It was quite an unexpected experience. I never thought that going to Perth, Australia, would be so meaningful to me for reasons other than what I expected. I had been invited by the outgoing president of FILCCA, an umbrella group of several Fil-Australian associations in the seven states of Australia. Perth belonged to one of them, the state of Western Australia.
FILCCA has been around for 24 years and was hosting its 12th Conference that is held once every two years. This year, Perth hosted the Conference and I was invited to attend it and make a presentation to the youth about volunteerism. An Undersecretary from the Presidential Communications & Operations Office was originally invited to keynote the affair but schedule and budget limitations made him unavailable. Without him, I had two roles – presentor and keynote speaker.
I do not know why I had this idea of Perth as a mining city. I also do not know why I had images of farms aside from mine sites. Well, I had the most pleasant of surprises. I saw neither farms nor mine sites. Instead, I saw a city that qualifies, for me, as one of the most livable and enviable in the world. I saw modernity, yet I saw a subtle but effective aura of restraint.
Perth has money, more than enough money. Beyond money, Perth has land, almost limitless land that can afford to host a 400-hectare park in its center. And Perth is only one of the major cities in the seven states, having its own share of a very small population for a continent as big as the mainland United States. With only about 20 million Australians in a vast land with rich natural resources, there is no difficulty getting work – and getting paid more than in the United States.
It is no wonder that the Filipinos I met in Perth had a certain sense of security and contentment about them. Because it has the funds to go very modern, there is much about Perth that make a visitor feel that he or she is in a top city in the world. But the wisdom of the city planners and leaders apparently made them follow the beauty and functionality of Sydney and Melbourne but also avoid the excesses of both cities. As a result, there were much less skyscrapers and limited to a few areas around the city. Elsewhere, one just had expanse from homes mostly with one or two storeys.
It was not all about just space and beauty, not all about jobs and good pay, but it was especially about an air of security and well-being. A Filipino immigrant working as a geologist said that it was the perfect city to raise a family. Wow, what a compliment from a resident who belongs to the Asian minority.
With Perth as a background of a short but exciting visit–exciting because Filipinos from all over Australia were there to meet and exchange notes and experiences–I saw something even more beautiful. I saw Filipinos who were at the helm of Filipino-Australian communities still so connected and concerned about their fellow Filipinos in Australia and in the Philippines. It made me feel so proud, so hopeful. After the United States, Canada and Australia, I thought I understood that the future could not look any brighter for the Filipino race and the motherland.
There are Filipinos in more than 190 countries, mostly OFWs. These Filipinos have become a major lifeline not only for their families but also for their country. They remitted maybe as much as $ 12-14 billion last year and may remit even more this year.
Filipino migrants, though they are less in number than OFWs and do not have the contractual obligation to send their wages to their families in the Philippines, still do so with consistency and generosity. Their combined remittances to relatives in the Philippines are estimated to be over $8 billion in 2011 and more this year. No wonder our dollar reserves are now at $70 billion and higher than our foreign debt.
Australia has an estimated 200,000 Filipino-Australian population, about one-twentieth of the United States. Yet, I had this feeling that they, being migrants for less years on the average, remain more connected to the Philippines. The shorter distance compared to the United States and Canada enable Fil-Australians to afford to visit more regularly.
The optimism that is rising in the Philippines from serious changes in the quality of leadership from the Arroyo to the Aquino presidency can be multiplied if Filipino migrants from developed countries like Australia, Canada and the United States find solidarity of purpose. Because of their accomplishments, networks and resources, Filipinos abroad, from OFWs to Filipino migrants, hold the unique position of jump-starting unusual development in the Philippines more than all the financial institutions and foreign investors that we traditionally court. The power of Filipino money in the hands of OFWs and Filipino migrants can provide more than what is necessary to push development inside the motherland. Our problem is that we have never considered our own as a financial and investment base greater than what we have been used to.
As we position ourselves to move forward, it is our own neglected poor that are like a millstone around our necks. When foreign institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and ADB lend us money, when foreign corporations invest in the Philippines, there is no sentimentality or patriotism, much less nationalism, that can temper profit-taking for long-term growth. Only a people who love their own, who have their own sense of history and connectedness, can invest in both business and in their own race.
Wishful thinking, maybe, but I cannot help but hope that our leaders and government, and not only real-estate companies who sell to Filipinos abroad, will realize that our gold mine lies not only in our mountains, or that precious oil lies not only under our land seas, but that our true wealth lies in the hearts and generosity of Filipinos, here and in other countries. And when they do, there will be a Filipino renaissance to honor the perfect plan of creation.