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What’s wrong with the Philippines?

By Benigno S. Aquino Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:39:00 08/21/2010

Filed Under: Politics, Economy and Business and Finance, Conflicts (general), history

(Editors note: The following essay, written by the assassinated father of President Aquino, appeared in the Solidarity quarterly journal in 1985. The President?s father was murdered at the Manila International Airport on Aug. 21, 1983, upon his return from voluntary exile in the United States. The Inquirer obtained the permission of Solidarity to reprint this on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of his martyrdom.)


MANILA, Philippines?A diplomat, after a seven-year tour of duty in the Philippines, once christened the islands as an ?enchanting archipelago.? Whether he was merely being polite, or had succumbed to government pitchmen, or had himself become enchanted by the lush tropical beauty of the islands, he should also have seen a country wracked by afflictions, some common to all countries engaged in the desperate race to develop, some peculiar to the Philippines.

Purveyors of the rosy picture continue to roll out endless statistics and charts to depict a growing economy, a country on the move. A portion of this view may even be accepted, considering that the Philippines, with all its imperfections, is only 21 years old as a free republic. The trouble is that there is one vital natural resource that has not been properly developed: the people.

Beneath the outpourings of self-serving government data, hidden underneath the trappings of the good life in the big cities, there remains a depressed and dispirited people. Against the yardstick, not of statistics but of quality of life, the Filipino people as a whole are a melancholy?if patient?mass. Their daily diet is monotonous (rice, fish, vegetables), their clothes are threadbare and their homes primitive and crowded. What could they hope to build on a daily per capita income of just over 25 cents? In sum, the blessings of liberty do not include liberation from poverty.

Foreign gadgetry and other luxury goods continue to flood the cities, and more people travel, despite current government restrictions. But this only serves to dramatize the great disparities and chronic inequities of Filipino society. Indeed, the Philippines is a land of traumatic contrasts. Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. Gleaming suburbia clashes with the squalor of the slums. Here is a land where freedom and its blessings are a reality for a minority and an illusion for the many. Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite. Here is a land of privilege and rank?a republic dedicated to equality but mired in an archaic system of caste.

Caste spells bondage. Of this the contemporary Filipino is well aware. And to break through?to rise out of this bondage into the next higher social stratum?is the ambition of the tao, the Filipino common man. For him, education appears at first the ticket to his aspirations, and parents sell their last worldly possessions, even go deep into debt, to see a son or a daughter through college. But each year, no less than 65,000 swell the ranks of this army of the discontented, educated unemployed. Unemployment runs up to a million, while the under-employed represent 20 to 25 percent of the population, largely in the rural areas. The upsurge of the communist Huks in Central Luzon is but one chilling manifestation of peasant disillusionment. Another is the recent wave of crime which has converted the country into a land of terror in time of peace.

Add to this a government which is financially almost bankrupt, state agencies ridden by debts and honeycombed with graft, industries in pathetic distress, prices in a continuing spiral and there is good reason for the Filipino to feel sapped of confidence, hope and will. The new, young Filipino leaders who exhort their peers to be activists, and not to give up, are greeted with apathy and indifference.

In the early thirties, Manuel L. Quezon, as he led the fight for independence, once raged: ?I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than one run like heaven by the Americans.? The father of his country did not live to see this preference realized, but his political heirs have. Since independence, Philippine presidents have logged a grand total of 14 national plans and all they have to show for them is a nation that looks, sounds, and feels discouraged. It is confused by the multiplicity of its cravings, and concerns, floundering in haphazard attempts to modernize and innovate.

Government apologists predictably will disagree with these conclusions. Great strides have been made, they will maintain, and they can indeed produce the required statistics to back up their claims. But the assertion that development is accelerating is only partly correct. ?Orderly growth and evolution require delicate synchronization,? Filipino economist Sixto K. Roxas has cogently argued. And this is precisely what is wanting in Philippine economic planning.

Champagne taste on beer income

The truth is that there has been no organized, no methodical over-all economic planning. At best, all that our previous planners have trotted out have been limited programs which, tragically for the people, have bred individual hustling and pushing while the overall economy ran inconclusively in every direction. The result has been impasse in the development of critical sectors of the economy, such as the metal, chemical, wood, plastics and food industries.

For a people who at independence set out to pursue the American way of life as the ideal, the Filipinos?21 years later?are nowhere near the mark. ?We are,? one Filipino declared in self-reproach, ?a people with champagne taste, operating on a beer income.? Actually quite a number of Filipinos cannot even afford beer.

