What Problem with Filipino Identity?

Some people say the problems of the Philippines are due to its people having no sense of identity. If we settle on an identity we can all agree upon, it can lead to a sense of love of country that may lead to good effects, perhaps reduction of corruption due to patriotism. Not a bad idea, actually, but I believe that’s not it. The problems of the country go deeper than that.


I say we have an identity already, but we don’t know how to properly develop and care for it. One idea may have compounded the issue: that Filipinos should look inward for aspects of Filipino culture. This means excising foreign influences and sticking only to what’s “home-grown.” Basically, it’s ethnocentrism. There’s just one problem: everything that’s “home-grown” is limited to Stone-age technology. There is no modern Philippine indigenous culture.

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Several history teachers have already told me that the Philippines’ indigenous cultures are all old, non-advanced technological societies, where people wear loincloths and live like wild tribes in the jungles (well, that’s the stereotype). There is barely any modern technology or modern ideas. They usually have an old – backward, if you may – way of life. If we look only to “home-grown” culture, this is where we’re left with.


I believe most of our local populace have been conditioned to embrace the primitive lifestyle and mindset in order to arrest real meaningful development. Thus, we see anything indigenously Filipino as the bahag-wearers. For example, look at some mass media representing indigenous Filipinos. Anito, among the first all-Filipino-developed games, is set in the ancient Philippines, the bahag era. We also had a cartoon movie of our own some time ago, Princess Urduja. Again, set in the “bahag” times. Whenever we use the insular premise on our culture, we end up with a backward view of our own Filipino identity. That is complicating things.

Being Open to Foreign Culture the Right Way

If there is any modern Filipino culture, it always has foreign influence in it: Spanish, American, and others. Since we have no modern Filipino culture, we have to absorb some foreign influences. This includes technology, because most technology, if we think of it as complex machines and computers, tends to come from abroad. If some Filipinos would say, “become modern by using foreign technology! No! That is traitorous! Our Filipino identity comes only from within!” they are actually inhibiting the solution.

One thing I would like to point out is that the Philippines itself is a product of colonialism. We wouldn’t be the Philippines if we were not colonized, we wouldn’t even be organized as a single nation without it. Colonization made the Philippines, and it is thus a part of our real identity. We cannot remove the foreign stuff and effects of colonization and insist on “indigenous” material only. Otherwise, we are left with nothing. We’re not Filipinos. We’ll just become tribes that hate each other (because that’s what we were before we became a nation).

If we want to settle on our identity, we just have to accept the good part of the foreign things that come to us.

There are some who say other countries were successful in making their own indigenous culture the source of their success. They cite Japan and South Korea as among these. Unfortunately, they are mistaken. Both of these countries adopted foreign culture as part of their cultural identity that we know today.

Japan for example actually copied the Chinese Tang dynasty. That’s why kimonos bear similarity to Tang dynasty dress (like bathrobes tied with a sash). That’s why roofs of the era bear upward-rounding tips, similar to Chinese temples. Just read the history, such as this book called Japan’s Cultural History: A Perspective (this says much of Japanese discipline was influenced by Buddhism, which permeated Japan’s warrior culture, leading to Bushido), or the classic textbook East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (by Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig), where a chapter is titled “Early Japan: The absorption of Chinese Civilization.” Fast forward to the Meiji Era, Japan had absorbed some western technology and items (like uniforms) for their development. The Japanese at times considered it important to absorb some foreign things to improve their culture and society. They generally didn’t worry about it tainting their “identity.” They took in what they needed.

Just look anywhere else around the world. While many parts of the world remain in traditional settings, many people are already wearing western clothing. Go to Egypt, Samoa and the Pacific Isles, Haiti, South America, Mongolia, and anywhere else… you see people wearing western-style shirts, jeans, jackets and more. And they don’t see it as a cultural offense. This is practical clothing.

