‘America’s colonial burden’


(2nd of two parts on the book “Asia’s Cauldron”)

As when an outsider criticizes a member of your family or clan, it hurts when a foreigner pillories one’s country, as Robert D. Kaplan did the Philippines in his book “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014: Random Publishing House).” We, or at least our brains, after all, are still basically unchanged from what we were just five thousand years ago, when the tribe was everything for us, and living outside it was certain death.

Still though, more and more I am convinced, there is something deeply wrong with our nation and our people’s worldviews. How can an administration so incompetent, heartless, and duplicitous still have support among an articulate section of the middle class that dominates the views of the masses?

More and more, our economic and political elites seem to be solely treating this archipelago solely as a market or a fiefdom, not caring about its future as at least half of their wealth is abroad. Both elites and the middle class have lost their sense of nationalism.

Maybe a big-picture, ruthless criticism as Kaplan has done would jolt us from our complacency and our myths. We may be really spiraling down that we may just discover one of these days that we are so, so backward.

Kaplan begins his chapter, whose title I used to headline this column, on the Philippines territorial dispute with China with the following assessment.

“Whenever I think of the Philippines my eyes revert to The Manila Shawl by Henri Matisse, painted in 1911 upon the French artist’s return from a two-month trip to Spain. Matisse had purchased the shawl in Seville, and draped it around a model whom he depicted in the pose of a flamenco bailaora. The embroidered silk shawls were a popular treasure brought to Europe by Spanish galleons sailing from the Philippines across the Pacific to New Spain (Mexico), from where the shawls were shipped to Spain itself.

Henri Matisse’s The Manila Shawl (1891)

Henri Matisse’s The Manila Shawl (1891)

“Showy, garish, with glittering splashes of red, orange, and green oil paint in floral designs, Matisse’s Shawl is the image I associate with the tropical grandeur and sensuality of the Philippine Islands, and with their occupation by Spain, by way of Mexico, for nearly three and a half centuries beginning in 1556.

“For the Philippines are not only burdened with hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, which, with its heavy, pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch, and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Island Chain, but they are doubly burdened by the imprint of Mexican colonizers, who represented an even lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those from Spain.

“Hence the shock the visitor experiences upon arrival here after traveling elsewhere in East Asia: a shock that has never dissipated for me after four lengthy trips to the Philippines within a decade. Instead of gleaming, stage-lit boulevards with cutting-edge twenty-first-century architecture that is the fare of Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and coastal China (not to mention Japan and South Korea); and instead of the beehive pace of human activity evident in Vietnam, whose French Catholic colonizers stayed for less than a hundred years (even as they brought education and development in their wake), the cityscape of the Philippine capital of Manila is, by comparison, one of aesthetic and material devastation.

“Bad roads, immense puddles of rainwater because of poor drainage, beggars at stop lights, neon nightclub signs with letters missing, crummy buildings with the look of broken crates bearing no architectural style and none matching with any other, old air-conditioning units sticking out of this and that window like black eyes, jumbles of electric wires crisscrossing the twisted palm trees: these are the visual facts that impress one upon arrival. Amidst the sparkling, watery sunlight diffused through the mist and monsoon clouds there is a near-total lack of an identifying aesthetic.

“Whether it is the chrome jeepneys with their comic book designs or the weather-stained building facades with their occasional garish colors, there is an amateurish, just-put-together feel to many a surface, as if this entire cityscape— minus the old Spanish Quarter and the upscale malls— is held together by glue. Whereas Vietnamese cities (which have their own economic problems) are frenetic, Manila, despite the dense crowds, is somnolent and purposeless by comparison. Weeds and crumbling cement dominate. The sprawl beyond downtown is not that of suburban houses but of slums with blackened, sheet-metal roofs and peaks of garbage.

“Private security guards, whose epaulets and insignias remind me of those in Mexico, guard five-star hotel lobbies and fast food restaurants with sniffer dogs and sawed-off shotguns. The interiors of government buildings are rendered bleak by the dead light of fluorescent tubes. Of course, there is the large and consequential splatter of up-to-date, middle-class shopping centers and chain restaurants.