The annual per capita income is less than $100, less than Communist China?s today and equal to Japan?s only way back in 1910. The gross national product grows between 5 and 6 percent per year, but it is offset by a ballooning population increasing at a rate of 3.4 percent per year, one of the world?s highest. The GNP growth, in fact is hardly enough to absorb the backlog of unemployed and underemployed, to say nothing of improving the people?s standard of living.

Who?s to blame?

Fault, if it must be fixed, belongs not to any single man or people. It lies in the fabric of the society?and in what went into its making. Too many Filipinos are without purpose and without discipline. They profess love of country, but love themselves individually?more. When then Senate President Jose Avelino, in an expansive mood, exclaimed, ?What are we in power for?? and when much later President Carlos P. Garcia defended a Cabinet member?s right to ?prepare for his future,? these leaders were articulating a common outlook.

Without a soul

The responsibility belongs also to those who came, conquered, and ruled?to America as much as to Spain. For all the good they did (Spain welded and Christianized the people, America democratized them), they are responsible for the worst in the Filipino. While bleeding them, they molded the Filipinos in their own images, Spain Hispanizing, and America Americanizing the natives. Almost half of a century of American rule bequeathed to the Asian Filipino a trauma by making him uncomfortably American in outlook, values and tastes. What was left was a people without a soul.

Filipinos are bewildered about their identity. They are an Asian people not Asian in the eyes of their fellow Asians and not Western in the eyes of the West. They are in Asia, but they know more about the Statue of Liberty than about Angkor Wat in Cambodia; more of the lyrics of Whitman than of Tagore or of their own Nick Joaquin; more of Patrick Henry?s soul-stirring liberty-or-death oratory than of the ageless wisdom of Confucius or Lao-tze. Lately, they have taken to insisting they are Asian but they are so American-oriented that?by reflex?they still react and respond like little brown Americans.

Except for the hyper-nationalists, the Filipinos actually take pride in their community?if not identity?with the Americans. When President Johnson applauded President Marcos as his ?right arm in Asia,? there was some derisive reaction from nationalist quarters but, in the main, the people took it as a badge to wear proudly on their sleeves. GI Joe at Clark, at Mactan, at John Hay, at Subic and at Sangley, America?s military bases in the Philippines, remain a symbol of American protection. Herein lies the bigger Filipino problem.

Legacy of the West

Too many Filipinos are given to dodging their responsibilities, running to others for help when they should be on their own feet. This, too, is a legacy of the West. The writer Renato Constantino has put it well: ?As a people, we have been deprived for centuries of responsibilities for our destiny. Under the Americans, while ostensibly we were being prepared for self-government, for self-reliance, actually we were being maneuvered by means of political and economic pressures to defer to American decisions (and) being conditioned by our American education to prefer American ways.?? The result is a people habituated to abdicating control over basic areas of their national life, unaccustomed to coming to grips with reality, prone to escape into fantasies.

Some conjecture that a more tragic fate might have overtaken the Filipinos if Spain had not stumbled upon them in 1521?a fate perhaps, some shudder, like that which befell Indonesia, Indochina, or the Congo. There is nothing to support this speculation; the fact is, the navigator Fernando Magallanes found on these islands well-ordered societies with their own culture. He was slain on Mactan island by a Filipino, Lapu-Lapu, the first Asian to fight and defeat a Western invader. But the Spanish king and Cortez were bent on empire and, in historian Arnold Toynbee?s words, ?The Philippines was held for Spain by a handful of soldiers, administrators, and friars after the fashion of the Spanish empire of the Indies.?

With the cross and the sword, Spain stamped out the native culture, commerce and government. The people?s codes and laws, their weights and measures, their literature and even their alphabet were destroyed. There were, of course, periods in Spain?s 377 years of domination when liberal governors ruled, but in the main, Spanish rule was oppressive. No less than two hundred revolts marked the Spanish rule; the last?the Katipunan Revolution of 1896?finally broke Spain?s reign with American military help.

Frying pan into the fire

Filipino jubilation was short-lived, however. A republic was proclaimed by the victorious revolutionaries on June 12, 1898, but the Spanish-American War had already cast its shadow over the Filipino destiny. In the Treaty of Paris of 1898, defeated Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20 million over vociferous but futile Filipino protests. ?The Filipino freedom fighter,? comments Toynbee, ?now found that they had fallen out of the frying pan into the fire.?

From the very beginning, Washington officials denied any ambition of empire. They rationalized their Pacific acquisition as a humane and civilizing job. President McKinley, so it is recorded, dropped on his knees and prayed to God for guidance. ?And one night,? he said, ?it all came to me this way?that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.?

Hokum or truth? A good number of Filipino patriots rejected America?s proclaimed benevolence and kept up the guerrilla fight for independence not only in the mountains but also in their newspapers and literature. In their struggle, they drew moral backing from diverse foreign powers including Imperial Japan, which gave sanctuary to fleeing Filipino rebels.

