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?’

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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.

31 Replies to “Why is it so hard for Filipinos to just obey the law?”

  1. 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 Afghanistan, but bad enough.

    One good thing the Vatican managed to achieve was the ban on cousin marriages, this allowed nations to be formed, instead of clans.

    I hope it does not take another generation before the Pinoys realise that patriotism belongs to the country, not to your clans or tribe.

    1. Thanks for the added info. It is really a shame that some Filipinos have this double standard: they exhibit good behaviour outside the Philippines and bad behaviour in their own country. The Philippines could have been a great country if it were the other way around.

      1. Ilda,
        I like your articles..I’m the publisher for Kayumanggi Magazine, based on Maui, Hawaii and we’re launching our mag next month..could you be a contributing writer? Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to offer compensation for your articles at this moment..our vision is to connect Filipinos around the world.

        I need to communicate w/ you..could I have your email address?



        1. Hi Ed

          Thanks for liking my articles and for your offer. I’ll see what I can do about contributing. Now how can I give you my email address without broadcasting it to the rest of the world? 😉



  2. 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 country…the law can be bended, to accomodate rich people and people in power…

    1. you know why the Dacer Corbito murder is not yet solved? no “competent” witness. the only witness they have is Mancao who is not trustworthy at all. imagine a witness who suddenly has 150million on his bank account. imagine that..

      Hacienda Luisita Massacre on the other hand has witnesses however this witnesses are also the farmers from Hacienda Luisita who incidentally can be bought.

      it seems that they just want to continue the case in order to get some more money.

      i also beliece that the Aquino’s need to return the Hacienda to the people as agreed upon on their contract. however, if they return it to them the farmers will just sell them again to the Aquino’s (you probably can see where i’m going).

      it’s just a cycle.

      the Philippines is corrupt because we are patronizing the corrupt ways. I remember what our former professor told us ” the only way to remove corruption from the Philippines is to kill all the politicians from the lowest to the highest include those who have already held the post for sometime and their families, it is only by then that the Philippines will get rid of corruption once and for all” ( by the way what I just wrote is not the exact line of our prof,)

      1. Thanks Junior Tubero.

        Your comment reminds me of the film Elizabeth. Not that I would condone what she did but it was a good move 😉

      2. @ Junior Tubero
        You said, the only way to get rid of corruption is to kill all the politicians. If this is your only solutions to rid the Philippines of corruption, then you need to go one step further and kill everyone.
        If your politicians are corrupt, then the people must be corrupt also, as a government only reflect the nature of the people. As the Philippines is a democratic country.

      3. Where the leaders will go…the people will follow…this will always the case…the solution of a “national suicide”, seems enticing, but is not practical…

      4. It’s one of the most nonsense presumption that I have ever heard. If the Aquinos return the lands to the tenant-tillers. They will sell it to the Aquinos, and become tenant-tillers again. The Cojuangcos/Aquinos almost all monopolized owning the lands in the whole Province of Tarlac. They got the lands on questionable reasons. Why not give a chance for the tenant-tillers to own their own lands also? A land they can till, and feed themselves and their families. The Aquinos, never can till, that huge lands…they have grown rich, at the expense of the labors and sweats of other people. Who do they think, they are? They are the only responsible people, in this country? And, the rest of us, are presumed to be irresponsible?

      5. It’s lack of education,Respect and humanity that makes Filipinos corrupt. From generation to generation everything has been destroyed after the Spanish left. All good things was left behind,has been ignored and not developed.Laws become uneven. They tolerate stupid things instead of stopping it and it continues and continue to generation. So all because of that until now people cannot think normally!

  3. 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.

    1. Actually, the degeneration of Subic was a microcosm the Philippines as a whole. When the Americans left in 1946, it was all downhill for the Philippines from there.

    2. Hi Dr Noh

      Thank you for sharing that info. The concept makes a lot of sense to me. I suppose when Filipinos see garbage around them they tend to think that dropping one more wrapper of mentos wouldn’t really make a difference. Of course they are wrong because it all adds up.

      Seeing a clean environment would somehow shame people into behaving properly, for sure. But it still doesn’t change the fact that we all have it in us to misbehave when no one is looking. And there are just people in this world who did not seem to have developed “higher levels of conscientiousness and self-restraint”, which is why we still need an effective law enforcement agency to watch over us. Your Subic example is proof of this. Without the watchful eyes of a respected authority (Americans), Filipinos showed how well they could ruin the place.

      Let me paste an excerpt of the article here for everyone:

      “The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.”

      The broken windows theory was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in an article titled “Broken Windows” and which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.[1] The title comes from the following example:

      Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
      Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

  4. 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.

    1. In other words, in the Philippines, things somehow get complicated when you obey the law. Some people even claim that it is just a waste of time because no one really appreciates it when they abide by the law.

      1. Actually, sometimes it’s worse that the law abiding citizens are the ones being “punished” for following law.

        Example: I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been cursed and how many horns were blown at me simply because I was following the red light. No, I wasn’t on the rightmost lane so I wasn’t blocking anyone who wants to turn right. So basically, I’m wrong for following the law?

        My impression for the Pinoys is that the law is something for “convenience”. What I mean is, if it’s convenient for you to follow it, you follow. t’s not convenient for you, then you have every right to break it UNLESS someone with authority is nearby (sometimes even having a police officer nearby doesn’t help). Then just use the law in YOUR favor when the s*** hits the fan.

        Sad though since generally the Pinoys are nice people… but I feel they’re too immature for the democracy that they fought for years ago. I really believe a martial-law / authoritarian government, PROVIDED it’s ran by someone who’s concern is truly for the country and not for the self, can fix this place up

  5. 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 clean up the courts, we have to rationalize our laws. In order to even start rationalizing our laws, we have to start with our 1987 Constitution. About the only part of our constitution I would save is the Bill of Rights. Everything else in our constitution has to be deliberated and reformed.

  6. 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? He would in reply say: Que sera sera!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

        1. Thanks for the link. I didn’t realise how nice Somalia once was.

          Sadly, it is possible for the Philippines to go down that path. Things can still go from bad to worse because Pinoys don’t seem to have the capacity to change.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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