The Philippines’ identity crisis?



I was gazing out the car window one late afternoon, watching a wonderful sunset and wondering about contradictions in the Philippines. This quickly led to my musings on how the Philippines wants itself to be perceived by the rest of the world. For that matter, does Philippines Inc.

really care about what the rest of the world may or may not think about it? Why should it care?

This is not a matter of foreign policy. It’s an image thing, international public relations. A well-publicized and sustainable vision for the Philippines on the world stage. Not something that can be brought about in an insipid neo-liberal sort of way by tinkering around the edges.

On the one hand, there is democracy, friendly people, English language, American education system, regional economic star, taking China to arbitration over the South China Sea land reclamation, the 30 percent of working population employed overseas and outstanding success in the BPO sector.

On the other, there is unconstrained protectionism, corrupt politicians, impunity, violence, bureaucracy that defies any available adjective, courting the USA for support in the China dispute, abject poverty and massive unemployment and a people who just love to shop and have all the latest gizmos. It does not do well in international surveys other than for the quality of its beaches and diving opportunities. Manila has the worst traffic in the world, according to a Waze survey, and it has the highest incidence of impunity in the world.

You can buy an Aston Martin, a Rolls Royce or a Lamborghini, the latest iphone and are told that it is now possible to connect to the Internet at speeds of up to 2 gbps. But there is nowhere to drive those cars as they should be driven, the use of the latest iphone is only as good as the Smart or Globe connection, and speeds of the Internet are dictated by inefficient delivery of the service to the Philippines, so even subscribing for 2gbps is just a waste as the Philippine system cannot deliver it.

The Philippines does not figure too much in the international news. The recent economy numbers have gained some news space as have the natural disasters. Occasionally, there are international pieces on poverty in the Philippines. That is about all. The national elections in 2016 that fill up the news here are of little interest to the international media or frankly to the rest of the world.

The picture of the Philippines gained from the local media is quite different from that seen by an observer in the outside world. “The Philippines is a less developed nation in Southeast Asia, it suffers from typhoons and there are some Filipinos in our neighborhood” is the sort of answer you may get if a random person in Europe were asked what he knew about the Philippines.

Philippines Inc. should market itself. The only question is what should it market itself as? Not as a destination for foreign investment for, given the protectionist environment and the mindless bureaucracy, that would be a cruel deceit. As for having wonderful beaches, well yes perhaps if only it were easier to get to them. As a market for consumer products, certainly until you look at challenges of importation and inability to establish a brand presence other than in a minority partnership with some local business entity.

A slogan such as the now rather hackneyed daang matuwid (straight path) is an internal aim inappropriate for international marketing–why would you need to straighten the path unless it was badly crooked to start with? “Open for business” is another rather odd slogan in the context of the protectionist regulatory environment. “It’s more fun in the Philippines” while a good slogan for tourism has now lost its way to become the cynics’ response to almost everything that goes wrong.

A cohesive and independent national vision is needed perhaps in the manner of the Philippines 2000 initiative. The national identity of less developed nations is frequently subsumed to the espoused aims and vision of heavyweight and charismatic leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew, Mahathir Mohammed, President Ferdinand Marcos, Ho Chi Minh or even Mao Tse Tung.

These people for better or for worse [and frequently "worse”]have attracted international recognition and through that they put their nations well and truly on the world map. Others would be hesitant to trifle with Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam or China. Those historic larger than life figures have been leaders exhibiting varying degrees of despotism but perhaps in order to weld things together and go forward under a single vision a bit of “despotism” is required–not too much, mind you!

It is impossible to pander to the infinite number of views and desires of 100 million people. Somebody has to decide what is right and what is best, where the Philippines wants to be in the world and then map out how it’s going to get there. That same somebody then needs to fight and persuade internally and preferably in a way which does not trample human rights to ensure that the vision is always foremost and progress toward its achievement is remorselessly sustained.

Mike can be contacted at


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  1. Why should the British interfere in the Spratlys? Those islands and yours are not nor ever have been under our sphere of influence barring two short periods which were largely confined to Manila. Nevertheless, the British Government and especially the British People responded magnificently to help you when Yolanda devastated your country. ( incidentally, it only took three days from delivery of British Aid into Manila before the same aid was on sale in Divisoria).
    Every Expat I know in Philippines would concurr with Mike’s observations and the vast majority of locals too. My only criticism is he was obviously trying to be polite. He should’ve mentioned that the main reason that the Philippines is a Thirld World Country and likely to remain so is due to the attitude of its population who display shocking apathy in any attempt to improve the issues he listed, not its corrupt politicians!

  2. Here is a view from a Yank, Brit!!! You just couldn’t help yourself by stating courting the US in the sea dispute and aligning with abject poverty, violence, etc. Has the UK assisted in resolving this crisis? I noticed your country gave nothing but lip service. This situation was started by China and propagated by other nations neglect and corruption. You are a pompous ass!!!!!

    • Way to miss the point. The man speaks painful truths so the reflexive response is to hurl an insult. Good job.