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Parliamentary system not for Philippines: The wherefores
by Teodoro C. Benigno
Philippine Star 09 May 2003
The raging debate in the Philippines today has to do with the proposition that the presidential system of government has dismally failed and should now be replaced by parliamentary rule. The warrior advocates of the parliamentary system have gone to war. Largely by stealth, crimson propaganda and conspiratorial cunning, (and without any popular multipartisan debate on the matter), the House approved Resolution No. 16 last March. With Senate participation, they would now convoke a Constituent Assembly in the fastest possible time to effect the switch from presidential to parliamentary in May-June 2004 through a national referendum this year.
They now assure us that with the approaching demise of the presidential system, the Philippines will be rid of perennial roadblocks to economic progress, rid of a chronic political stalemate paralyzing every effort to unclog national disunity and achieve in the shortest possible time unity and a robust sense of national purpose. Hallelujah! The Con-Ass (diminutive of Constituent Assembly) will provide the vision. The incoming parliament in 2004, by virtue of elections to a unicameral legislature, will provide the stairway to political and economic heaven.
We are now constantly being bamboozled with the argument that if the Philippines is far behind many of its neighbor countries in East and Southeast Asia, it is because they have a parliamentary system. And we Filipinos, imbeciles that we are, have stuck over the generations to an outmoded presidential system. This system, we are told, has brought us nothing but mass poverty, corruption on an unprecedented scale, crime and violence that could have only come from the lowest pits of Hades.
With this two-column series, we intend to demolish these arguments and further expose Con-Ass for what it really is — Pearl Harbor in disguise. Or better still, an ugly coup in the making. This is what makes it doubly frightening. First, it exploits the Constitution to inflict the swindle on the citizenry that what it is doing is for the nation’s good. Second, the members of Con-Ass will be the nation’s supreme masters starting mid-2004. Can you beat that? Today, as almost all national surveys show, Congress is the lowest man on the totem pole of institutional popularity.
Their members are among the most hated and despised of the human species in our country. Today, like Sir Walter Raleigh, they would spread their coats on the muddied ground for the citizenry to cross over to Arcadia. They would be Moses. They would be our liberators.
But let me substantially begin by tracing the lineaments of parliamentary government.
It all began in Britain. From there it became a model for France and other European countries in the 18th century. And also Canada, India, Australia, and wherever the Union Jack was raised as the British Empire spread. With the collapse of the divine rule of kings and the rising popular clamor for more representative rule, an elected parliament representing the people took shape. This resulted in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the former real repository of power, the latter largely ceremonial. At the time, England’s economy was expanding rather rapidly and gave rise to thousands of interest and pressure groups. Eventually, two major parties stood out — the Conservative and Labor parties.
From whatever viewpoint, these two parties constituted parliament, constituted England of the right and the left, constituted the heart and soul of British politics, constituted the nation, constituted the bitter, often ferocious political give-and-take that provided illumination for the nation. Labor constituted the working class, held up its wounds and oppression for redress. The Tories embodied the useful residual legacy of the kings, at the same time that they worked out the capitalist future of the nation, at its most creative when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister many years later.
We don’t have anything like that in the Philippines.
Parliamentarism is a culture born of the Occident, its historic twists and turns, peculiar only to Britain and a clutch of Western European countries. They had all gone through the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance. They all had a mind-set that was distinctly European, an education that stamped the European ethos on one and all. It was they and only they that could make parliamentarism work, because they keened to its bedrock culture. And the majority were God-fearing Protestants who cherished work and did not mind at all if this work made them rich and highly prosperous, so long as they remained honest and God-fearing. Catholic dogma works the other way. And we Filipinos are heir to Catholic dogma.
They were the end-result of a long historical revolution where the divine rule of kings succumbed to Parliament in a changing world.
We Filipinos do not have that history. We were a tribal country of more than 7,000 islands suddenly becoming a “nation” after throwing back the abuses of Castilian Spain. We were a “nation” again after Admiral George Dewey came over and the Yankee doughboys slaughtered about a million Filipinos in the conquest of this country. Our conquerors never really emancipated us, in the sense of rescuing us from our millennial poverty and misery and installing their institutions here. They got what they wanted as all conquerors always get what they want.
Sure, we had the Malolos Republic in 1898. Had it not been upended by American colonialism, we would have presumably installed a parliamentary government. Where would it have led to if the Americans did not come? Here, we are in the lotus land of might-have-been. We probably would have been reconquered by another imperialist country just the same.