After ?pacifying? the islands (except the hinterlands of Muslim Mindanao), America set out to refashion the Filipinos. In this there was method as well as design. American teachers came first, followed by American missionaries, then by American public officials. So successful were they that the Filipinos were soon thinking, acting, and living American. And so proud was the United States, it was soon calling the country America?s ?showcase of democracy? in Asia. The Filipinos liked the label too, such had been the degree of their Americanization.

Filipinos, indeed, have much to thank the United States for. With ?the happiness, peace and prosperity? of the Filipinos as the official colonial policy, America gave the Filipinos a new language, schools, free trade, government and laws. It strove to curb disease. It also gave the Filipinos a vigorous journalism, something Filipinos point to with pride. Branded as irresponsible at times, the Philippine press nonetheless has been the unofficial loyal opposition, the strongest deterrent to unbridled graft. And most important, perhaps, the United States kept the regionalistic and volatile Filipinos from breaking up.

Mentor?s neuroses

What if the United States had not come and the First Republic in 1898 had not been aborted? Philippine Ambassador to Washington Salvador P. Lopez, who, as foreign secretary, charted the Philippines? dramatic turn away from the United States and back toward Asia, answered ?... the Philippines would have developed a political system resembling, on the one hand, the self-perpetuating oligarchies of Latin America and, on the other the ?guided democracy? of Indonesia. In addition, the young republic would have been confronted almost immediately by challenges to its authority, in particular by serious separatist movements in the Visayas and in Moslem Mindanao and Sulu.? American colonial rule, he affirmed, moderated all these and permitted a new ?Philippine society to develop along more democratic lines.?

What the United States fashioned, in fact, is a democratic plural society, a society that finds unity in its diversity. It is a society, some say, as American as the United States itself. It may not have the dollars, but it certainly has the tastes and habits, the wheelings and dealings, the idiosyncracies and neuroses of its recent mentor. And it is ?or has been?committed four-square to America, to what America stands for?more than the United States itself, perhaps. In its anticommunism, for example, Manila is more rigid than Washington.

In three wars, the Philippines has stepped forward and fought with the United States?against the Japanese in the epic holding battles of Bataan and Corregidor, against the North Koreans and Communist Chinese in Korea, against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese now. Clearly, President Marcos voiced the Filipino sentiment when he explained why he brought the Philippines into the Viet Nam war: because, he said, the United States was already in the fray.

Increasingly, however, there are signs of disaffection from the United States. Where it was almost unthinkable to criticize America 10 years ago, more and more Filipinos speak out today against the Americans, if not America itself. The change is seen in anti-American demonstrations and in the search for new partners in Asia and in Europe. Behind it, too, is a renaissance of Filipino nationalism and a growing awareness of where the country is?in Asia. But the main reason is the failure of the United States ?in Filipino eyes?to give meaning to the vaunted special relationship; American performance falls short of the promise.

Built-in strings

In this atmosphere, the negative aspects of US policy are surfacing. Approval of parity?equal rights for Americans in the exploitation of Philippine natural resources?is now seen as imposed by the United States on a people left prostrate by World War II, as a condition for American War-damage funds. ?The net effect of parity,? Education Undersecretary Onofre Corpus warned the United States, ?has been an erosion of the Filipinos? belief in the United States? capacity for fair dealing with her friends and allies.?

Filipinos in growing numbers now believe that the independence granted by the United States in 1946 had built-in strings designed to perpetuate American economic dominance?or ?colonialism,? as the ultra-nationalists call it. And they point to the trade agreement which has kept the Philippines a supplier of raw materials for American?s mills and a market for American goods. Of course, the onerous provision of the original agreement was rewritten in the Laurel-Langley pact of 1956, but very few Filipinos understand this refinement.

A few Filipino ultra-nationalists, well-positioned and very articulate, would sever all special relations with the United States, putting the Philippines on the path of non-alignment. This of course, is foolhardy. With the nuclear-armed and power-minded Communist China casting a covetous shadow over all of free Asia, the Philippines needs the United States more than ever; the only other choices left to her are to go Red or fall dead.

One truth persists here: the Philippines like the rest of Free Asia, needs America?s continued military presence in the area. Like the others, she needs America as a dam and shield against the Chinese Communists. This need has never been more urgently felt than since President Johnson?s dramatic announcement at the end of March and the beginning of negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Will the United States pull out, as the French and the British have done? This is the common fear of free Asians. For the Filipinos, with a million Chinese unassimilated in their midst, it is more than a fear; it is a spectre.

