Looking at us again
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 10 January 2002

In retrospect, the year 2002 was a terrific learning year for this writer. After more than half a century of journalism, I figured I knew the Filipino by heart. I was after all a "child of the century" � the 20th � venturing into a century � the 21st � that would simply validate everything I had stuffed into my duffel bag of knowledge and experience. Surprisingly, the 21st was a bonus for me. I welcomed the Centennial just like everybody else, hopeful the Philippines would now be racing through the dark tunnel to get to the light at the end.

Everything would just go boom-boom. The whole can of worms would empty its contents, and voila, we would be in the clear. The Filipino, after decades of lagging behind his neighbors in East and Southeast Asia, would finally redeem himself. Yes, he would wake up and bolt to action, unlock his long hidden talents and genius, and show them: Kaya natin iyan! The Filipino can!

Well, that just isn�t happening.

EDSA II, which we had all expected to tear a big hole into our rotten world and guide us to our dazzling future, did no such thing. It overthrew the brazenly corrupt government of Joseph Estrada by pealing street thunder that promised so much but achieved so little. The thunder turned out to be a pop. Estrada vamoosed from Malaca�ang. In came Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with impressive credentials. But the situation � politically, economically, socially � became worse. Her approval ratings plummeted dismally after two years.

A woman who felt she was scorned, GMA knew what to do. December 30, 2002 she renounced her presidential bid for 2004, and that was that. If the nation was floundering, it was floundering even more now. The only shriek piercing the air is the current commotion for shift from presidential to parliamentary. To me, this is a non-subject. I have said my piece, which is no, the whole thing is silly, and again the Filipino is wasting his time. There are more important things to attend to. It won�t solve the problems dragging the Philippines to the pits.

The only pathway today with lights is the road leading to the 2004 presidential elections.

What indeed have we learned? In a series of columns titled "Why Filipinos fail", we sought to get inside the skin of the Filipino, his heart, his psyche, his culture. It was uncanny, stupefying. Once a model for many Asian countries in the 50s and early 60s, the Philippines had fallen far behind, a stick in the mud where once upon a time it was oak on rich grazing land. What happened? Why had South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and now even Vietnam streaked to economic and near-economic tiger status in just about 30 years!

Our system of course was wrong. We were following in the path of America, Western Europe, a democratic model that took about 250 years to nurture and develop through the minefields of slavery in the US south, through two world wars, imperial colonization, revolutions, civil wars, racial upheavals. Until finally, economies with a golden touch emerged, because science and technology increased productivity a hundredfold, a thousandfold leading to huge affluent middle classes, highly educated citizenries, who clamored for democracy and got it.

Still, even when we discovered the system was wrong, there were many other things wrong.

The Filipino was not responding to the challenge of the times as other countries in Asia were. In fact, we were retrogressing, Our population leaped from just about 17 million after World War II to 80 million today, a possible 100 million in the year 2010. And yet, nobody seemed to care, certainly not the church whose record in alleviating poverty emerging from an exploding population is virtually nil. Blessed are the poor. Blessed is poverty. And all that hogwash.

Graft and corruption went into a quantum leap. The Philippines was officially denominated as the eleventh most corrupt country in the world. Did we care? We did not. Public looting, private looting became the national pastime next only to the manufacture of babies. Councilors in many suburban towns amass about P240,000 a month from gambling and other spooky sources. So did crime and violence pole-vault. The murder of Nida Blanca remains unsolved, the murders of Bubby Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito, the murder of police superintendent John Campos, now the murder of Supt. Teofilo Vi�a, oh yes the murder of Ninoy Aquino, thousands of slayings and salvaging every year.

Oh yes, we do give a ritual damn but nothing happens. Our system of justice goes jauntily along, our police, our NBI nailed to the wall by criminals within. We can only catch low-level pickpockets, bag and cellphone snatchers, prostitutes in the act and in the nude, lowly drug-pushers buying their stuff from the police. Watch helplessly as the BIR and Customs do their thing, Malaca�ang thieves and profligates. The bigger thieves of the Makati business community. The jeweled whores of high society. Its robed pimps. Its bald and bodacious gays.

It is a situation so dire it should make every Filipino mad.

It does not. And this is what discombobulates me no end. Through it all, the Filipino smiles. And so long as he continues to smile, shrugs off the evils of this world as the acceptable burdens Fate imposes on him, he will not mutiny, he will not revolt. Oh that smile. Many of my compeers in media lavish praises on the Filipino smile, one even saying I shouldn�t bash the Filipino too much, another that this smile is the weapon the overseas Filipino will use to "Filipinize the world". To a man, they say this smile is the safety net of the Filipino � and so he will endure.

Endure? That is precisely what I do not want the Filipino to do � endure.

If to endure means taking all the suffering and the shocks of everyday life with a sick sempiternal smile, then, damme, that smile should be cast to limbo. We can only progress, get out of the swamps if the Filipino gets angry, if he realizes he is being conned, gulled, rolled, robbed, skinned, skimmed, creamed, exploited daily by the politicians and the powers-that-be. The Japanese hardly smiled at all during the blood-streaked Meiji Restoration as they set out to re-invent their mediaeval culture through blood, tears and sweat. Japan became an economic superpower, next only to the US. The Chinese looked at their proud and lofty past, ran their fingers through their contemporary ugly sores, boils and excresences, gunned their grim faces to the future and in 30 years catapulted China to where it is tody � a great economic power, soon to be a superpower. Dr. Mohamad Mahathir recalls how ashamed he was of Malaysia three decades ago. Hurt, humiliated, abashed, he and his new breed of activist Malays vaulted to action, and look where Malaysia is today. A model for the Third World.

Priests tell me there is nothing wrong with the Filipino. If he suffers, okay, that is only physical. He will get his rewards in heaven. Ignoramuses abound even among the educated. Get our leadership going, and everything will be all right. How does one get the leadership going? Oh, that will occur one day, is the fatalistic answer. Hardly anybody dreams. About the only Filipinos taking to the streets are the factions of the communist left, their jargon worn thin by old, hoary expletives against American imperialism. The only civil society group that does something good is the Couples for Christ with their impressive, relentless housing for the poor projects.

Go to the slums, the squatter districts. You would expect the people there to be miserable, at the end of their tether, bowed and bent, bawling out the miseries of Job. On the contrary. They look and possibly are happy. Where I lived during my boyhood, Lourdes St. in Pasay, a crawl-creep of slums have taken over, disgorging men, women and children playing, lazing, gambling, smoking, drinking, boozing, not working at all, whooping it up when relatives die with wakes that reverberate like fiestas instead of vigils for the dead through the whole night.

This is the Filipino?

This is the Filipino many misguided educated Filipinos are proud of because they smile? Because they are resigned to their fate? Because they don�t make trouble by organizing themselves into vigilante groups? Because they have walled themselves from the past and the future? And as they die this slow cultural death, we Filipinos thank God and our lucky stars we can gut it out. Since there can be no icons, no models for our ignorant poor (masang tanga, Tony Abaya calls them), they can only salaam in praise of movie celebrities like Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr. And more than that, gun them for the presidency. Can you imagine the American electorate gunning Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood to the White House?

And yet I persevere. Daily, I walk my own bumpy, twisting road, remembering Rabindranath Tagore�s counsel to those with dreams: Walk alone, walk alone.

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