What are or were the essential features of parliamentary government as conceived by Britain?
They are, among others, rule of law, the supremacy of a popularly-elected parliament, collective responsibility of the Cabinet (executive to Parliament) and a tradition of stable, program or policy-oriented political parties (Prof. Olivia Caoili, Legislative and Executive Relations in the Philippines and the Parliamentary Alternatives). Read that again. Stable, policy-oriented or program-oriented political parties. Without such parties as an ideological glue parliamentary government in the Philippines would be a colossal sham.
Do not tell me Lakas-NUCD is such a party, or Laban, or NPC. They are no more political parties in the European parliamentary tradition as a slut crossing herself is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.
On the contrary, because we do not have such political parties, a parliamentary government in 2004 will be a riot of traditional politicians endlessly vying for power. Who cares for the political doctrine of John Locke or the laissez-faire philosophy of Adam Smith? You have lots of money. You can always buy the majority in Congress — give it a fancy political name — and become prime minister until the next bimbo, with more money than you have, comes along.
Who will countervail? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians? Who will protect the nation from his new breed of brigands who have more to do with Long John Silver and his pirates than the Declaration of Human Rights? At least, in the presidential system, a chief executive with courage, integrity, and unfailing resolve, separately elected from Congress, and an alert judiciary can countervail against a corrupt Congress. In a parliamentary government as envisioned by Con-Ass, the unicameral assembly is a constant pigsty, its leavings those of Attila and the Huns after they all peed and emptied on the Rhone.
Now, about our neighbor countries succeeding economically because they have a parliamentary government. That’s what Con-Ass is foisting, isn’t it? That’s a laugh.
They succeeded not because they had parliamentary but because they dreamed early in the 20th century, and worked like a driven demon to achieve their dream. They succeeded because their culture was different from ours, a building culture, an entrepreneurial culture, a community culture. They would not allow America and the West to widen the gap. They sent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of their best students to the US and Europe. There they would personally touch the philosopher’s stone. By this time, the stone was defined as science, technology, math, engineering, modern management, the latest factory and manufacturing techniques, the magic of cyberspace and the Internet. China was not parliamentary. Japan of the Meijis was not parliamentary.
The parliamentary system of government had nothing to do with “the Asian miracle” of economic success at all. Not at all.
It had to do with the Chinese adage that the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. And so the Chinese have hit the road since more than 30 years ago, in the process investing blood, tears and sweat. It had to do with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s social engineering, how to make the Chinese, Malays and Indians work together, and work, work, work, till the Petron Towers, the world’s tallest, would streak majestically into the skyline. An Asian technological marvel.
The advocates of a parliamentary system lie shamelessly when they claim the Asian “economic miracle” was nurtured and engineered by this unicameral legislature which originated in Britain in the 18th century. Almost all international authorities on the issue of Asia’s phenomenal economic performance are however agreed that what brought about the “miracle” were three essential factors. The first was the predominant role of “Asian values”. The second was the Confucian culture embedded in these “miracle” countries. The third was the government’s reliance on authoritarian or strongman rule or even dictatorial methods to speed up economic progress.
Actually, the system of government varied in ritual from country to country. But even as the ritual varied, the orders always originated from above where the “leader” dictated the agenda and program of government. Disciplined work brigades vied with each other to break performance records, and the best were amply rewarded with decorations and even material awards. Parliaments and congresses existed in some countries, but they were largely docile, toothless rubber stamps whose membership was decided by the government. In all instances, they were one-party organizations. This did away with unnecessary, time-consuming debates and florid discussions. The road ahead was cleared by skilled bureaucrats.
It was this full-fisted, no-nonsense government that brought about change in Asia. Democracy and the parliamentary system were of no concern to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, China’s Deng Xiaoping, Japan’s dynamic Meiji elite, Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, Thailand’s first ruling crop of nationalist and entrepreneurial generals, Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-Kuo. It was they, and their culture wrapped in Asian values that changed their way of life for the better. And changed Asia.
The voice that mattered was that of the respected leader — strong intrepid, highly intelligent, compelling, commanding. Lee Kuan Yew is the archetype. The issues that mattered were cocooned in ideas and concepts that, however, innovative, stuck to party ideology. The ethic that mattered most was unrelenting work. The emotion that overrode everything else was love of country. They had to succeed, catch up with the West.
