Writing in 1738, the Augustinian friar Juan Francisco de Antonio lamented: “But it is necessary to use the force of the whip to get them to hear Mass on holidays of obligation and to confess and receive communion. … They are very reverent to the Father Ministers … but at the same time they make fun of them, they murmur against them, and they even sell them out.”
More than a century later, an English travel writer visiting the Philippines described the still problematic relationship between the Spanish colonizers and the indio or native: “The Spaniard is fire and the indio snow, and the snow puts out the fire… The indio rejoices if you lose patience because then they boast having put his master into a passion.”
I looked up these passages in response to Marianne Enriquez of TV5, who is working for the show “Kaya,” which features examples of how Filipinos are able to change against all odds.
Last Saturday the show’s theme was discipline, a perennial favorite for media productions, with questions asked almost in exasperation, if not despair: Will the Filipino ever change?
“Kaya,” which has hosts like Patrick Paez, Twink Macaraig and Luchi Cruz-Valdez, looks for positive examples to prove that change is possible. On the issue of discipline, they featured the cities of Davao and Laoag as well as Barangay Holy Spirit in Quezon City to show how residents can clean up their streets.
The “Kaya” hosts asked for my views on why Filipinos are perceived as undisciplined, even defiant of authority, and yet will, generally, “behave” when working overseas.
I had my explanations based on psychology and ethics, views which I’ve shared in several columns. But “Kaya” also wanted historical perspectives, which I thought was a good angle, as I remembered historical archives full of accounts from Spanish and American colonial administrators, who were always complaining about how difficult it was to govern Filipinos.
The Americans even coined a word, “philippinitis,” to refer to the nervous breakdown that they suffered in the Philippines. It was a term originally used during the Philippine-American War to refer to the mix of homesickness and despair with the war, but later was used by US administrators complaining both from the heat and the problems of governing Filipinos. Baguio City was developed in part as a place for Americans to recover from this “philippinitis.”
But all this does not mean the Filipino is ungovernable. What we see here is a reaction to what Filipinos saw as oppression, and a way of getting even with the colonial masters.
Today, almost 70 years after regaining our independence from the colonial masters, we still flagellate ourselves for our lack of discipline. We allowed Marcos to experiment with martial law and the slogan “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan (For the country to progress, we need discipline).”
Alas, the more authoritarian our leaders, the more we rebel. This is where we need to reflect, to pick up insights from psychology, and from ethics.
Child psychology offers us a very basic lesson for governance: We need role models and we need consistency, both of which we sorely lack in the Philippines when it comes to creating strong social norms.
We are quick at passing laws and ordinances, but the first to break the law are the rich and the powerful, even the very ones who pass those laws. A very simple example: I’ve lost count of the number of times I see a luxury car speeding down the road with the rear window rolling down and a passenger throwing out trash from some fast-food joint. I can imagine those passengers complaining to friends about how awful the trash problem is in the Philippines, conveniently exempting themselves from the responsibilities of keeping the country clean.
I actually make it a point to call my kids’ attention whenever trash is thrown out from a luxury car, to emphasize that this upper-class notion of entitlement is why no one follows the law. I am careful not to say that this happens only in the Philippines because, really, that is not the case. Everywhere in the world, you get these “quality of life crimes” (littering, jaywalking, even writing graffiti) in neighborhoods where people feel no one cares, especially the authorities.
Then there’s the problem of consistency. We have these periodic outbursts of wanting to enforce the law, with authorities rounding up jaywalkers, for example, and making them sing the national anthem. Then in a few days, the campaign dies out.
We see it in traffic lights being shut down, converted into blinking yellow lights that reinforce the misconception that these lights are only suggestions.
Ethics comes into the picture here. Ironically, while we defy authority, we raise our children on “hala, lagot” ethics, both words being threats: You’re getting into trouble… if you get caught. Moms use dads to lagot their children; moms and dads use the police, or the bumbay (the Indian) as the bogeyman, and in these cases, it’s always with a qualifier: Behave, or you will get into trouble… if you get caught.
So if the authority figure isn’t there, if the traffic lights only keep blinking yellow, if there are no CCTV cameras, if God is dead from 3 p.m. on Good Friday until early Easter Sunday, then there is no lagot or hala to worry about. So impunity sets in.
TV5’s “Kaya” did show that we can be disciplined, using different models. Davao City—and Puerto Princesa City, I should add—use the iron fist, but I’ve always felt that’s just a variation on the “hala, lagot” ethic. In Puerto Princesa, where antilittering campaigns started more than a decade ago worked with tremendous success through fines and shaming—your name was read out on radio if you were caught littering—I’m beginning to see some backsliding, a term from the martial law era when people went back to their old (undisciplined) ways.
Psychology also teaches us that we can’t rely only on negative threats and sanctions. Positive reinforcement is more effective. We need ways to make people feel good about their clean neighborhood, as it seems to be happening in Barangay Holy Spirit, which used to be noted for drug-pushing and other crimes. Holy Spirit won in a contest among barangays—that always helps, but what happens when contests are no longer held?
Culture involves creating new norms, new standards for feeling good about ourselves, about a place, about laws. Let’s learn from our long history of pasaway, to untangle that pasaway.
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