Gambling as a way of life

CHASING THE WIND - Felipe B. Miranda -
People point to jueteng, sakla, tong-its and other popular games of chance as proof that Filipinos are inveterate gamblers. Across the decades, anti-gambling crusades have come and gone; the games, somehow, have stayed. Neither the government nor civil society had made any lasting impact in suppressing illegal gambling. On the other hand, the latter appears to have successfully infiltrated government and civil society, with influential authorities in both sectors apparently benefiting much from the encounter. Ranking politicians, military and police officials, enterprising businessmen, even some pious men of the cloth have been designated beneficiaries of a technically criminal activity.

The common notion that most of the nation enjoy gambling and are addicted to it needs re-examination. It is probably wrong in view of two demonstrable properties of most Filipinos – their traditional conservatism and their habitual inclination to survive under any and all conditions. Together with some intuitive sense of statistical probabilities, these traits ought to discourage rather than promote gambling.

There is much that is noticeably conservative in most Filipinos. They distrust constitutional changes that involve the unfamiliar, as in the case of proposed parliamentary and/or federal systems of governance. They put up with a corrupt and feckless administration rather than install a politically untested alternative that could prove better. For most Filipinos, the latter could indeed be an unprecedented good but it might also be a greater evil. Since their political history is cluttered with too many illusory "goods", people pragmatically settle for the familiar and presumably lesser evil. "Better the known than the unknown" is a prudent maxim to survive by, whether a disempowered nation contemplates some unlikely good or a probable evil.

Most Filipinos are not naïve in anticipating probable outcomes. They understand that games of chance like jueteng, sakla and tong-its are stacked against them winning. They know that in betting their normally meager resources, the likely outcomes are formidably skewed towards losing. Winning in these games is highly improbable, close to miraculous when they do occur.

Given these attributes, why would Filipinos gamble so much?

Not because they delight in the sheer pursuit of chance, but because their circumstances dictate that whatever chance is available must be religiously chased after.

Poverty-stricken, unemployed, daily harassed by hunger, disease and criminal victimization, millions of Filipinos have lost faith in the ability of their institutions to help ameliorate their persistently miserable conditions.

Across the decades, the ringing rhetoric of their authorities has not kept the nation from becoming poorer, incurring more debts, suffering more instability and becoming the region’s economic basket case as well as its political laughing stock. Even as their national leaders repeatedly bombard them with official statistics invariably showing purposive governance, impressive economic and political gains and an indubitably strengthening republic, Filipinos find it increasingly difficult to trust the government’s reassuring scenarios and their proferred numbers. (As a matter of fact, with the possible exception of those generated by the national lottery, government might now have very few numbers that merit public attention or inspire public confidence.)

On any given day, millions of unemployed Filipinos start the morning thinking of their paltry chance to land a job before the day is over. Those who are employed contemplate the meager prospects of receiving wages that might be associated with "gainful employment" – wages that enable a worker’s family to indeed live and not merely exist.

Other than being able to migrate and work abroad, most Filipinos reckon their chances of being able to live decent lives as frighteningly small. In the job market, education and merit appear to be poor substitutes for connection and willingness to kowtow to the powers that be. Elsewhere, religion holds much promise but situate much of the coveted good in some afterlife, leaving the problem of how to deal with present misery disconcertingly unsolved for those who are most miserable.

In the lotto, jueteng, sakla, tong-its and other games of chance, there appears to be better chances for the nation’s poor as well as many who are not well-off to hit a winning combination and gain a materially better life. The chances might be terribly poor – statistically formidably small – but they are still much better than banking on the avowed sincerity of politicking leaders and their ability to deliver competent and accountable governance to a largely impoverished nation.

Gambling has become a way of life for those who earlier had most trustingly bet on their nation’s leaders and consistently lost. A fantastically small chance – that offered by the most popular games of chance in this country – is naturally better than absolutely no chance at all. For most Filipinos, gambling is a forced choice.

Millions of them gambled in going abroad. Many won a materially better life. Quite a few lost and regretted their choice. One, in particular, gambled on being a truck driver in Iraq. The bets are still on as Angelo de la Cruz’s head continues to hang in the balance.

The country’s authorities naturally talk about international commitments and the price that a principled stance against terrorism demands and which this nation – enlisted by its folly-prone officials as a member of Dubya’s coalition of the willing – purportedly must now courageously pay.

Interesting proposition: the nation’s leaders lost their heads over a year ago and now a poor Filipino stands to have his head severed from his body.

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