Culture as impediment: Why we were left behind
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - March 16, 2014 - 12:00am

The other week, I was asked by Commodore (ret.) Jose G. Lansangan Jr. to speak before officials of the National Defense College, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Department of Interior and Local Government at Camp Aguinaldo. The topic: the influence of culture on government, the Chinese input, the colonial experience, and “what traits we should improve to be more competent.”

I told them I am not a cultural anthropologist or a historian, that my most important bona fide was that I am much older than all of them, that I have traveled a lot not only in the Philippines but elsewhere, read a lot as well, and being a writer, I have been most observant.

Cultural values are, in themselves, neutral as well as universal and so much depends on how individuals or ethnic groups use them. Values are influenced by so many factors such as geography, climate, religion, the economy and technology.

When I visited the Trobriand islands in Melanesia in the very early Sixties, the natives — the men and women — were all half naked; they wore skirts made from shredded banana leaves. When they reach the age of puberty, they are sexually promiscuous. But once they get married, concubinage or adultery is punished by death. More than a hundred years ago, the Eskimos in North America lived in igloos and when a visitor came, the husband would lend his wife for the night to keep him warm. I saw a documentary on the Trobriands a couple of years back; no more in leaf skirts — all were in T-shirts and blue jeans. The Eskimo houses now are heated. Obviously, their culture, too, has changed.

The ethnic differences among Filipinos are very real. The paucity of arable land, for instance, explains the industry of the Ilokanos and the Cebuanos.

Self-respect, the value of “face,” is universal but is most pronounced in China, then in Japan where the Confucian ethic is most influential. With us, “face” is easily fused with yabang. All of us are afflicted with yabang, and more so the Moros who have a royalty system of datus and Sultans. If the Christian politician has five bodyguards, the Moro politician has 10.

Maybe it is fortunate for us that we never really had royalty although there was an attempt by Imelda to create one. It was therefore easy for us to accept the institutions of democracy that the Americans brought here. They were not new; we already had the Malolos Republic. And much earlier we syncretized the Catholicism from the Spaniards.

The cultural mix, however, resulted in our inheriting the vices rather than the virtues of our colonizers, and worse, to this very day, we have yet to decolonize our minds.

After I spoke, two distinguished retired officer-scholars, Cesar P. Pobre and Rex Robles, contributed insights. Then from the audience, questions, and again: Why were we left behind?

Why, indeed, when in the Fifties we were doing so well — we were the richest, most modern in Southeast Asia.

One of the old excuses is corruption.

Let us now look at the Western powers—the United States and Britain. How was America built? The robber barons, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, Rockefellers and Stanfords were not saints—they raped the land, exploited their workers and were pompous and self-indulgent. But they built railroads, steel mills, industries, universities; after they amassed all that wealth, they went into philanthropy. The richest man in the world today — Bill Gates—poured billions into his crusade to banish the major illnesses and poverty in the world. He has no equal in the Philippines.

The British Empire was envisioned in those smoky London clubs by the captains of industry, the admirals of the navy, the dons of Oxford and Cambridge. Read Charles Dickens — it is all there, how the industrialists exploited their workers. Those navy captains were also pirates, but together, they built an empire.

In our part of the world, the leaders who built Korea, Japan, Taiwan were not saints either. Many of them were also corrupt. Perhaps, the only recent leader in Asia who was upright but stern and purposeful was Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore.

For all their faults, these nation builders had vision and a sense of nation. These qualities, alas, are what our oligarchs never had and never will.

It is easy of course to blame colonialism for our poverty and other problems for what hindered us from developing are the chains of colonialism, many of them invisible. We got to grow comfortable with them and at the same time, complacent with our dependency.

Most of our elites came from the landlord class and landlords are often lazy, incapable of initiatives, used to sitting on their buttocks and waiting for the harvest, the rent.

We haven’t progressed because our elites have no vision.

Remember how more than a hundred years ago, Rizal thought of colonizing North Borneo? Shortly after the grant of Independence in July 1946, the British wanted us to help populate North Borneo. It was then ruled not by Britain but the British North Borneo company.

In the mid-Fifties, the late “Admiral” Tomas Cloma took me to Freedom Land in the Spratleys. We should have colonized many of those islands then. But we didn’t.

We are a maritime nation with a glorious tradition in shipbuilding and seamanship. Why did we not start a maritime industry? Build our own ships? Patrol boats—not battle ships or aircraft carriers to watch and protect our territorial waters. Korea has no such tradition, but the Koreans started building ships and they are now the world’s biggest shipbuilders.

Industrialization starts with the formation of capital — it does not matter how. It can be created by saving, by the state enforcing its will on the people, by the very rich themselves.

This is what happened in Japan, Korea, Taiwan which developed very fast — they did not let their money leak out until they had enough to modernize. The Koreans even subsidized their foreign ventures to earn dollars.

Our elites did not trust the stability of the Philippines. Worse, they did not trust the capacity of the Filipinos. Like the old colonial masters who ravaged this country, they sent their loot abroad.

What to do?

First and foremost, we must understand the culture of poverty and eradicate it through a massive re-education of our people, a decolonization of the mind — a revolution in fact which need not be violent.

We will then shape our institutions according to our aspirations.

We have brilliant managers, technocrats, economic planners in and out of government. Some of the best economic development plans were shaped way back, during the time of President Elpidio Quirino in the Fifties, on to the dictatorship of Marcos, and now, President Aquino.

But in all these plans, backed up by glowing rhetoric, there is one very important — in fact the most important- ingredient missing: patriotism, the iron will to fructify such ambition, such dreams. Development and the justice it brings can never be achieved for as long as a self-serving oligarchy — without social responsibility and patriotism- controls our economy. This is the primary reason why we were left behind, why we will languish for a long time — in spite of the soaring skyscrapers in our cities, the fat and glossy cars in our streets.

Not till we become truly Filipino.


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