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From Cory’s “Damaged Culture” to PNoy’s “Grim Reality”

After February 1986, global and local media portrayed President Corazon Aquino as nearly a saint, and predicted that with Marcos’ fall, the Philippines would soon join the ranks of Asia’s tigers.

That view was shattered in a well-written and well-researched article November 1987 in the venerable Boston-based The Atlantic magazine by James Fallows. It was titled A Damaged Culture, and it triggered a storm of debates, as well as national self-examination. Re-read that article (available in the web), and you’ll be astonished at its prescience and its solid analysis, much of which are eerily still valid after 26 years. A few examples:

• “Senators are elected nationwide, in what often resembles a popularity contest. Among the new senators is a Charles Bronson—style action-movie star.” This got worse in the current elections: one of the candidates is the adopted daughter of a Charles Bronson-style action-movie star.

• “The official unemployment rate is 12 percent, but if all the cigarette vendors, surplus bar girls, and other underemployed people are taken into account, something like half the human talent in the country must be unused.” It’s 7.2 now, but the absolute number of unemployed is bigger because of the growth of the labor force since 1987.

• “And then you have population growth, which is closer to three percent than two-point-five, even though the government says two-point-two. The population could go over a hundred million in fifteen years.” It’s 97.7 million now as estimated by the Commission on Population, 105 million by other foreign estimates.

Fallows’ thesis is that Philippine culture, or more precisely, its citizens’ sense of nationhood, had been so damaged by Spanish and American colonialism, that Filipinos, and especially the elite which after all controls the resources that could change things, do not really care about the nation, but only for their family’s and clan’s enrichment. For the majority for which that’s unreachable, “the ambition is to change (their) nationality,” Fallows quoted a Filipino analyst.

Fast forward 26 years to today, when media here and abroad as well foreign fund managers—again—have been gushing over Cory’s son, that finally President Aquino would lead the country to the economic Promised Land.

One gets a déjà vu feeling, not because of the five hour brownouts yesterday that would surely prompt some headline editor to write, “Queen of Darkness then, Prince of Darkness, now.”

The Atlantic again goes against the tide with an article by Jillian Keenan entitled “The Grim Reality Behind the Philippines Economic Growth.” Its subtitle is its succinct summary: “The country is being heralded as the new Asian success story, but only an elite reap new rewards.”

Like Fallows, Keenan was not mesmerized by rating agencies and even World Bank reports, and concluded:

“That (reported Philippines) economic growth only looks great on paper. The slums of Manila and Cebu are as bleak as they always were, and on the ground, average Filipinos aren’t feeling so optimistic. The economic boom appears to have only benefited a tiny minority of elite families; meanwhile, a huge segment of citizens remain vulnerable to poverty, malnutrition, and other grim development indicators that belie the country’s apparent growth.”

The Atlantic writer did her homework, presenting data I had not known before:

• “32 percent of children under age five suffer from moderate to severe stunting due to malnutrition, according to UNICEF.” That explains my nagging feeling, which I had thought was simply due to the fact that I had been in Greece for five years: Young Filipinos seemed to be not just shorter, but smaller. I saw a salesgirl in an SM Mall whose physique was ten years old but obviously was in her late 20s. That kind of phenomenon is so alarming that it had occurred elsewhere only as result of war’s extreme deprivation, as in certain Nazi-conquered European countries during the world war.

• “Roughly 60 percent of Filipinos die without ever having seen a healthcare professional.” This explains what a colleague had alerted me to, that demographic data indicate a shortening of Filipinos average life span.

• “According to a paper released by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for roughly 99 percent of Filipino firms. However, those SMEs only account for 35 percent of national output—a sharp contrast with Japan and Korea, where the same ratio of SMEs accounts for roughly half of total output. This translates into far fewer high-paying jobs on the local level for Filipino employees and exacerbates the huge income disparity across the country.”

• “Many observers blame the inequality on widespread corruption in local government, which makes it difficult or impossible for many Filipinos to launch small businesses. (In 2012, Transparency International, a non-governmental organization that monitors and reports a comparative listing of corruption worldwide, gave the Philippines a rank of 105 out of 176, tied with Mali and Algeria, among others.)”

This was actually the conclusion I had arrived at when as Presidential Chief of Staff, I headed for a few months an anti-corruption unit. While corruption on a national level (even for instance, in public works) seemed huge because of millions of pesos involved in one instance, corruption on the local level is gargantuan, if you multiply the hundreds of thousands of pesos involved by the number of provinces, cities, and municipalities (1,714) by their frequency. Permits for such things as building construction, sanitation facilities, and for fire exits are routinely the sources of corruption, which make it difficult for small businesses to thrive. Do you still wonder why contests for the post of governor and mayor are so keenly contested? Budgets of such cities as Makati, Manila, and Quezon are over P12 billion each, bigger than that of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Fallows in his 1987 article actually laid the blame not just on an amorphous “culture” but also on the elite, even quoting the late Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. words (which he obviously agreed with):

“Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . 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.”

The “Grim Reality” writer Keenan focused on the culpability of the elite for the country’s poverty. She quoted a La Salle University political science professor:

“There’s some sense to the argument that we’ve never had a real democracy because only a few have controlled economic power. The country dances to the tune of the tiny elite.”

That’s our country’s grim reality, not only of its economy, but, of its politics, as will be again demonstrated in Monday’s elections, which is not really for who’s the most competent to lead us but for who’s the best among the elite to manipulate people and people’s perceptions.