Cure the disease, not the symptoms


THERE is a presidential election coming up, and don’t we know it. Mud is being slung in all directions and there is endless speculation about who the winner will be. There seems to be, at least as far as I can gather through the media both social and regular, and occasional conversations with people, a widely held desire for radical change; but can a new president with a six-year term in front of them actually manage to effect the degree of real change that is necessary? It’s a very tall order.

Government can continue to do its financial gymnastics, it could provide meaningful social services and implement a rule of law, and it could even do something about removing the restrictions on foreign investment and encourage industrialization of the nation and consequent infrastructural development.

Through these types of initiatives and other similar “hard” development programs, it could raise the quality of life of Filipinos, provide opportunity, and even persuade some of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to come back and work at home.

But what a new government and new president would find more difficult to do would be to change some deeply ingrained attitudes. To change the acceptance of corruption at all levels, to remove paternalistic thinking and dependency, and to instill a culture of critical thinking and challenge. To instill a culture of challenge requires that the penalties for mistakes are equitable and, importantly, that challenge done in a proper way gets a fair hearing.

How many times can you hear “oh, but you must not antagonize . . .” Well, why not and why should intelligent challenge be regarded as something that would antagonize some other party? Is it because if you do something that irritates somebody with power, that you would offend them and because of that, they would withhold something from you that you want, or just have you shot?

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) has just gone through a reorganization, with the unsurprising result that there are now people in positions of power and influence who are new to the energy sector and who will need time to learn how things work, in particular to familiarize themselves with the regulations and past precedents set by the commission.

This takes time, but the Philippine energy sector is a big and complex animal which is in motion already. It cannot wait for new people to learn. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to expect that some honest mistakes could be made, which should quite properly be challenged by those who have been involved in the sector for a long time.

“But better not to challenge in case you antagonize the regulator.”

However, constructive and rational challenge should be welcomed by a new regulator, shouldn’t it? It helps.

People will go through the most excruciating contortions of logic in order to try to conform to an ill-conceived regulation rather than take up the gauntlet of question, challenge and counter argument.

Then having realized that what they have done in order to conform just doesn’t make any sense, they will find crafty ways of wiggling around the problem or just try to pay their way out of it, and if that doesn’t work, they just file yet another court case. Any hope of transparency is lost and time just passes by.

There will always be demonstrations in the street, burning effigies, lock-outs and strikes (not too many of these in the Philippines!) which challenge, in a violent and emotive sort of way, but there is a need for a cultural change in which rational argument is an accepted method of behavior rather than something which is seen as offensive and rude. Questioning authority, or at least the rules made by those in authority should, where merited, become standard practice.

Because there are not enough jobs and the cost of living is high, there is an almost pathological fear of taking some action or other which might put the security of a job at risk. Getting a job in the Philippines is hard and frequently done through connections rather than as a result of merit. Thus, dependencies and ties are established which discourage critical challenge.

If the economy and opportunity were respectively more open and more accessible, then blind adherence to the instructions or orders might be relieved a bit, and people would have to make their own decisions in cases of doubt and, if necessary, work out a rationale for any decisions made outside the prescribed orders.

In other words, make an environment in which people are encouraged to think for themselves and able to take the fair consequences of any wrong decisions.

Systemic change is needed to facilitate the hard economic development ambitions of any new president and administration, otherwise a six-year term will never be long enough to make the degree of change necessary to give Filipinos the better quality of life that they deserve. Let’s get out of this mindset that authority is always right, even when it’s obviously wrong and not always because of some sinister motive, and find ways, short of burning effigies in the street, of being prepared to transparently answer and intelligently defend all the “why?” questions.

Mike can be contacted at


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  1. I completely agree with you, Mr. Wootton, on all the points you mentioned here, but especially the point that it’s systemic change that’s needed, particularly a change in the Filipinos’ attitudes. But I believe that our problem has much deeper roots, and that it perhaps ultimately stems from our lack of concern for others, especially for the other Filipinos who are suffering. Many Filipinos care a lot for their families and will do anything to better their conditions, but it ends there. Genuine concern for the plight of others will make us move heaven and earth to correct the society’s ills and the government’s and wealthy people’s excesses. I sometimes wonder if no one among the presidential candidates has really realized this or if at least one has but does not want to confront the voters with the claim that they might be part of the country’s problems, for fear of losing their votes. I’m happy, though, that Sen. Bongbong Marcos has announced that if he wins, he will lead a “revolution of minds, hearts, and deeds,” perhaps like his father’s “Bagong Lipunan” campaign, which could’ve done wonders had it been sincerely and single-mindedly pursued. I hope Bongbong delivers on his promise, and if he’s sincere about wanting systemic change beginning with the people, I hope he’d win.