It doesn’t take much to remind Filipinos of their poverty. The problem, however, is that these reminders almost always have to come from external entities. And within this month alone we enjoyed the privilege of two stark reminders, Typhoon Mario and that Aegis Global viral video that the Philippine government is now desperately trying to rub out from digital existence.
What the two wake-up calls did was essentially the same — flush out evidence of Philippine poverty that erstwhile remained off many Filipinos’ personal radars — but different at a sublime level.
Before Typhoon Mario hit, the Philippines was humming along in its usual dysfunctional but predictable way. Then the floodwaters rose and out came the formerly unseen and untouchables of Metro Manila society — the squatter area dwellers, the ille de toule (“ilalim ng tulay”) set, and the Payatas crowd among others. Again. The assault on the gated village sensibilities of the Philippines’ chi-chi crowd can be likened to the shock of discovering a colony of termites after prying off the plywood cladding of a wall in an otherwise pristine-looking house. Or how one would jump ten feet in the air after a swarm of cockroaches would come rushing out of a crack on the floor after spraying insecticide into it.
In the case of that Aegis video, another sort of cockroach was flushed out. This time it was the millions of butthurt Filipinos who do not like being told that their country sucks and that, point-for-point, their neighbour Malaysia is a lot better as a location for business. Indeed, true to the way a democratic government tends to mirror its constituents’ character, the Philippine embassy in Malaysia raised a stink prompting Aegis Global to pull the video from YouTube — as if doing that will make the problems it highlighted go away. To be fair, perhaps it will; once again lulling Filipinos into their comfily familiar sense of nothing-wrong-with-the-Philippines trance — until the next “natural” disaster comes along.
You wonder about this “shock” and the collective gasp of the Philippines’ self-anointed “civil society” that follows whenever a “natural disaster” strikes or a “viral video” emerges that reveals again the extent of the Philippines’ wretched state. At least most people who discover termites in their homes were previously blissfully-ignorant of the infestation growing under their noses. And often, that discovery would, by itself, be a call to action. Call the exterminator!
Filipinos, on the other hand, cannot claim to be such. The reality of their collective poverty is in their face every day 24/7. From the time they wake up in the morning to the sound of the crows of roosters being raised illegally by their neighbours in their backyards, through the excrutiating commute along Manila’s decrepit and beggar-infested thoroughfares, to the time they get back to their homes and bolt themselves behind their homes’ 10-foot high steel gates, Filipinos have all but turned awareness of poverty into a mere fashion statement.
The preferred solutions, were metaphorically captured in these two recent incidents. Filipinos habitually (1) just wait for the cockroaches to crawl back into those cracks on the floor and call the battle even or (2) nail the plywood cladding back onto the wall and roll a fresh coat of white paint over it. Year after year. Decade after decade. President after president.
Out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes physically (as when fences and screens are put up whenever the APEC or WEF mob parachutes in for another one of their million-dollar talkfests), or cognitively (as with the way we simply blot out the images of naked 2-year-olds roaming Manila’s streets during the rush hours captured by our eyes from our psyches).
Indeed, lots of people have made hobbies — even entire careers — out of intellectualising poverty. But really, poverty is the normal human condition that does not require a degree in sociology to understand. The idea that human beings are “entitled” to a life of freedom, comfort, “empowerment”, and full opportunity to “be everything they could be” is a relatively new concept — probably no more than a couple hundred years old. Whereas for much of human history — all c.300,000 years of it — humans were born poor, lived poor, and died poor while an infinitessimal elite lived in fortified luxury, the sheer stress of making sure their lifestyle stayed that way keeping them awake most nights. If human history was reduced to a 24-hour timeframe, the story of “human rights”, egalitarian ideals, and all that new-age Western jazz would probably take up the last five seconds to midnight. I’m sure fans of that popular TV show Game of Thrones will be able to relate.
In that bigger historical sense, perhaps Filipinos after all are right in assuring themselves that theirs is the normal state of affairs. So with that, let’s all just relax and bask in our country’s normalness in the bigger scheme of things.
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