The Asian values that mattered were sympathy, distributive justice, duty consciousness, ritual, public spiritedness, willingness to delay gratification, honesty, thrift, trustworthiness, ample savings, respect for education, respect for authority and elders and group orientation. Take the case of Malaysia. Dr. Mahathir, the prime minister, espoused the cause of the Bumiputra (Malay Sons of the Soil). Through a series of draconian laws and decrees, Mahathir gave them every opportunity to catch up with the Chinese and the Indians. This could not have happened under a democratic system, parliamentary or presidential.
Take the case of South Korea in the late ’50s. Gen. Park Chung-hee smashed his knuckles into the crazy-quilt free enterprise system spawned by his predecessor Syngman Rhee and favored by the US. He set up a dictatorship which first decreed land reform. He then got the leading capitalists, entrepreneurs, economists, policy planners together win to something like a ruling national council. He drove them to excel, meet or exceed targets. Or else. The story goes that a prominent businessman complained, said he couldn’t meet his target. Park Chung-hee simply replied he would be executed at dawn. The businessman relented and met his target.
That was iron discipline. But it was that discipline that forged the new South Korea and today it is the 12th biggest economy in the world. It was only many decades later, after the corrupt governments of Choon Doo-Huan and Roh Tae Woo were busted, and the two presidents charged and imprisoned, that South Korea had its first real democratic elections under Kim Young-sam. The parliamentary system was a complete stranger to South Korea’s rapid thrust into a tiger economy.
In the aftermath, the “Asian miracle” roared for three decades together with Hong Kong and Taiwan. That was shock and awe.
The Philippines couldn’t join that phenomenal economic onslaught, a highly “Westernized” country, it was outside the loop of Asian values and Confucian family and community tradition. Our country was an outsider. In an ample sense, it had the religious and social culture of Latin America — Roman Catholic, impoverished, submissive, patient, resigned. Lawrence D. Harrington of Harvard, an international authority on this issue, wrote about the Latino: “Resignation of the poor. To be poor is to deserve heaven. To be rich is to deserve hell. It is good to suffer in this life because in the next life, you will find eternal reward.” He could have been writing about the Filipino. By the way, failed parliamentary governments are strewn all over Latin America, an economically backward continent.
I better explain that Confucian culture in more detail. More than anything else, that culture fueled — in greater or lesser measure — the sensational economic drives of, aside from China, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and Malaysia. And now Vietnam.
Lucien Pye, another professor emeritus at Harvard, liberally quotes Max Weber whom he calls the “unsurpassed master of the origins of capitalism.” Weber analyzed Chinese culture and saw similarities with Puritanism. The Chinese character, Weber said, “would in all probability be quite capable, probably more capable than the Japanese, of assimilating capitalism which has technically and economically been fully developed in the modern culture area.” Imagine! Weber wrote his masterpiece The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1903-07.
Even that early Max Weber forecast that China “might indeed be able to emulate capitalistic practices in time.” Weber also shared the (French Enlightenment’s (18th century) positive views about China. So Napoleon was right after all in mid-19th century. He said China was a “sleeping giant” that would wake up one day and stun the world.
The Confucian “need for achievement”, according to Lucien Pye, is a constant “drive for excellence”. He added: “Chinese children are taught the importance of striving for success and the shame of not measuring up to parental expectations.” Pye stresses “the key values of reliance on the social networks (guanxi), of taking the long-run view, of seeking market share rather than profits, of delaying gratification, and of aggressively saving for the future.” All these have to do with getting the economy to perform like the blazes. Today, China is on the verge of becoming an economic superpower. The Philippines is the laggard of Asia.
I have purposely resorted to the varied works of renowned world authorities on the issue and the lessons of history. As I emphasized earlier, the aim was to propagate the truth and debunk Con-Ass propaganda that a parliamentary government in the Philippines would lead us to the biblical land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey. Nothing is farther from the truth.
This is the mother of all lies.
Let me refer the reader to another best-selling book, The Commanding Heights, written by award-winning authors Daniel Yergin and Joseph Estanislaw. At one point, they write: “Most of the Asian success stories involved, at some point, dictatorship, authoritarianism, or at least regulated politics and a de facto one-party system. Yet at the same time, they built a consensus around the imperative of survival and the visible returns of growth, indeed what has been called shared growth. Most Asian governments did intervene — sometimes quite drastically. But they did so to influence the shape of market outcomes. The paradox of Asia, then, was that in many ways it was government knowledge, enforced by political structures, that helped bring about market-friendly outcomes.”
