I've been beating around a lot of bushes for several months, examining this aspect and that of Philippine culture and politics, and maybe it's time to take a break and try to put some overall order to things. Lacking a paint-brush that is able to present accurately the overlapping complexities of the Philippine social/economic/political spectrum, I shall start with a few bullet points, then elaborate on a one or two of them.
This is the Philippines as I understand it, in no particular order other than how it came off the keyboard:
- The Philippines has an excellent President. He has established a stability and focus on good, earnest government, not for his personal ambitions, but for the Nation. He looks for integrity and competency in his appointments. He has a lot going on. The Nation's new course, and its stability, is being internationally recognized as different, and good.
- The forces against change are mighty and include the rich power-pushers who back politicians and manage the few big businesses in the Philippines; they are interested in themselves more than the national good. Also the Catholic Church which adheres like Mighty Bond to 15th century values, no matter the wisdom Man has compiled since then. One wonders as to oligarch and church understandings of patriotism. These are the same intransigent powers that Rizal wrote about, and died about.
- The economy is sound but thin and comparatively poor. The Nation's poverty is a benefit (a competitive advantage) in the sense that it impels OFW's to go out and send back a lot of money, and it attracts businesses like call centers to the Philippines where they can operate at low cost. But poverty is also the biggest problem because so many Filipinos live in unhealthy or even dangerous conditions, and they have no future.
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- The economy is developing some solid roots that are spinning off a bigger middle-class. Call centers, construction, agribusiness and fisheries, a sound and professional tourism push, and new casinos coming to town. Oil exploration. The Nation's finances are stable, stocks are roaring, debt ratings have been upgraded, and investors frequently mention the Philippines as a potential new star of Asia.
- Certain foundational government institutions are in extraordinarily poor shape, suffering from too much demand or not enough funding, corruption, and incompetence. The most dramatic of these are the courts and the education system. Also in poor shape are agencies like DENR and Customs (both with deeply engrained corruption) and the police (fractionalized, poorly trained and corrupt). Newly appointed Chief Justice Sereno is a flash of hope for change in the courts.
- The nation's defense capability is weak. It has no air force or navy to speak of, and the army is consumed with fighting Filipinos (NPA and Muslim extremists), not national enemies. The upper ranks of the Army are swelled by fat and happy generals who are more political animals than fighting machines.
- International relations are dicey but overall strengthened from what they have been in the past. Frictions and jealousies about the United States have been set aside in favor of a needed backstopping alliance. China is the bully and the Philippines has not rolled over; nor has the Nation picked a fight. Alliances are being strengthened with Australia, Japan and South Korea, and Mr. Aquino has visited with leaders of other nations to open good lines of communication. China is the main fly in the international ointment as she behaves belligerently and unreasonably.
- The nation's social values are not conducive to building a progressive, productive state. Poverty means that subsistence is more important than obeying laws (resulting in over-fishing, cheating, rudeness and a great deal of self-interest over community interest). Education teaches rudimentary and fairly useless things (memorization of irrelevant information) versus socially useful disciplines (obeying laws, competing fairly, responsibility, aspiration). Many parents don't exercise good discipline in nurturing kids. Patriotism is based on pride, not sacrificing for the community or nation.
- Congressional leaders are not particularly productive, being influenced by social values of self-interest and excuse-making, the moneyed few, and the Catholic Church. There is a lot of pomp, as if they were royalty above the common man (e.g., Santiago rants and Sotto rationalization of plagiarism). Positive: some productive bills have at least gotten attention: RH, FOI, Party Development. Negative: the more meaningful, socially impactful bills struggle to get enacted. We . . . just . . . can't . . . get . . . un . . . stuck . . .
- The Nation is rather like Manny Pacquiao, rolling from the punches thrown by typhoons and floods. Disaster resources have been built up. Most of the effort is still reactive, however, rather than long-lasting and founded on strong defenses (flood channels that work). It's like that when you are against the ropes every three weeks.
- There is a new aspiring sheriff in town. He is represented by a combination of mass media with social media and internet communicators. Although there are not a lot of players in this media arena, it is an amalgam of articulate opinion-makers that can come down heavy on those who would abuse the Philippines. Senator Sotto will unhappily bear witness. The people's voice, as an important check and balance in democratic governance, has never been stronger.
- The broadly held reputation of a shoddy, shabby Philippines is wrong (a common view held in the United States). The Philippines has an amazing depth of first class people and facilities, from its financial managers to its executive officers under President Aquino, from its tourism sites to its call center and construction dynamos, from its agribusiness powerhouses (fruits and oils and fishies) to its gorgeous landscapes. This nation is emerging as first class, but it still dresses in rags.
I've been in the Philippines seven years now, and the future has never looked better.
The main reason is the flood of public passion that put President Aquino in charge. Many think this was a form of idol worship, but I think it was deeper than that. I think it represents an educated public largely tired of getting conned and ripped off. President Aquino was the beneficiary of this outpouring of frustration and hope, and he is striving to fulfill his mandate for good, non-corrupt, economically sound governance.
The forces against him are heady, namely those who resent, hate, detest change. The Catholic Church. Oligarchs. Corrupt people feeling the pinch of non-corrupt authorities watching what they do.
I think the President's true, deeper capabilities are largely masked by the "shine" he gets from arresting Arroyo and getting Corona tossed. Looking deeper, we can confirm he is focused on a vision of the future and works actively toward it, like a corporate executive would. He hires good, capable people to head important agencies, not slugs who suck off the public peso. He displays the determination to install new social disciplines: backing responsible parenthood in the face of Church condemnation, introducing performance bonuses to government workers for productive work, pressing for accountability for results (firing 31 DENR officials for failing to implement a Presidential Order). His government is a beehive of constructive activity.
The Legislature does not seem to be able to keep pace. It is bogged down in the partisan bickering that is particularly dense in the Philippines, where any imagined sick tree is reason enough not to plant a forest. So things get stuck easily.
The courts are in ICU. What a mess. There seems to be no understanding that speedy hearings are fair, or facts are fair. The grease that runs the courts is money. Judges are wasting time doing annulment hearings while legitimate damages to people are not addressed. And attorneys are in cahoots with the sloppy, negligent, unprofessional way things are done.
So one of three branches of government is up to the task.
The Political Party Development Bill may change the workings of the Legislature. But it will be after 2016 before that settles in. I think it falls to the media, social and internet, to hold the Legislature to higher and more productive standards. Legislators themselves seem to have little interest in raising the bar (witness the silence about Sotto transgressions).
The courts? If prayer would work, I'd pray for a good and powerful improvements from CJ Sereno. But I tend to think God gives us the free will to make our beds and the kind of justice system we get depends on how smart and hard we work. In this case, how smart and hard the Honorable Sereno works. Not how diligently she prays.
The Philippines needs a rallying cry.
"Remember the Alamo!" won't work. Nor "Remember Ninoy!". Not even "Remember Jesse!"
It ought to be something that means: "We're in! We accept the challenge! We're dedicated to competing globally as a first class and responsible Philippines!"
Can we get that into five or six powerful words?
Put Mr. Jimenez on it.
Maybe he can come up with something short and sweet.