Column: Filipinos, what are we doing wrong?

Published on July 14, 2015.

THE HUNDREDS of comments in response to last week’s column, on “The misery of the Filipino,” were largely empathetic; many shared the same deep sense of possibility and the same sense of sharp frustration. The response inspires me to take the next step and ask the unavoidable question: What are we doing wrong?

A Malaysian academic swears some of the best medical doctors in Singapore are Filipino. (I think some of the best bankers, too.) A Thai media executive investing in digital believes, or rather simply assumes, that his regional website should be developed by “creative” Filipinos. A famous New York City-based newspaper designer describes a Filipino colleague as “the best art director in the world.” I know a Filipino manager who is the consultant of choice of one large American enterprise doing business in different parts of Africa. Many of us can offer our own examples of Filipinos doing excellent work abroad.

The pattern of excellence can assume large-scale form, on the level of entire countries or industries. Indonesian companies have Filipino corporate executives working at the highest levels. Some of the world’s best universities have Filipino students at the top of their class or doing pioneering research work. Filipino architects have helped shape the skyline in Brunei; Filipino engineers have helped tame the deserts of the Middle East; Filipino mariners have helped define the modern maritime industry.

And yet, back home, this pattern of excellence is difficult to find. The continuing MRT fiasco and the unresolved scandal of the Mindanao blackouts are defining failures of the Aquino administration, but the cause of the “misery of the Filipino” I wrote about—“the unhappiness of a citizen seeing her country being left behind”—is not merely political, goes beyond the lifespan of single administrations. The endemic corruption, the absence of “gleaming infrastructure” to match those of neighboring countries, even the lack of discipline at traffic intersections or indeed on any road where jeepneys and tricycles can load or unload passengers anywhere, at any time: These and similar conditions of life in these islands go way back, some right past Rizal’s generation.

Again, please don’t get me wrong. The “resurgence in patriotic pride since the late 1980s” I wrote about is real, palpable. There is much to celebrate, victories large (the mostly peaceful ouster of an entrenched dictatorship) and small (we have learned to fall in line at bus stations and jeepney stops, something that simply could not be imagined 30 years ago). And yet: Our country is being left behind. It’s not only in the amenities of modernity, but even in the fundamentals: According to the Asian Development Bank, between 2005 and 2010 both Cambodia and Vietnam overtook the Philippines in poverty reduction.

What are we doing wrong? We can all agree that our political system is essentially flawed: It is designed to favor the moneyed, the popular, the established. There will be time to discuss this, and other structural causes such as unchecked population growth. But today I am more interested in Filipino habits, in ways of doing, that, like inclement weather, prevent progress from taking off.

Herewith, four deadly habits:

We think that the rules are not fixed, and that anyway they do not apply to us. Filipinos abroad are (mostly) punctilious about the rules: crossing the street only on pedestrian lanes, slowing down on yellow, following directions. But in the Philippines, almost anything goes. (I am reminded of some of my own bad habits in driving when I drive abroad; it takes me a few hours or so to adjust to the norm.) This lack of respect for the rigor of rules may be related to our famous improvisational spirit, but multiply the instances by millions of times, and we have a culture of entitlement.

We see what is wrong but believe nothing much can be done anyway. In other words, learned helplessness. We seethe in anger as thousands of fellow tourists trek up a mountain to stand in front of a famous waterfall, without regard for safety or indeed the area’s carrying capacity. But we join the horde anyway because, as someone would inevitably say, “that’s the way it’s done.”

We are inconsistently, selectively, proud, to the point of racism. We thrill to the foreign exploits of personalities with the slightest connection to the Philippines, we avidly share video of a Filipino-American guest, any Filipino-American guest, on famous shows—but blithely, casually, question the Filipino-ness of an outstanding graduate of the country’s premier university merely on the basis of her name and her looks.

We lack national ambition. Too many of us cannot see beyond our family. We have a responsibility to care for kith and kin, of course, to heed the biblical injunction and provide for our parents in their old age and our children in their youth. I never tire of repeating John Adams’ words, which find an echo in Emilio Jacinto’s “Kartilya.”

“There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” Family first gets in the way of that positive passion.

“There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” Family first gets in the way of that positive passion.

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