“But what becomes apparent after several days is that despite what the guidebooks claim, there really isn’t any distinctive Filipino cuisine beyond fish, pork, and indifferently cooked rice. This is a borrowed culture, without the residue of civilizational richness that is apparent at the archaeological sites in places like Vietnam and Indonesia, to say nothing of China or India.

“And of course, in such a culture, prominent are the luxury, gated communities, inside which the wealthy can escape the dysfunctional environment through life-support systems.

“ ‘This is still a bad Latin American economy, not an Asian one,’ a Manila-based Western economist told me. ‘It’s true that the Philippines was not much affected by the global recession of 2008, but that’s only because it was never integrated into the global economy in the first place. What you have,’ he went on, ‘is admittedly steady economic growth, lately over 6 percent per year, undermined by population growth of 1.7 percent, unlike other Pacific Rim economies that have churned ahead by almost a third higher that amount for decades, and without commensurate increases in population.

“Crucially, a ‘staggering’ 76.5 percent of that GDP growth in recent years went to the forty richest Filipino families. It’s the old story, the Manila elite is getting rich at the expense of everyone else.

“Whereas the Asian tiger economies have strong manufacturing bases, and are consequently built on export, in the Philippines exports account for only 25 percent of economic activity as opposed to the standard Asian model of 75 percent. And that 25 percent consists of low-value electronic components, bananas, and coconuts mainly.

“The economist pulled out a cheat sheet and rattled off statistics: the Philippines ranks 129 out of 182 countries, according to Transparency International, making it the most corrupt major Asian economy, more corrupt than Indonesia even; according to the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business indicator, the Philippines ranked 136 out of 183; in every list and in every category, the Philippines— with the world’s twelfth largest population— was the worst of the large Asian economies.

“No one can deny the situation is improving. The World Economic Forum in Switzerland recently moved the Philippines to the top half of its rankings on global competitiveness. Nevertheless, corruption, restrictions on foreign ownership, and endless paperwork make the Philippines the most hostile country in maritime Asia for the foreign investor.

“No country in Asia, with the possible exceptions of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia, has weaker, more feckless institutions.

“The Philippines is where an objective, statistical reality is registered in the subjective first impressions of the traveler. Perhaps no other large country in the world has seen such a political, military, and economic investment by the United States for decades on end. Perhaps nowhere else has it made so little difference.

* * *

(T)he Philippines has remained among the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin America-style fatalism and class divides. Indeed, the Philippines has been described as a “gambling republic” where politicians “hold power without virtue,” dominating by means of “capital” and “crime.’



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  1. Taken from a pessimistic view, and just bear with me, I’m not trying to depress everybody, let’s look at it rationally.

    1) If we stop electing bad leaders, change will start coming in for the better. I don’t think this is necessarily true. If we accept that congress, full of college and high school graduates, can be bought, and that vote-buying is the most open secret there is, I believe that the democracy we enjoy is merely an opium to satiate us. Bad people will be elected into position even if the people vote wisely as long as each election “runs smoothly.”

    2) State-imposed population control aids will help solve the problems of poverty. At first glance, this may the ray of hope so many have been waiting for in years. If we stop the poor from procreating, we’ll have less poor people, right? Maybe. Population growth has never been the root cause of poverty. It may prove to be a stopgap measure, but unless you reform the system that makes people poor in the first place, there will always be poor people.

    3) We’re a predominantly Catholic country. Get rid of the Church so we can finally progress! While some people do have a point in the failings of the Church, I don’t think it is a good idea in any country to alienate one of the few organizations that still upholds honorable values like honesty, compassion, competence, generosity and so on and so forth even if its members aren’t the best examples to follow.

    4) About all the issues surrounding the brain drain, you all have a point. But only very few people understand the real long-term solution. It’s all about national industrialization. We don’t produce high-valued goods. It’s time we demand that our country starts building machines worthy of export.

    5) Education is key. I won’t argue here. The government has a lot to answer for after all the blundering about it’s done with the K-12 and academic shift programs. Neither of these will solve the problems of education.

    Oh, and if you don’t agree, argue your case, but make it believable, please.