Breaking the fetters

The Philippines today needs to make bold efforts to break away from the fetters of the past. She must review and revise her so-called special relationships with the United States, taking into account the world as it is, and ceasing to live on the myths and heroics that so welded and so sustained her in the past. The Filipinos ask simply for dignity in their relations with the United States and equality with others in the American-led community of nations. They resent the fact that Japan, a former enemy, has obtained more from the United States than has the Philippines, and that Spain, a totalitarian state, has a more favorable military bases agreement with the United States.

The Filipinos must purge, now and with finality, the cause of their past shame: US puppetry. What they must seek is partnership with the United States, not wardship. If a fresh viability can be forged out of the old tissues of past kinship, so much the better. But this should be farthest from both the Filipino and American minds. A New Spirit must be infused into the Filipino and American relations of today. And it must be applied to the new mutual defense and military bases agreements. These are the main problems that have vexed Filipino-American relations so much in the sixties; approached with a fresh outlook, they could yield a more durable Filipino-American relationship.

Happily, despite the growing swell of anti-American criticism in the Filipino press, there is no hatred for whites on the islands. This is because, it would seem, Americans neither tyrannized nor brutalized the Filipinos in their 48-year rule. In fact, Filipinos, in the main, fondly remember the Big Brother gestures and kindnesses of the GI who liberated the islands in 1945. Out in the country especially, the Americano is still as much a symbol of help, friendship and good will as ever. As before, this is a good augury.

Much to be done

There is much to be done at home. In addition to breaking away from America?s economic dominance, the Filipinos themselves must outgrow the colonial attitude which now impedes the modernization process. Fortunately, there are many latent forces which can be energized. Anyone who has lived in the Philippines will attest to the flexibility of the Filipinos and, most of all, to their great social mobility. There is, on the whole, an openness in the society, the creation no doubt of the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution of 1896 that have slowly seeped into the whole fabric of Philippine life during the last six decades. And this can be ascribed to the public school system which the Americans installed but which the Filipinos have molded to fit their own psyche and needs. We have, after all, been having democratic elections since 1911; many governments have come and gone without the chaos and bloodshed of revolutions and coups d?etat.

There are perhaps more trained technicians in the Philippines today than anywhere else in Southeast Asia, but the industrial growth that can absorb these technicians has not come. Moreover, the Philippines? natural resources are among the richest in Southeast Asia, yet we are fast falling behind such countries as Malaysia and Taiwan in industrial development. Here, again the oligarchs must be made to move, to invest, to industrialize. They can be captains of industry, but instead they have elected to dig in their heels on the land.

Stirring the entrenched oligarchs into accepting the urgency of land reform is also one of the aims of the younger leadership which wants the Philippines to surge upward. Up to now, however, forces of reaction have made government efforts in this direction largely meaningless. What a few years ago was a mere revolution of rising expectations has grown to the point where some fear revolution itself. It could be sparked, not by the left, the communist-inspired Huk ideologue, but by the disillusioned, depressed and dejected educated unemployed. Clearly, the Filipino elite?the corrupt and corrupting, the irresponsible and unresponsive old leadership?must face up to the need for reform or be swept away.

The new-generation Filipino must also shake and awaken the Catholic Church, which has long ignored the need for social reform and become flabby in its position of revered irrelevance. Because the Church has grown remote from the masses, quasi-religious fanatics have banded together and prospered in the countryside. Last year 31 of them?members of the Lapiang Malaya (Freedom Party) sect?were slaughtered when they demonstrated in Manila and charged the constabulary dispatched to contain them. This was as much a failure of the Church as of the government.

The government itself must be made to respond to the demands of the middle class for a mass market. The archaic and regressive tax structure must be revamped. The wealth that the oligarchy rapaciously covets and hoards must get down to the masses in the form of roads, bridges and schools; these are what the tao understands as good or bad government.

Where salvation lies

Philippine democratic institutions, President Marcos feels, are on trial. ?And they may not,? he has warned, ?have a second chance to prove and sustain themselves.? The Filipino, he stressed, ?must realize his salvation lies with himself.? With this, the opposition cannot disagree. Indeed, great dedication and great labor are demanded of the new Filipino.

All these are Filipino aspirations and frustrations that the Americans must clearly understand. It is they, after all, to whom the Filipinos have always turned for guidance and assistance. In handling the Philippine problem, it will be well for the United States to remember that methods and postures that have repeatedly failed in contemporary Asia cannot any longer work in the new Philippines either. Equally, the Filipinos will do well to keep in mind that invoking the dead?if epic?past will no longer work in this age of rapid revolution. For them sentimentally to rest their future and fortune on the special Filipino-American bonds and other myths of the past is likely to be fatal.



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