Thursday, March 8, 2012

Four Things JoeAm Has Learned in the Philippines

Let me provide a brief report on what I've learned as I try to reconcile Philippine culture to my upbringing in the United States. I've been trying to figure out why the Philippines is not more progressive and wealthy.

Here are my four key findings:

  1. The trade of favors is like a currency in the Philippines. It is the way poor people survive (barter of goods and labor) and the way the powerful control things:  buying votes, giving jobs to family, friends and favorites, under the table payments to get preferential treatment, kickbacks on contracts and other tricks. Trading in favors blocks social progress and economic productivity by elevating cheating to an accepted norm and stealing wealth from the people. It puts incompetent managers in important positions, so everything is slap-dash sloppy. It keeps power within the hands of a few rich power brokers who appear unwilling to allow the Philippines to thrive. Essentially, the Philippines operates much like a gigantic mafia mob with a superb public relations pitch thick with feigned patriotism.

Much of what goes on in the Philippines is illegal in the U.S., and laws are stringently enforced in America. Fraud, a mainstream activity in the Philippines, is condemned in the U.S. The U.S. also has citizen groups that defend against things like employment discrimination if the government is not on top of it (e.g., the Civil Liberties Union). Philippine citizens are entirely dependent on self-dealing legislators. In the U.S., enforced regulations and active competition prevent companies from abusing citizens as opportunistically as companies do in the Philippines.

  1. Every interpersonal transaction in the Philippines is an exercise in personal power as Filipinos strive for face-building wins in everyday interactions with others. The everyday dialogue contains lots of excuses and blames. "Face" is fundamentally important to Filipinos, where face is very self-involved. Courtesy is not a part of face-saving as it is in Japan. The Golden Rule is not practiced here. Macho is big. Self involvement runs high and deep and is too often founded on weak self-esteem. The national government reflects the character of its people. It easily sees insults, never apologizes and does a lot of begging.

The U.S. is much more rule bound and courteous. The Golden Rule is the standard for interpersonal dealings. Americans are more forthright about their feelings, strengths and weaknesses. The government has lesser values because it is populated by politicians who act for their own benefit rather than public good. In that regard, the U.S. and the Philippines are not that different.

  1. Filipinos absolutely deny responsibility for bad outcomes. Excuses, blames, victim mentality. These are very polished skills. If someone is poor, it is not their fault that they have 10 kids and no income and are busy standing in the Lotto line, and they are in the right to expect others to support them. Anyone who does not help them is selfish, as if it were a crime to be disciplined and succeed.  Even the powerful Catholic Church in the Philippines accepts no responsibility for the outcomes of its preached values, nor does the Church hold its "flock" to account for transgressions. A great many white collared thieves have one hand on the Bible and the other in the people's pocket.

The U.S. emphasizes personal accountability. Americans thrive on competition and comprehend that skill, innovation, confidence and effort drive success. People want to earn their own way; most don't like asking for favors or help. The Catholic Church is struggling in the U.S. primarily because of priest sexual abuse of children and cover-ups by higher level authorities. Failure to accept responsibility has hurt the Church badly.

  1. A great many . . . maybe almost all . . . Filipinos are missing the delta drive, the fundamental emotion that finds satisfaction in helping the community of all Filipinos. This missing trait underpins the trade of favors and the win/lose interpersonal engagements. It is why courtesy is not a prized value. Because it is a missing element, Filipinos don't recognize it is not there, so there is no way to plug "self improvement" into the national character.

Citizen commitment to America runs deep in the U.S..  Perhaps this is an outcome of its founding as a government that is respectful of its citizens. Honor, bravery, sacrifice. These are fundamental values. People accept that in order to TAKE freedom and wealth, they have to GIVE responsibility and effort. They can't have one without the other.

So when you are in the Philippines and you see stray dogs killing motorcyclists, bags of trash flying out the bus window, great swaths of illegally clear-cut trees, boatloads of coral or smuggled endangered turtles, Chief Justices swearing to the accuracy of erroneous SALN's, rude drivers and shopkeepers, cheating merchants, poor families birthing themselves into the endless bondage of poverty . . . you know that these four conditions are at work.

Change starts with self-awareness. But how do people who can't "see" what is happening gain enlightenment? Education should play a big part, but educators follow an authoritarian model that teaches that kids should shut up and do what they are told (be subservient and submit to authority), not think for themselves. Outdated lessons. Outdated texts. Rote memorization of things that are irrelevant in the internet era. The schools certainly do not teach students to aspire to principled living in a society that is filled with unkind, illegal, unfair behavior.

Little will change until the people give the government a mandate to get beyond corruption to start rebuilding the social values of the Philippines.

Very practical steps can be taken to change the national condition from corrupt and non-productive to dynamic and powerful. If Myanmar can come out of its authoritarian shell, like China before it, the Philippines should be able to change its fundamental values.

The Philippines needs a social agenda as much as it needs an economic agenda.


  1. Here in the USA Filipinos like to protest and raise their voice regarding rights and fair treatment etc. They are sensitive here but it seems that they are not sensitive in the Philippines. They seem to be comfortable having a double standard. Something is holding them back to do the same "right fighting" in the Philippines. I think they are overly sensitive here but completely numb when it comes to the the real problems in the Philippines. Why? Is it a pride issue?

    1. Interesting question. I think it is a mix of ego and subservience, the reading of power. In the U.S., they feel powerful. In the Philippines there are too many forces working against them. So they are subservient.

  2. Subservient? True. In the USA they feel empowered and they act out. They enjoy venting here. They are also torn between the "4 things" and the American values. I think they are confused.


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