Political games in a society without trust

Mike Wootton

Mike Wootton

I lived in Norway for a few years. What a great place it was to live in! An enduring memory is of one Saturday afternoon wandering around a fairly exclusive area of Oslo, basically window-shopping, when my wife decided that she might like to try some fur coats displayed in one of the shops. We went into the shop and indeed she tried a few on, all of which were extremely expensive, anything up to about $20,000 each. I was in no position to buy one, nor would I particularly have wanted to. However, the wife was quite taken with a couple of them and as women do, took them off and put them on again, trying to decide which she preferred.

After about 20 minutes of this—although it seemed much longer!—the lady in the shop just said, “Why not take them both home, try them there and if you don’t like them just bring them back on Monday.” No suggestion of any payment. She didn’t even take note of our address other than the area in which we were living. We said thanks all the same but didn’t take the coats as we were not really intent on making a purchase. Now could you imagine that happening in Manila!? You’d be lucky here if they even let you into the shop to try them on. And as for letting two unknown foreigners take two of these valuable items away to try and choose at home—it is an act that would be seen as total lunacy here in the Philippines (not that many fur coats are sold here anyway, but that is beside the point!).

The example narrated above is about trust. Had I taken one or both of the offered coats away with me I would of course have returned them on the Monday. Had the coats been damaged whilst in my possession, I would have reimbursed the shop that had so kindly loaned them to me. Had I been of a mind to actually buy one them, being allowed to take them home in such an informal sort of way, may well have encouraged me to actually make a purchase.

The Philippines is a society without trust, or if there is trust it is in isolated cases. Basically very few people believe a word that anybody says, particularly if they are a stranger and even more particularly if they are unfortunate enough to be a foreigner. Even more odd is that people don’t really seem to expect others to believe a word of what they say. It’s all just a sort of bizarre game.

Driving into the car park at Festival Mall on Sunday, right in my face was a car with a big “A framed” tarpaulin on its roof showing photos of the property in Batangas supposedly secretly owned through dummies by the Vice President. Of course I was already well aware of this accusation along with most other residents of the Philippines—it has certainly been well publicized.

Philippine politics is a truly dangerous area and the competition for power and influence knows no bounds. Competitors get shot—there is a reasonable market for bullet-proof cars, being jailed on flimsy evidence, and disgraced also on flimsy or what may even be totally contrived “evidence.” Particularly now with the wide use of social media, it is open for people to assert and publicize the committal of almost any “crime” by a competitor in order to gain advantage, even to the extent of producing witnesses and documentary evidence to support the assertion. Whether any such claim represents the truth or not is irrelevant to the case; the objective of blackening someone’s character can be easily achieved and competitive advantage secured through the simple expedient of lying, and if done well, it may be possible to take the competition out altogether by just locking them away.

How on earth can any semblance of democracy operate in such an environment of skulduggery and mistrust? Of course it cannot. The winners will be those who are most adept at, on the one hand, developing false accusations and on the other, defending themselves against such accusations. This type of political character assassination begets a culture of lies and deception. Acting ability backed up by a bit of reasonably intelligent manipulative skill must be prime criteria for success.

What I find slightly amusing about the current overheated accusatory political environment is that it is almost all focused on corruption—“he is more corrupt than me” sort of thing, I have the high ground (the high “power” ground, hardly the high moral ground) and I will use it to maximum advantage to drive my competitor into the dust. The point here, as I have written before, is that relative corruption is not really seen by the electorate as a particularly important discriminating factor. All Filipinos know how the political system (democracy!) operates here and it is just accepted “coz that’s the way it is.” Many would even think that to be able to siphon off public funds for personal benefit is an acceptable perk of the job at any political level.

To strive to make the Philippines a place of widespread trust and integrity is clearly an elephantine undertaking which would take many generations to achieve—it could be several hundred years before you could go into a store in Manila and be invited to just casually take some expensive item home to try it out on the understanding that it would be returned in a few days. So for now the Philippines, although it has a democratic system, cannot be said to be a democratic society.

