Caught between a rock and a hard place

Caught between a rock and a hard place


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Between Nick Joaquin’s A Heritage of Smallness (which I had first read back in high school) and James Fallows’ A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines? [Nov. 1, 1987], the indictment against the Philippines in failing to achieve economic and development breakthroughs that “the explanation for our continuing failure to rise–that we buy small and sell small, that we think small and do small?” and “a culture that pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructive, self-defeating worst” is further worsened by what a Filipino historian recently called as our “factiousness” (combination of factional and fractious) due to our geographic separation, linguistic variety, differing religious beliefs, and political independence that is still at the level of the barangay.

For our leaders, national or local, their work is cut out for them: balancing interests, imposing efficiency, providing compelling vision and inspiring leadership, and managing economic resources that are never enough or even non-existent.

For our people, who are just trying their best to keep body and soul together from day to day, but could not comprehend for the life of them what is happening to the country and the world, nationalism is a distant concept–as far away from their own lives as “imperial Manila” is from local problems and events.

Fallows says our problem is cultural, and “that it should be thought of as a failure of nationalism.” Fallows says the absence of nationalism “leaves people in the grip of loyalties that are even narrower and more fragmented. When a country with extreme geographic, tribal, and social-class differences, like the Philippines, has only a weak offsetting sense of national unity, its public life does become the war of every man against every man.” If you look at the confusing variety of political parties in the country, and the resulting divisiveness of conflicting vertical ties the people have to these politicians, one can’t help but agree.

Joaquin writes: “We don’t grow like a seed, we split like an amoeba.” Joaquin says, “The decentralization and barrio-autonomy movement expresses our craving to return to the one unit of society we feel adequate to: the barangay, with its 30 to a hundred families. Anything larger intimidates. We would deliberately limit ourselves to the small performance. This attitude, an immemorial one, explains why we’re finding it so hard to become a nation, and why our pagan forefathers could not even imagine the task.”

The fact that Quijano de Manila wrote this essay in the ‘60s and the ‘landmark’ Local Government Code (RA 7160) was passed in 1991 gives us pause to remember that Jose Rizal had asked this simple question to those who came to request him during his exile in Dapitan to formally endorse the revolution against Spain: “And what will you do with our freedom once we have it?” So it seems that while we know what our limiting factor is, we still embrace and even institutionalized it.

The Local Government Code is considered to be a great piece of legislation, but on the flip-side, many of its provisions have yet to be implemented.

Fallows wrote: “The tradition of political corruption and cronyism, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the tribal fragmentation, the local elite’s willingness to make a separate profitable peace with colonial powers–all reflect a feeble sense of nationalism and a contempt for the public good. Practically everything that is public in the Philippines seems neglected or abused.”

While I was at the Development Academy of the Philippines for the master in public management program, we had a guest lecturer from Australia, Dr. Raul Pertierra who pointed out that many Filipinos who own cars do not have the space in their residence for a garage–and so they habitually park it outside on the street.

Among other things, this leads to congestion because typically in the Philippines, we have narrow streets. Dr. Pertierra called this as “privatization of the public domain”–appropriating the use of the public road to serve as a private garage. Could we have a law similar to Singapore’s on this matter? It’s highly unlikely.

It is common knowledge that we have a lot of laws that are “un-implementable”–chiefly because of the lack of resources. And perhaps lack of political will. And when combined with the lack of foresight and proper coordination, we get anarchy.

Street humps are a common sight because Filipino drivers do not observe traffic rules (which are mere ‘suggestions’ rather than rules, so the joke goes)–and traffic is, of course, a nightmare.

And what is the attitude of most Filipinos? An unnamed American, quoted by Fallows, said: “This is a country where the national ambition is to change your nationality.”

But our sense of humor would seem to take the edge off that observation: as we get on in age, we gain our “dual citizenship”–as Filipino citizens and senior citizens!

What does all this signify to Negrenses and Dumagueteños? When I was still at Silliman, there was once a controversy started by a Weekly Sillimanian editorial that depicted Sillimanians at that time as being “contented cows”.

If we are unworried about our own political and economic state of affairs but are alarmed over the “inconvenient truth” of global warming, then we should recall that Al Gore cited in his talks on global warming a quotation from Sir Winston Churchill: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” (Nov. 12, 1936)

And even if we discount Fallows’ and Joaquin’s takes on the Philippine condition as just pessimistic, we know we cannot avoid the consequences of our actions (or inactions) and choices.

Thus, taking off from this cue, the challenges on the provincial and other levels, in the political, economic, environmental and other dimensions–all are inter-related, and share a common impact point: on the lives of people. Though we may be caught “between a rock and a very hard place” and yet are still able to celebrate a moral and ‘nationalistic’ victory in the successes of Manny Pacquiao and proudly thrill to the conquests of Charice Pempengco on the world stage, what does it really matter?

Only to the extent that it should allow us to “pull together” instead of pulling each other apart; and for sure it’s going to be a very long and tedious process. Perhaps that’s the price we have to pay for EDSA I and II. After all, so they say, “Rome was not built in one day.”

Carlos “Charlie Brown” Bueno
[email protected]

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