The following is a re-post of an article I wrote for the now-defunct FilipinoVoices.com back in 2009 when Typhoon Ondoy wrought destruction across Metro Manila. The original Facebook archive can be found here.
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In recent days we’ve been hearing and reading the word “Bayanihan” to the point of its being reduced to but a mere platitude of the sort politicians and most media folk mouth off when their faculties for spin are on auto-pilot. The concept of Bayanihan is now just this much short of being included in that infamous list of otherwise noble concepts that Filipinos have all but perverted as it is now used to highlight an outpouring of virtuous behaviour in the wake of a crisis that could have been prevented if a more routine and ingrained flavour of that behaviour had been observed before said crisis hit.
[Photo courtesy UCA News.]
Of course so many Filipinos have risen to the occasion and many of us deserve a pat on the back for all the bayanihan we fancy ourselves to be a part of in the aftermath of the devastation wreaked by cyclone Ondoy. Considering how fight-or-flight situations often bring out adrenaline-fuelled strengths in us we never knew existed, perhaps we should appreciate how disturbing it is that we rely on such vicissitudes to assure ourselves that we as a people still possess such virtues.
Such is the irony that probably escapes most of us when we read ego candy such as this:
Storm “Ondoy” was a great equalizer. The flood treated everybody, rich and poor, equally. It didn’t play favorites, exempting no one. It made everybody miserable. Celebrities and the influential suffered along with the poor. The rich in their gated communities suffered just as much as the squatters in their shanties. The relatively well off Provident Village in Marikina was among the worst hit, with floodwaters reaching the rooftops. Many residents waited on their roofs for rescue that did not come as they watched in terror the water rise higher.
Shotgun bayanihan time.
Indeed, it took an Ondoy disaster to extract people from their gated enclaves and force them to rough it up with the masses. Did our accidental “solidarity” with the masses happen in the true (read: voluntary) spirit of bayanihan in this instance? Quite debatable in this light, isn’t it? Had Ondoy not come along, most of us would still be cloistered in our pristine subdivisions patrolled by armed private security guards applying a blanket presumption of ill-intent in their regard for each visitor that comes through their gates. While the rest of the city’s stormwater drains and canals get clogged with refuse and raw sewage, our walled leafy oases of manicured lawns, paved footpaths, and “village associations” all but prop up the bizarre notion that the Philippines is a “modern” country.
The floods surely equalised all that and turned bayanihan into a temporary reality for Filipinos, rich and poor. With floodwaters submerging all those gates and walls, Manila from the air looked like a real community. When the floodwaters subside and everything goes back to normal, Manila from the air will go back to looking like the sorry excuse for an urban “community” it has always been, as the walls and gates become visible and the contrasts in infrastructure, personal space, and physical aesthetics among the patchwork of “villages” in the city become stark once again.
Can we as a people prove that the bayanihan spirit really is alive in the Filipino and the inhabitants of its premier urban region? Yes we can, but only if we can demonstrate an ability to sustain it under normal conditions. Some insight into the immensity of the size of that challenge can be gleaned from an old PinoyExchange.com thread I recall from way back in 2002 which the threadstarter opened with these words:
that idiot mmda chairman fernando is proposing to open up the gates of private subdivisions to the public. that will compromise the security and safety of people residing in private subdivisions.
i am opposed to any such foolish and immoral proposal/s
for the safety and security of the few is far more important than the mere convenience of the many( remember that it is not the presence of private subdivisions that is causing the traffic congestion.)
That pretty much captures the real spirit of the Filipino under normal conditions. Perhaps the bayanihan we so fancy ourselves as exhibiting these days is just a mythical label we slap onto what is nothing more than a normal human response when suddenly faced with an enemy that is bigger than the petty issues and politics that divide us on any other day. Why not find a purpose, a stand, or a challenge to collectively face that is bigger than all the petty issues and partisanism we squabble about amongst ourselves put together that will unite us over the long-term, instead of always having to wait for a big “enemy” to unite us under some phoney sense of “bayanihan” every now and then?
Bayanihan is reminiscent of thinking at a villager’s scale and is a relic of pre Twentieth Century thinking. What we need in order to face the challenges of the Twenty-first Century is thinking that is applied at a scale more appropriate for a citizen of a modern state. And that will involve tearing down some of the walls that divide us into the “villages” that remain a poignant reminder of our renowned heritage of smallness.