The neoliberal nightmare, IS-Manila, and the Philippine elite

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“How did you manage to transcend the neoliberal nightmare that is the international school system in Southeast and East Asia?!” a sharp, progressive PhD Candidate in Sociology at Yale University recently asked me. “It’s America outside America. You get these impermanent placements of three years here, three years there, which feature no deep investment in the community, just transient profit-making, and provide no understanding of the local—all while being fed this bullshit discourse on global citizenship as if you’re worldly and knowledgeable, and it ultimately produces kids who feel they can speak on behalf of other cultures just because they happened to be stationed in cities temporarily by their parents’ multinational company that incidentally also sheltered them, providing them with transportation, apartments in gated communities, and tuition to attend these prestigious international schools where they only socialize with other kids in the same situation.”

“Oh yeah,” I told him, “living in Hong Kong during the boom of the 1990s I would attend sleepovers at age 9 at which each girl would show up with a different ‘industry duffel bag’ bearing the name of whichever investment bank her father happened to work for.”

“Do you not want to rip your eyes out when you talk to those international school kids?” He looked at me seriously: “Do you not loath them?” He pushed to the root of his incredulousness: “Have you found an alternative ground on which to rest your societal critique that is compatible with their neoliberalism? What is the substance of your discussions of critical theory with them?”

Neoliberalism arose in the 1970s as a governmental response to the economic climate in the USA and UK. In the context of the Philippines, Noynoy Aquino’s Philippine Development Plan and Public-Partnership Program best represent the current administration’s neoliberal policies, which leftist groups such as the militant political party Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM) see as a continuation of the failed economic policies implemented since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. Echoing aspects of my friend’s characterization, the PLM stated in December, 2011: “We reject the government’s plan to continue with plan to continue with the policies of widespread privatization of remaining government assets and projects, economic liberalization, deregulation, regressive taxation, and measures which have been found to be a burden to the population and a boon to only a select few in the country. The select few represent the big foreign and local corporations who stand to gain in these measures, which also include the implementation of rampant contractualization of labor in industries.” (See “Philippines: PLM Rejects Neoliberal Policies of the Government” on indybay.org from December 8, 2011)


The despairing position in which we find ourselves in the Philippines, of course, is that neither the jobless growth that neoliberal policies have engendered nor the perpetual inefficiency and corruption of state intervention suggests a program equipped to address our country’s harrowing conditions of inequality and injustice. The questions, however, of “how I managed to transcend the neoliberal nightmare of the international school system” and “what is the substance of my discussions of critical theory with my ISM friends” are interesting. The short answer is, firstly, that my friend gave me far too much credit in his assumptions.

The second answer, however, is that the neoliberal nightmare he identifies in the international school system may be the overriding nightmare in the schools of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Jakarta, but it is not the operative haunting at the International School of Manila. When he asked me if I loathed the international school kids, I told him that, far to the contrary, those kids are my best friends. Moreover, in some respects, they probably would have ended up being the main members of my social circle even if none of us had ever attended ISM. Up until fairly recently, the uppermost socio-economic class in the Philippines sent their children to be educated in the best local private schools in the country: Assumption, Xavier, Ateneo, et al. Indeed, my father had at first insisted that his children not be “strangers in their own country” and in the early 1990s actively championed local schools even in the face of mounting globalization.

However, once we returned to Manila in 1997 after nearly five years in Hong Kong, it seemed, suddenly, that that prior logic no longer held. If we were to receive the best education available we should attend ISM, and, moreover, having lived in Hong Kong, it became a question whether we would “even be suited” to the local schools’ pedagogy. The local schools were no longer adequate for the newly globalized elite, though just a few years before they very much were. It was not necessarily that the quality of the schools rapidly diverged over a few short years, but that rather the system of cultural capital had changed and globalized. Indeed, by the time I left high school, attending local universities was nearly unthinkable for the majority of Filipinos in my graduating class.

At ISM, my best friends were not the “global citizens” of multinational companies that my sociologist friend described. They were the “globalized elite” of the Philippines, many of whom formerly attended local schools, just as I did, but who now were destined to become even more like strangers to the eyes of the majority in their country. At ISM, the spectrum of people I interacted with widened in terms of nationality and culture, but narrowed in terms of socio-economic class and privilege. The historical consolidation of the oligarchy in the Philippines is deeply written into and visible in my social life and I do not know clearly how to feel about it, nor can I even fully seek to transcend it without a certain pang of loss. This is precisely because of the ways in which that consolidation has become inflected with bonds of intimacy and belonging.

