SLOWLY but surely, the Philippines is beginning to resemble hyper-consumerist countries such as the United States, which have endlessly indulged in ever-increasing demand for goods and services on the back of decades of robust industrialization.
That was the case specifically during the Keynesian era, which lasted until the late-1970s, and massive borrowing from foreign creditors, particularly export-oriented economies such as China and Japan, in the age of neo-liberal globalization.
Today, the Philippines is simulating American-style consumerism without going through the “valley of tears” of state-led industrial development, high rates of household saving rates, and mass production of affordable exports — the very factors which allowed Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) such as South Korea to get out of the cycle of poverty in recent times.
Illusion of prosperity
The mind-boggling expansion in the Philippines’ real estate sector has gone hand-in- hand with the perennially disappointing absence of modern public infrastructure.
There is hardly any massive “green” public park area (think of Singapore’s Botanic Gardens or New York’s Central Park), where Filipinos from all walks of life can safely and comfortably enjoy the wonders and serenity of nature in an ocean of congestion and pollution. Public spaces are often neglected by the authorities or vandalized by uncaring residents.
There is limited public space for (spiritual and physical) disengagement from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The Filipino state has basically outsourced such responsibilities to profit-driven enterprises. And this is precisely why the shopping malls have become the core of urban life in the Philippines. Meanwhile, shopping malls have been on the verge of extinction in other countries, especially in the US, where online shopping and urban picnics have captured the hearts and minds of many urban residents.
The Philippines, shaped by its colonial legacy, has emulated Western lifestyles and urban architectures. But it has not truly modernized, at least in the Weberian sense.
We are yet to see truly rational, impersonal state institutions, which stand beyond patronage and personalized politics. Even much of the business sector is dominated by a few old families, so it is preposterous to talk about “free market” competition.
The country’s public infrastructure is among the least developed in Asia, while the elite educational institutions have struggled to keep up with regional peers. With the exception of the country’s premiere university, the University of the Philippines, all other top Filipino universities have been rapidly falling behind their counterparts in other parts of Asia and the developing world.
Modernity isn’t about speaking English per se —or any global lingua franca for that matter. It is also not about having big shopping malls, wearing global brands, and preaching liberal socio-political values per se. Those are only manifestations of modernization, not the core of it. Modernity, above all, is about placing efficiency, meritocracy and knowledge above connections, patronage and discredited traditions.
This is precisely why many of the Philippines’ neighboring countries, which have held onto much of their cultural heritage, stand as significantly more modern and prosperous: social mobility, merit-based success, and knowledge-intensive productivity are incredibly more visible in places such as Taiwan or South Korea than in the Philippines.
More importantly, the Philippines’ rapid rates of economic growth in recent years haven’t brought about an egalitarian, modern form of capitalism, which is capable of generating waves of prosperity that lift all the boats regardless of gender, class, and ethnicity. Low-end services and speculative sectors such as real estate have been the backbone of recent economic growth, with multi-billion remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) fueling domestic consumption.
The tremendous lack of inclusive growth in the country is a reflection of the absence of modern state institutions which can efficiently provide public services and regulate overweening markets; the lack of investment in research and development (R&D) across educational and corporate institutions; and a centuries-old tradition of patronage-politics, as well as feudal economic institutions in rural areas, which have kept millions of Filipinos from realizing their great potential.
Perhaps it is time for the Filipino elite to rediscover the true meaning of modernity, democracy, and progress. And for the wider population to fight for genuine prosperity.
FB: Rigoberto Tiglao