This time of the year for 29 years now, in a kind of a ritual, government and the Yellow Media ask Filipinos to commemorate their purported day of deliverance from a dictatorship – the dawning, they say, from an era of darkness. The living heroes boast of their bravery during that time of revolution.
The narrative disseminated year after year is that the Philippines became poor because of the Marcos dictatorship, because of the greed of one man and his family, and his small cabal of cronies. Because the media since 1987 has been owned and run mostly by Marcos’ enemies and until the 1990s by journalists he put out of work in 1972, that good-vs-evil narrative has stuck.
But reality has a way of catching up with our illusions, and after nearly three decades, the poor are still poor, Filipinos will die in the class they were born into, workers’ wages have stagnated, tenant farmers are in the depths of poverty. We’ve been economically overtaken by most of our neighbors, all of which do not have celebrations like our annual EDSA I nonworking holiday. Most Asian countries have become richer than us, and war-ravaged, election-less Vietnam under the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam will almost certainly overtake us in a few years’ time.
What the apologists of the ruling class, especially its current vanguard, the Order of the Yellow Ribbon, have tried to hide from us is this: Dictatorship in the Philippines was not an exception, but more the norm in the region. Nearly all Asian nations in the post-war period were under dictatorships, with many lasting even longer than Marcos’ 13-year authoritarian rule.
This is the reality which should be an eye-opener for those who would be worshipping at the altar of democracy in those “People Power” celebrations this year: All of the Asian Economic Dragons, as well as the Tiger Cubs – yes those countries to which freedom-loving Filipinos are flocking to be workers and domestic helpers – depended a lot on authoritarian rule in order to become industrialized nations.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, and then his son Chiang Ching Kuo, ruled Taiwan with an iron fist from the day they fled to the island in 1947 from China after their Kuomintang forces were defeated by Mao Zedong’s forces, to the time Taiwan embraced democracy in 1988.
Two strongmen ruled South Korea for nearly three decades: Syngman Rhee for 12 years until 1960, and ex-General Park Chung Hee for 17 years (1962-1979).
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whom many Filipinos idolize, ruled Singapore for 31 years. After a clever hiatus, during which Go Chok Tong was prime minister, Lee’s son Hsien Long took the reins of government and has since been prime minister for 12 years now. Lee’s People’s Action Party as in the 1950s continues to control the press through Singapore Press Holdings.
Suharto and his cronies
Indonesia’s Major General Suharto grabbed power in a bloody coup d’état in 1967, and stayed in power for 31 years. Marcos’ cronies were amateurs compared with those of Suharto, whose closest crony Soedono Salim was given monopolies on cloves, flour, cement and even government bank deposits. While most of Marcos’ cronies are forgotten now, Suharto’s top cronies, the so-called Gang of Four, set up First Pacific Co., Ltd in 1981, now one of the biggest regional conglomerates in Asia, which owns PLDT and Meralco, ironically controlled by Marcos’ cronies during martial law.
Malaysia’s Mahathir was in power for 22 years starting in 1981, and is still a formidable political force in his country, having effectively suppressed the leading opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges, of all things, sodomy.
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn ruled Thailand as military dictator from 1963 to 1973, until violent student protests forced him down from office.
The average length of strongman rule in these Asian countries was 23 years, Marcos’ held on to power only for 13 years. Is there a case for claiming that strongman rule didn’t work here, given that Marcos’ strongman rule did not last as long as those in other countries did?
The reality stares us in the face: The Asian Economic Tigers grew to industrial status in one generation – that the phenomenon has been called Asian Economic Miracle – all under authoritarian rule, and not under democratic systems, as in the West.
Western academics, of course, with democracy as their quasi-religion, couldn’t believe this. So they tried, instead, to attribute it to “Asian values,” even Confucian culture that valued collective good rather than individualistic rights.
That’s hogwash: strongman rule is strongman rule if there is no democratic elections, in whatever cultural milieu it is operating.
So the tiger economies all grew under strongman rule. But for us it resulted in poverty, which we haven’t been able to overcome after 27 years. Why?
