Wang-Wang: I have returned
On August 25 of 2011, eleven and a half years ago, I wrote this:
“President Noy mentions “no wang-wang,” then follows it up with “utak wang-wang” a year after and still hits a raw nerve among Filipinos. “Utak wang-wang” is an aftertaste of dictatorial or authoritarian rule where the power elite have a strong sense of entitlement, and necessarily have a low regard for the rest of society. “No wang-wang” is a spirit that seeks to dismantle gross inequality in Philippine society, a next-stage people power addressing the lingering influence of tradition and history.”
Elitism is an old and traditional setup. It is driven deep in our historical DNA and still culturally, subconsciously, involuntarily accepted among the vast majority of people in the world. Elitism has two major subdivisions, the dominant one from those who are benefited, and the passive one from those who have learned to simply accept it without great resistance. One has miniscule numbers but has most of the power. The other has the numbers but has little power.
The advent of democracy as a political system has gone against the grain of the elite but was forced on them by the vast majority seeking to leverage power from their numbers. In development, though, democracy is in its infancy – a few hundred years versus a backdrop of tens of thousands of years, at least.
What makes democracy seem more powerful than it really is at this point is that the most economically developed nations are in the forefront of its experiment. At the same time, most of the economically powerful have the military might to back them up. Thus, radical and extremely difficult it may be, democracy has been the popular concept of the world because of its promise of both freedom and equality for the people.
Popular as the concept and promise of democracy may be, it is a steep uphill climb with very slippery slopes. The present is not divorced from the past; in fact, the present struggles with the actuality of the past because it is its running total. The total may be the vision and the intention, but the raw materials are mostly the past with the present struggling to manage it towards another direction.
The leadership of the present, then, is the strategic factor. Its willingness and determination to transition from the past towards the principles and promise of democracy is crucial. The other, and maybe even more difficult factor, is how much the people want to move towards democracy. It may be influenced by how much they have suffered from elitism under any form. It may be, but only secondary still, because of how strongly democracy resonates with them.
The dynamics within the experiment with democracy are complicated. Too many moving parts have to find reasonable synchronization and this is nearly impossible to expect without a stronger impetus like anger and revolution. In other words, learning happens first from pain, and maybe last only from wisdom. The experiment called democracy had started from its original advocates from their ocean of suffering under total elitism.
Translated to the Philippines, our history with dictatorship after a brief stint with democracy proved too painful for many, enough in both numbers and intensity to propel a democratic revolution called EDSA 1986. 30 years later, though, the existential fear of illegal drugs and its intimacy with violence drove 38% of voters to elect a perceived anti-drug champion.
That champion, too, understood that in moments of fear, people can support even dictatorial leadership to experience relative protection and safety from the drug scourge. Perhaps, even at a deeper level, he understood that dictatorship executed with a paternalistic flavor would draw acceptance and support from the people. He was right.
The populist administration, backed up by popular support and new borrowings by the government of 7 trillion pesos, by far the greatest debt surge in Philippine history, helped usher in a new administration with a historical nuance of dictatorship. From its early period this 2022, the new administration is not led by a dictator but a son forced by circumstance, and by its possible advantages, to honor a failed dictatorship. We can expect a strange hybrid of democracy, too early to call as of now.
Unfortunately for the masses, which can be safely estimated at over 80% of Filipinos, wang-wang is back. Wang-Wang is not only sirens, policemen and soldiers escorting their VIP patrons, it is a traditional face of elitism. When streets are wide and traffic is light, as when wang-wang started in the 1900s, the people looked at them with some awe. The people knew an important leader was around.
Today, however, when Philippine cities are choking with deadly traffic, when going to and from workplaces takes hours each way and has cut deeply into family time and attention, wang-wang is an anomaly and a direct insult on the non-elite. The sound of sirens will be resented, even if there is an emergency, because most people will first assume that the elite is entitled to hurry even if the masa will be further prejudiced in traffic.
The wang-wang can go only two ways. The president can stop it or can be pressured to stop it, especially by his own teammates. Or, it can pick up tempo and become full-blown again, a solid signal that the glory days of feudalistic elitism is back. That would be a waste, that would set us back many years again. That would drive democracy into reversal.
Unless the pain gets unbearable, the kind of pain that unifies the numbers and triggers a groundswell of discontent. I wish it would not be like that. I wish that it becomes more clear and real to all Filipinos that democracy is not just a political term but a way of life.
Democracy is “Demos” meaning people and “Kratos” meaning power. Wang-wang is not going to stop at just sirens. With the power of all historical feudalism behind it, the dismantling of democracy itself is the target.
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