Twenty years ago this month, this piece by James Fallows appeared in the Atlantic Monthly — and created a firestorm of controversy in a certain country in the Pacific.
IN THE UNITED STATES THE COMING OF THE AQUINO government seemed to make the Philippines into a success story. The evil Marcos was out, the saintly Cory was in, the worldwide march of democracy went on. All that was left was to argue about why we stuck with our tawdry pet dictator for so long, and to support Corazon Aquino as she danced around coup attempts and worked her way out of the problems the Marcoses had caused.
This view of the New Philippines is comforting. But after six weeks in the country I don’t think it’s very realistic. Americans would like to believe that the only colony we ever had–a country that modeled its institutions on ours and still cares deeply about its relations with the United States–is progressing under our wing. It’s not, for reasons that go far beyond what the Marcoses did or stole. The countries that surround the Philippines have become the world’s most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore–all are short on natural resources, but all (as their officials never stop telling you) have clawed their way up through hard study and hard work. Unfortunately for its people, the Philippines illustrates the contrary: that culture can make a naturally rich country poor. There may be more miserable places to live in East Asia– Vietnam, Cambodia–but there are few others where the culture itself, rather than a communist political system, is the main barrier to development. The culture in question is Filipino, but it has been heavily shaped by nearly a hundred years of the “Fil-Am relationship.’ The result is apparently the only non-communist society in East Asia in which the average living standard is going down.
Twenty years on, the question is inescapable: Has anything actually changed?