I have a friend who disagrees very much with my social and political views about the Philippines. He thinks that my commentaries about the country come across as negative and therefore running counter to his own views. This deeply offends him even when I’ve assured him many times these commentaries are not about him. I tell him that he shouldn’t take my opinions personally. It is actually a miracle we still consider ourselves friends. I personally think that this is what a mature relationship should be like. People who have differing opinions should not end their association with one another or allow those differences to weaken any efforts being taken towards achieving a shared goal. What we need to engage in is more dialogue or discussions about the issues in order to sort out what is best for those who are affected by it. We do after all, live in a democracy.
This got me thinking though. Is democracy really working in the Philippines? Are the citizens of the Philippines ready for a mature discussion focused on the issues that affect the nation? I personally think the answer is no because majority of the members of society are not sufficiently educated as a result of poverty and many are still trapped by beliefs or traditions that hinder the nation’s growth and development. There are also those who are educated but are indifferent to the plight of the poor and those in the elite class who wield so much influence and therefore have the power to change the course of the nation. Sadly, many of them deliberately take advantage of the situation and dismiss any kind of discussion or debate in order to maintain the status quo — one that is often disadvantageous to the poor. A few vocal people who are willing to have intellectual discussions about the problems of the country are accused of being traitors to the Filipino ethnicity or discriminatory in their remarks.
State of Delusion
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I once received a forwarded email that contained the essay “Between Poverty and Paradise” by a certain Paolo Mangahas. This essay was first published in June 2007 and apparently won some praise from the Filipino community. I suppose many were moved by the author’s acceptance of the country’s state of misfortune. Unfortunately, the essay failed to move me. In fact, it even annoyed me to a degree and raised a few questions that are often left unanswered by people who write similar stuff like his.
The piece comes across to me as another one of those feel-good essays that describes the state of people living in poverty with the aim of eliciting an emotional response. But like most of them, this one offers no solutions as to how the situation of the poor could be changed. This essay, like most like it, appeals to many Filipinos because of the way its author bandies a pride in being Filipino that seemingly puts a silver lining around the appalling circumstances he describes. I believe that kind of sugar-coating does no more than dull the Filipino’s sensibilities around regarding said circumstance for what it is — something that can only be addressed if its nature is clearly understood. This means examining the issues that contribute to it with a practical mind that is not afraid to go where the inquiry might take them. A truly critical examination that does away with any sugar-coating and strips away any that exist often yields disturbing conclusions about the Filipino’s character. Yet most Filipinos loathe people who point out or give an honest stocktaking of the failures of the country. They accuse them of being “ashamed” to be Pinoy and see their being critical as negativism. Indeed, most Filipinos would rather hear people say “how happy we are and that we are truly blessed.”
Mangahas’s essay starts with an account of him trying to describe what the Philippines is like to his German friend. He runs through a litany of the usual tourist destinations but struggles to skirt the reality of the sad state of affairs in troubled parts in the country (which is everywhere). Mangahas even compares the Philippines to Malaysia (where he holds office as head of the World Wildlife Fund) and how the workers there have more rights, earn more, and enjoy a more decent lifestyle compared to Filipinos. Towards the end of the essay, Mr. Mangahas tearfully explained to his friend how the poor people of the Philippines scratch out a life in appalling conditions everyday but still remain upbeat. He mentions “…despite all these, the Philippines is still a beautiful country and this you will also feel the very moment you get there. It is a beauty characterised by the indomitable human spirit of a people who have seen better days and yet still have the capacity to find a peace of heaven in their lives.”
I really have a problem with statements like this. Such words elicit much emotion but leave one with nothing of substance to grasp at. In what sense, in precise terms is the Philippines a “beautiful country”? You think one thing, but then read on and find that Mangahas’s idea of the country’s “beauty” in that context lies in the “indomitable human spirit” of its people.
My concept of the Philippines’ beauty is a bit more precise than that. First of all, the Philippines’ natural landscape is truly beautiful; no doubt about it. The country also has a rich trove of natural resources. It has fertile lands, a diverse pool of flora and fauna, an extensive coastline, and rich mineral deposits. There seems to be no reason why Filipinos cannot be self-sufficient and prosperous. If only we could learn to manage the utilisation of these resources well. Unfortunately, as it turns out, that is a big “if” that we failed to step up to as a people. The precision with which I describe the Philippines’ beauty makes it quite clear where such beauty ends and reality sets in.
