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Commentary

PH is not a small country

12:24 AM April 14, 2015

Contrary to what many people, including myself, have always thought and believed, the Philippines is not a small country. In this essay, I survey some of the reasons why the Philippines might be conceived as “small” and present rebuttals, informed by the premise that size is relative: Like any kind of measurement or measured quantity, it implies a reference point. Thus, crucial to understanding the way we look at our country’s size are the reference points that we have used in our measuring.

Is the Philippines, in fact, geographically small? With a land area of 343,448 square kilometers (higher than the common estimate of 300,000), our country is bigger than Italy (294,140 sq km), and is significantly larger than Britain (229,848 sq km). Mindanao alone, at 97,530 sq km, is by itself bigger than Ireland, which measures 84,421 sq km. The Philippines, moreover, is bigger than North and South Korea combined. Indeed, ranked among all the nations of the world, the Philippines belongs to the upper one-third in terms of land area.

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So why is there a perception of being “small”?

One factor that may have skewed our perception of our country’s size is the use of Mercator projection in most maps. This projection—which is literally the most common “world view” available to us—exaggerates the size of countries the further they are from the equator. Thus, the Philippines and other places like India and Africa are depicted as smaller compared to their actual sizes, while places like Europe, the United States, Canada, and Greenland look much larger. This projection, which was conceived in Europe at the dawn of its colonialist enterprise, has consequently been critiqued as “racist,” and though this is most likely just a side effect (there’s really no way to perfectly avoid distortion in maps), now we know better.

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Another factor is the reference point with which we measure our country’s size. Doubtless, we are smaller than the United States—or even just the state of California. But we do not have to use it as our standard. I doubt if the British would think of their country as “small,” and neither would, I suspect, the Italians or the Koreans.

A country’s size can also be measured by its population, and by this measure, the Philippines is actually one of the largest countries in the world. With around 100 million people, our country ranks 12th out of over 200 nations and dependencies, making it “larger,” by population, than France, Germany, Spain, or even Canada or Australia. Whenever I

introduce the Philippines to colleagues abroad, they are shocked to hear how large its population is.

Population size can help nations project influence on the global stage—and is in itself a marker of power. Long before China emerged as a major economic force, its prominence on the world stage drew, at least in part, from the fact that it was—and still is—the world’s most populous nation. There are, of course, problems with overpopulation, which are beyond the scope of this piece. But it would suffice to say that we cannot think of the Philippines as “small” by this measure.

Can it be that we think of ourselves as small on the basis of our perceived insignificance on the global stage? Again, there are many points that belie this view. Just like area and population size, cultural “significance” involves a reference point. Have we been comparing ourselves to America? We should balance our regard for Hollywood with the fact that Filipino teleseryes are actually being shown—and admired—in countries like China, Cambodia, Malaysia, and even Zambia in Africa.

Besides, who defines what is “significant” or not? The problem here is that we have been looking at our own country through the lens of others. An American textbook may probably just have a passing reference of the Philippine-American War, but such an omission does not deny the gravity and impact of that war. In this multipolar world, we need to assert our voice through art, literature, journalism and scholarship, and by ourselves, as embodied bearers of our flag. We also need to realize that in many fields, “smallness” is a matter of choice: Surely we can win an Olympic gold if our government makes sports development a priority. As is

often the case, all it takes is for us to get our act together.

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Thinking of the Philippines as a “small country” can foreclose possibilities and, in the process, reinforce whatever reasons people have for thinking that we are “small” in the first place. It can make us feel needlessly “inferior” on the global stage, and can end up becoming a (lame) excuse for hopelessness and mediocrity. On the other hand, our nonsmallness has implications, too. In foreign policy, it should motiv ate us to act with leadership, both in the Asean and beyond. Also, we cannot use our “smallness” as an excuse to rely on others for security. On a personal level, it should inspire confidence wherever we are.

Perhaps what may be more accurate is for us to think of ourselves as a young country: one whose nationhood is of relatively recent vintage. Smallness is static, but youth suggests vitality, development and, yes, growth. Thinking this way can provide us with the optimism we need to face the challenges of our time.

Indeed, we are not, by any measure, a small country. This realization should make us stand tall as a proud nation among the nations of the world.

Dr. Gideon Lasco is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and a mountaineer. He is working on his PhD in medical anthropology in Amsterdam.

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TAGS: column, demographics, Gideon Lasco, Philippines, size
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