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Philippines’ shallow capitalism

I’ve never done this before in my column, but in this case, I strongly feel that more of our intelligentsia, and the elite, should read this piece titled “The Philippines’ Shallow Capitalism: Westernization Without Prosperity” that was posted on the website-only news site Huffington Post’s “The Blog.”

It was written by Richard Javad Heydarian, who has had several of his other pieces posted on the Huffington Post. He is the author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.” I had been told that he was taking post-graduate studies at the University of the Philippines.

I agree with everything he wrote, well, nearly. He claims that almost all Filipinos carry Spanish names. But my name, for one, isn’t Spanish, and quite interestingly the farther one goes out from the metropolis, and where the poorer the population becomes, the fewer people you’d meet with Spanish-sounding names. That the piece struck a cord is indicated by the fact that it was “LIKED” by 14,000 readers, shared by 3,600, and had 140 comments. Following is Heydarian’s essay:

As the sole Catholic-majority nation in Asia, with a distinct combination of Spanish and American colonial past, the Philippines stands as one of the most unique countries. Yet, many Westerners tend to find the country too familiar—that is to say, not as “exotic” as other neighboring countries—precisely because of its tremendous cultural and architectural affinity with the Western civilization, specifically the Iberian and Anglo-Saxon varieties. Almost all Filipinos carry Spanish names, while government and educational institutions rely on English as their primary medium of communication.

Sometimes, members of the Filipino elite tend to boast about how the Philippines is the most Westernized country in Asia, with others openly relishing the fact that the Southeast Asian country was carved out of Western colonial machinations and imagination. The very name of the archipelagic country—derived from King Philip II of Spain— perhaps says it all. In many ways, Filipinos share more common characteristics with, say, Latin Americans than their immediate neighbors. (Except that most Filipinos can’t speak proper Spanish, thanks to the regrettable fact that the Spaniards never bothered to introduce universal education in their key Asian colony. Spanish was used as a language of distinction and exclusion rather than nation-building and collective identity.)

Ordinary Filipinos, meanwhile, also boast about the astonishing fact that the Philippines— among the poorest countries in Asia— is home to 3 out of the 10 biggest shopping malls on earth. And with the country (again) featuring prominently among the fastest growing emerging markets, there is a growing feeling that the Philippines can finally claim a place of pride among modern and vibrant capitalist societies in Asia.

And that renewed sense of confidence is trickling down to the younger generation. (Nowadays, it isn’t hard to find youthful, ambitious Filipinos confidently expressing their views in international conferences and gathering, especially when they sit among fellow Asians who happen to be less adept at English and cosmopolitan in outlook.) Ideologically, the Philippines is largely situated in the Western episteme: Westernized lifestyles and pro-Western socio-political outlooks dominate the Filipino public sphere. One sometimes wonders whether the country has been geographically placed in the wrong corner of the world.

A closer look at the country, however, reveals a fundamental paradox: centuries of Westernization have not led to genuine modernization, while years of rapid economic growth haven’t brought about prosperity for the majority of the people. The country continues to remain as a semi-feudal (especially in rural areas) society under the grip of a vicious form of crony capitalism. Formal ‘electoral democracy,’ in turn, provides a comfortable veneer of legitimacy (for the political elite) and an illusion of egalitarianism in a country mired in poverty and glaring inequality.

Premature consumerism

Shopping malls dominate — both physically and cognitively — the urban landscape in the Philippines. All key public transport systems cluster around major shopping centers, which provide unrivaled comfort, the right temperature (in a humid, tropical country) and breathless access to a wide range of brands that cater to all social classes.

Urban cultures pivot and are shaped by shopping malls that are often located close to Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies, which employ hundreds of thousands of yuppies who have redefined the Filipino urban lifestyle. One can find both Prada and Penshoppe (a local clothing brand) in major malls, with both the uber-rich and working classes participating in a global consumerist culture, which has taken over almost all corners of the planet. It is a classic form of faux egalitarianism. (Having visited numerous countries across five continents, I seldom come across a product sold at better prices elsewhere but back in Metro Manila.)

Every few steps away one can find newly rising residential suites, which, similar to shopping malls, offer a variety of options for up-and-coming urban residents who are after modern amenities and a perfect location in a congested city like Manila or Cebu. Major cities across the Philippines have been transformed into virtual construction sites, resembling the construction boom that has been seen in places such as Dubai, Tehran, Moscow, and Shanghai in the past decades.

More recently, even small towns and municipalities have been transformed into frontier markets for a few major conglomerates, which dominate the retail and real estate sectors in the country. The past decade has been among the best years in terms of corporate profits and business expansion opportunities for the country’s elite, which have disproportionately swallowed much of recently created growth in the economy.