  2. Danilo de Austria Consumido on

    Kaplan’s book “Asia’s Cauldron..” was published only this year. But his description of Manila (and the Philippines) is Brocka’s imagery in his 70’s movies when the Smokey Mountain was the symbol of the Philippines and its society. Nothing changed. Even the Left seemed to have fallen in love with their new clothes (as politicians), that they have reduced themselves as critics of Meralco, Maynilad etc, and even act as occasional attack dogs of the administration — with whom they are politically allied with (they haven’t severed their ties as part of the political majority, did they?) — against the the enemies of Pnoy (Arroyo, Corona, et al).

    The middle class? Look what happened to the “One Million March”.

  3. We are a generation that grew up on Tito, Vic and Joey; on Iskul Bukol; on Eat Bulaga. We put great value on being “pasaway”. We are content with mediocre education, mediocre accomplishment, taking the easy way out.

    When we were young, our elders warned us about watching such shows. Shows that teach us the wrong values. This is the nation we get for being complacent about such issues then.

  4. Everything you just said is 100% true. Then what’s the solution? or is the Philippines a quagmire? No hope whatsoever, unless we are again invaded and controlled?

    • Oscar Moralde on

      Solution, start from first grade up to College, strict enforcement of the rule and punishment to be a good citizen what ever a person choose. Our system of education is very lax, used and abuse.

  5. Religion hampers progress. It does. Philippines tops as the most Christian country. Each of you guys made beautiful comments that are straight on. When we were colonized, the colonizers saw a rich country. they therefore had to control it to get the most out of it. they introduced religion and religion, with all its do’s and dont’s and the fear of god and hell was the perfect modus operandi. It made people subdued and afraid of hell. In short, they became the workers and the laborers while the foreigners reigned the country. that was why we had the revolution. But it is not because pinoys are a mixture of races that make us inferior. pinoys are so used to being ran by bosses, the owners of the haciendas, the field owners whom they worship and call them “master”. Reminds me of the slavery in America. sad, slavery still continues in our country. So, most have the I don’t care attitude as they have something to eat. They are used to have 2 kinds of people, the masters and the slaves. And yes, we don’t have our own distinction. we cannot answer foreigners what is our pinoy dish, what is our pinoy custom, because we are confused and all that we have are borrowed ones. pinoys in America don’t even have a cohesive force to help one another. they hate each other, women looking down on other women, men showing off their financial stature with a snobbish attitude. Not all of course, but a majority. we claim to be strong, but we are weak, running to big daddy USA for help, but because we are “strong” we don’t need them in our land. The roadside are full of crumbling structures, peeling paint, shanties, children with sad faces, and just pure lack of strength to struggle, just acceptance. Look at China after limiting couples to only 1 child, progress came in an instant. But the church opposes it! I was hoping that the use of contraceptives will taper our population growth because our economic growth is not at par with our population growth. Yes, our country is corrupt and it is hard to swallow the fact, but it is true. It is time for all of us to vote wisely and be proactive in all forms of governance starting from villages to towns to cities to districts and to our country as a whole. And maybe, all of us making comments here can form a group one day to help fight corruption. Do hope!

  6. … From Mr. Tiglao’s first part of this essay, he asked: “Shouldn’t our weak state plan for that eventuality?” Good point.
    Granted that the rise of the Chinese navy as the dominant power in the region is inevitable, does Mr. Tiglao imply that we give up all the areas within the 200 nm EEZ and all the minerals beneath the seabed in favor of China’s 9-dash line without a fight, nor a whimper?
    If that is what he is saying, then we need not be surprise at all.
    For given Mr. Tiglao’s appointments with the previous administration his pro-Chinese stance is but indicative of his continuing effort to justify why the Philippine Baseline Law of 2009 (R.A. 9522) was so watered down as to delineate the country’s archipelagic baseline by introducing a provision to call the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoals as parts of a “regime of islands” – thanks to the behest of Mr. Tiglao’s boss who was gifted by the Chinese with the aborted $320 million NBN-ZTE deal, the $500 million North Rail Project, to name two loans among various questionable deals arranged by the Chinese.
    Moreover, Mr. Tiglao would be hard-pressed to deny that the obnoxious Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JSMU) of 2005 was in fact surreptitiously maneuvered by Mr. Tiglao’s boss to the exclusion of the treaty powers of the Senate, then presided by Macapagal-Arroyo’s favourite lackey Juan P Enrile. Such treasonous act of allowing the Chinese to verify the existence of oil and gas within the Philippines’ 200 nm EEZ was likened by Harry Roque of the UP Law Center as tantamount to “showing the fox where the chickens roost!”
    Of course, one has only to read Mr. Tiglao’s resume that between April 2002 to April 2010 he was appointed successively as Press Secretary, then Presidential Spokesman and then Presidential Chief of Staff, then its Head to Macapagal-Arroyo to understand why is pro-Chinese.
    And for all his loyal service he was appointed as ambassador to Greece and Cyprus by his patroness.