The same people Mangahas describes as having an “indomitable human spirit” continue to lay waste to their own land today. Decades of wanton deforestation has turned much of the islands into featureless plains and bald mountain ranges. The forests that were once natural water traps are now gone and the result is uncontrollable and unpredictable torrential floods that kill hundreds of Filipinos every year during the monsoon and typhoon seasons. Loose earth eroded from these plains and mountains along with garbage and pollutants contribute to siltation and clogging of rivers and waterways as well as the degradation of drainage basins such as lakes, destroying once diverse aquatic life all over the archipelago.
These are the very same people who turn their roads into chaotic battlefields (when traffic is moving) by not obeying traffic rules and regulations, all at a cost of unnecessary loss of life and limb, lost productivity, and pollution. They are also the very same people that continue to elect the same sorts of public officials that have ruled the country for decades. They select them based on popularity gained from making empty promises, expressing hollow platitudes, and associating with glamorous celebrities and sports heroes. In the end, it is these elected politicians who are left laughing all the way to the bank.
Mangahas proudly asserts in his essay that the Filipino’s “indomitable human spirit” and “the untiring faith of a people who have learned to acknowledge their plight with reverence and yet have never lost the courage to dream big dreams” is a uniquely Filipino trait. If indeed Filipinos dream big as a matter of habit, and if we really act on these dreams with conviction, our country would be enjoying the fruits of that unique spirit by now and be taking its place among countries that are known for real strength and resilience on top of solid foundations of achievement such as America and Japan. If we are truly a people who act on our big dreams, maybe we’d even be known for some innovation in science and technology by now, or would at least be self-sufficient with our food.
Yes, “people haven’t lost the courage to dream big dreams” but they don’t really know how to make it big the right way or how to do it through sustainable means. Obtaining a decent education is one such means. The way I see it, working on those “big dreams” should start at school. Every child should be given the opportunity to learn skills that would be useful in earning a living, selecting a vocation, or contributing to the community. Hard work should be inculcated at a very young age. If people work harder than they normally do from the beginning, they are more likely to be rewarded with the fruits of their labour later on. The time to celebrate and have a good time will come with success in one’s chosen profession or with every innovation or creation.
What Mangahas fails to mention is that most Filipinos’ resignation to their fate is what hinders their ability to move forward. The perennial saying “Eh ganyan talaga” (“That’s how it is here”) and that inclination to poke fun at their own situation or regard things in jest all the time even while in the midst serious or dire situations prevents people from raising important issues that may change their fortunes.
Some traditions have downright become impractical. The average Filipino’s fondness for fiesta or community gatherings accompanied by huge banquets promotes over-consumption, wastefulness, and often leaves already impoverished people in debt and with ill-health. Even the practice of remembering and honouring dead relatives on the 1st of November holiday of All Soul’s Day turns into a circus because of the way people flock to cemeteries in droves and then leave behind their garbage with little regard for the consequences of their actions. Such gatherings are unproductive and unnecessarily drain people’s resources and that of the rest of the community.
We need to ask ourselves if any of the traditions we have been practicing for hundreds of years still make any sense today. Perhaps they are now just hindrances to our growth as a people. We may as well focus our energies and resources more to looking for ways to elevate our quality of life instead. If we can’t let go of such traditions, can we at least have the discipline to keep things in order or keep the impact of these activities to a level that will not harm the environment and our well-being?
Yes, people seem happy but the horizon of this happiness is short-term. Often this happiness is a result of habitual catering to an addiction to instant gratification. It seems that the majority lives for the day and hardly ever prepares for rainy days. How our elected public officials reflect this has come to light in recent weeks. They simply don’t think about natural disaster prevention measures. Filipinos invest so much time on reciting a lot of repetitive prayers all the while forgetting one of the most basic Christian mantras: “God helps those who help themselves.” Even the late Michael Jackson said “We cannot rely on the government alone to do everything. We have to rely on ourselves for change.”
