This being Buwan ng Pambansang Wika or the month commemorating the Filipino language, I thought of focusing on the beautiful Tagalog word “malasakit.”
Like so many words in our colorful language, the word appears to have no direct English translation. “Care,” “concern,” “stewardship,” “compassion” and “empathy” have been suggested to be similar in meaning, but do not quite capture the full essence of the word. An approximate definition might be “care for something (someone) like it were one’s own.”
In the workplace, malasakit is manifested by a worker who goes about his/her job as if the company were his/her own, or by an employer who relates with the staff as if they were family. “Malasakit sa kapwa” is altruism extended to someone as if that person were one’s self or own kin. It extends to inanimate objects or property, and in that context means handling or using something with care because it is not ours, and we understand and empathize with how the owner would feel if the object is damaged or misused. But “care” is only part of it. The word further connotes thinking of “us” rather than “them.” The sense of assimilation of what is otherwise considered alien or “sila” (they) is what makes the word even more significant.
Malasakit also implies action. It may be linked to another Filipino word, “pakikialam” or getting involved. To have true malasakit moves beyond mere thought, and involves minding another person’s business and actually doing something to help improve that person’s wellbeing. One might say malasakit is the antithesis of the attitude termed as “Nimby” (not in my backyard), wherein a person does not care unless already personally affected. The power of its meaning has been part of effective propaganda. The President himself used “Tapang at Malasakit” as his campaign slogan. While the Vice President’s own campaign slogan did not use the word, it implied a similar rhetoric—i.e., that she will act to uplift the lives of individuals especially those at the margins. They both have track records of getting involved: the “Punisher” who faced down criminals in Davao City, and the champion of the oppressed, notably the Sumilao farmers. They both won on populist platforms.
There is another side to malasakit that is not about giving but, rather, showing malasakit as an object of it. This is exemplified in the story of Sylvia, a community volunteer leader in the Baseco Compound in Manila, long infamous as a colony of the urban poor. Her life before volunteering was spent begging in the streets for money which she would use to buy food for her five children. While she made sure her children were fed, she used to spend her free time playing the card game “tong-its,” a popular mode of gambling for common folk. She admitted being so addicted to gambling to the point that she literally prayed that people would die, because with every funeral wake comes the chance to gamble “legally,” especially because she had already been arrested twice by barangay officials for illegal gambling.
Sylvia’s turning point came when she was selected for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). She explained her change of heart in this way: “Kaya ako nagtigil sa ganung bisyo, nung magiging member ako ng 4Ps, minimiting na… Bawal ka magsugal. Bawal isangla yung ATM. Bawal maginom… Parang naisip ko tinutulungan ako ng gobyerno dahil sa kakulangan, bakit ko dadalhin pa sa ganun?… Kumbaga, nagkaroon ako ng hiya sa sarili ko, eh. Kaya minsan, pag nakakakita talaga ako ng ganun, kahit sa mga kapitbahay ko, sabi ko ‘Alam niyo, kaya niyong iwasan yun e. Kung talamak kayo ngayon, umpisa pa lang, mas matindi talaga ako nun.’” (I stopped engaging in my vices after being told that as a 4Ps grantee, I’m not allowed to gamble, drink, and pawn my bank ATM card (by which the monthly grant is dispensed). I thought to myself, if government is helping me fill my needs, why should I do all that? I started feeling a personal shame and tried convincing my neighbors that they, too, can change.)
Sylvia chose to become an example. She chose to take action through volunteering, guiding, and coaching her neighbors. She showed malasakit for the aid she received, and not simply accepted it passively. She took ownership of the grant she was given, and took responsibility for it.
The beauty of malasakit is that its action does not expect an equivalent return. The word resonates with Filipinos. Malasakit is a trait that has seen Filipinos through crises. It seems to come naturally to a people living in a calamity-prone country, in particular. Malasakit gets people through the toughest of times.
The last election’s outcome suggests that our people are yearning for malasakit from our leaders. We want our leaders to get involved in, and to feel, our day-to-day struggles. We want them to solve heavy traffic and rotating brownouts, and put food on our tables. We want solutions that we can feel, and care little about numbers that we cannot relate to our daily existence. The low unemployment rate does not mean anything to someone who’s still struggling to get a stable job. The Human Development Index is of no use to a starving family with sick children.
Sylvia admits, as do the other volunteer leaders around her, that not all of the 4Ps beneficiaries are as successful at turning their lives around. There are those who use the 4Ps funds to feed their vices. These nonsuccess stories are among the arguments cited against 4Ps. They are the cautionary tale of how government programs can fail in the face of people who only act out of self-interest, be they on the giving or receiving side.
They also remind us that we Filipinos need to demonstrate malasakit for our nation.
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