The myth of ‘happy Filipinos’
More than a century ago, when most of Asia lacked even a single modern university, the Philippines produced one of the finest minds of that era. Years before Jose Rizal fired up a nation through his gripping novels, Gregorio Sancianco penned his pioneering work, “El Progreso De Filipinas” (1881), which was published in Madrid.
This was arguably the country’s first scholarly work on political economy, a detailed analysis of the administrative and economic structures in the heart of the Spanish East Indies.
One of the most interesting aspects of Sancianco’s analysis was debunking the self-serving colonial myth of supposed native indolence (“la indolencia”). This touchy theme was later picked up by Rizal in “Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos” (1890) and, decades later, by Syed Hussein Alatas in “The Myth of the Lazy Native” (1977).
A pivotal aspect of colonial oppression was systematically-established mental slavery. Western empires were not only militarily superior to their colonial subjects; they were also nimble in propagating the myth that their imperialist project was nothing but a benevolent civilizational effort to lift supposedly “lazy” societies into the cauldron of modernity.
In short, this was a classic form of gaslighting, whereby oppressors tried to justify their brutality by portraying colonized societies as bastions of vice and indolence. What Sancianco, and later Rizal, was able to demonstrate is that many factors, including climactic conditions, affect economic productivity.
The key element, however, was lack of incentive in slave-like working conditions. Creole haciendas and opportunistic peninsulares gobbled up not only the lion’s share of total yield, but even gains in marginal productivity among Filipino farmers and laborers.
In short, why work hard, when your tyrannical landlords and colonizers would only see greater opportunity to reap more for themselves? Why shed even more sweat and blood, when the fruits of your labor are snatched by the thieves? The upshot of this suboptimal mode of production was destitution and wretchedness among the masses.
Today’s Philippine oligarchy has added a new item to the list of self-serving myths that sustain systematic oppression and forestall genuine emancipation. That new myth is the figure of the supposedly “happy Filipino”—the undeclared narrative that “it’s okay that we have corrupt and inept leaders, but at least we have ‘resilient’ folks who enjoy the freedom to sing, dance, and be happy.”
To be fair, purely subjective surveys do tend to portray the poorest nations from Latin America to Africa and Asia as the supposed “happiest” people on earth. Upon closer examination, however, it’s crystal clear that there is widespread suffering and sorrow, much of it needless and man-made, among our countrymen. And a primary culprit is the brazen incompetence of our political leaders and the insatiable greed of our oligarchs.
In his Pulitzer-winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” Yale historian David W. Blight explains how the most beautiful and melodic African-American musical genres were forged in the pits of slavery—in the momentary respite from the hellish conditions of Southern plantations. Nowadays, the panoply of variety shows, colorful fiestas, and aesthetic-obsessed competitions we have are often the desperate refuge of those who seek escape, even momentarily, from the wretched reality of everyday struggles.
In more rigorous studies such as the World Happiness Report, authored by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford and Christian Krekel of the London School of Economics, Metro Manila ranked a poor 89th in the world, below even Central Asian capitals such as Tashkent and Almaty.
In the recently published academic study, “Depressive symptoms among young adults in the Philippines,” scholars from the University of British Columbia and the University of the Philippines warn that the country “lacks epidemiological data,” but findings show that at least 10 percent of adult young Filipinos may be suffering from “moderate to severe depression.”
Amid travel restrictions and lockdowns, Filipinos also ranked unhappiest in a YouGov survey of Asia-Pacific nations. With the Philippines suffering one of the worst pandemic-driven economic contractions and death rates in Asia last year, we may see a rise in depression and anxiety among Filipinos, especially the most vulnerable and the youth.
As Filipinos, we should be proud of our world-class musicality and spiritual resilience. But as Khaled Hosseini’s great patriarch Baba put it in “The Kite Runner,” “better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.”
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