The Philippines’ rapid population growth (our population is now an estimated 92 million) also hinders economic and social development. Birth rates remain high and have even been escalating. The Philippine Catholic Church in advocating a “the more the merrier” approach to family planning is no shining beacon of salvation here. The quality of life of the poorest of the poor continues to decline as our population soars. Many children as it is are already left to fend for themselves on the streets due to a lack of funds to care for and educate them. Many of them are unwanted anyway some may think. But these children could be facing a life of crime and therefore be menaces to society. At best, they may end up as lifetime burdens to an already economically strained state. We sow what we reap.
Towards the end of his essay Mr Mangahas states again “how abundantly blessed Filipinos truly are.” I really don’t know what he is basing this assertion on. The statement seems not to be based on facts or measurable statistics but on mere gut feel and narrative fallacies alone. If these were true, then why do hundreds of Filipinos leave for overseas to find a better life? If he can call the situation in our country being blessed, I wonder what being cursed is like?
Positive + Negative = Facts
Let’s go back to my friend. My dear friend keeps insisting that I be more positive about the future of the Philippines in my writings. He says that the country still has hope and to continue to “bash” it is unfair to people like him who try their best to be model citizens. He keeps stating that I always see the glass as half-empty and to him, that’s wrong. He calls it bashing but I call it being cruel to be kind — addressing the empty part of the glass. You can’t solve problems by focusing only on the good part of the issues. Yet it would be great if the majority of Filipinos emulated my friend. He is one of those Filipinos who claim to be doing their part in helping the poor by doing charity work. He also follows rules and regulations and refuses to pay bribes to government agencies. He wouldn’t be my friend if he wasn’t all this to begin with.
In short, my friend’s behaviour is more the exception than rule in the Philippines. I can’t see why he would not appreciate the way people like me raise issues that address the social or cultural malaise in our society. I mean, when are we ever going to accept that we have a problem? Is it when we experience more food and energy shortages? Or when another typhoon flood claims a few more thousand lives? Or when all the educated Filipinos who want to have a dialogue about the issues finally get frustrated and leave the country?
Maybe I’m a little angry about the state in which the nation is in. Paul Mangahas, is but one of many people of influence who choose to pat the Filipino on the back for something that hasn’t really been achieved. We haven’t achieved anything significant as a people. Manny Pacquiao won his boxing titles on his own and the rice terraces has already passed its use-by date.
We need more people who have the guts to stand up and say “Philippines, we have a problem and we need to fix it.” We need people who will risk being ostracised or being ridiculed by his own people in order to raise awareness and seek further enlightenment.
I personally think that we, as a society need to be less upbeat about our present condition. We need to be angry and grumpy about the way our elected public officials are neglecting their duties. The reason why they get away with incompetence is because people let them get away with it. Filipinos should be demanding free access to quality education for everyone in order to level the playing field. The rich continue to monopolise opportunity in the Philippines because they are the only ones who have access to a good education, the kind that gets the jobs more likely to lead to a pleasant existence in the future. We should be demanding that government put more funding into education across the board and reward those who excel in each field. We should be demanding that the government give more incentives to promote research in science and technology. We need to envision a society that rewards excellence and brilliance.
My friend keeps emphasizing that I am unconstructive in my views. In my defence, there was actually a study done that concluded that people who get upset are less gullible, more critical of their surroundings, and also pay more attention to the details. The study also says that whereas positive moods seem to promote creativity, flexibility and co-operation, negative moods trigger more attentive and careful thinking and forces people to pay greater attention to the external world. I do agree that a little negativity promotes information processing strategies best suited to dealing with more demanding situations. So therefore, I’d rather keep my views the way it is. It has saved me from a lot of unfortunate circumstances, frankly speaking. My wish is for every Filipino to apply this kind of mentality in meeting the challenges they wish to overcome.
Finally, my friend also thinks that I no longer see any hope in the Philippines. Yes, there is no hope as long as there is no radical change in the way we regard our issues and challenges and reflect this in the way we vote for our public officials. As long as we keep pinning the blame for our own negligence at everyone else other than ourselves, and as long as we do not apply in our own homeland the same discipline and outstanding behavior we demonstrate when we are abroad, its is hard to see any hope in the Philippines becoming a great nation.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that I am taking a more positive approach to the situation because the sooner I recognise and accept what needs to be done, the sooner I can work on the issues and move forward.
In life, things are not always what they seem.