How did the Philippines get to where it is now? It is a wretched society, unable to defend itself from foreign and natural threats, paralysed by its own enormous population, and staring at a future hobbled by a lack of the infrastructure to get it down the right road. Yet the country, over much of its history, was never lacking in resources and opportunity to prosper.
Why then did the Philippines fail?
The Philippines is a victim of a free market designed to work for mature, investment-savvy, forward-looking societies. A free globalised market is a virtual gold mine for those who could see vast opportunity to lay the foundation for a sustained harvest of productivity –and wealth — over the long-term. But to the untrained and, worse, infantile mind, a free market is a consumerist bonanza.
It’s like giving a 15-year-old a thousand dollars and setting her loose in a mall for a few hours. She’ll come back with a lot of nice clothes and trinkets, perhaps would have caught a movie or two, and will have lunched and snacked on burgers, fries, popcorn, and sodas with friends. Give the same amount to an adult and she would more likely have spent that money on overdue home and car repairs, a new washing machine perhaps, and maybe put the rest aside for a rainy day.
The teenager would look great — real hip with her new clothes, up-to-date with fan buzz on the latest flick, and come across as a standout winner with her friends for the fabulous splurge. The adult household manager, on the other hand, will have emerged with improved productivity courtesy of her new washing machine and possibly avoided more costly repairs on her home and car thanks to her shrewd investment in pre-emptive repairs and maintenance measures.
Step back from that parable and consider which of the two archetypes the Philippines as a society mirrors. At the surface, the country is a “more fun” tourist destination with a bounty of beaches and natural oases of biodiversity to gawk at. Metro Manila, its premiere metropolis, glistens with skyscrapers by day, bright lights both indoors and outdoors at night, and a vibrant shopping and entertainment experience twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
But beneath all that glitz and glamour is a rotting underbelly precariously creaking under the weight of half a century of institutionalised criminal neglect. The essentials have been left to suffer Filipinos’ renowned pwede-na-yan and bahala na philosophy of nation-building. The now decrepit essentials — public transport, law enforcement, national security, and education among others — are coming back to bite with a vengeance.
Whatever “pride” in the veneer of free hipness and “fun” of the Philippines simply cracks as the essential substance underneath these crumbles. Motorists and commuters alike are driven to insanity by the horrendous traffic paralysis that is today’s normal in Manila. Residents live in fear of both criminals and their own police. Filipinos go red-faced with embarrassment whenever asked about how they might go about making good on their claims over the Spratly Islands. The vote has become a joke thanks to the sorts of politicians in the running for critical top government positions who reflect the intelligence and character of the electorate.
That is what happens to a society that harbours a profoundly flawed notion of what it means to be a rich society. Rather than build wealth from the ground up, the Philippines focused much of its efforts on First World appearances and pretense. The results of that wholesale national folly are on display today. What constitutes a “strategy” to develop and continue to “grow” the economy comes across as a sad desperate eleventh-hour cram. Desperate gasping at rapidly-vanishing employment opportunities abroad, ill-thought-out vehicle reduction schemes, military deals with former colonial masters, and education delegated to for-profit private enterprise, and costly “credit rating” engineering now comprise the bedrock of the Philippines’ development roadmap.
Whilst these may be pitched to both Filipinos and foreign investors as “evidence” of the soundness of the country as a place to park excess capital, the way elements of this development approach contradict cherished national beliefs and principles seem to fly over people’s heads. Together, these development approaches act like a slow poison. “Filipino ingenuity” haemorrhages to foreign economies and pulls the rug from underneath family values. Ideas to artificially curtail expenditure on private vehicles rubs the free market the wrong way, obsessive dependency on old imperial masters contradicts much-celebrated national “independence”, and creeping intellectual bankruptcy begins to put the wisdom of “people power” in doubt.
Perhaps it’s time Filipinos begin to rethink what they really want to be when they grow up. Do we want to continue acting like that 15-year-old set loose in a mall with a bit of money? Or do we want to start taking responsibility for the land on which we aspire to build a modern and just society.
It’s really all up to us.