Parliamentary? It didn’t even come as a sneeze.
The lesson to be drawn by the Philippines is that the British parliamentary system or other like systems is hardly the political model for our country. It took “law and order” 200 years to mature in England. Its laws were drawn from many revolts, many wars, myriad political clashes, the granite rebel face of Oliver Cromwell, as history came like a tempest, where British culture shifted with the changing faces of the economy. There is another thing. The records state there is no country in the world with a presidential system of government that ever switched to parliamentary. It is the other way round. Parliamentary switching to presidential. We could become the first.
The other lesson to be drawn is that our survival and eventual progress as a nation will have to keen to the Asian model. Or models. The Western parliamentary model will not succeed here. Their ethos is not ours, their culture is not ours and their history is not ours. We are a special breed, drawn from the tribal culture of Lapu-Lapu in the 16th century, Christianized but nonetheless abused by Spain, then our ilustrado elite brainwashed to accept the free trade blandishments of an imperial America.
Asia has moved rapidly forward. We have hardly grown since then.
I have that dread feeling that indecent rush to install a parliamentary government in the Philippines is a leap not only into the dark but unmitigated disaster. It is propelled more by greed and ambition on the part of the oligarchy than an honest heart, the prod of patriotism, scholarly work and historical research. It is already obvious by this time that what has devastated the Filipinos as a people for more than a half a century is not their system of government — but their unchanging culture.
We have a culture heavily resistant to development for many reasons.
We have a lousy work ethic still to banish the legend of Juan Tamad. We have a predominant Catholic religion accused rightly or wrongly of erecting brick walls to national riches and prosperity because that is supposed to be a big sin. The rewards will come in heaven. Our leadership care only for coupons not change. We don’t trust anybody except members of our family. What is precisely needed for development is community trust, a communal reaching out for the network of business and financial bondings that economic progress requires. We are too frolic-prone and fiesta-prone. We abhor long-range goals and programs that will make us sweat like a pack horse. We want to enjoy life now, and not sacrifice for tomorrow. We have turned our back on progressive education, without which we will forever be chained to poverty. We have no discipline.
Our leaders must understand that while indeed change is needed and even imperative, they more than anybody else have to change. And soon.
And that change requires a contrite come-down for the high and mighty who seek to perpetuate their status and hardly care if the overwhelming majority of Filipinos are dirt poor. As of now, they have no social conscience. They are very much unlike the Bill Gates’, the Ted Turners, the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, the Harrimans who donate billions to the sick, the impoverished and the needy, the racial minorities. And set up philanthropic foundations in their name.
The noted British professor of government, P.S. Finer mentioned the Philippines twice in his book Comparative Government. In the chapter “Facade-Democracy”, he said that governments like ours “are manipulated and violated by a historic oligarchy as to stay in office.” In such a facade democracy, “the reality is a loose confederation of bosses who by reason of their social and economic status can deliver the vote.” This is also called “clientelist democracy” or “patronage politics”. Finer adds: “In countries as disparate as India, the Philippines, the Lebanon and Somalia ‘ the bases of political allegiance, and the issues of politics, tend to be those of local and primary units. In such countries, the structure of political party affiliation is clientelist.”
But now that culture has shot to the top in identifying and classifying countries — enclosing the works of top political scientists, economists, social anthropologists — let us quote David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations): “Protestantism promoted the rise of modern capitalism. Protestantism did this, Weber said, not by easing or abolishing those aspects of the Roman faith that had deterred free economic activity (the prohibition of usury, for example) but by defining an ethic of everyday behavior that conducted to economic success.”
Culture again. Wherever they are in the world, Jews and Chinese always excel. It is less their system of government but their culture, which is a divine whiplash on their character, their striving to be the best, their reaching out to each other, their utter dedication to education. When I was studying for my masters in political science in Paris, the brightest students were almost always Israelis. They had a passion to learn, learn, and learn. In America, there are at least 60,000 Chinese at any time of day in the best graduate and elite schools enrolled in science, technology, advanced math, engineering. Learn, learn, and learn.
The bulk of Filipinos are Roman Catholics. Are we therefore consigned — because of our culture — to the languid state of losers and laggards in an Asia starting to boom with wealth and plenty? They have the Confucian culture and the Asian values. We don’t have them.
The answer is no.
