The Philippines stands at the pinnacle of some of the world’s worst categories. That is not easy to do.
The World Bank reports our country is last or next to last in reading, comprehension, math and science among 79 countries surveyed.
We have the most instances of bullying in the region.
The Asian Development Bank Institute confirms the ”low” learning in the country.
The Global Institute for Peace and the World Economic Forum rank us last among 134 countries in public safety based on peace and order and health.
Manila is consistently voted the traffic capital of the world.
Our War on Drugs has become the model for how not to fight addiction.
Marcos put us on the map of world dictatorships. Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes have become a synonym for profligacy and corruption.
Our COVID lockdown is the planet’s longest and our economy is predicted to be the last to recover in our region.
What is it in us that accounts for our record of failures? We are not more unintelligent, more poor, nor more indolent than other nations. Is it our culture, our race, political system, colonial history, religion, geography, climate or all of the above?
Culturally we have low expectations and standards of excellence. The phrase “puede na” captures this acceptance of mediocrity. We prize form over substance, image over content. The WB report says our youth do not believe they can be better. Our next generation has lost hope and with that comes its willingness to strive.
As an economy we focused on the low lying fruit of property, consumer services and the God-given bounties of our country rather than on long term but difficult challenges like education, clean tourism, knowledge industries, exports, manufacturing and agriculture. We raped our natural resources without heed for sustainability resulting in the degradation of our geography, our environment and our rural communities.
As a race we are reluctant to apologize for our mistakes. When we err we tell the aggrieved party: “Pasensya na lang”. This common refrain is neither a statement of contrition, an acknowledgment of failure nor a promise to do better, it is a demand to accept our deficiencies because life is what it is. There is no personal accountability.
We do not take responsibility for our actions as a people so we do not expect our leaders to be accountable for theirs. We continue to elect to public office heirs of leaders who did us great harm in the past. We accept family dynasties as a political way of life. We do not expect criminals to be jailed. We give high marks to leaders who rule us badly. We easily forget so we return for more pain. It is akin to the Stockholm Syndrome where the hostages become enamored with their captors or battered spouses who cannot leave their partners.
Rather than man up for the deficiencies of her department, DepEd Sec. Briones chastised the World Bank for releasing its report prematurely (The WB did apologize but did not retract its findings). She did not seek forgiveness nor promise to improve. Now we understand why the agency is as pathetic as it is.
Our political system reinforces this failure of accountability. We have three equal branches of Government – the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary – which theoretically are supposed to check and balance each other but in reality enhance the omnipotence of the Chief Executive. We have no institutionalized party system so Filipinos vote on personalities, entertainment value, and name recall rather than on character, programs and policies. Our Legislature and its pork barrel sway with whoever is in Malacanang. Supreme Court Justices have tenure but they are appointed by the President. Over time our highest tribunal gets packed with surrogates perpetuating a loyalty and a bias for the incumbent President.
We are not a nation of big ideas. We do not think in strategic terms. We believe in marginal improvements not quantum changes. We do not dare to dream. We do not have a Lee Kuan Yew who took an island state with no natural resources and a small population and transformed it into a model of grit, progress, innovation and stability. We have not ever had a President we can be truly proud of. We cherish martyrs over visionaries. Jose Rizal, our national hero, and Ninoy never led us, they just died for us.
Some say our religion has something to do with who we are. Catholic countries like Spain, Italy and Portugal lag their northern neighbors and their “Protestant work ethic”. Similarly Latin American economies pale by comparison with their Asian emerging market counterparts, the non-Christian Tigers like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
Our American colonial heritage left us incomplete. The British enabled its colonies – now the Commonwealth – with a Parliament and an institutionalized party system that offers policy choices; and a working bureaucracy that survives political changes. Our political parties come and go. Our Government agencies are buffeted with every Administration so there is no long term planning and respect for civil service. This is the genesis of corruption.
Our island geography resulted in political fiefdoms, multiple languages and divergent interests. We have no common purpose. To this day Mindanao remains an outlier. Imperial Manila and its dominance of the Budget made for an over concentration of economic activity in the NCR and surrounding provinces (they today account for 70% of GDP) leading to unbalanced growth, urban density and poverty, and income inequality.
None of the above is arguably novel, uniquely insightful nor correct. It is possibly just another instance of self-flagellation which I can sometimes be guilty of. However this does not detract from the fact that we are as a nation trolling the bottom of the world in critical categories like education and income inequality. We will not automatically self-correct and will continue to slide down this slope of mediocrity unless we acknowledge our deficiencies and start dealing with them whatever they are.
The task of reversing decades of degradation is overwhelming. There is no single point of failure. It starts with a political recognition but does not and cannot stop there. If we care about the future of our children we need to have a national conversation about who we are, where we are and why we are and how we go from there.