Israel ‘X Factor’ champion Rose Fostanes: symbol of the Philippines’ chronic impoverishment

Filipinos are once again celebrating on the streets as “one of their own” has again chalked another one for ‘Pinoy Pride’. Long-time caregiver Rose Fostanes last Wednesday won the grand prize in the first airing of X Factor (a popular reality TV singing contest) in Israel.

Malacanang, true to form, was quick to salute the newest Filipino “international celebrity”.

“We know the situation she was in and we are very proud that she has again given the Philippines pride in the showcase of her talent,” President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters Wednesday.

Lacierda further says…

“The Filipino has an innate advantage when it comes to the arts…. It clearly shows that the excellence of the Filipino can be expressed anywhere, everywhere, when they are given the opportunity to show their talent.”

New Filipino national hero: Rose Fostanes
New Filipino national hero: Rose Fostanes
… which really is a dangerous concept to propagate. The notion of opportunities being “given” is something deeply-ingrained in the Filipino psyche. A “lack of opportunity” and a dearth of opportunities being “given” to “deserving” Filipinos is the de facto national excuse for its more than half century track record of chronic impoverishment. It is dangerous because it encourages waiting for opportunity rather than creating opportunity.

Indeed, the philosophy of real winners is this:

Real winners create their own opportunities.

Rather than sit around waiting for the proverbial fruit to fall off the guava tree, true achievers plant a guava orchard.

It is telling that what is seen to be a crowning achievement (by Filipino standards) such as that of Fostanes’s winning a singing competition hosted by a foreign society is much-celebrated in Philippine society to the point of warranting a mention coming from no less than the chief mouthpiece of the administration of Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino.

In reality, Filipino overseas foreign workers (OFWs), many of whom, like Fostanes, work as caregivers in affluent but rapidly-ageing societies, are a standout reminder of how the Philippines has failed to create an environment where its citizens can prosper and achieve a broad-based standard of living they could be proud of. Unfortunately this failure was successfully whitewashed by many many national governments across several decades using that now widely-lapped-up notion of OFWs-as-National-Heroes mantra. Because just about every Filipino today has a relative, a friend, or at least knows someone who “heroically” scrapes a living overseas, Filipino politicians have made pandering to this OFW subculture a standard operating procedure in their campaigns and routine rhetoric.

More specifically, winning a television contest has become a national aspiration in the Philippines. Many Filipinos take this aspiration very seriously. In 2006, hordes of Filipinos desperate to get into the popular ABS-CBN variety show Wowowee went on a deadly stampede in a bid to grab free tickets being handed out. The melee left 78 dead. Many of the hopefuls had spent their life’s savings traveling to Manila from the remotest parts of the Philippine hinterlands for the occasion.

No surprise then that reality shows and singing contests are even bigger business in the Philippines. Enticing Filipinos to invest their life’s savings and risk life and limb for the chance to be in shows like Willie Revillame’s Will Time Big Time and Wowowee is like fishing in a barrel. The sorts of people whose idea of an investment strategy is betting the family fortune on what amounts to no more than a perverse lottery constitute the bread-and-butter audience of these shows.

Similarly, overseas employment is seen by many Filipinos — and most Philippine governments and their “journalist” lackeys that cheer this notion on “business” magazines such as Businessweek — as a quick ticket out of the poorhouse. Today, remittances sent by OFWs back to their families prop up the Philippine economy to the tune of more than 10 percent of its national “output”. This contribution, unfortunately, is not national product in the real sense as there is no actual production taking place whenever OFW dollars are added to the national economic statistics. The only economic activity OFWs really spur is consumption. It makes the Philippines a bonanza for the world’s real producers — a lucrative dumping ground for the vast surplus of real goods and services exported by other countries. The Philippine economy also supports a huge retail industry into which much of hard-earned OFW cash is sunk by their dependents as these foreign goods exchange hands.

Rather than aspiring to invent that elusive longer-lasting lightbulb, Filipinos aspire to be Fostanes. Rose Fostanes, however, deserves to be congratulated for her achievement as an individual. For an entire country and its president to latch on to her as a national symbol of “hope” is all but revealing of the fundamental character of a nation that has become a fascinating case study of slow, grinding, macro failure.


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