Do we still think like slaves?
Are we an independent people still weighed down by invisible chains? Have we gained physical freedom but failed to notice that our intellectual freedom remains mired in an extended colonial hangover?
One evening, I saw EG Dizon, an aspiring Ateneo de Manila Chinese studies major and promising student leader, being congratulated on Facebook for straight As in his summer Asian history classes. Since I sent my own praise, EG gamely sent me his course outlines. Skimming them, I was amused to discover that the basic Hi15 (Asian history) class is still taught exactly the same way. The first three quarters deal with China, Japan and India, from ancient times to the end of Chinese dynasties, World War II and Gandhi and the independence movement from British rule. A last quarter deals with Southeast Asia. The class still uses Rhoads Murphey’s “A History of Asia,” the same textbook used in the likes of King’s College and Cornell, in similarly structured classes.
Clearly, Ateneo offers a history education at par with world standards. Is that not, however, why we should question whether this is appropriate for Southeast Asian students?
Consider our unconscious reactions to visits by world leaders in the past weeks. When US President Barack Obama arrived, one might have mistaken it for the second coming. The mere mention that his Filipino chef at the White House had already fed him adobo and lumpia overtook all debate on just how “ironclad” his pledge in relation to China’s nine-dash line might be. According to Washington’s Pew Research Center, 85 percent of Filipinos have a favorable view of the United States, higher than any other country in the world, even the United States itself. What wonderful little brown brothers we still are!
Contrast this with the lack of reaction to President Aquino’s honoring Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a respected elder and “uncle” among Southeast Asian leaders. Without the fanfare of an ironclad pledge, Uncle Bambang settled a 20-year-old maritime dispute with the Philippines and proposed joint patrols to curb poachers. At a previous Asean summit, he spoke out against “gunboat diplomacy” in the West Philippine Sea. Nevertheless, Filipinos are hardly conscious that Indonesia is our region’s largest country and key economy.
We must critically ask ourselves why we have been conditioned to feel so much affinity for our former colonial masters from the far side of the Pacific, yet barely know our own neighbors and fellow little brown brothers—and generations after our independence at that. At a time when our business leaders have been voicing worry that we are not prepared for Asean economic integration, we must wonder why we barely feel any consciousness of a shared Southeast Asian identity. Ultimately, we must ask whether we are educating ourselves properly and whether we can nurture a more empowering worldview.
Beyond the basic history class, I was happy to see EG get an A in his Conflicts in East Asia elective. This presented a fascinating reading list that spanned the Rape of Nanking and Japan’s comfort women, and went further to the Thammasat University Massacre, the Khmer Rouge trials and Philippine martial law victims. Outside classes such as this, budget travel gives current students far more opportunities to actually see the region, from the social quirks developing in ultramodern Singapore to how quite a few of Ho Chi Minh City’s tourist attractions relate to the Vietnam War, complete with caricatures of evil GIs. However, should we not be more consciously structuring our social studies courses to ensure that our students are exposed to the likes of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography and how he views his neighbors (he thought Filipinos can be overly emotional, but conceded that our Cabinet officials do make his ministers look stiff)? Should we not ensure that our students are able to form intelligent opinions on Thailand’s military takeovers and royal succession, to the degree that a curiously substantial percentage is able to discuss the intimate details of American Democrat and Republican primaries? Should we not nudge them to put Borobudur and Angkor Wat on their bucket lists alongside Macchu Picchu and the pyramids? Should we not ensure that our students can visualize the typical breakfast in each Asean country, know each set of greetings and honorifics, and have a basic appreciation of each religion?
We will never truly consider ourselves independent until we affirm to ourselves that we can stand as peers alongside this world’s other countries. However, to do so, we will need to empower our future leaders to craft a distinct Filipino identity and navigate our own region’s diverse political, cultural and religious systems. The need is clear as we see how Asean is unable to mount a multilateral response to China’s territorial claims and the Philippines is left as the perceived weak target, forced to garrison a rusting ship in the middle of nowhere. Yet despite this context, we do not empathize with Vietnam after one of its fishing boats was rammed by a Chinese ship.
We must thus reshape our very way of thinking, our very way of viewing history. We must push ourselves to view the world through lenses that are distinctly our own. True independence demands that we throw off the invisible shackles that prove the heaviest of all.
Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) cochairs the Philippine Bar Association Committee on Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of the East.