Why is it so hard for Filipinos to just obey the law?

What is the million-dollar question that has been haunting most Filipinos everywhere in the world? No, it’s got nothing to do with the Philippine football team, the Azkals or boxer, Manny Pacquiao. It has a lot to do with the difference in behavior of Filipinos here and abroad. It’s a question that keeps popping up every now and then coming from baffled and concerned Filipinos.

The question was directed to me again recently and I thought it would be best to formalize my response. Here is the question:

‘hi Ilda, i am very confused at the moment, why most Filipinos who are living and working overseas, are more conscious of following the law of the land? If they are genuinely good, honest, and hardworking people, then the Philippines should be a better place to live in?’

In my mind, there is a very simple answer to that question: Filipinos follow rules and laws in other countries because they know they cannot get away with not following them.

Most advanced countries have very organized law enforcement agencies (e.g., the Police, the FBI, and other criminal investigation services) that motivate people to abide by the law. In short, individuals who violate these rules and laws are punished. Filipinos who go to those countries know that they cannot bribe members of these agencies into allowing them to get away with their crime. Hence, they follow the law.

Law enforcement agencies in the Philippines perform very differently. They are said to be too corrupt, incompetent and ill equipped to enforce the law most of the time. And it doesn’t help that some of the elite members of our society are themselves said to be promoting a culture of impunity by bribing the Philippine National Police (PNP) and other organizations that make up the Philippine justice system. Therefore, most Filipinos in the Philippines have a tendency to ignore the law.

As a reminder, the following are the main functions of our main local law enforcement agency, the Philippine National Police (PNP):

1. Law Enforcement.
2. Maintain peace and order.
3. Prevents and investigates crimes and bring offenders to justice.
4. Exercise the vested powers from the Philippine Constitution and pertinent laws.
5. Detain an arrested person for a period not beyond what is prescribed by law.
6. Implements pertinent laws and regulations on firearms and explosives control.
7. Supervise and control the training and operations of security agencies.

Have members of our PNP become so gutless as to now consistently fail to bring many of our criminals to justice? Or have they forgotten their mission to ‘enforce the law, prevent and control crimes, maintain peace and order, and ensure public safety and internal security with the active support of the community‘? It would seem so. How many times have we witnessed some of our public servants act with complete impunity? A lot of times. Some have cleverly evaded prosecution by disappearing for months and resurfacing only when the charges against them had been miraculously dropped. All the while their position in the public service remained intact despite all that.

Unfortunately, the general public does not even feel the slightest bit of disgust over how influential members of the elite get away with their dirty deeds, from the pettiest crimes like stealing, down to the most heinous crimes like murder. Most Filipinos just shrug their shoulders in acceptance that there is nothing they can do about it.

Since Philippine law enforcement agencies cannot do their job, why can’t Filipinos police each other?

The answer to that is very complicated. A conscience it seems is something that most Filipinos have not acquired. Some of us appear to have a total disregard for what is right and wrong. This is in total contradiction to most Filipinos’ religious upbringing. It is as though the veneer of spirituality we see in Churchgoers is just for show. An encounter with a typical religious zealot would be enough to tell you that the higher levels of conscientiousness and self-restrait have not developed in some people.

Perhaps we can also blame a weak sense of nationalism in general for the low regard Filipinos reserve for Philippine law. But what accounts for lack of nationalism? It is one of those chicken-and-egg quandaries.

It appears that Filipinos can best be described using the old proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss‘. There is no denying that we are a people who are always moving or thinking of moving to another country, which is why our roots cannot take hold in one place. It doesn’t help that the low unemployment rate in the Philippines forces some to look for better opportunities abroad. And it doesn’t help as well that the weak law enforcement agencies in the country makes other countries seem more aligned with the decent life we all aspire for. A lot of Filipinos who left the country are likely also fed up with a system that seems to have, by design, been created for corruption to thrive in its many unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. Routine under-the-table transactions give new meaning to the expression ‘service with a smile’.

One could assume that only Filipinos of very limited opportunity would think about leaving the country. Yet in many cases, even members of the elite have their other foot out the door even while the other is still hanging on and waiting for things to get better at home. In fact, it has been a practice of many members of the Philippine elite to try to obtain dual citizenships for their children as a ‘just in case’ measure — insurance against the real possibility that any minute a bloodthirsty mob can start rioting at the doorsteps of their McMansions, perhaps by keeping an alternative safe house somewhere in California to run to.

Just think of the helicopter scene from the musical Miss Saigon, in which pandemonium struck immediately after the Americans decided to pull out of Vietnam. In that scene, everyone was scrambling to hitch a ride to America. I have this sinking feeling that most of the elite members of our society have that scenario at the back of their minds if and when the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan, which is why they have an extra passport handy in their expensive dresser drawers.

Why do Filipinos seem to treat each other with disrespect?

While some societies tend to treat everyone in their community with decency, Filipinos in general see people outside of their circle of family and friends as someone who cannot be trusted or someone to compete with. This observation was also written about by foreign correspondent, James Fallows. To quote:

Filipinos pride themselves on their lifelong loyalty to family, schoolmates, compadres, members of the same tribe, residents of the same barangay. The mutual tenderness among the people of Smoky Mountain is enough to break your heart. But when observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside. Because the boundaries of decedent treatment are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at least 90 percent of the people in the country. And because of this fragmentation–this lack of nationalism–people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen.

