What keeps us behind?
My last piece on how the Philippines remains the “kulelat” (tailender) among the five original Asean members (and now even including Vietnam) begs the question, why? Years ago, I surveyed fellow economists and other associates as part of a study that a multilateral development agency requested of me. I polled my respondents on what they believed to be the top three impediments to achieving high and inclusive economic growth in the Philippines.
The runaway winner was bad governance. One respondent was more precise and emphatic about it: His three listed answers were corruption, corruption and corruption!
Last week, I found myself in a discussion with various eminent thinkers. The strong consensus that emerged on why the Philippines has consistently performed poorly relative to its neighbors pointed to the same answer: governance. Professor and fellow Inquirer columnist Winnie Monsod, who was in that discussion, recently wrote of “governance failure across the board,” and noted how the Philippine Statistics Authority has reported that the country has remained stagnant or fell back in its rankings on various global governance performance indices. In other words, she says, the war against corruption is being lost.
One might ask: Is there even such a “war” being fought? The sad fact is that, two years since coming into power on the promise that “change is coming,” this administration has failed to bring about promised change where it matters most for our economy and our people’s general welfare. If only our top leaders had pursued a vigorous and credible crusade against corruption in all parts of government with the same ruthlessness with which it pursued drug pushers and addicts, we could have been seeing the change we all want to see by now. This is not to undervalue the importance of addressing the drug problem, but our government officials either had their priorities (and methods) wrong, or have never really been serious about curbing the cancer of corruption in our society, because they also benefit from it.
The other side of the question is, what did our neighbors do differently? It has been argued that their political and colonial history, unlike ours, had a unifying effect on their people, seen in a general concern for the common good, and a sense of national pride and identity. For example, Thais draw pride from never having been colonized by foreigners, and unity from its centuries-old monarchy. The Vietnamese take pride in being the only country, large or small, that emerged victorious in a war with the world’s strongest country.
In contrast, our own seeming lack of national pride and unity and concern for the common good may have been rooted in the “divide and rule” approach that had been deliberately and effectively used by our Spanish and American colonizers. We ended up prone to an intense regionalism that’s reflected even in associations that expatriate Filipinos form abroad, and cited by federalists as an argument to advance their cause—when what we precisely need is unity as a nation. In turn, our weak sense for the common good finds manifestation in a greater propensity for corruption.
Political histories have also shaped people’s work ethic. In my first visit to Vietnam decades ago, I was awestruck at the seeming absence of our ubiquitous idle “istambays,” and how every single person I saw seemed to keep himself or herself busy, engaged in their respective occupations, or even just cleaning their premises.
Filipinos, on the other hand, have the dubious distinction of spending the most time on online social networking sites (over 3.5 hours per day vs the world average of 1.77 hours) — yet another sign of so much idleness among us. Perhaps partly behind this is the 40 days of annual forced labor imposed on our male ancestors by the Spanish colonizers, likely contributing to the demeaned view of manual work in the Filipino psyche. Our seeming greater propensity for easy-money ventures and pyramid scams, and for rent-seeking behavior in business and politics such as bribery and smuggling, may be associated with this flawed work ethic as well.
Change, it seems, will be much harder than what many thought it would take.
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