On the Philippines: Order and Progress?

An indirect response to a scintillating read.

It has always been said, and by very perceptive minds too, that the Filipino people need be disciplined so that Philippine society can progress. Rizal in returning from Hongkong encountered some friendly Italian friars, who said that the Philippines could be a paradise if only it were governed properly. Some of our old-timers reminisce about the “good old” martial law days, saying that back then, people have discipline. And on one hand, I must nod and agree on our terrible lack of discipline. I hurt whenever I say this, but we Filipinos do need a little more lesson in not going beneath and/or beyond the rules. We have yet to develop a good system of national ethics, like Japan with its honor code and America with its ideal hardworking self-made man. And yes, we must already go beyond the blaming phase. The colonial Castillan, the bad friar, the oppressive dictators… in the end, they are not the ones who constitute and drive the Philippine nation–we are. And so, there is a grain of truth in the homies’ lingo: suck it up and push forward.

But questions popped into my head as I read this very interesting article. First, do we really want this discipline, this progress? And what do we mean by “progress?” By “discipline?” Are we capable of discipline? Is it desirable? How do we propose to instill this discipline into our people? Once we have this discipline, will progress ultimately follow? And once we attain progress–and is it, too, desirable?–then what?

Let me first reflect on the word, “discipline,” which I believe is the easier concept to grasp. To be disciplined is, at its root, to be a disciple–to be a follower. That which the disciplined person follows is the “rule of law,” a common standard set by a leader or by consensus. I hesitate to say “a leader” alone because, if this is the case, then discipline only works as a ruler-ruled dynamic, and is only a step away from encouraging an enlightened despot from seizing totalitarian power in the name of discipline and progress. This is, perhaps, what many among us Filipinos fear. Having been ruled (or, perhaps, having perceived ourselves as ruled) for 400 years by such tyrants and strongmen, we are naturally averse to having some new dictator impose his own will upon us. We would rather have a country run like hell by ourselves, than a country run like heaven by someone else (and us surrendering our independence), as President Manuel Quezon said. We value our freedom, our independence–but, again, what do we mean by these terms? During the Philippine Revolution, the upper classes sought independence from retrogressive Spanish colonial policies, while the masses and the peasants sought kalayawan, license after three hundred years of submission. And so things stand today: we cringe whenever our rights of speech are trampled upon; we want to spit and litter. And the common denominator is that we do not want other people, the authorities especially, from getting into the way of our fun.

But as I have earlier said, the “rule of law” is not only the product of an enlightened despot. As Immanuel Kant says, in man is the innate ability to legislate for himself through the exercise of reason. In man is the ability to engage in dialogue with his self-interests and the interests of society at large, with himself as well as his fellows, and so arrive at a “rule of law” drawing its enforcing power not from one ruler, but from institutions built up by the society for the greater good. And yet, we Filipinos seem even more reluctant to build and uphold institutions than to hail strongmen and leaders. We Filipinos gravitate toward personalities (Magsaysay, Noynoy, Nora Aunor) more than groups (Tagalogs, Kapampangans, Azkals, Barangay Ginebra) more than institutions (the AFP, the PNP, government as a whole, the Philippine nation). Why is this so? Why do we shy away from long-standing institutions and policies set in stone and place our trust in the tribal units, in the people whose terms last only six years? This is probably the “heritage of smallness” Nick Joaquin speaks of. We Filipinos, since our precolonial days, have always settled on the small things: bamboo over wood over stone, raid over pitched campaigns over conquests of unification, clan over confederation over nation. We are afraid of big things because we are a small people used with small things. It took the Spanish 300 years of rule and influence to build stone cities out of the villages of nipa huts, to forge a Philippine identity out of the scattered tribes. And even then we Filipinos have not yet truly learned the lesson: our stone and cement cities still do not reach for the stars, and our national unity is pro forma only: Tondo still quarrels with Cavite, Cebuanos still hate the Tagalogs, Moros still claim to be a different nation. ‘Rule of law’ through national consensus still seems to have a long way to go.

How, then, do we inculcate discipline to ourselves and our people while at the same time avoiding the terrible despot and the intimidating institutions? We must, inevitably, choose one route or the other. The best possible action for us, if we profess ourselves democratic, would be to get over our fear of big things and create standing institutions and policies, those which will enforce the common good and last for ten thousand years. If we believe in totalitarianism, we must find the strongest iron fist in this country and submit all our wills to him. We have had the chance with a dictatorship in, say, President Marcos. In the end, however, we revolted and threw him out. We have had the chance with democracy in the People Power Revolution and the constitution–and even as we speak we go over and/or under these institutions.  We may speak of a third route, and that is the home, the supposed building blocks of society. Yes, it is true that discipline can be learned in the home, in the school. A “rule of law” exists in these things. But what happens outside, where our parents and principals (the strongmen) and the school rules and regulations (the institutions) do not and cannot enforce authority? It is apparent that before discipline can be taught at home and in the school, the youth–and we Filipinos in general–need first to find the ability to respect the strongmen and/or the institutions that create this “rule of law.”