  7. Alvin T. Guanzon on

    Why Philippines a failed state? Its because of wrong systems of politics, miseducating the Filipinos, Bishops asking PAJEROS still in churches giving hypocritical homilies and lies making PHL as the only Christian nation in Asia yet so misguided and corrupt! Voters and chruch followers still allow the wrong system in this country to continue! Sleeping in the noodle houses, failed academic, religious and socio-civic sectors! When are we going to be awakened from deep slumber? Real God only knows!

  8. It is the wrong politics and educational system, corruption and falsified elections that caused failed Philippine State. Political Dynasties are the real calvary of the 100-M Filipino people that breeds corruption and corrupt elections. Many wanted to be elected as public officials to protect and maintained kickbacks from the government projects and supplies, to protect their family business, to maintain honor and lifestyles, not leave office because they wanted to continue cover up of the mullti-million of pesos of corruption, to honor the dishonorables, and others. BUT WHO ELECTED THEM AND PUT THEM INTO THE PEDESTAL OF ULTIMATE POLITICAL HYPOCRISY?

  9. Gerald Abueva on

    In 1987, James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly wrote a piece about the Philippines’ “Broken Culture”. In that article, he shared his first and lasting impressions of the country. Almost 27 years later, his impressions read like Robert D. Kaplan’s. Not much has changed if you compared the two.

    With Little Bimby of the Aquino-Cojuangco political dynasty being groomed for the presidency in 2046, when he comes of age for that position, things will still remain as Robert D. Kaplan had seen them several decades past.

  10. We tend to blame the politicians as if they are an “Alien Species”….I mean we elect the same bunch of Thieves again and again. This can only be changed if the U.S. of A would allow us to change it. We had that opportunity before with Recto & Magsaysay. But then even they were beholden to the Elite Clans.

  11. A haciendero leading an elitist economy, wasting time on vindictive politics instead of

    focusing on infrastructure, public service and jobs. A fake reformer who hoarded the

    biggest pork barrel in history to buy congress and senate. A clueless foreign policy,

    endangering his people with a war with china, at the same time, bending over the

    americans out of weakness. It’s the cost of voting someone who has no qualification

    for the top job.

  12. This is where the filipino racism comes in. You are looking to blame the white filipino who had foreign ancestors. Let me tell you if they are born here they are just as much filipino as you are. Now you must be blind if you cant see that everyone in the philippines cares only for himself, its from the top to the bottom in your society. I will mention just a couple of things.
    First look at the supermarkets, any one of them. You will see all the workers are below 27 years of age. They are not directly employed by the supermarkets but by agencies & those agencies are told we dont want workers older than 27, isnt that age discrimination, & more importantly does anyone ever say anything about it.

    Next look at your banks & how they treat you. If you have money deposited in a bank account & just leave it there to grow they take a charge from you, but if you withdraw a little or pay in a little each month they dont charge you. Then look at how much they charge you in interest if you borrow from them & compare how much interest they give you for saving with them. When you have done that compare it with say england ( where i come from ) & ask yourself why do the banks treat us so badly.

    But stop blaming foreigners for whats happened & is happening to your country. Its you who elect the people here & its you who you should blame.

    • Oscar Moralde on

      Blame the hungry stomach that the crooked politician feed [feeds] every election, not you because tour stomach is full and you are an intellectual voter.

