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Nationalism — or lack of it

The story has it that a western tourist visiting Asia chanced upon a vendor selling crabs in several baskets, with all but one of them covered. Asked why he was not worried that the crabs in the open basket would escape, the vendor explained: “Oh, those are Filipino crabs. The crabs in the other baskets would help each other out if left open, but when any Filipino crab manages to move up the basket’s edge, its companions would promptly pull it down. So there’s no need to cover the basket.”

It is said that the Thais have traditionally been kept together by their monarchy and the inspiration of their King. The Vietnamese exude a certain national pride in having defeated a major power in war. Indonesians draw on their national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”—Unity in Diversity (literally, “Different but One”). Do we Filipinos lack a similar collective spirit to pursue our shared ideals?

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I’ve always lamented our lack of nationalism — not the xenophobic kind that would keep out all that is foreign, but, rather, a sense of oneness as a nation. It’s the ability to put the common good above one’s personal wellbeing so we can collectively advance as a nation. Is this why we seemingly can’t get our country out of a rut? Someone once joked that we Filipinos are afraid of success. Just when we are on the verge of taking off, we blow it and crash right down again. Lately, some worry that we may yet see this scenario play out once more.

It was near the end of the 1990s when we last saw this happen. The country was in an upbeat mood. We had bounced back from a succession of manmade and natural disasters. By the mid-1990s, the economy was enjoying newfound dynamism, the Philippine stock market was cited as the best performing in the world, foreign investments were pouring in, and many expat Filipino professionals were drawn to return home. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1998, we sustained the least damage compared to our close neighbors, which suffered deep economic recessions and widespread dislocation.

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We could have capitalized on our resilience then to surge ahead in the region, following many years of being dubbed the “sick man of Asia.” But we squandered the chance and elected a new leader who seemed to heighten our class divisions, in contrast to his predecessor’s unifying leadership that preached “UST” — unity, solidarity and teamwork — at every turn. His aborted leadership gave way to one that was no less politically divisive, ushering in a decade of exclusive growth that saw poverty rise, defying the Asia-wide experience of poverty-reducing growth. Somehow, our “sick man of Asia” appellation returned, and we fell behind the region yet again, as we do to this date.

Our lack of nationalism is exemplified in our national language — or lack of it. We often pride ourselves in being an English-speaking people, with that foreign language used as medium of instruction and official communication. It seems that English became our lingua franca by default as none of our native languages — not even Cebuano or Tagalog, the two most widely spoken ones — can claim to be used by a majority of our people.

Years ago, I had interesting discussions with a senior Japanese colleague who believed that the Filipinos’ mastery of the English language has been more a liability than an asset for us. He observed that Filipinos who complete studies abroad, unlike their Japanese and other East Asian counterparts who find greater difficulty fitting into their host countries, tend not to return home. These include nuclear physicists, chemists, engineers, and many other scientific experts — tremendous brain power sufficient to propel our nation well beyond our neighbors. Our facility with English, my Japanese friend argued, has made the Filipino “too international,” too easy to fit nearly anywhere, and this has taken a toll on our own efforts at nation building.

Be it “fear” of success, crab mentality, or lack of a unifying language, there’s so much we need to overcome to build a true Filipino nation. And bridging our divisions in language, faith, socioeconomic status and political color must be every Filipino’s concern, from our top leaders down to each one of us.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Filipino nationalism, No Free Lunch
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