Service before patriotism

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EI SUN OH

I HAVE always felt like patriotism is at best a luxury in developing countries. This is of course a rather provocative and somewhat controversial statement. But we must be real to ourselves and not be blindsided by those (often in power) who employ patriotism as but one tool for their self-serving purpose, which is to exploit the pure and innocent sentiments of the many for the privilege of the few.

Let’s make no mistake about this. The first and foremost priority for a developing country or region is by definition, well, to sustainably develop and bring about the well-being and happiness for the greatest number of people. I know this smacks of the utilitarian views of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. But at least the university he founded, University College London, tries to live up to his pragmatic views by nurturing as many scholar-practitioners as possible, not least from developing countries, who go on to change the worldfor the better, albeit a little at a time, in their own different ways as they embark on their productive careers.

A nation or country is but an abstract socio-political concept aggregating the diverse individuals who happen to live on the same piece of land and thus share perhaps similar cultural outlooks (even this is not necessarily so, as there are many multicultural countries in the world, including the Philippines and Malaysia) into a unitary political construct. Such a construct must therefore serve its productive purpose, and that is to better the material and sometimes even spiritual lots of the individuals making up the construct. The individuals are real flesh-and-blood human beings whose lives need to be sustained and their livelihood improved. The nation is ethereal and expresses its “being” only by wielding the enormous powers (such as those to punish severely or to destroy violently through its agents) that it arrogates from the individuals, with or without (as is most often the case in developing countries) the latter’s consent.

In this sense, a nation must be “populistic” (the converse of patriotic) in nature, with a firm orientation toward serving the needs of the individuals making it up, and not so much the other way around. Ever since I first heard about it in an old documentary, I have always had an issue with the late US President John F. Kennedy’s lofty sounding call for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is true that the “inspiring” call led, among other things, to the creation of the US Peace Corps, whose volunteers undertook many tangible and intangible development efforts around the world, including, again, in the Philippines and Malaysia.And as such, Americans of that and a few subsequent generations did indeed do what they could for not only their own country, but also the world.

We should be thankful for that brand of altruistic American internationalism, which is of course getting increasingly hard to come by, as the new American administration apparently places more importance on its domestic priorities (as is it’s right to do so) and is in the process of withdrawing large portions of its international aid. But let’s also be clear that Kennedy could cavalierly make that “do for your country” clarion call at his presidential inauguration because there was already a solid materialistic foundation for so doing. That is to say, the America of the early 1960s had long emerged from the scourge of World War 2 in the 1940s and the even further back, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Though engrossed in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, America, with its powerful industrial and agricultural base, had become a developed society with rabid consumerism by then. In a sense, the American nation had by then done its share to lift the living standards of its citizens to the greatest heights in human history. So, America at that time could perhaps more rightfully demand of its citizens to reciprocate by doing what they could for the country (and the world).

That is certainly not the case for the great majority of developing nations around the world. Many such countries have not rendered great service to its citizens, with inadequate infrastructure, substandard education, alarming public health, rampant corruption, widespread crime, but often curiously bloated military or other security apparatus. The kleptomaniac, nepotistic and, even more alarmingly, pugilistic nature of the many regimes which rule such nations are often masqueraded with pomp and circumstances and catchy slogans calling for, you guess it, patriotism on the part of its citizens. Bogeymen enemies, be it domestic or foreign, are often artificially and deliberately created to distract the citizens from the actual crucial concerns of national development (for such is not the priority of the state) and to channel their collective dissatisfaction into the magical realm of patriotism.

I am adamantly of the humble opinion that a country must first perform its due share of serving the needs of its citizens, way before it could even remotely demand patriotism from its citizens. Any deal or transaction must be mutually beneficial. It doesn’t make sense and should be voided when it is one-sided or, worse, coerced.

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