Prof. Butch Dalisay: We need a new cultural revolution to know what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world

Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr.
14th APRU Senior Staff Meeting
7 September 2016

Good morning, and a very pleasant welcome to all of you to the Philippines and to this historic island of Mactan, the site of a fateful (and, for some adventurers such as Ferdinand Magellan) a fatal encounter between East and West nearly 600 years ago.

I’ve been given the formidable assignment of helping you understand the Philippines today—something that I’m not entirely certain I do, myself. I could give you the safe Wikipedia version of contemporary Philippine history and politics, or alternatively the even safer Department of Tourism spiel. But I should forewarn you that on top of being an academic, I’m a creative writer—a weaver of tales and fables—and as all governments and administrators know, creative writers can never be trusted with safe versions of the truth.

So this morning, at some risk of exaggeration, I’ll embark on a sharply angled view of Philippine affairs, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I make one too many references to the United States, as this talk taps into a paper I delivered last year on Philippine democracy and modernization as a Pacific Leadership Fellow at the University of California, San Diego.

Who, exactly, are we Filipinos? Two years ago, a Gallup poll revealed that Filipinos were the most emotional people on the planet. We laugh and we cry with equal facility—so don’t be too surprised if this talk descends from the sublime to the ridiculous within a paragraph of each other.

I’ll begin on what might sound like an unseasonably disconcerting note—we Filipinos have a penchant for self-flagellation—but no worries, this will end well, as should the story of the Philippines itself. Let me open with the proposition that to understand the Philippines is to accept it as a nation of stark contrasts and contradictions.

For example, there’s freedom of expression aplenty in the Philippines, a freedom we’re told we often mistake for democracy itself. This is a society practically with no taboos, no sacred cows, and very little fear of authority, having had centuries of experience in dealing with colonizers, dictators, and despots. We have one of the freest presses in the world, amplified by totally unregulated social media. The flip side of all this is that, by some accounts, this is also one of the most dangerous and deadliest places in the world, after Iraq and Syria, for journalists (but hardly ever novelists and poets—I think oppressors prefer nonfiction, as no Filipino novelist has been shot for his beliefs since the Spanish executed Jose Rizal in 1896).

We respect our elders—senior citizenship in the Philippines has many pecuniary and honorific privileges—but we will not automatically defer to their judgment. Academic mentors are highly valued but not deified, and any kind of authority—government, Church, military, academic—has had to face a longstanding tradition of protest and resistance.

Anyone who has been here will remark how easily our people smile, even and especially in the most difficult and awkward of circumstances. This is a country periodically ravaged by both natural and man-made disasters, with infernal traffic in Manila, whose international airport is reputedly among the most vexatious in the world, and a political system best described as feudal. And yet again, this is a country of the most resourceful and resilient people, a country blessed with such natural bounty and beauty that one wag once described it as “a rich country pretending to be poor.”

By most reports, the Philippines is one of Asia’s brightest economic spots, with GDP growth averaging about 5 percent over the past decade, and even hitting 7.2% in 2013 despite the ravages of super-typhoon Haiyan; that growth rate stood at a pacesetting 7.0% this first half of 2016. And yet many millions of Filipinos continue be left behind by this growth surge, with about a fourth of the population remaining below the $2-per-day poverty line as of 2012. Within minutes, one can move from the poshest gated villages to the most squalid slums and from industrial zone to pristine farmland.

This is a country with one foot in the 19th century and yet another squarely in the 21st; about 22 million or a fifth of our population still live without electricity, but the Philippines has also been called the texting capital of the world, peaking at about 400 million SMS messages sent every day—four for every Filipino—or over 140 billion text messages a year. Just last year I saw a chart reporting that Filipinos are among the world’s heaviest users of the Internet, averaging 6 hours a day, most of it on mobile social media, where we ranked No. 2.

These contrasts are, of course, hardly unique to the Philippines in today’s globalized world, where traditional societies have been overlaid with growing patches of modernity and the mindsets that come with exposure to foreign shores. What distinguishes the Philippines is its cultural and political position as a gateway between East and West, a position asserted in its longstanding claim—often made as a boast—of being the “only predominantly Christian English-speaking country in Asia.” This, as we shall see, has upsides and downsides.

The Philippines is a country of over 100 million people. At 300,000 square kilometers, the Philippines is just about as large as Arizona or Germany; but unlike either, it’s an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, or three main island groups, broken down further into 17 administrative regions and 81 provinces. By one count, we have around 175 languages, with English and Tagalog, which forms the core of Filipino, the national language, widely spoken throughout the country. More than 80 percent of Filipinos are at least nominally Roman Catholic; about 5 percent are Muslim. There are also over a hundred indigenous groups struggling to preserve their culture and heritage against the onslaught of Manila and Hollywood. As of 2014, more than half—53%—of our population was below 25 years old.

