A middling country
By many measures, the Philippines is middling both in the sense of being mediocre and medium-sized, and literally in the middle geopolitically and culturally.
Many studies bear this out. The UN Human Development Index 2016 report ranks the Philippines at 116th of 188 countries, at the “medium” level of development. During the 2017 Southeast Asian Games we were sixth of 11 countries, right in the middle, topping the bottom half that included the far less developed Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Timor-Leste. We were outperformed by tiny Singapore, a country with a vastly smaller population but which won 67 more medals than we did.
How smart are we? Just above middle smart if our ranking by QS World University Rankings 2018 is to be the basis, with our leading public university, the University of the Philippines, at 75th of 400 in Asia, and our leading private university, Ateneo de Manila, at 95th.
Being excellent doesn’t seem to be in our mindset. President Duterte boasts of being an academic underachiever and points out that the class valedictorians are now his subalterns.
If our attention is not on improving our living standards, not on sporting disciplines, and not on earning postgraduate degrees, what takes up our time and attention? Politics and entertainment, and, of late, social media. We are the world’s texting capital and No. 1 user of social media, spending an average of more than four hours a day on Facebook and the like. That’s about one-fourth of our waking hours, when we should be most productive. Speaking of productivity, in 2016 our ranking in World Competitiveness Factors was at 42nd of 61 countries surveyed, close to the middle of the lower half.
Does size matter? Yes and no, and, in both cases, because of how size is used. When confronted by an efficient behemoth like China, size matters. Since we don’t have the size, then we need to make what we have matter. We are not likely to gain military parity with China even if we go nuclear, but a strong asymmetric capability will ensure that we are not a pushover. For example, we have no submarines but we should be capable of antisubmarine warfare to deny intruders easy access to our territory. Even just having the will to fight sometimes makes all the difference. That is why presidential spokesperson Harry Roque is being defeatist when he says, “What [do] they want us to do? … We cannot declare war [on China].” Of course we can’t, and we shouldn’t, but we can at least mouth off and not roll over and show our belly all the time.
Anyway, here we are on our middling path, caught in the middle of global conflict where the intersection of Chinese and non-Chinese interests is getting more and more explosive. Culturally, we are also at the intersection of East and West, being Asian ethnically and geographically but Western in attitude and lifestyle.
There are some things in which we stand out, and one is being disaster-prone. Evacuation and rehabilitation have become a regular task in many of our communities, sapping our resources and energies. And yet surveys show we are among the world’s happiest peoples. What gives?
It is said that the middle child is the most independent and eventually does best. The eldest child is cherished, even spoiled, because he or she is the first offspring; the youngest is also extra special because he or she is the “baby” in the family. Perhaps like this sibling positioning, a “middle” country like us coasts along, enjoying our triumphs as well as our challenges.
Unlike the more developed countries which exhibit more psychosis (mass shootings, high suicide rates, prevalent drug abuse) and wasteful consumption to the detriment of the planet, or the less developed with practically no functioning governments and which have become the world’s basket cases, we stand happily in the middle, with all the opportunities for growth in the right direction. We can strive for more independence, more responsible use of the internet, a more reliable and efficient transportation system, ad infinitum. We may be middling, but we can be the best at what we do, avoiding the mistakes of the extremes, basking in the glow of our contented selves.
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Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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