Not only in the Philippines

/ 12:13 AM July 30, 2015

When part of the ceiling at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 collapsed even before its opening in 2006, one news report was prefaced with the phrase “Only in the Philippines.”

When the Binays began to hold various positions simultaneously in 2013—from congresswoman to vice president—some lamented the pervasiveness of political dynasties that’s “only in the Philippines.”


When a wedding or a workshop starts an hour late, we look at our watches, scratch our heads, and say “Filipino time.” And whenever we get exasperated by a reckless driver cutting into our lane, we once again invoke the phrase “only in the Philippines.”

But are these things really happening only in the Philippines?


In this piece I use the term “negative exceptionalism” to describe the phenomenon of thinking of problems and negative attitudes as unique to one’s country. Many of these problems and attitudes, I argue, are not really uniquely ours, but are shared by many societies around the world.

Consider, for instance, the traffic problem in Metro Manila. As hateful as it is, traffic elsewhere can be just as bad—if not more so. In 2010, a traffic jam on China’s Highway 110 lasted for more than a week, and some drivers were stuck on the road for five days. Having been stuck in traffic in cities like New Delhi and Quito in Ecuador, I can attest to the fact that traffic is a feature of many (if not most) metropolitan areas worldwide.

What about our political system? As “rotten” as it seems, many countries have similar maladies, such as political dynasties (i.e., the Nehru family of India, the Shinawatra siblings of Thailand, the Bush and Kennedy families of the United States), allegations of vote-buying (Indonesia, Russia, and even international organizations like Fifa and the United Nations), as well as actor-politicians (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan).

Airport mishaps, too, are more common than we may think. In 2004, the roof collapsed in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, killing five, and this year alone there were similar incidents in Chennai, Goa and Istanbul.

Our so-called mentalities are likewise shared by others. “Filipino time”—being late—is synonymous to “Nigerian time,” “Hora ecuatoriana,” and Indonesian “rubber time.” Also, the “tall poppy syndrome” in Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as “Jante’s Law” in Scandinavia, are surprisingly similar to our “crab mentality.”

Finally, is negative exceptionalism itself an example of negative exceptionalism? Are we the only ones thinking that our problems are uniquely our own?

Again, the answer is no. A “Solo en Venezuela” (Only in Venezuela) website is devoted to the things Venezuelans ascribe to themselves—including underequipped and underpaid police officers. Indonesians, for their part, cite PUVs that stop and go at will as an example of “Unik Tiada Tara” (literally “unique, matchless”) which also translates to “only in Indonesia.”


* * *

Perhaps because we live in the Philippines, we see our problems more. Our perceptions of other countries, on the other hand, are colored by what we see on TV, and what we experience when we travel. But when we visit other countries, we are naturally more likely to seek out the best of what each country has to offer: Manhattan over The Bronx, Siem Reap over Phnom Penh. And Filipinos who work in other countries are there precisely because that’s where they found a better opportunity. Hence, there is a tendency to think that life is better abroad, and conversely, the Philippines is ill-fated. Hence, the negative exceptionalism.

However, realizing that many of the problems we face can be found not only in our country but also in many places abroad, can pull us from the despair of imagining ourselves as innately flawed and fundamentally hopeless. Indeed, many of our seemingly-insurmountable problems have been faced and solved by others before.

Moreover, recognizing that our problems are shared by others—whether in the past or in the present—should make us look at their experiences in how they were able to solve them. For instance, Singapore was notorious for traffic in the early 1970s before it came up with policies like road pricing and restricted zones.

This is not to diminish the magnitude of our problems: They are real, and many of them are serious. Neither can we justify them on the basis of argumentum ad populum —i.e., others are doing it. But rather than stereotype them as “Filipino,” we need to call them out for what they are: poor engineering, lack of laws prohibiting political dynasties, poor implementation of traffic rules, and so on. If a person is late, call him out for being late, whether or not he’s Filipino. If a person races on a yellow light, call her out for being a reckless driver, regardless of her nationality. The problem with negative exceptionalism is that it draws attention away from individual responsibility and accountability.

* * *

Every nation takes pride in its uniqueness, and as Filipinos we should certainly take pride in—among many others—our beautiful islands and mountains, the hospitality and ingenuity of our people, and our rich cultural heritage that draws from both the East and the West.

But just as we are inspired by the things that are uniquely ours, we should also be encouraged by the realization that many of our predicaments and flaws are not ours alone. Indeed, as we engage in a national conversation about what is wrong in our country, there is much to gain by entertaining the thought that some of the problems we face are not only in the Philippines.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: Binays, MANILA, Naia, Philippines, Problems, traffic
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