What this all means is a recipe for cultural and political fragmentation, along regional and linguistic and perhaps even generational lines, a fragmentation exacerbated by centuries of colonial rule, which should have brought us together as a people, but rather estranged us from one another even as we broke free of our colonizers—the rich from the poor, the north from the south, the Christian from the Muslim, the old from the young. The most important divisor, of course, is class, which cuts across everything else.

This brings to us our history, which has also been described, only half in jest, as having spent “350 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” When Ferdinand Magellan came to the Philippines—not yet so named—in 1521, he discovered a thriving society actively trading with its neighbors, with its own language and literature, and its own culture. He also met the sharp end of Chief Lapulapu’s sword. But we soon took to Roman Catholicism, and it was an embrace not only of a new God but of a mindset steeped in the virtues of suffering on earth for the rewards of heaven.

Our ruling class saw Spain as the Mother Country and sought representation in the Spanish parliament, but Spain would have none of it, and so revolution became inevitable, with generals and ministers from the landed gentry leading battalions of the poor. Just when we were about to win our freedom in 1898, another invader stepped in to snatch it away. This was none other than the United States, which had gone to war with Spain, and which was therefore claiming the Philippines as collateral damage. Commodore George Dewey sailed out of Hong Kong with his Asiatic Squadron and easily overwhelmed a small and decrepit Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The Spaniards surrendered and left, picking up a check for $20 million at the Treaty of Paris before handing over the Philippines to America.

And so began our next colonial adventure—not even 50 years long, but no less indelible, and perhaps even culturally and politically more powerful, than all those centuries of Spanish domination.

When President William McKinley supposedly fell to his knees in 1900 to beg the Almighty for divine guidance about what do with the Philippine Islands, the Lord must have been in a wicked mood. According to McKinley, God whispered to him to “take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

Today, more than a hundred years later, it’s clear that McKinley—or the Almighty—had no idea what America was getting into.

In other venues and especially in the US, I’ve often begun my presentations on the Philippines with this simple statement: “We were your first Vietnam.” And indeed we were. That complicated relationship began with a war of resistance that for the longest time was known only as the Philippine Insurrection, despite the fact that 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 civilians died in it, against just over 4,000 American deaths. Only in 1999 did the Library of Congress finally rename its Philippine Insurgent Records to the Philippine-American War.

The Muslims never did give in to Gen. John J. Pershing and his men. The Filipino Muslims led such fearsome charges that, according to contemporary American accounts, the US Army was forced to upgrade to the Colt .45 in 1902 for its stopping power. But most of the rest of us did, and it didn’t take too long before we fell in love with English, with Hollywood, and, inevitably, with that newfangled concept, democracy. This change of mind and heart was achieved not by the bullet but by the book.

Public education in English was given special attention; the military governor, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, the father of Douglas, himself ordered the funding of schools as “an adjunct to military operations.”

Within a decade of American occupation, Filipinos were studying and publishing in America; the first known literary publication by Filipinos in English was a magazine put out by Filipino students in Berkeley in 1905. At home, the University of the Philippines—my university—was established in 1908, modeled in some ways after schools like Harvard and Michigan, with a strong emphasis on liberal education.

I don’t mean to provide the whole history of Philippine-American relations here, but I raise these points to highlight the modeling and the patterning that marked the period of American colonial occupation, formally from 1898 to 1946, but with an influence that extends well into the present.

Over much of that period, whatever was American—the term we used was “Stateside”—was deemed to be superior. Not only did we switch to English and largely forget Spanish within a couple of generations; aside from American fashions, we adopted American jurisprudence, and were given a Supreme Court which wasn’t supreme enough, because its decisions could be appealed before the US Supreme Court in Washington. We were given a bicameral legislature, with a Senate and a National Assembly that was the equivalent of Congress. We learned about and launched national political parties, and threw ourselves with gusto into the electoral process. The Philippine press became as active and as raucous as its American counterpart.

In other words, we began seeing ourselves as having been created or recreated in America’s own image, and as a showcase of American-style democracy in what was called the Far East. We made Douglas MacArthur a Field Marshal, and allied ourselves squarely with the US in the First and Second World Wars, in Korea, and in Vietnam. We hosted two major military bases—Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base—which became linchpins of American defense policy in the Pacific, especially during the Vietnam War, until they were forced to leave in 1991 by a vote of the Philippine Senate.

America, of course, cherished its special partnership with the Philippines, for obvious economic and political reasons. Under the guise of free trade, we became a major source of raw materials and a market for US goods, and our location marked us as a strategic outpost overlooking China and Japan.