So much for discipline per se. But here another question emerges: do we really want, do we really need, this discipline? Yes, we are at once tempted to say. But why? For progress, we blurt out immediately. But what sort of progress do we want?

We can cite many examples of progress in the so-called progressive countries in the world today: the European countries, the United States, Japan, and China. Each of these countries have large economies matched only by their tall buildings. Their people may live more comfortably than most of us do. They have highly technologically-advanced tools. And they also have problems of their own. And perhaps, their problems stem from their common denominator: unchecked–and that is to say unlimited and uncritical–progress.

In Europe, the center of the Industrial Revolution (and culture and fashion and all “nice” things), we see a people with a growing sense of ennui, a sense of postmodern directionlessness. Europeans are party people with lots of beer and spirits and healthcare and social services, but why do they experience a high suicide rate? (Interestingly, European nations also have high levels of atheism, though here I speak as a Catholic who wants to have a religion than as a social analyst who makes correlations between high suicide rates and religion–I have yet to assume a relationship between the two in this article.)

In the United States we find a solipsistic nation, one that views its own interests and its own culture as the primary, if not only, one in the world. In Hollywood as well as in its international economic policies, the United States centers more on itself, and it injures racial-cultural sensibilities (see Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, and The Last Airbender for criticisms) and other countries’ interests (see the Imperiyalistang Kano).the United States, after all, is the country that discriminates African Americans and Mexicans (and Filipinos) and still thinks immigrants are out to get their jobs, and that the Chinese are Japanese.

Which brings us to the Chinese. China is the economic wonder of the late 20th-early 21st century: from the backwater and war-ravaged country of Chairman Mao, China has become the second largest economy in the world. But at what cost? China also has one of the highest pollution levels. China’s prosperity is, for the most part, limited to its big cities on the Eastern side–the countryside, I’ve heard, still has those legendarily terrible toilets. And who wants to live in a country that keeps its Nobel Prize winner in prison, erects the Great Firewall, and basically does not regret Tienanmen Square?

And the Japanese–the one country the linked article praised–is a nation that has yet to learn from its history. Dr. Shinzo Hayase in his book, A Walk Through Memories in Southeast Asia, implies that the Japanese still has to recognize the terrible atrocities its military government committed in the Second World War. In Japan, they do not remember the comfort women and the forced labor; what they remember is the glorious honorable patriotism of their soldiers and the Bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (And to think that people–and authors!–like Yukio Mishima want to renew the old bushido, the same system that plunged Asia into the war!) And so the Japanese, in their non-knowledge, come across as insensitive whenever they enter into economic relationships with the Southeast Asian nations. Many Southeast Asian nations, up to this day, still hurt whenever the Japanese Prime Minister still visits the Japanese war dead shrine. Japan’s progress, then, ultimately sits on the shaky foundation of callous forgetfulness.

And so we see that progress, when unchecked and unreviewed, can be quite disordered. Progress can bring about as much trouble as benefits. In the name of progress, kings and even populations have been killed: from France to Russia to Germany to China to Japan, and to many more. I am not saying that progress per se is bad: I suspect Nick Joaquin, my idol, to be quite the progresista with large-scale enterprises in mind. After all, he comes from the tradition of the Ilustrados like Rizal and Luna, whom he admired as Promethean geniuses. And yet, we must bear in mind that we cannot and should not pursue progress so blindly. People from the same Ilustrado class, in their desire to wrest power from retrogressive Spain and bring enlightenment in the Philippines, also committed and condoned atrocities in the Philippine Revolution. The innocent friars were abused along with the guilty. And it was the masses had to fight and die in their wars. And when the Revolution faltered, they were the first ones to abandon it. Progress, if it is to be true, has to be well-rounded: everyone has to be a part in it, and everyone has to benefit from it. The country, in the end, should not suffer further because of it, but rather, be all the more enlightened and benign.

In the end, we must agree with the article: we want, we definitely want, order and progress for the Philippines. That much has been clear to us since the dawn rose over the Spanish galleons in 1521. But we must ask ourselves: what kind of order and progress do we want? And, just as importantly, how are we going to get there?

2 Responses to “On the Philippines: Order and Progress?”

  1. De AnDA Says:

    We can’t tolerate discipline – we see it as harsh and undemocratic.

    • True. Which reflects our historical heritage (or our perception of it). Which I do not understand, because it was the Spanish who introduced the concept of leisure (the introduction of the plow and the siesta) and even if our democracy during the Spanish era was only on paper, one can still claim that we wouldn’t even have an idea of democracy if it weren’t for them.
      Alright, so I am being a Hispanophile, but what I’m saying is that it’s just ironic that we blame our colonial masters for our dislike of discipline when the very effects we think we are avoiding (by being undisciplined) are not brought about by the colonizer, but by something else entirely.

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