Problems get no hearing beyond the TV sound bite


That we Filipinos are a happy people is well known—and much admired. Our boundless optimism contrasts with the pervading gloom of our East Asian neighbors, the prosperous South Koreans, who have the second-highest suicide rate in the world.

There are few communal activities we take seriously—least of all the way we choose our political leaders. But 130 candidates for president in 2016—in the COMELEC’s initial listing—may be carrying our personalist politics to a ridiculous extreme.

Showcase no more
Certainly the days are long gone when we could speak of our country as “Democracy’s Showcase in Asia.” We’ve become acutely aware of how hard it is to make representative processes work in our social setting.

Democratic institutions introduced while so many were still poor and insecure have left the masses of our people vulnerable to patronage politics. Yet representative government depends on the quality of its underlying civic culture.

Until now we have no ruling groups with an encompassing interest in what happens to national society. Factionalism deprives even the presidency of reliable legislative support—making the office weaker in practice than in our constitutional theory.

As for the lesser politicians confined to narrow constituencies, they have even less incentive and capability to ponder national policies. Hence they concern themselves only with how to obtain public resources for themselves and their followings.

This makes both Congress and the Cabinet departments vulnerable to the importuning of interest groups. Right now there are apparently close to a hundred selective incentives to industries passed by Congress that the finance department wants repealed—but Congress refuses to do.

No policy debates
Philippine elections are naked struggles for power and the emoluments of office—not debates over alternative public policies. In the cacophony of the electoral campaign, even the gravest and most urgent national problem gets little hearing—beyond the TV sound bite.

So that seven decades after Independence we still have a weak state; an economy still dominated by special interests; and consequently a highly unequal society still characterized by grievous and chronic poverty.

There is such widespread dissatisfaction with government, and the direction in which the country is heading, that lack of experience has become an asset, rather than a handicap, for a presidential candidate. Yet until we build a stronger and more competent state, we will not be able to act authoritatively on our problems.

Missing the bus
Not just once but at several junctures in the post-Independence period, we had missed the bus to modernization.

For Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan, land tenure reform became the foundation of industrialization and inclusive growth. But though successive governments have promised “land-for-the-landless” for 80 years, we’ve failed to get it done.

We also failed to make the obligatory shift from import-substituting industrialization to manufacturing for export that our neighbors used to transform their economies technologically. Until now, our manufactures cannot compete in global markets.

Poverty and inequality
Meanwhile we’ve become a country of great poverty and income inequality. In 2011, the 40 richest Philippine families apparently accounted for 76% of all our country’s gross national income. The two richest families alone owned 6% of the whole economy.

What’s more, the concentration of wealth long ago became self-reinforcing, since the rich could use their economic and political resources to protect—and enhance—their interests.

At the other extreme, 13.2% of all Filipinos (in 2009) still lived on the equivalent of one US dollar a day—the UN’s definition of absolute poverty. This was higher than Indonesia’s 7.7% and Vietnam’s 8.40%. By then, Malaysia and Thailand had virtually wiped out absolute poverty from among their peoples.

Coercion or consensus?
There’s yet another facet to our country’s poverty: an abnormally large proportion of Filipinos subsists just above the poverty line—hostages to calamity, inflation, job losses, illnesses, deaths and other misfortunes. The opinion survey group Pulse Asia estimates this vulnerable non-poor at two-thirds of all our people; and it is from this volatile group that social upheavals could begin.

Toward the end of his life, the Jesuit sociologist John J. Carroll felt that already Philippine society was being kept together more by coercion than by consensus.

We need to mitigate the harshness of our communal life. Governments must make growth work deliberately for the poor; and in my view they succeed best when in their policies they combine the individual initiative that capitalism stimulates with socialism’s compassion for those whom growth leaves behind.

In recent times, GDP growth has been both robust and continuous. But our poor have continued to increase in their numbers and existential hardships. The fact is that growth by itself is never enough. In our country, the lack of accompanying social “safety nets” and redistributive policies has restricted its poverty-reducing effects.

This is why I believe we should adopt “affirmative action” programs for our poorest communities. Obviously these programs should fit felt and urgent needs. Of course they must also be time-limited.

India mistakenly wrote a quota system in federal jobs for lower-castes in its 1947 Constitution that sets off social disturbances till now.

The CCTs (conditional cash transfers) program is working well enough for government to extend it to high-school level.

Security threats
National security has become yet another urgent issue, as China grows more and more assertive in East Asia. President Xi Jinping does not equivocate in setting out Beijing’s claim to virtually all of the South China [West Philippine] Sea—a claim that also relegates the states in the first group of islands ringing our great inland sea within China’s sphere of influence.

The brusqueness with which Beijing has been pursuing its claim leaves us little choice but to fall back on our historic treaty claims on the protection of its rival capital, Washington.

Of course Philippine and American interests do not coincide necessarily; our policymakers should keep in step with their nationalist support at every juncture.


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  1. You are assuming that what we have is a real democracy, a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If you assume its a faux democracy, the whys and the what assume a clarity not seen before. As you said in your article, we are held together by coercion not by consensus (as if the democratic America wasn’t), so where is the coercion coming from? Isn’t it from the Kleptoligarchs?

  2. Thanks again, for a great article which I hope and pray will gain the eyes, ears and mind of our government leaders and powerful businessmen and industrialists.

  3. In my college graduation rites in a top Jesuit school our valedictorian solemnly entoned in his address “to our elders you have bungled with the past we trust that you will hand on to us the future”. That was 45 years ago and I must confess nothing has changed much since then. We too have bungled with the past I am sorry to admit and with the few years left in my life I am not at all confident I will still see my country and it’s people rise above the morass that plagues us since forever.

  4. Carl Zimmerman on

    I agree that the democratic forms transferred by American colonizers haven’t worked well. But the experience with the Marcos regime hardly supports the alternative of authoritarian rule. I question the notion of robust economic growth. It is easy to achieve a fairly high rate of growth when starting from a very low base, as is the case here. The Philippine economy still lags behind its neighbors and fails to attract significant amounts of foreign investment. Nor is it catching up. Instead Filipinos continue to leave the country for jobs abroad.

    • Its only this American-style democracy or the authoritarian regime of Marcos, there is nothing in between, is there?