Strongman rule not strong
One answer is that strongman rule in the Philippines, despite all the now prevalent Yellow narrative of a ruthless regime, wasn’t really as strong nor as ruthless as it was in the Tiger Economies and in Southeast Asia.
Among numerous examples, Marcos retreated from his land-reform program, beat back by the landlord class. Why, he couldn’t even dismantle through agrarian reform Hacienda Luisita, owned by his archenemy, the Aquino-led Cojuangco clan. It took 40 years to do that, and by the Supreme Court in 2011 and at the cost of its head, Chief Justice Renato Corona.
More importantly, the main answer to this seeming riddle: The Philippine ruling class did what they have been doing throughout the country’s history, through martial law to the present – that is, to screw the working classes, and to collaborate with and even exploit whoever controlled the political apparatus.
Except for a few property and retail tycoons who got the chance to exploit the surge in OFW remittances in the 1980s, it has been the same sugar and rice hacienderos; the Spanish-descended elite epitomized by the Ayalas; the Chinese-Filipino compradors such as the Ques, the Sys and the Gokongweis; and fake Filipino nationalists who grew through martial law and took advantage of it, who are still on top of the Philippine economic pyramid. Even Jollibee, set up in 1974, grew during martial law. Ayala Alabang for example became prime property only when Marcos built the “South Superhighway” in the 1970s, along with the “North Diversion Road.”
The tiny faction of the elite Marcos bullied, the haciendero-descended elites — the clans led by the Lopezes, Osmenas and Aquinos — have obviously recovered their wealth and power.
The debt-crisis – when we couldn’t pay off our foreign loans – from 1983 to 1985 actually explains the deep hole we are in. Because we were practically cut off from global trade at that time, our GDP contracted 14 percent in 1984 and 1985 , really an unimaginable decrease in output that happens only in a war-ravaged economy.
A lot of reasons for this debt-crisis, but one factor had been the fact that our elite from 1970 to 1981 brought out in capital flight $3.1 billion, roughly one-third of the increase in our total external indebtedness.* I believe they still do, regularly.
There is one explanation why our elite has been so rapacious, which becomes clear when you put them in contrast to their counterparts in Southeast Asia. The ruling classes in the Asian Tigers had identified themselves with their nations, that is, they had a strong sense of nationalism.
They had to, as their very physical survival depended on their nations’ economic growth. If South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore hadn’t quickly developed economically, these would have fallen under the Communist forces that threatened them, and their leaders, the elite, would have been executed, or at least their assets confiscated, as indeed happened in South Vietnam.
In short, the elites in these countries were under siege by the communist forces, and had no choice but to be nationalists, and develop their nations’ economies. In the case of Indonesia and Thailand – because of their strong feudal states from centuries back, creating their unique cultures – their elites identify themselves strongly with the nation.
Our ruling class, on the other hand, have had a penchant for identifying themselves with our colonizers. They identify themselves with Spain (where many of them originated) and the US, and in recent decades, with China. For them, this nation is simply a market or a production site with cheap labor, not really their homes. They simply cooperate or even use this market’s political rulers, whether a dictator or elected by deluded masses. This kind of thinking, that nationalism is an unnecessary baggage, has even trickled down to the masses, so that many Filipinos even think somebody like Grace Poe-Llamanzares, who became an American citizen, should be President.
Most of our elites, in fact, have their biggest mansions in London, Barcelona, Los Angeles and New York, and in recent years, in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. All their children study abroad, and have little cultural ties now to the country. Why, even their children no longer speak Pilipino, but English, and more recently, Mandarin. Pilipino is just the language they use to talk to their servants.
This is the reason why the Lopezes, Osmenas and the Aquino-led Cojuangcos have been propagating the Yellow Myth of Good-vs-Evil, with the elites supporting it, and even the Left believing it: It conceals the reality that through dictatorship and democracy, the elites continue to screw the masses.
*(Figure from Dohner, Rober and Intal, Ponciano, “Debt Crisis and Adjustment in the Philippines,’ in Developing Country Debt and the World Economy, National Bureau of Economic Research, 1989.)