Culture is not frozen once and for all. Like anything else, culture shifts and changes, sheds the negative, borrows the creative and the positive. Spain and Portugal, once the Catholic economic outcasts of Europe, realized the only way they could survive was change. So they joined the European Economic Community, whose economic targets were tough, long-term and bruising. Now Spain and Portugal can boast they rode the economic tiger and triumphed. So did Catholic France much earlier largely on the proddings of the legendary Jean Monnet, an outstanding thinker, planner, ideologue, a top Allied adviser in the Second World War. So did Roman Catholicism adjust speedily in Protestant-dominated America. So did Asia’s economic tigers when they dismantled their feudal system posthaste to embrace capitalism and modernity. In all cases, it was the leadership that decided.
But we must warn the hour is nigh.
Our political elite, our oligarchy must soon undergo an agonizing reappraisal — then make the tough decisions. There has to be a substantial redistribution of the national income — of wealth. As of now, about 10 cent of the rich and affluent corner more than 50 percent of the national income. That is scandalous. They must learn to share by paying their taxes, by subsidizing education for the poor, by engaging in social amelioration projects and schemes, by outright donations to the poorest and most underprivileged, for their health, their advanced schooling, upgrading of work skills, the removal or amelioration of slums, rinsing Metro Manila of its ugliness, its torpor, improving the public and private school systems. Building parks, recreation centers.
Their reputation as of always is living luxuriously in gated communities like Forbes Park, Dasmari’as, Ayala Alabang, and to hell with the poor, to hell with the rest of the country.
After all, they can go to confession and all their sins are forgiven. This is not Christianity. This is reliving the hell of pre-parliamentary England, of feudal France before the Revolution of 1789 where thousands of the manorial and industrial rich were beheaded, of pre-Reformation Europe where passage to heaven could be bought and some popes themselves lived disgraceful lives. We Filipinos after all are now in the 21st century and the wonders of broadcast media make us aware of what is happening in the world. We know. And yet we are strapped in inaction, shoved to some big hole where we cling alone and only to God and the Virgin Mary. And not to our inner resources, talents and originality to unlock the Filipino genius.
We have to smash an inert, paralyzed, non-performing, infuriating culture whose motto is: Makakaraos din tayo. Ayos lang.
I have no illusions that Speaker Jose de Venecia, after reading everything I have said on the subject, will retreat or retract. They are an almost irresistible force in a weak and so far helpless nation, a powerful spearhead of the oligarchy determined to install the parliamentary system by hook or by crook. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I can only warn them they are playing with fire. And laying waste the future of our children and their children in turn. The parliamentary system is not a solution at all. It is a grab for power under the guise of change. More than 50 percent of our people live below the poverty line, and they ache terribly for reforms, for a new group of visionary leaders, for that shaft of political lightning that leads to Damascus. They would perhaps appreciate and agree if the members of Congress who would constitute a Constituent Assembly vote themselves out of the unicameral assembly proposed to be elected in 2004. Yes. Forswear membership. That would convince the citizenry they are noble, serious and sincere. But as things stand, they would be the first to barge into a parliamentary government. And profit handsomely.
If they fail, and I am almost sure they will fail, they would have poured the additional fuel social unrest needs to explode. In such a situation, they agitate a power-hungry military, already ascendant as the sole political power in violence-prone Mindanao. Tinkering with the constitution when the country is at the crossroads is like playing with a ticking bomb in the schoolyard when the children are at play. That is ghoulish.
I have said my piece. I say again what we need is not regime change, or change to parliamentary, but a change in our culture, a change in our hearts and minds, in our nature, in our character. The nation heals best when it heals it’s poor and downtrodden. We need a pealing of bells in the night that we might all wake up. If we don’t, what difference is there — really? Between those who colonized and conquered us, and robbed us of our pride and dignity, and our present masters, the Filipino rich and powerful? They too would tighten our chains and laugh uproariously and scornfully when the rest of the nation prays.
Yes, they would continue to play God. And we ask them, even implore them to change — soon. If they don’t, nothing really stands still for all time. The ultimate earthly bomb is knowledge. Once the Filipinos have this in their hands, and move in the streets, there will be unshirted hell to pay. Our culture will take a different turn — and the eternal child becomes man.
* * *[Teodoro “Teddy” Benigno, Jr. (1923-2005) was a leading Filipino journalist with a career spanning seven decades. His writings first graced the print media in 1946, when he joined the Manila Tribune as a sportswriter and police beat reporter (Wikipedia).]
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