting new residents, investors and tourists alike.

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 ( 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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