Efren N. Padilla May 3, 2011 6:57pm
There is an obscure island, barely inhabited, with no natural resources and no fertile land. But now, it is an “Asian Tiger” and an economic giant. This colonial backwater, molded by a strongman who ruled the island for a quarter of a century, was transformed into an independent global city-state.
In the 1950’s Lee Kuan Yew took control of Singapore from the British. Although he was an anti-colonialist, his first decision was to let Sir Stamford Raffles statue remain in the center of the town square. In an age of anti-colonialism, what he did with the legacy of colonial past was uncommon but visionary. Modern Singapore was built on the same foundation that Raffles envisioned--a well-planned maritime city and a strategic freeport for the world.
Lee Kuan Yew embraced Raffles vision and gambled the island’s future by placing a wager in its interconnectedness to the world rather than sinking it back to a fishing village.
And he won.
There is a strategic archipelago, inhabited by a lovely and hospitable people, with rich natural resources and fertile land but it is now the “Sick Man of Asia” and an economic dwarf.
What happened? How did this come about?
In the 1930’s, the anti-colonialist Manuel L. Quezon thundered with an inward-looking nationalistic rhetoric: “I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans because however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it."
And he won. Didn’t he?
Since then, it’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy of hell for us. Our dreams shattered over and over again by a horde of abusive leaders operating under a permissive system. Still, we keep on waiting for our Quezonian change of good governance that will dramatically raise our standard of living.
Have we truly emerged out of our colonial past as Quezon would have wanted? Have we really come of age after all these years? We like to believe that we have.
I am not so sure.
Many Filipinos believe that our American colonial experience, with its attendant contradictions and ironies, still haunts our imagination. Beneath this interest lies the persistent belief that Americanization has intruded into our lives and imposed a negative way of life that now lingers in our psyche as a paradigm of a love-hate relationship.
If this is still the popular thinking, we are screwed. To date, there seems to be no end to the tubercular cacophony of anti-Americanism in our country. In fact, making America as the scapegoat for many of our own self-inflicted problems has become one of the rites of passage for many of our college students. After all, how can we make sense of such a relationship that is structured as co-dependent and immature?
I vehemently reject such a social construction because it is not healthy for us. Psychically, it is not easy for a co-dependent partner to leave. But we must put an end to this debilitating neurotic characterization, once and for all. We have the choice not to live this way. And there is a way out.
How do we do this?
First, we must admit the reality of our postcolonial condition. This means that while we still wrestle with the residue of colonialism, we now have the opportunity to speak our own mind and to move forward with our lives.
Second, I suggest that we must stop framing our political question in terms of what America has done to us but what we must do despite America.
Finally, we must accept our past and stop harping about it. That is, we must concentrate more of our energies now in exploring new and rational ideas for the future. We cannot change the past. We can only change what we learn from it.
I realize that our past is important because it provides us the ability to “look back.” And yet, it is also important because it prompts us to “look forward” as well. While the former teaches us to remember, the latter, compels us to move on. Otherwise, how can we compete in the world? As my old man used to say, “you cannot look back when plowing the field.”
In this postcolonial age of global power-shift paralleling the rise of the west by the rise of the rest, we are given once again insights on how to run our country and how to run it better.
It is not an insight that indiscriminately rejects America. Rather, it is an insight that discriminately embraces America.
It is an insight that inspired Daniel Burnham, the colonial architect and planner of Manila and Baguio to say: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. “
It is an insight that reminds us of America's "soft power" of strength and influence rather than its "hard power" of force and control.
It is an insight that moved the late Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatic Chinese leader to exclaim: “It is glorious to be rich!”
It is an insight of how China, guided by its penchant for law and order, attempts to intertwine its manufacturing institutions with the international rules of free trade.
It is an insight of how India, with its domestic and diasporic entrepreneurs, fastens to its high-tech campuses the universal rules of openness.
It is an insight of how Singapore, with its wit and ingenuity, weaves its interconnectedness to the world through its maritime and postindustrial priorities.
All in all, it is the insight of countries applying the economic rules of liberalization without the tradition of war and military conquest.
So here we are, standing at the juncture of our second century with our path illuminated by the cumulative insights we have learned from others: Are we now more capable of carrying the hopes of our people for a better life?
I think so.
Today, the relevance of these insights takes on a particularly new meaning and vigor when seen from the impeccable résumé of our human capital--some of the best engineers in the Middle East, some of the best architects in Asia, some of the best healthcare professionals in North America, some of the best shipbuilders and maritime officers in the world, and some of the best customer service providers in the world are Filipinos, just to name a few.
If other nationalities are using Filipino ingenuity and skills to build new cities or to create a higher standard of living for their citizens, what prevents us from not utilizing our own?
That is the question.
The pessimists in us regard this question as a reminder that nothing will ever change in the Philippines for the better. It raises our sense of doubt and hopelessness in our inability to extricate ourselves out of the muck we are mired in. Such is the case especially every time we recall how we are being betrayed and victimized over and over again by our own people. It is indeed very difficult for us to take what our leaders say or do without a grain of salt.
The optimists in us, on the other hand, consider this question as a source of our undying belief that we can still roll up our sleeves, bring our leaders to the table, and rally the public to support the change we need. For now, such optimism is buttressed by the fact that we may have yet another rare occasion in our social history to be led by a President who is not corrupt and power-hungry. Perhaps, this time we may now have a real shot at the elusive quest to becoming an Asian Tiger.
Personally, I share the latter’s sentiment.
Yes, the change that we have been yearning for a long time might not be that impossible to achieve after all. As Quezon reminds us: “...however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it.”