Building on our strengths | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Building on our strengths

Building on our strengths

Most of us know that our country had steadily moved from top to bottom among our peer neighbors over the past 60 years. A video going around social media shows evolving graphs of how Southeast Asian economies ranked according to average income (GDP per capita) from 1960 to 2022, using World Bank data. In 1960, Singapore was on top with $428, while we were second at $264. Our total GDP was nearly 10 times that of Singapore then, but shared by 27 million people, against Singapore’s 1.7 million. In 2022, tiny Singapore’s total GDP ($467 billion) already exceeded ours ($404 billion). But with less than six million people, their average income is now about 24 times ours, when it was only 1.6 times in 1960.

To continue the story of the video, Malaysia overtook us in average income by 1962. Oil-rich Brunei, with an average income twice Singapore’s, took top position in 1965 when the World Bank started tracking its GDP. Then Thailand overtook us in 1983, Indonesia went ahead in 2004, and as of 2022, Vietnam has passed us as well. The only Asean countries doing worse than us now are Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

It’s easy to get a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about our country, seeing how we sank lower and lower over the decades, almost as if it’s unstoppable. And unless we do something different to arrest past trends, we just might find Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar passing us, too. Most analysts blame our politicians and the bad governance that our deteriorating politics and institutions have led to. We often hear it said that we get the leaders we deserve; we vote them into power, after all. Many cite the example of how our Senate has degenerated from the august body it once was with respected wise men and women exemplifying true statesmanship, to a mix of characters, some of questionable competence and integrity. And we have seen how erstwhile trusted and respected officials ended up bending their principles and forsaking people’s trust and respect in the face of political winds.


Are we really all to blame for the kind of leaders we’ve been getting? Have the majority of our electorate sunk to the level of survivalist mercenaries willing to sell out the future for short-term gratification, or simply unable to know what kind of leadership is good for them in the long run? Are we a nation condemned to perdition?

Perhaps we tend to get too overwhelmed by our weaknesses, failures, and threats that we fail to see our strengths and opportunities enough or take them for granted. There are many, and ironically, it’s often foreigners who point these out to us. They extol us for our resourcefulness and creativity, for example. I recall how a foreign visiting professor at University of the Philippines Los Baños was all praises for a local mechanic who managed to fix his imported car without the needed replacement parts that were unavailable locally; he became a believer in what he called “remedyo Filipino.” Harness this resourcefulness in various entrepreneurial ventures, and even our less highly educated compatriots should be able to create ample wealth. Our creativity and artistic skills have always been well recognized worldwide, and with the right management and investments, we could be jockeyed into the major economic booster the creative sector has been for South Korea. We have always prided ourselves on our hospitality, often to the point of self-sacrifice. I cannot forget how elderly friends of my parents once gave up their master’s bedroom when I visited for a night, and it was only in the morning that I discovered that they had slept on the living room couch instead. This hospitality and our people’s innate kindness, friendly nature, and good humor endear us to foreigners both here and overseas.

Yes, crimes are occasionally committed by foreign visitors here. But there is not much difference with Europe, for example, where visitors are constantly warned of pickpockets lurking everywhere. In America, store lootings and shoplifting have become so rampant ever since stealing merchandise below a certain value ($950 in California) is no longer defined by law as a crime, but a “misdemeanor.” In a recent visit, I was told that police will no longer bother with incidents where lives are not at risk, and shop workers would not risk it to stop even a blatant looter or shoplifter. Stores in major cities are now boarded up, and drugstores even have simple toiletries under lock and key.

We Filipinos have many more desirable attributes to be proud of as a people. Our strong sense of empathy (especially seen in times of calamity), honesty and candidness, politeness and respect for elders, family-orientedness, bayanihan spirit, faith in God and spirituality, and even our (apparently exceptional) personal hygiene are assets to treasure and build on. But as Mahatma Gandhi once said, we must be the change we want to see.


[email protected]

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.


© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.