The Philippine Caste System and the Myth of Elections

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As published in The Manila Times February 18, 2013

In college, we learned about the caste system in India, which still continues in the modern age, despite its state’s herculean efforts to dismantle it.

The poor in India

We all expressed horror over it.  A person’s place in that four-tiered social strata is hereditary, and one is born, lives, works, marries, and dies strictly within his caste: brahmins (priests and scholars), kshatriyas (rulers, bureaucrats, and warriors), vaishyas (traders,and merchants), and shudras (laborers, servants of the first three castes).   And at the bottom, or even outside of it are the “untouchables”, impure from birth that they are hardly considered humans and whose work can only be the most menial.

Scratch the surface of Philippine society, and it has its version of the caste system, despite all its trappings of democracy and capitalism.   The essence of caste system has been operating in our country:  A Filipino’s place in life is determined by birth, and he lives, works, marries, and dies in the class he is born in, and so will his children and their children.

Philippine poor: Our Caste System?

Consider Juanito Furugganan, born of out of wedlock to the stepdaughter of a poor fisherman (shudra?). He would likely have lived and died like millions of Filipinos like him in some poor village.   But his lawyer-politician (brahmin-kshatriya) father took him into his caste, and Furugganan would be a Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the most powerful (and probably richest) men in modern Philippines.

On the other hand, our laundry woman many years ago worked as hard as she could to save money for her son’s  education. But she could afford to send him only to public elementary and high schools – the quality of which drastically deteriorated in the past few decades.   And then poor nutrition – the kind the poor gets from cheap instant noodles – has been proven to reduce a child’s IQ by as much as 20 percent.

With the very low quality of basic education her son got in those schools, it was impossible for him to pass the entrance test in U.P., the most affordable for an indigent.  Even college scholarships were not accessible to him, as they require tests he’d likely fail because of his poor education.  He ended up in some cheap diploma mill, to drop out after two years, to work his life as a shudra.

(I often wonder if tycoons that their college scholarships merely help out those already in the Filipino middle class.  To make a dent in our caste system, they must put poor families’ children through good elementary and high school, so they’d have a fighting chance of passing college-entrance tests.)

Think about people you’ve met in your life.  UP as the home of  “Iskolar ng Bayan”, my foot.  I met only one schoolmate in UP who lived in a slum area in Quezon City, but even his father turned out to be a local politician from a Visayan town who decided to venture, unsuccessfully, in the big city.  Another told our gang his father was a farmer in the Cordilleras.  A decade later, I learned that he had to return to to his village as his father died, and he’d have to assume his father’s role – as chieftain.

On the other hand, one or two rich schoolmates in the Ateneo would continue to be spoiled brats in their adulthood, run several businesses to bankruptcy,  and splurge millions of pesos in women and drugs. Yet their children would still go to the best schools here and even abroad. Their lolos and lolas would give them capital for some boutique business, to be good members in good standing of their upper caste.  You can’t get more hereditary than that.

There are rare cases of course, but have you heard of a “scion” of a rich family, no matter how irresponsible, criminal or unlucky he is, becoming a day-laborer? On the other end of the society, short of winning the lotto, have you heard of a real Filipino who “swam in garbage” in his youth to become a tycoon? (Well, the tycoon who claimed that, after all, studied business administration in U.P. without scholarship, which makes you wonder if his mother’s fish business was  as small as he portrayed it to be. And more importantly perhaps, he married upwards to a landed politician’s clan.)

The archetype of a high-caste clan, and its imperviousness through generations is President B.S. Aquino’s family. Not even a dictator like Marcos could change the Aquino-Cojuangco clan’s high-caste status.  Hardly ever having a real job (except formally heading a security agency which had the family’s Hacienda Luisita as its sole client), this unico hijo got to be member of the pork-barrel-filled Congress  for a dozen years, and then got to be president.

A Brookings Institution study found that the majority, 58 percent of children born to parents in the poorest strata of the American population get to move out from that level. Eight percent of American children manage to jump from the lowest fifth of the income strata to the highest fifth.

There are no comparable figures for the Philippines, but unless anybody can show me contrary proof, I would bet that only a very insignificant number – less than five percent —  of children born in our poorest strata get to move out of that quagmire.  E-mail me information on an upper-class person whose parents were really dirt poor, and not just an  “underpaid teacher or government servant”, and I’ll devote a column celebrating his life.  (Exclude however a rare exception: former Comelec chairman Ben Abalos who worked himself through law school partly by caddying, who’s already widely known to have been a rare exception to our thesis here.)

The most common bridge out of the poorest strata is a good college education, as Abalos had demonstrated.  Even the poorest in the US can go through free public school for basic education, and then get a good college education either through scholarships, or student-loan systems in which repayment is required only when he is employed.  Such a bridge does not exist  our country.

Perhaps knowing how unfair our system is and that the poor shouldn’t learn about how bad it is, the Philippine ruling class has created a myth that there is inter-caste upward mobility and even marriage in our country.

Former President Joseph Estrada (the jeepney driver) and presidential candidate Fernando Poe (“Ang Probinsyano” and “Eseng of Tondo” were two of his movies’ titles) played the role poor working-class heroes winning the hearts of upper-class women, that Filipinos mistook their movies for reality.  The King of Comedy Dolphy became endeared by the masses playing the part of a poor John married to a rich “unica hija’ Marsha.

The most successful myth in our caste society is our elections.   Browse through the list of senatorial candidates.  Is there anybody there who is not from the upper caste?  There is even, interestingly, somebody from the Brahmin (“priestly” class): Eddie Villanueva,  “brother” you should address him, and of course many from the Kshatriya caste, professional politicians and even two former “warriors”.   There are no representatives from the laboring caste, except for pretenders like Teodoro Casino (“Born to a rich family,” according his wikipedia entry, which he or his allies obviously posted) and Risa Hontiveros, who obviously has not had a need for a job for taking up activism as her hobby.  After the glory days of the Left in the 1980s, it seems, it has run out of real proletarian  and peasant leaders like former taxi-driver Crispin Beltran.

Check out who are running for congressmen and other local posts in your area: Is anybody really from, or genuinely representing, the poor?

An alien anthropologist visiting our planet and studying our country would be puzzled.  Here is a system by which these Filipino earthlings  – a pathetic lot as a quarter of them are dirt-poor poor and at most only 5 percent well off – choose who would be in their “Council of Elders” (i.e., Senate, from the Latin senex, meaning “elder”).

But all the candidates are from the rich 5 percent!   How stupid  this civilization is, or maybe how devious its ruling class is, the alien anthropologist would have concluded.