Photo courtesy of Phil. Daily Inquirer

Photo courtesy of Phil. Daily Inquirer

Let me draw attention to the recent viral post about “Filipinos vandalizing their own country, while foreigners clean it up.” It was mainly about a Japanese national in Baguio who cleans an overpass and even gave it a new coat of paint. This is a sadly ironic thing, wherein the people who might even be proud of their nationality, brazenly saying “Pinoy Pride,” are the ones who are ruining their own country. The foreigners who are supposedly “invading” are actually doing great public service! In a way, we could say these foreigners are more Filipino than any of us!

Being hostile to anything foreign and insisting on an identity that is purely indigenous are things we should definitely drop.

The Parochialism of Philippine Society

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to having a homogenous “Filipino” identity is resistance from the different Philippine ethnicities. I remember Claude Tayag when he guested in Anthony Bourdain’s show, he said “one must be a Kapampangan (or insert your ethnicity here) before becoming a Filipino.” Thus, this points to the issue of ethnocentrism among Filipino subgroups, such as Ilocanos, Kapampangans, Warays, Bicolanos, Mindanaoans, and obviously, Muslims and other tribes. It would seem that even today, these ethnicities don’t like each other and would rather not cooperate with them. This parochiality continues to be among the sources of disunity and roadblocks in society.

This is often raised on the issue of language. Some Filipinos decry English as something that destroys our Filipino identity (my rebuttal to this is in another article). Others also decry Tagalog having been imposed as a national language by being declared as “Filipino.” I also hear from educators that Filipino was intended to synthesize words from the various languages in the country. But this surely failed, and is a vain attempt, and the roadblocks can be explained by the ethnocentrism described above.

I had always believed that one requirement to developing a stable Filipino society is to drop our tribal ethnocentrism and embrace even people of other tribes as our fellows. Parochiality prevents Filipinos from doing so. They embrace KKK (kapamilya, kadugo, katribu, kababayan, ka-etc.) more than anyone. Or they embrace KKK and would rather kill anyone else. And we wonder why our government is like that these days. A contrast to guys like the Japanese man who cleans a flyover in a foreign land.

Returning to Basic Decency

So what is our real problem if it’s not our identity? It’s our actual practices. It’s our lack of belief in basic decency. What we really do in our daily lives defines our identity. What we proclaim with our mouths is nothing more than hot air if not matched by our actions.

To me, the Filipino identity never had a problem. It is Filipino attitudes and actions that constituted the problem. For example, many Filipinos like to project their pride – which actually causes more problems than solutions.

When some say there is a lack of love for the country or society, it is in fact the lack of belief of Filipinos in basic decency and respect for others.

Many have lamented that Filipinos actually do not act the values they preach. They see these and “being good” as a means to an end. Such being good to a person so they can get favors, such as money, or even a drink later to they could get drunk. So if they do not get a reward in the end, they will cease doing good. And not only that; some Filipinos, when they see people doing good for no reward, they even jeer and say, “Tanga! Wala ka ngang makukuha dyan! (Stupid! You won’t gain anything from that!)” Apparently, crab mentality manifests in a way to prevent our people from doing good.

In my church, we often teach that we become decent not because we expect a reward. We do it because it is our duty. Unless people see that being decent is a duty, and not means to a reward, they are likely to remain asswipes. Thus, that for me is a solution: be decent, with the returns you want being society as a whole being decent as well.

This for me should be part of the true identity of Filipinos. It can be part of the identity of any country as well. Because by restoring basic decency, we show a good example to the world and that proves we are a good people. Not singing or dancing or showing off talents: showing decency will do it. Either we do good or we become among the indecent Filipinos shaming our identity.

23 Replies to “What Problem with Filipino Identity?”

  1. The problem with “Failipino identity” is they do not want to come to terms with their tribal nature. They feel their primitive origin is not regal enough to be considered “world class” status. So Failipinos will readily adopt other cultures, and call it theirs, to undermine their own ethnicity.

