WITHOUT meaning to be disres-pectful or pessimistic, there’s something in our culture that I find disturbing. In a sense, we still live in the past. To quote Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, “There’s so much glorification of the past that it makes it difficult for us to advocate change.”
It would seem that we are in a perpetual state of suspension, allowing other countries, heretofore impoverished, to leapfrog over us—economically, socially and politically—leaving us behind, eating dust, in a manner of speaking.
From number two after Japan in the ‘60’s we now find ourselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Thoughtful pundits in the region refer to the Philippines as the “sick man of Asia.” What went wrong? Who’s to blame?
In his essay, “Culture Matters,” published in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Arias wrote, “Latin Americans must look in the mirror and confront the reality that many of our problems lie not in our stars but in ourselves. Only then will the region finally attain the development it has long sought.” A Filipino who does not know any better would have thought that Arias was writing about the Philippines.
Arias continued: “Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire for making off with the region’s riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself.” Sounds familiar?
In a sense, Arias absolved the colonizers, the foreign powers and financial institutions of having promoted underdevelopment in the region. He said “so much time has passed since independence that Latin Americans have lost the right to use others as the excuse for their own failures.”
As Arias would have it, “Various outside forces have indeed affected the region’s fate. But that is true of every region of the world.” Similarly, the Philippines was much better off and better prepared politically and educationally in the 60’s than its neighbors, like South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. Instead of overtaking our neighbors, it is “us who,” to quote Arias, “fell behind.”
We used to be the envy of our neighbors. In the 60’s, our rich families could hire nannies, babysitters or domestic helpers from Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is now the reverse. Our teachers and other professionals travel overseas not to compete with their peers but to become domestic helpers.
Yet, we boast of hosting some of the oldest learning institutions in the region, if not the world; i.e. the University of Santo Tomas and the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, to mention just two. Our academic institutions were second to none. UP Los Banos, for instance, had foreign students learning how to plant and cultivate quality rice in abundance. Now, decades later, our former foreign students are teaching us how to cultivate and export this precious cereal. From being a rice exporter, we now import rice from Vietnam and Thailand, among other countries.
As studies show, our schools are not producing the kind of professionals that our industries need or, in the words of Arias, “what development demands.” Our schools’ curricula teach nonessential subjects, a waste of time and money, as if the financial burden on the parents is not onerous enough. This is one of the primary reasons why many poor but bright students drop out of college. They find their courses unsatisfactory. Their parents, who could barely keep up with the school expenses, must also spend money on nonessential subjects.
Our educators should consider offering only those courses that will strengthen the knowledge and skills of the students in their chosen disciplines. Do away with noncore subjects. “Specialization,” I believe it is called. Doing so would allow the students to concentrate on the core and more relevant courses, and to save money on extraneous matters.
Our leaders have belatedly accepted the sorry fact that we have already lost our clear advantage in education. In science and math, we are the cellar dweller. Our command of the global lingua franca, English, has dissipated. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia, the tiny island of Taiwan and even the special autonomous region of Hong Kong have surged ahead in quality education. They are producing engineers, scientists, masteral and doctoral graduates much more than we do. In contrast, we mass-produce lawyers and professionals in the field of social sciences and accounting.
The result is unemployment and underemployment. Admittedly, there is a dearth of job opportunities here. Still, job openings exist here and overseas. The problem is a skills mismatch. The skills available are not those that are acutely needed by the industries, local or foreign. I am not talking of domestic helpers or drivers. I am talking about an acute shortage of qualified engineers, scientists, specialized teachers, pharmacists, radiologists, electricians, pipe fitters, welders and other skilled workers.
“Instead of a culture of improvement,” are we “promoting a culture of preservation of the status quo?” asked Arias. Similarly, are we falling into a quick-fix syndrome? Listen to the former Costa Rican President’s admonition: “Constant, patient reform—the only kind of reform compatible with democratic stability—is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pinning for dramatic revolutions that promise abundant treasures only one insurrection away.”
The similarities between many Latin American countries and the Philippines are striking. Like many South American states which were colonized by either Spain or Portugal, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for some 400 years, by the Americans for some 50 years and by the Japanese for 48 brutal months. Catholicism dominates the two places. Uprisings and revolutions have highlighted their histories. Dictatorship at one time or another has flourished in these tropical nations.
“Recognizing our own share of responsibility could be the start of rewriting history,” Arias declared. The question now is: “Do we have the moral courage and the political will to break the status quo where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer?”
The same question may be asked of Filipinos. What would be an honest response?
Our collective experience provides a negative answer. Scanning the horizon on the shoulders of history, we see pessimism darkening our path. No administration has broken the yoke of corruption. No leadership has found a breakthrough in the fight against poverty. The status quo—the unending cycle of economic equality and social injustice—grows stronger year after year.
For this reason, many Filipinos are pinning their last hope on the Man in the Palace. Will Noynoy Aquino III provide—at long last—the leadership to get the economy out of the pit and the example that would goad the bureaucracy to walk the straight and narrow path? His actuations in the last nine months indicate he has the moral courage and political will to chart a new destiny for the Filipinos. The next five years will be most critical.
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