Visiting the neighborhood

Visiting the neighborhood

12:30 AM February 23, 2024

There was an opportunity for me to take a short trip around several Southeast Asian cities. I didn’t think twice – I grabbed at the chance to revisit some of these cities and see others for the first time.

There had been many more visits to North America and Western Europe before, aside from old favorites Japan, HK, and Australia, mostly for corporate and advocacy work. However, I realized I had not I had not been to several ASEAN countries, and I wanted to correct that.

I was with a small group of Filipinos, but mostly younger than me. When they spoke of the past, especially in trying to track growth and make comparisons to your Philippines, they meant the last 20 to 25 years. They were thinking of the Philippines from the late 1990s to the present. Of course, that is a past that is far shorter than my past – which stretches all the way to the mid-60s as a young college student.


The Philippines had a special history all throughout the American rule and the first three decades of national independence. It can correctly be said as a golden era, the first 70 years of the 20th century. That 7-decade era saw a spurt of growth under American tutelage, a stark contrast from a more monarchic rule under Spain.


Economic and political history will place the Philippines as an economic leader among Asian countries, next only to Japan. It was also touted as the first democracy in Asia despite the still very strong influence of the United States.

The Second World War was a costly interruption but Filipinos bounced back well and continued its leadership position until the 1960s.

Mass education and general literacy, especially of the English language, gave the country and people special advantages over its Asian neighbors.

That golden era is still remembered even by those who never lived in that period. I think it is partly because it gives us pride that we were once an admired people, a country that our neighbors looked up to.

The baby boomer generation was the main beneficiary of that golden era, not only because of the economic status we had but also because the generation before that was known for honorable leaders, statesmen and public officials who were deeply respected at all levels of society.

It seemed that integrity was one such legacy that baby boomers inherited from their parents.


Today, the baby boomer generation is already a grandparent generation. While some stories of glory and honor are still remembered by some, that is fading fast and has been replaced by a shameful legacy of corruption and the worst of leaderships. When we think of our past, we should be thinking of our heroes and our noble culture. Sadly, that bright past has been stained by a more dishonorable one and recent one.

Looking back to the last 100 years of colonial Spain rule and 50 years of American governance, there were so many Filipinos who until today remain bright spots in Philippine history. It may be Lapu Lapu, or Gomburza, the Jose Rizals and Andres Bonifacious, or the Manuel Quezons, but they were seen as patriots, as nationalists, and most of all, as people of honesty and bravery.

Many Filipinos cannot help it but keep these old names deep in our hearts as our mythical forefathers for their nobility. We cannot help it but hold on to parts of recorded history in order to have a connection with the most valued virtues we wish to be known for. There is that part when the narrative of the Filipino people is personalized by personalities idealized by their own contribution to national pride. Consequently, there was little left for the villains of our old history.

Not today, though, not anymore, and looking even bleaker still. The nobility part, that is. When big news hits the airwaves and digital space, it is never about nobility. It is always about scandals. Or vicious political conflicts fueled by warring social media influencers with each side calling the other as paid mercenaries. They are even thinking of making amendments to a Constitution whose most basic and simple principles, like the code of ethics and standards of performance, are incessantly violated with little consequence.

A whole new culture of public service has taken over the whole bureaucracy we call government. It is governed by politics rather than politics only as short, brief episodes during elections. Positions are not sources of honor, they are sources of income – and ostentatiously manifested. It is terrifying, but only to those who still believe that the traditional and cultural values of our forefathers are worth keeping – because they see how lowering the bar of public service has deteriorated a people and nation.

My short visit to our ASEAN neighborhood confirmed, without much digging, how much we have lost and how much almost every other nation below us is already looking down on us. My younger companions with their memories of a shorter past felt depressed at our slide and they were comparing only from 20 to 30 years ago. I started working when Singapore was just being born in 1969. And Vietnam had to rise from a devastating war in the 70s. These two countries, most of all, show the greatest contrast – theirs of growth and ours of descent.

Yet, even the grandparent generation that I belong to must look to a future without us in it, but carrying the baggage we left behind. Our shortcomings cannot paralyze us into depression or surrender, no matter the weight of our errors. Whatever time is left for us must be offered to the generations that will follow, to reduce the consequences, to increase the wisdom of lessons learned, to do more good works.

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I recall an old Cardinal who once told us, when we were on the verge of giving up on a difficult cause, “You cannot do everything. Leave something for God to do.”

TAGS: neighborhood, opinion, Southeast Asia, trip

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