One of my best friends and I both have forefathers who were signatories to the Malolos Constitution. What are the chances that our forebears would be close friends and that one hundred years later we two would also be close friends? In the Philippines, sadly: very high. I cannot help but feel proud to be part of something larger than myself, something historical at that, and happy that the people closest to me now are there with me too in history. Yet, I also am deeply conscious of what that continuity—which to us just feels like friendship—has meant for the rest of the country and that I should, actually, be ashamed of the fact that my best friend and I share this.

In the early 1990s, I attended Assumption and my brother attended Xavier, and when I look at pictures of our birthday parties from back then, I see the faces of the people who ultimately went on to be my best friends at ISM, but who then attended Ateneo and La Salle. I was not yet friends with them then, but our parents were longstanding friends and acquaintances. This is why I know that I probably would have been friends with them no matter what school we all attended. The problem in the Philippines is and remains social inequality and the consolidation of the national oligarchy and the concentration of wealth and power in its hands.

The dimension that the most recent wave of globalization has added to this is the way in which it has further separated us from the rest of our country, and made us more similar to the elite of other international schools, of other countries, than to those living with and around us—to our kababayan who no longer expect us to speak anything but English. Unlike the rest of the Filipino diaspora, when we leave for the First World, it is not because we cannot survive on the wages afforded to us in our home country, but rather to enjoy foreign freedoms, to acquire the cultural capital of the First World, or, most shamefully, to become “disciplined.” While attending ISM, my father judged that we were becoming “soft” at home, and that we need to live in the USA for a while to see what life “is really like” in the world without maids, without cooks, and without drivers. This is the deep irony of the split-level Philippine diaspora. I see Filipinos on the street and on the subway in New York City, and we are strangers there, just as we are at home.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University

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3 Comments

  1. Juan "Mike"V. del Rosario on

    I left the Philippines (Iloilo) almost immediately after WWII, arrived in NYC a month or so after my eleventh birthday. My schooling therefore was essentially American: parochial school, (Catholic) high school & (Catholic) university. It’s no surprise that my perspective is something of a blend of the ‘higher’ level Filipino outlook from my parents & ‘common’ American mores from our friends and people around us.

    While we grew up in a ‘middle class’ neighborhood in Queens, it was chaning rapidly. An influx of blacks, resulting possibly from WWII, and ‘others’ – of which we constituted a part as ‘imports’, was not totally welcome in the perception of the original residents. This in itself reflected a more hierarchic outlook even in the minds of ‘middle class’ New Yorkers – more so in the many friends and acquaintances that we developed that were upper middle class or truly wealthy and ‘well-born’ (in Pelham, Westchester, Park Avenue, for example).

    Eventually, I met and married a Filipina and returned to Manila. Frankly, it was a culture shock. I was astounded that even within the companies I worked for, there was hardly any interaction between the “mere” rank and file and the managerial levels. One of our employees, for example, passed away, and I wanted to go to his wake, being held in his home. I was discouraged from doing so not only by our fellow managers but supervisors or his co-employees. I insisted in going and found that he lived in a hut in the middle of a swamp accessible only on a walkway of planks of wood supported by sticks – probably within 500 meters of Isaac Peral. His family of course were glad – but embarassed – to have an officer of his company come to their humble home.

    It was a learning experience, one I doubt I will ever forget. It certainly made me appreciate our ‘mere employees’ even more. I am sure the gap, and the perception, is still much the same to this day.

    I would recommend such a trip to our ‘managers’ and ‘owners’ – some of whom may have even come from such harships. Perhaps they will at least have a more balanced perspective on the what they ‘take’ and what they are prepared to ‘give’ to our non-wealthy people.

    Mike del Rosario
    San Francisco, CA

  2. A very refreshing analysis. The UK was far ahead of this after the second world war, with its welfare state and greater social mobility (helped by totally free University education which I enjoyed). Now the UK is not so different from the Philippines in many respects, with growing inequality, social alienation of very many, especially the young, and severely restricted social mobility. The processes described by Nicole are global, and there seems little we can do to break the neoliberal hegemony.

  3. It doesn’t matter how and where the likes of the elites live,they might once in awhile like or pretend to feel for the their lesser beings but in the end they will still rather be friends with their own kind the elites or bourgeois.Have you seen any of them in the Phils marrying one from a poor family? They wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole,going & seeing the poor in their so called “slums” in their once in a lifetime social activities is more than enough.At least in India they have a caste system thus giving the practice a good excuse.