Culture: The real culprit
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 11 March 2002

Fifteen years ago, an American chanced upon the Philippines and took critical aim "at a society that had degenerated into a war of every man against every man." I thought James Fallows then was guilty of rank hyperbole, a know-it-all Yankee, jeering and arrogant, who deserved to be lynched. It was Fallows who coined the term "damaged culture" to depict the Philippines, and all the more did we endeavor to burn him at the stake. Now fifteen years after, this quondam roving corespondent of Atlantic Monthly has turned out to be dead right. Right on every count.

We Filipinos indeed have a damaged culture, more damaged even than we think. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of stern social discipline, of crowding humankind into a disciplined cage, was certainly describing the Philippines, among others, when he said without order, life was "nasty, brutish and short." Ferdinand Marcos had a sense of smell better than most when he said the Philippines was "sitting on top of a social volcano" and that was more than 30 years ago. Historian O.D. Corpuz (Roots of the Filipino Nation) wrote in 1989 that civil war, revolution or a coup could break out in a matter of years. Any day now?

Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr. in 1983 sought a "rendezvous with history" -- meaning a heart-to-heart talk with President Marcos -- because as he confided to me in Boston, "along the way, the Philippines can explode into bloody revolution and that will take us back 20 years." At one time, the great nationalist Claro Recto intimated that Philippine democracy was a bad case "of the blind leading the blind." That was long ago. Of course, another foreigner, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, predicted our "exuberant democracy" of fiestas and good time would come to no good end.

And now what do we see?

It's every man for himself. A war of one against all. We have a sitting president swinging from extremes of the political pendulum not knowing really what direction to take except possibly the futile and mine-infested road leading to 2004. We have two former presidents, Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, the first brandishing a cigar, the second a rosary. Both are in search of Shangri-La. Both clamor for surcease, peace and unity. And lastly, we have an immediate past president, Joseph E. Estrada, who is now the immediate, visible source of almost all the turbulence shaking the foundations of the republic. He is the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes.

All the sound and fury is surface temblor. All the creaking and groaning is the behavior of a ship of state tossing, turning and twisting, presumably about to sink in a cultural storm. All that simply points to tectonic plates under the surface shifting before unleashing a big, maddening and devastating earthquake. When almost all of our politicians seek to rescue Estrada from his predicament and forget justice and the rule of law, you espy the rats about to jump from the sinking ship. Or they would seek to preserve the doomed Titanic and off-load Estrada into a safe and pleasure-laden igloo in America. And yet whatever they do, the Titanic will sink.

Well, back to Fallows. In 1994, he wrote his best-selling Looking at the Sun after four years laboring in the cultural vineyards of Asia. The section on the Philippines immediately caught my eye.

He had no hesitation sticking the knife deep in his first sentence: "The least successful-seeming society in East Asia is the Philippines ... a society most heavily shaped in the American image." He continued: "This is the largest country the United States ever attempted to colonize. It is the one part of East Asia to embrace most fully the 'American Way' of two-party elections and an uncontrolled press." Then Fallows pours it on:

"At the end of World War II, Manila prided itself as having been on the winning side, while Tokyo and Seoul tried to size up the conquering Americans. Today Manila is sad in the same way Rangoon is, and for a similar reason. Each has become a melancholy monument to unnecessary, self-induced decline ... It can seem gratuitous and bullying for an American to dwell on the miseries of the Philippines ... Seen from everywhere, the Philippines is troubled and poor. Why pick on people who need help and sympathy? If Americans think things are wrong in the Philippines, why didn't they fix them when they were running the place (the same thing I have drummed in this column -- TCB), or in the years when they had leverage over the Marcos family? The Philippines' ethic of delicadeza, the local equivalent to 'saving face,' encourages people to raise unpleasant topics indirectly, or better still, not raise them at all."

I'd like to inform Mr. Fallows that today delicadeza is cracking up like broken Ming. Mr. Estrada's growing army of critics now pounce on him as a matador lunges at a wounded bull. But Fallows is still right. The old pols, the tradpols, the pok-pok pols would liberate Estrada from prison to save a system that has made them rich, powerful beyond their dreams, craven, brazen and corrupt beyond redemption. Three former Senate presidents -- Edgardo Angara, Blas Ople, Aquilino Pimentel -- and current House Speaker Jose de Venecia are moving heaven and earth to save Estrada. They are looking for a "parliamentary solution" (what kind of animal is that?) to get the nation out of the Estrada quagmire. The truth is, they are lost. The truth is the system is churning lava about to be vomited by the social volcano.

Let's hear Fallows anew: "Except for Burma, the Philippines is the only country in the region where life seems to be moving backward. In the early 1990s Malaysia per capita income was nearly $2,500; Singapore's more than $10,000; Thailand's more than $1,500 and all, of course, were going up. The per capita income in the Philippines has been stagnant at about $700 for several years. By government estimates, roughly two-thirds of the people in the country live below the poverty line, as opposed to about half in the pre-Marcos era."

That was eight years ago. Today, our population has reached 80 million. In 2020 or before, it will surpass 100 million. In 2050, given current birth rates, it could peak at 200 million.

How about education? The Philippines has long banished itself from the Knowledge Society, the only catapult to national progress. Fallows writes: "The education system has run down terribly. The Philippines spends about one eighth as much money per student than Malaysia does. The $15 billion to $20 billion that Marcos creamed off has had a big effect. There's a kind of corruption that just recycles the money, but all this was taken out."

Why? What went wrong?. Where did we Filipinos fail? Was it the predatory regime of the Marcos dictatorship? Was it the fault of "imperialist America" and international bankers? Was it the fault of God who abandoned or forsook the Philippines? And if it was God, would importuning Him to come back by prayer and fasting stand any chance? Should we propitiate Him by lamplight and candlelight in a world of darkness? That is what the EDSA People Power Commission (EPPC) would have us do, even as Muslim Mindanao threatens to explode in another war of attrition without end, even as Metro Manila resembles Noah's Ark about to sail and spin crazily into a biblical tempest.

Where lies the difference?

According to Fallows, effective bureaucracies "needed to be protected from excessive democratic rule" as he sought to explain the economic and social success of many non-democratic countries in East Asia. He continues: "Foremost among these traits is technocratic insulation -- the ability of economic technocrats to formulate and implement policies with a minimum of lobbying for special favors from politicians and interest groups." Here comes the clincher: "The function of authoritarian rule (not dictatorial) has been to see that certain national interests are served, interests that might not automatically emerge from the play of market forces or the individual pursuit of happiness."

I hope the lunkheads in Congress are listening. Now read carefully:

"Individual Filipinos are at least as brave, kind and noble-spirited as individual Japanese, but their culture draws the boundaries of decent treatment much more narrowly. Because these boundaries are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at any given moment 99 percent of the other people in the country. Because of this fragmentation, this lack of useful nationalism, people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen ... The tradition of political corruption and cronyism, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the tribal fragmentation, the local elite's willingness to make a separate profitable peace with colonial powers -- all reflect a feeble sense of national interest. Practically everything that is public in the Philippines seems neglected or abused."

Fallows focuses on the four hundred years the Philippines spent under Spain's thumb, and following that "the distorting effects of the Philippines' encounter with the United States ... But American rule seemed to intensify the Philippines sense of dependence. The US quickly earned or bought the loyalty of the ilustrados. It rammed through a number of laws insisting on free 'competition' at a time when Philippine industries were in no position to compete with anyone." Remember the infamous parity provision?

In short, we have a mendicant society with a mendicant leadership with a mendicant culture. The grossest insult is we are to be pitied and deprecated like Burma. That's about as low as low can get.

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