  13. One of the reason for not having a cohesive society and nationalism is the “mongrel” in us.We are a mixture of so many races that most can not really identify with the Phils anymore.The collective shame that we have in what is happening in our country,the continued corruption,poverty.Filipinos who becomes citizens of other countries won’t think twice of getting rid of their Phil passport because it’s a source of shame rather than pride.You want immigration in other countries to go thru you like a fine tooth comb? show them a Filipino passport,you will be lucky if they will allow you in.
    Our politicians are only nationalistic when they are talking how much money they can get from the taxpayer.When Marcos declared martial law most of those nationalistic ones immediately gone overseas with their family.Many of our present crop of politicians are secret PRs and citizens of other countries having bought houses and businesses overseas.It’s why the Spaniard in Pres. Quezon that made him declare” I rather have a Phils run like hell by Filipinos,than run like heaven by Americans.

  14. Migs Doromal on

    “Both elites and the middle class have lost their sense of nationalism.” – RT.

    I beg to disagree.

    The ruling class after the post-war independence, have become this nation’s oppressors with the help of the powerful and blind allegiance to the superstitious nature of Pinoys to the imported religion imposed upon them by their white-skinned oppressors more than 3 centuries ago.

    The oligarchs do not possess an ounce of patriotism or nationalism. Why should they? Are they true-blooded brown Filipinos or hybrids with Spanish, American, and Chinese blood? Name me at least 3 true blooded brown Filipino Taipans? Does Jojo Binay qualify?

    Still wonder why the oligarchs still treat our republic as an economic resource worthy only to be mined off its resources but forget other fundamentals to help develop this nation to become progressive and its people achieve economically sufficiency? They don’t care. They are the oligarchs. The ruling class. Just look at the staple of your prime time television programs. What do you see? Garbage tele-novelas. They want to keep us stupid and ignorant. And they are content to build us big shopping malls to keep us preoccupied and happy and live the rest of our lives stuck in the same time warp that is the Banana Republic of blind catholics no different from the Talibans in Afghanistan!

    • apolonio reyes on

      Migs, you cannot find a true American in the US that even Filipinos and African immigrants are nationalistic than their counter part in their own country. The original Americans are the Indians, most are poor and illiterate like our poor countrymen, Is it not?

  15. Thank you for these articles on Robert Kaplan’s book. I don’t have much time today to comment on your provocative arguments but indeed we should have a national conversation on where we are really headed as a nation and as a people.

    What are the real causes of our decline, yes our decline as a nation as compared to our Asian neighbors, and what corrective action and hard work we have to learn and do so we won’t fall into the abyss?

  16. It is sad but true. The political institution that exist in the Philippines is a feudal system, where the elitist are politicians that have been there forever, change their jobs from one elected position to another elected position, just a different title. Their wife or sons and daughters finding out that this is a very lucrative endeavor will also be running for office, so now we have a clan that is running the government. This elitist are not there to serve the people, they are there for themselves. The result of all this is a feudal system of government that is so extractive, as the author pointed out, the few are getting richer at the expense of many.

    • Siony Camacho Bana on

      MRT extortion issue in itself is an example of bad example , and it’s very embarrassing that an Ambassador from a foreign country exposed the anomaly.which this administration thought it will go way.

  17. Miguel Reyes on

    If we are America’s colonial burden then why is it the United States help us get ourselves from this predicament. But what can ordinary filipino people do? America knows we have no voice because we have a sham press that respond to the beat of the powerful elite. Politicians are selected not elected by cheating and vote buy. America needs to be critical in policies that will help the masses.It should pander with corrupt Ph leader. Thank god it is now realizing that a stable and prosperous Philippines is the key to Asian growth

  18. Is it a coincidence that the Philippines, being the most backward, is also the only Catholic country in this part of the world?

    • it has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with our political leaders and their culture of corruption, patronage and impunity.

  19. Siony Camacho Bana on

    It is such a shame , but the blame solely lies on how dysfunctional the gov’t has been , due to its massive practice of corruption and cover-up , that a telenovela the poor watched incessantly , temporarily soothes the grievances and unfairness done to them.