Only when we are prepared to stop turning a blind eye to the culture of impunity in our society can ‘law and order’ truly prevail. If we are not prepared to sacrifice our relationships with our ‘kamag-anak, kaibigan and kaklase’ (KKK) when they commit crimes no matter how small, perhaps it would be best for Filipinos to hire foreign security or police contractors to act as our law enforcement agencies. They might have a better chance of enforcing Philippine law and Filipinos just might live by the rule of law under such a regime.


Post Author: Ilda

In life, things are not always what they seem.

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31 Comments on "Why is it so hard for Filipinos to just obey the law?"

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I think this site should use a commenting application like LiveFyre or DISQUS. The former looks to be gaining more adherents and supplanting the latter. The Asian-American blog 8 Asians recently started LiveFyre. Anyway, I was reading the statistics of 11 million Global Filipinos and a bare 2,000 were in foreign prisons. Even if those stats were underrated, it is still a small number, compared to how many are law abiding. Your theory looks to be correct and we do have too much clannish behaviour in our country. Not as bad as the Gulf Nations like tribes of Iraq and… Read more »
Hyden Toro
Filipinos are the most pious people, I have seen. In other countries; not too many people , do their daily devotions to their Gods, or religions. Here, in the Philippines; we don’t follow the law, because, we can buy it…or if you have friends in high places, we can escape punishments. The Dacer-Corbito Murder case is more than ten years, already. Yet, it is not yet solved. Because, the suspects are in power, and have money. The Hacienda Luisita massacre is not yet solved. Because the owner of the Hacienda are the Aquinos, who are in power…power rules in our… Read more »
Dr. Noh

what’s your take on the Broken Windows Syndrome?

it would explain why a Pinoy, when living in a 1st world country, would suddenly turn into a law abiding citizen. Actually, even in the golden days of Subic, it was a very organized and clean place where everyone followed traffic rules and didnt throw their garbage on the streets… but then mediocrity eventually rears its ugly head and it’s no longer the orderly town in once was.


you’re right because we can get away with it. I have to admit i’m one example. When I drive around the streets in the states i’m very very careful, always use the signal light, stop at the stop sign. Back here I beat the red light, no speed limit, park anywhere.

To reduce petty crimes, yes, it does help to keep the environment clean. But to reduce more serious crimes like murder or corruption in government, it requires more than just clean streets. In Davao City the Dutertes have succeeded in reducing serious crime, but at the expense of due process. Rather than send criminals to jail and processing by the courts, the Dutertes have resorted to extra-judicial killings (according to some news accounts). The courts are overwhelmed with cases, which therefore take years to resolve. We have to clean up the courts, not just the streets. And in order to… Read more »
Ferdie Villanueva
I have most often heard this phrase from my grandparents: “Come what may, we will live and see another day.” Maybe this kind of mental disposition thrives in almost every Filipino but with different outlook of interpretations as a way of life. Those with a positive perspective makes the small difference between a carefree Filipino from the mature and disciplined one. Unfortunately, many are cowed to believe that everything is of fate, and that it cannot be changed. Jose Rizal’s “Indolence of the Filipino” may also give us an insight into the Filipino character. But if asked: Quo vadis, Pinoy?… Read more »

As I have commented in this blog previously, we already have a model to benchmark for implementing discipline:

1) First four months of martial law during Makoy’s time.
2). How they do it in Marikina.

Bottomline – it is not impossible.


I have this sinking feeling that most of the elite members of our society have that scenario at the back of their minds if and when the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan, which is why they have an extra passport handy in their expensive dresser drawers.

It’s always been at the front of my mind ever since I discovered GRP, and I’m a struggling college student. Fortunately, being born in San Francisco makes this a lot easier.


[…] money abroad for safekeeping instead of pumping it back to the Philippine economy. As discussed in a previous article of mine: Yet in many cases, even members of the elite have their other foot out the door even while the […]

joan urgelles

It’s all because of culture. We’re a multicultural country, with people having diverging personalities, values and beliefs. And yes the government has something to do why most Filipinos don’t know how to follow a simple law, and it’s been talked and argued in various papers and sites for a very long time, our government simply doesn’t know effective governance. But sadder than that, the true reality is the govern doesn’t want also to be governed! We averse corruption among other bad deeds, and yet we are actually encouraging it.


The problem isn’t Filipinos but corruption in high places. Only those in power can solve this.


The Philippines will never progress.First,The Country is mire in abject poverty. too many corrupt politicians. CORRUPTION AND UNETHICAL BEHAVIOUR is a common way of life. RULE OF LAW is not being followed. The Country is in dire need of a LEADER that will rule with an iron hand much the likes of LEE KUAN YEW. Former leader of Singapore. Seperation of Church and State must be enforce. PINOYS NEED TO START BEING RESPONSIBLE OR THE COUNTRY IS DOOM TO BE EXTINGUISH. OH BTW, China is just waiting for the right opportunity to invade the country. just wait and see.


Makes me wonder if the Philippines really needs to collapse before it gets better. Perhaps to realize the value of real national unity. Good observation from ILDA.