Lee Kuan YewWhere is that Filipino attribute gone? Lee Kuan Yew said it in this context (link): It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics. There is not much softness and forgiving attitude among those who are OK with poor people getting killed as drug suspects. There is downright malice towards the family and those associated with the political color that helped bring down Marcos, including recent unsubstantiated claims against the City of Naga (link) aimed at damaging Vice President Robredo. “Those who claim to be better should be measured by higher standards” a Duterte supporter once told me.

Brazenness is Strength

So much for soft and forgiving. Probably those who don’t “claim to be better” are given a free pass. Maybe those brazen like the Tulfos (link) with their 60 million are admired for their “strength”. What I do understand is that all places where there used to be oppression have some degree of admiration of sorts for bandits. Oppression made ordinary people take shortcuts, go against the law, and those who were especially bold at it had the people’s sympathy. But the Tulfos are NOT Robin Hoods. Especially this is NOT worthy of Robin Hood or Zorro and especially not my idol Batman (link): He relates how his driver bumped a little girl in Navotas and how they had taken her to the ER, only to be seen by a doctor who refused to give the girl first aid. Nothing in the video reflects this.. The video also shows Tulfo harassing the medical staff and saying “gago ka!” 

Unrepentantly, Imee Marcos has told Filipinos to move on (link) from the past. The New York Times article also says this: Thousands of people were killed and tortured during the Marcos era, and the Marcos family was accused of stealing roughly $10 billion in government treasure to enrich itself. There is a bit of a counter-reaction now, with reminders that Marcos debt will take until 2025 for the Philippines to pay. But I wonder how much that reaches most Filipinos. Money that belongs to the government I think is an abstraction to most Filipinos, and I concur (to borrow a term used by many emergency room doctors, in honor of those harrased by Mon Tulfo) with Edgar Lores in this (link): Filipino thinking is concrete thinking [not abstract thinking]. State money is to most just as endless as the money of relatives abroad, not my money, why bother?

Utang na loob

Those who have understood that it is the sum of the money paid as taxes are usually middle class. People who have worked hard for their money – and to the typical Filipino may appear as stingy or even worse, “ambitious”. The Filipino culture is one of sharing, but that sharing also has a bad side, meaning relatives and “friends” who borrow money or other stuff, never to give it back. Probably a holdover from the times were nobody had much and a lot of things were handled via an economy of favors and counter-favors, something still reflected in the idea of utang na loob. From overseas, the capitalist economy came and gave people with certain skills opportunities. Andres Bonifacio was warehouseman of Fressel & Co., a German company, many Katipuneros had similar jobs in Manila. The American period and afterwards brought more opportunities – outside of the old barangays.

Another aspect of utang na loob is indebtedness towards a patron. Probably a fair deal in the times of small settlements. A capable leader helped his supporters, who demonstrated loyalty in return and vice versa. It probably became a lopsided arrangement as the original chieftains became part of the colonial system as principalia with hereditary status, something they did not have before. Late 19th century agribusiness like sugar, tobacco and abaca made the local elites more powerful, together with the new mestizo elites. American-style democracy favored these elites even more. Finally, these elites controlled local governments and a national government to dispense favors in return for loyalty and vice versa. Commercial elites also had similar arrangements with underlings, except that a certain efficiency was also expected, at least compared to typical government service.

Ways to prosperity

Very typically, a UP graduate would tend to gravitate toward government while an Ateneo graduate would usually work in “Makati”, the private sector. The times where the difference was very pronounced is gone, when every public high school valedictorian and salutatorian automatically got a UP scholarship, just as the times are gone when UP was typically either leftist and/or nationalist and Ateneo was typically liberal and internationalist with its many rich mestizos. Marcos, Binay and Enrile all went to UP while Benigno Aquino Jr., Benigno Aquino III and Mar Roxas all went to Ateneo, but Leni Robredo and Florin Hilbay went to UP while Senator Gordon went to Ateneo. Probably BPO and other international firms coming to the Philippines also broke the unwritten rule of old that you had to usually be from Ateneo or La Salle to make a big career in the private sector.

Things went well for a while with Marcos’ system, even under Martial Law. The middle classes continued to prosper, the promise of order in the streets of burgeoning Metro Manila was kept at least on the surface, although the more covert forms of disorder like break-ins went up. The walls around houses that did not have walls before went up, and gated communities, originally a preserve of the rich, were built more and more for the middle class. Growth of slums will have accelerated then as well, as Manila did not give everybody the same access to its elusive dream. But in 1975, POEA was founded, and year by year more Filipinos were sent especially to the Middle East. Also, Export Processing Zones were created to attract foreign factories, for example Germany’s Triumph. Rice shortages or violence in the provinces hardly affected Manila, as little became known then.

Not only because the media barely reported, but also because Filipinos stay in their own circles. Also they tend to care little about circles outside their own, even if nowadays there seems to be a new crowd that has a more encompassing sense of right and wrong, outside of the usual “kami”. Kami being the “exclusive us” that means “us without you”, where you are the one being spoken to. Prof. Zialcita, a Filipino anthropologist, says that (link) in societies where the State and the City are absent, individuals live in organizations that are largely kin-based, leading to a sense that the primary moral obligation is only to the kin and not to a broader, abstract community. Corollary to that, the nonkin tend to be regarded as a potential enemy or a potential victim. So there was not much of a reckoning with Marcos in 1986. OFW export continued. So did migration to Manila.

Towards more Community

The origin of the Filipino is in barangays. There were the beginnings of cities like Manila and Cebu. And going back to the 19th century, the formation of national elites with money and education, which became the power elites of the American-era Philippines, and then those who studied to become government and private sector employees as well as military officers and intellectual elites. Those who left their own barangays last to join the teeming mass of what is now called Filipinos were the OFWs and also some BPO workers. Of course a lot of the teeming new middle class of the 1970s did not hear about the human rights victims of the Marcos dictatorship, who were often UP or Ateneo students, often left-leaning but not always. Yellow confetti falling into Makati streets fell for recently widowed Cory Aquino, not for most of those now named at Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

The new middle class of now cares as little about others as their newly arrived predecessors in the 1970s, who were usually OK with things as long as their prosperity went up. When that failed and Benigno Aquino’s murder shocked the country, a lot of those formerly indifferent became “yellow”. Not so strangely, liberals and leftists nowadays, and the graduates of the major universities as opposed to the diploma mills many OFWs come from, have a lot more common ground today. There is still some distrust, but within the different parts of the opposition the discourse is quite lively and interesting – usually taking place via social media. This is not surprising, as Edgar Lores already noted the Filipino mind is concrete, not abstract. And my corollary to that is  – it is visual. EDSA I was due to videotape, EDSA II due to text messages, recent upheavals due to social media.

Owing the Community

Facebook memes that say “why not steal from Marcos loyalists and then ask them to move on” or “why not borrow money from them, not pay it back, then say move on” show abstraction though. Certain Filipinos now have a sense of something maybe even their parents may not yet have had: that the state and the nation are a common venture of all, not just some abstract entity, or a milking cow once owned by the colonial powers and assumed to be a piggy bank for whoever is in power. The new middle classes whose came up mostly due to OFW remittances  and whose roots according to Mila Aguilar are still in the peasantry (link) might have another view of things. They might even see the older middle classes and the graduates of better universities as strangers (possible enemies or victims?) and gravitate to the same kind of patronage politicians their parents knew. Let us see.

Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, 25 August 2018