I believe that at the masa level, little attention will be paid to allegations of corruption amongst politicians. Votes will be cast for who they think will do the best thing for them. Unfortunately, though, they often seem to consider that the best thing for them is a payment for a vote and it’s not difficult to find conversations about who is paying most for an individual vote.

But in order to try to raise the vote-catching game just a bit above the level of giving out money and possibly t-shirts and free food, perhaps the politicians could try to demonstrate to their constituents their actual track record of past achievement, for this would speak far louder than these endless and tiresome allegations of corruption, much of which the mass of voters don’t really understand anyway. If, however, an aggressive political contender were to show that the competition had a history of beheading children, poisoning grandparents or some similarly outrageous and totally indefensible atrocity, then they may score a few points in the battle of words. But to use corruption as a discriminator, forget it, nobody knows what to believe around here anyway!

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.


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  1. An article that reflects my own experiences here over 20 years. BUT, it does not apply to all, and I have many friends and aquaintances who are both honest and loyal. I also ponder on the fact that the most Filipinas I know in the UK are honest, hard working, and respected for their friendly manner. I think it is the culture here rather than something intrinsic to Filipinos.It is also a survival strategy for some in a corrupt and deeply unequal society.

  2. This story might help. A Catholic priest and a Muslim cleric decided to visit each other’s places of worship. First they went to a church where the Muslim cleric asked, “Aren’t we going to leave our dirty shoes outside ?” The priest replied, “My goodness, of course not. People will steal your shoes here as they steal wallets, handbags or anything unattended.” Next day they went to a mosque where the priest was surprised to see that worshippers had to leave their shoes outside. “But won’t they get stolen?” the unbelieving prelate asked. “Don’t worry, Father,” said the cleric, “Around here, you are the only Catholic, the rest of us are all Muslims.” The function of any religion in any society be it primitive or modern is to provide a moral compass for that society. What you are witnessing, Mr Wooton, is a FAILURE OF RELIGION, and guess what religion has been purportedly providing that moral compass around here for the last 500 years ? The real underlying cause is a spiritual lack that the Catholic Church has miserably failed to address, although as you can see they have done very well for themselves in terms of acquiring power and wealth. How spiritually thirsty the Filipino has become can be gleaned in the proliferation of religious demagogues lately, and is a tragic testament to the real intention and history of the Church in this country when they first blackened the spirit of our happy but gullible people five centuries ago.

  3. & talking of paying for votes, if i were a voter here i would accept payments from all of them saying i would vote for them but i would vote for the one i think will do the best for my country. But if they offered money i would accept it. They would think they were buying my vote but they wouldnt be.
    If we all did that, they would soon realise that & stop paying people for their votes, its very simple.

  4. I find people who know filipinos describe them as un trustworthy & since ive lived here ive seen first hand how un trustworthy they can be. The house we bought was with a 15% discount, when i sent the money to my wife the agent said the discount has gone, my wife shouted at her & told her we will look for another house, so now she will lose all her commission as well, then suddenly the 15% discount was back on, she was just trying to steal hundreds of thousands of pesos over & above her commission. Also she should have split her commission with a colleague which she didnt do. Another time another agent & friend was supposed to go 50/50 on the commission of P150,000 but she tried to tell my wife the customer had dropped the commission to P100,000. I could go on & on with the immigration, the car regeristering, & so on & so on. Every flip wants to cheat in every single deal, its in their genes, they cant help themselves. No wonder they dont trust the rest of the world as they think they are just the same over there as they are here, how wrong can you be.

  5. We need a strong willed ruler for a prolonged period of time who is honest and at the same time disciplinarian to reform our society like what Lee Kwan Yoo did in Singapore. Even if we revise our constitution if we have the same set of Political Dynasts to dominate our government, such reform is not possible. Even our church leaders cannot factor in the so called moral reform to our leaders, instead, some religious leaders even collaborate with them by selling their votes to favor some politicians.

  6. Of course it has been postulated that language evolved so that we could lie to one another more effectively than by using body language. Not sure where that puts pinoys on the evolutionary scale!- or any one else for that matter.