Nation still in denial
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 10 March 2004

Lee Kuan Yew wasn�t kidding at all when more than a decade ago, he more or less stated the Philippines wasn�t going anywhere. Why? Firstly, he said, Filipinos "have no discipline." Secondly, he added, we possessed an "exuberant democracy", meaning a frolic and fiesta democracy. Like James Fallows before him who said Filipinos have a "damaged culture", Lee Kuan Yew set off an angry caterwaul. We Filipinos, both educated and not educated, pounced on him with might and main, lashed him with insult and invective, told him never to set foot on our shores again.

President Fidel Ramos was particularly furious.

To Lee�s claim that a nation�s leaders had the ultimate duty and responsibility to instill discipline among its citizenry, FVR riposted discipline had to come from below, from the common people. That was folly. Discipline � and I didn�t need a Lee Kuan Yew to tell me that � comes from the top. It comes from leaders who have a vision, who often have to crack the whip on a fun-and-frolic citizenry, who have to ruthlessly impose law and order, and punish those who defy and disobey the government.

Without law, without order, without discipline, without the values that lead to that great, pulsing and pounding national throb of a fulfilled nation, the Philippines has nowhere to go. Now we�re at it again, electing our 15th president with pomp and regalia, a nation foolishly and stupidly in denial, bestowing on the May 10 elections the wisdom and wonder of the philosopher�s stone.

Whenever I write this way, even close friends reproach me.

"Teddy, can�t you be more hopeful?" is the most frequent comment. "Can�t you see anything good in our country? Are we really as bad as you write in your column? Certainly, things can get better if we elect the right leaders." There, in a nutshell, is what is dreadfully wrong with the Filipino ethos. We prefer not to look at the facts, figures and statistics, all depicting the national disaster, which I never invented in the first place.

Well, let me tell you. Hope? Tell that to the 3,500 Filipinos who flee the nation every day for jobs and security abroad. Tell that to Peter Wallace, and heads of multinational corporations who have lost hope and many of whom are transferring their businesses to China, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere. Tell that to our doctors, yes doctors of medicine. They prefer life abroad as lowly nurses and caregivers, humiliating as this might be, to staying here where the pay is ridiculously low and they cannot provide decently for their families.

Tell that to the millions of Filipinos abroad known as OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) who disdain the very idea of coming back home. Home to what? To poverty and disease? To the now even more excruciating life of squatters, beggars, wanderers and nomads, living in the slums, two even three families to a room, where the smells of refuse, silt and sex are overpowering, where open incest often occurs, and there is no privacy? Tell that to the kids of even affluent and rich families who want out, who want to spend the rest of their lives abroad.

Know what? I could write differently.

I could write to amuse and entertain, serve up dollops of lilt and laughter, get into the entertainment business, write about celebrities, about theater, art and cinema, hustle back to the footpaths of memory, dwell nostalgically on the past when life was simple, when family morality was still at hand, when we had yet to be crassly invaded by Hollywood, when the use of itay and inay, or tatay and nanay was still common even among many of my friends, when we dearly loved the Philippines, when during the Second World War, we were not afraid to die. In fact, many of us died, fighting that war.

But I saw my own vision on my own road to Damascus.

I sustained the "divine wound" that afflicts some young journalists. And I was never the same after that. Literature had to give way to philosophy and history, the yearning for art in its purest forms to the political and social sciences. And yet, as Andr� Malraux said, "All art is a revolt against man�s fate," and as Albert Camus said "To understand life, every now and then you have to recoil from life," I learned those lessons well. I eventually also learned to extricate my mind from the poisoned tentacles of ideology, from Adam Smith�s "hidden hand" of capitalism to the "dialectical materialism" of Karl Marx and Ferderick Engels.

Nothing was pure gospel anymore.

I find out that until today, until this very minute, many educated Filipinos, yes confirmed Christians all, cannot accept the fact that the nation has reached the end of the road. That the neo-liberal, free-trade, free enterprise system that has sustained us since the end of the Second World War is now in tatters. That the democracy we continue to extol while sitting on the laps of a capricious Uncle Sam is a huge fraud because its institutions have already withered and died.

What economy? What sound fundamentals? Almost 50 out of 83 million Filipinos are hungry, on the verge of starvation. Our national debt now amounts to P4.5 trillion, every Filipino in yoke by about P50,000. Argentina, here we come? A third of the national budget goes to paying just the interest of our foreign debt. To keep our heads above the water, the government has to borrow about P500 billion a year, and more each succeeding year. Virtually nothing is left to improve our lives. On top of all that, we lose P230 billion each year or more to government graft and corruption. We are the eleventh most corrupt nation in the world, the fourth most corrupt nation in Asia, according to Transparency International and PERC. The Asian Development Bank declares our culture is about the worst in Asia for foreign investments. We are the kidnap capital of Asia.

Hope? You kidding?

For many decades, we Filipinos have blinded ourselves to this mounting heap of irrefutable evidence. And now that almost the worst is upon us, we still look the other way.

We continue to be what we have always been � patient, forbearing, forgiving, submissive, dumb, deaf and blind. We suffer, we bleed, we walk with bare feet on broken glass. We do what we do best. We sing and we pray. We have fun when we can. Toma. Many of our neighbor nations in Asia have long waken up, long taken the road to emancipation, progress and prosperity. The per capita income of these countries has soared from anywhere to $14,000 to $20,000. Our per capital income is at the level of the fast multiplying amoeba � $900 to just a little over $1,000. Hopeful?

But no, we are not angry when we should be. We are not outraged, not insulted at all, not offended, not chastened, not a bit mortified. Oh yes, thee are a few of us who are, the exceptions that make the rule.

And so I have write the way I write today. Keep telling the truth, calling the shots as I see them. Always, I remember what the great Indian poet Rabindanath Tagore said, "If you like to make a difference, walk alone. Walk alone." India, yes India, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Pandit, scion of one of the richest families in India, wept unashamedly when for the first time after his studies in England, he roamed all over his country, and discovered how hundreds of millions of Indians were living in utmost poverty and penury, in indescribable squalor, sometimes better, sometimes worse than animals.

Nehru vowed he would spend the rest of his life in service to the poor. That he did. He fought the Raj fiercely and relentlessly, every vestige of British colonial exploitation. He was the political bayonet to Mahatma Gandhi�s radiant spiritual spear. Both were imprisoned. Millions of Indians died. But they were willing to pay the price for freedom, for liberty, for emancipation from colonial rule. Now India, with Bangalore and Hyderabad leading the way, is following China�s path to modernity, using science and technology to extricate the albatross forever from its neck.

We Filipinos are not willing to pay this price.

And we are not willing to pay this price because we cannot get angry. Our culture of submission and forbearance gets in the way. Our leadership is utterly and abominably corrupt, and as a people we also are to some extent. Our business potentates in Makati and elsewhere are the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns of the Philippines. Our politicians in Congress are their executive committee.

Ex-president Joseph Estrada never had it so good.

He should be in jail with bars, wearing a prisoner�s uniform, alongside prison inmates. But no, even as a felon, he is treated extravagantly like a VIP, allowed access to his luxury villa in Tanay, Rizal, some 100 meters from Camp Capinpin where he is in detention. I have absolutely no doubt President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is behind this display of "political compassion" at a time she still believes she can wangle many of the masa votes of Erap. She should be ashamed. She should bolt herself in the cellar and throw away the key. But she won�t. She has to win by hook and by crook.

But that is what we are as a nation. Are we doomed?

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