    However, in spite of their best effort to revolutionize their tribal nature, by forcing themselves to think and live in the same aristocratic ways as people from more sophisticated cultures, Failipinos are still haunted by their primitive past, with the way they feud with one another and be awed by anything foreign—just like what their ancestors did centuries ago.

    Some things will never change–no matter how much they try–among Failipinos. Their aristocratic and self-serving nature are some of them.

    1. So what kind of identity must the “Failipino” adopt? Are you saying that Filipinos are condemned to forever be a failure?

  2. Decency is a relative word. What is decent to you, may be not decent to me.

    Ancient Filipinos had no defined culture, before the coming of the Spaniards. The Spaniards brought good and bad parts of their culture. Some of the bad parts, are still with us, today.

    We have “identity”…we cannot “jump out from our own skins”… If I walk into any public place in California. I always find Filipinos , asking me, if I am a Filipino.

    The Information Technology Age has brought countries, almost together. We are humans first, before, we become Filipinos. We have to adopt the good, in our civilization. Discard what are bad; in order, that our country will move forward.

    If our civilization grows; our humanity will grow, also. First we have to know, how to become humans; and humane, at the same time.

  3. Even by accepting the good things that foreign cultures have provided, that doesn’t mean that Failipinos are not going to screw them up in one way or another. The only unifying aspect of the country I see is the fact that it is predominantly Catholic. I have met Catholics from Burma, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. people who have been historically persecuted or neglected due to their faith, who look up to the Philippines has the Catholic Mecca for Asia and believe it should take up that leadership role for them. I honestly can’t think of anything else the country can do for itself and others that’s worthwhile.

  4. I am Dutch but I dont know what makes me Dutch. My Dutch passport? Because I speak Dutch? Anyway, KLM is not my fav airliner. It is Singapore Airlines and AA coming in 2nd. All I know is, is that my country has not 1 (one) culture, its has many cultures because we live in a heterogeneous country/culture. Its very hard and difficult to find 2 people who are exactly the same, except for maybe twins. Even sisters and brothers (from the same biological mom and dad) are heterogeneous.

    1. @Robert Haighton:

      Even twins, who would look the same; would have different characteristics. You were born in Holland, and grew up in Holland…so you are a Dutch. If you would had been born here…you would had been a Filipino…

      1. But you will never see me with a Dutch flag and you will never see and hear me sing the Dutch national anthem.
        And sometimes I do loathe my fellow countrymen.

  5. After Masakazu Nose’s cleaning became viral, one would expect that LG officials of Baguio or any cities in the country would feel embarrassed and start disciplining their littering people. The latter obviously are indifferent with their surroundings otherwise they won’t facilitate in killing it; they won’t leave their garbage where it’s not supposed to be (even the cigarette butts). Pinoys forgot that the place they live in, if they care and innovate it will also give back safety and security.

    It’s easy to come up with ordinances to fine or detain people who would leave or throw their trash anywhere (I believe there are cities that already enforced such ordinances like Davao). It’s also easy to come up with a budget to have garbage bins on public places. They could also make public announcements/reminders, replaced that big billboard advertisement with laws or projects to care for surroundings (come up with the project first and foremost). They may even hire metro aides, not your usual street sweepers but also someone who will reprimand or catch the lazy pigs. All of these actions ongoing until such time discipline became second nature to them. It’s easy really if government officials will do their job and concentrate on making their city the best place to live in and will take discipline as a serious matter Filipinos needed to learn, because without discipline and hatching of home-grown ideas, it’ll be a waste of foreign knowledge on us. But then again, only officials with true sense of leadership will be courageous enough to come up with good strategies and put the ill-behaved Pinoys to their rightful places.

  6. great read, nationalities, ethnicities are just labels; i strongly agree that we are defined based on our acts. just a reminder though, we are not the only recipients during the colonization, the process requires trade may it be culture, knowledge, and produce. so same as there is spanish, chinese, american etc- in us, these nationalities also have filipino in them

    1. Thanks for the comment denden, and so with d_forsaken and Namorona below. I really believe the issue with identity is more a distraction from the real issues, as well as a reflection of how self-absorbed we are as a people. I also question the idea of using nationalities and group identities as a rallying point for an “us and them” separation. I plan to talk about that in a future article for this blog.

  7. National identity acts as a consumer lever to manipulate the emotions of the masses, for the purposes of power regulation and the fulfillment of agenda.

  8. Interesting ponderousal indeed. Perhaps we should first shun being called and proclaiming selves as an amalgamated island nation of many dialects, tribes, clans.., a people already influenced by different peoples and cultures from around the planet in ancient times- that refers to us being the slaves of a European King whose name (Philip) literally translates to “Lover of Horses”. So it essentially means “Slave Island people of the Second Lover of Horses Iberian King?”

    Whoa! Any half-witted armchair anthropologist would realize that this is why we are truly screwed up! So lost in our false sense of self and even trying to be proud… being of false identity and nationalism..sucessfully projecting into the present many layers of confusion and contradictions, for how could we possibly resolve the complexities and paradoxes of our realities as a people?

    Hmm. Maharlika… I like that. A noble freeman warrior such as that which ruled these archepelago islands in ancient times that traded goods and exchanged concepts, traditions, culture and beliefs before the Europeans and later the Americans that were made up of immigrants/ colonists/ indeginous peoples themselves. There was a “Marcosian” idea to use this to refer to ouselves to free us in mind and being to elevate our perception of self if it is to be recalled. One of the lesser known bright ideas of a cruel dictator in the pocket of our next colonizer duped by Spain during that period of history.

    I remember an anecdote years ago by an absurdly mixed genetic salad who grew up in MNL that when he queried people on any street on any island here as to what they were, they would all say with the wit and humility of Pilosopo Tasyo:” TAO lang ako!” The unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality, the nature processes where all things are constantly changing for a life in harmony.

    This getreal corner of our global communal reality sure gets great and not so great minds to grind and eventually mesh and gel together after all the churning!

  9. I love the Philippines Our culture allows us to take for
    our own the best traditions of Asia, Europe and America without being accused of “Cultural appropriation”!.

    Consistancy in following our clearly chosen CONSTITUTION, modified only by gradual and carefully planned legislated change gives us a sense of continuity.

    The Philippines chose LAND REFORM and individual ownership of small farms instead of LARGE EFFICIENT RICE PLANTATIONS or Communist communes as OUR agricultural and social norm. We defined ourselves as small independent farmers and small business owners as our social matrix. OUR LAWS CLEARLY DEFINE OUR BASIC BUSINESS MODEL OF LIMITED ACREAGE FARMS.
    NOW WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO AN ABRUPT ABOUT-FACE and become as efficient as mechanized
    large plantation farmers similar to the foreign-grown-rice exported into OUR PHILIPPINES!
    WE FARMERS WERE BETRAYED by our government in the passage of THE RICE TARIFFICATION LAW which undermines and impoverishes the small farmer. The very bed-rock of our national identity has been destroyed! We have enriched our ASEAN rice competitors while impoverishing our huge population of small farmers!

    I’m certain that Tatay Duterte did not realize the terrible outcome of allowing this to happen-and pray that he will come to the aid of those SMALL FARMERS who form the very foundation of the PHILIPPINES.

    1. That should be basic stuff for the economic managers, working with the dep’t of agriculture. What are we missing? Changes to the laws are mostly reactionary, which could mean they aren’t actively working to predict such outcomes. Somebody correct me.

    2. The small farmers only make sense if they can make a better quality product or at a better price. Like everything else in the Philippines, it’s not competitive unless artificially kept afloat by government sanctions.
      Rice market is great now, people can finally buy good quality rice and not forced to overpay for stale tasteless crap.
      Your Tatay is owned by the billionaire business leaders, he will do exactly as he is told. Who do you think got him elected? Without the hundreds of millions in Cambridge Analytica fees, he wouldn’t have become the president. Where do you think the money came from?

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