Many Americans liked to believe that they had succeeded in parenting a bright young child halfway around the world; as late as 2003, George Bush was still holding up the Philippines as a model for what America was seeking to achieve in the Middle East, as a project in “liberation” and “democracy.”

And here we have to pause and wonder exactly what kind of democracy we have in the Philippines, and what needs to be done to achieve a fuller sense of the word.

The word, of course, is inherently complicated, with variations of meaning throughout history and across political systems, from definitions that insist on the rule of the majority to others that emphasize the presence and promotion of alternatives to the prevailing regime.

It’s been suggested that what obtains in the Philippines today is a semblance or simulacrum of democracy, but not the thing itself. It’s an attractive proposition, but I can’t buy it wholesale, again because most Filipinos enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms absent in patently undemocratic societies—freedom of expression, of religious belief, of association, of mobility, of enterprise; the right to vote, and a presumptive equality under the law, which is probably the weakest leg our democracy stands on, undermined by gross economic and social inequalities in our society. Those inequalities—which we can oversimplify by saying that 10 percent of everyone own 90 percent of everything—are the single most important factor defining the Philippines and its future today, and lends some credence to the argument that Philippine democracy is a democracy of style and spirit rather than one of substance.

Indeed, economically and politically, the Philippines has been largely ruled for more than a century by an elite, a roomful of families from the landed gentry and comprador capitalists who developed their wealth and power as agents and executors of colonization, and have taken turns at governing the country well into the present, with the quiet support of the postwar taipans. In that sense, our new President represents the counter-elite, which likely accounts for his popularity, but only time will tell if he and his family will join other budding dynasties in a new elite shaped less by election spending than by name recognition in the traditional and social media.

Philippine politics today can only be described as atrociously dynastic, with the members of one or two families alternating for political control of provinces, towns, and cities; in many places, we don’t have a two-party system, but a two-family system. Political parties do exist in the Philippines, but they’re largely flags of convenience, ideologically indistinguishable from one another, except for what remains of the old Left, which has now allied itself with the present administration. Not surprisingly, the judicial branch of government has been subject to the same pressures of power and patronage, which can trump the rule of law.

We obviously cannot achieve political reform without achieving a better balance in our economic and social structure, and here I see the best hope for true democracy in the Philippines in the form of our enlarging, educated middle class. They may not yet have the economic and political clout of the elite, but coming from the poor and aspiring to become more prosperous, they have the most at stake in creating a new regime of opportunity and openness.

It is the middle class that has served as the voice of Philippine democracy, primed by its education to value freedom of thought and expression. It is the middle class that stands at the vanguard of modernization, having not just the desire but also the means—through education and entrepreneurship—to change the future. It is the middle class—especially in the Philippines—that goes out in the world, works there, learns from the experience, and comes home with raised expectations.

At this point I should note that one out of every ten Filipinos now lives and works abroad—about three million in the US alone—in a decades-long diaspora that has kept the Philippine economy afloat through remittances amounting to about $30 billion in 2015. But they bring home not only money but new ideas, and I feel confident that, in the long run and for all its social costs, this diaspora will have salutary effects because that domestic helper in Milan or mechanic in Bahrain will no longer be simply a domestic helper or mechanic when they come home. Tourists bring home snapshots of pretty places and exotic food; foreign workers bring home real learning, lessons in survival and getting ahead, and raised expectations of their local and national leaders.

This exposure to global culture and its elevation of local aspirations will, I believe, be the one of the strongest forces in reshaping the Filipino future. And again, it is the middle class—the denizens of the Internet and the Ulysses of this new century—that will lead in this transformation, just as they have led the most important movements for political and social reform in our history.

Our Communist Parties—theoretically led by a vanguard of workers and peasants—have in fact been led by the middle class. The millions who massed on the streets and ousted the dictator Marcos in 1986 were predominantly middle class. In the aftermath of EDSA, as that event was called, the Philippines, with its newly reclaimed democratic space, became the seedbed for tens of thousands of NGOs that now form the core of one of the world’s strongest representations of civil society.

This is one of the bright spots of Philippine society today—the fact that civil society is very much alive, constantly on guard against governmental corruption or corporate wrongdoing, ever ready to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens and communities, and firmly rooted in those communities.

On this note, from the things that have held us back, I’d like to move on to some of the things that are helping us move forward.

As I mentioned at the outset of this talk, the Philippines is full of sharp and often perplexing contradictions. But we have also managed to make many of those contradictions work to our strategic benefit.

We value family and kinship very highly, but it’s that same love of family that has impelled millions of Filipinos to seek jobs abroad—a temporary separation that sends home $30 billion a year. These remittances by our overseas workers remain the strongest driver of the Philippine economy. Not far behind is our BPO industry—our call centers and back-office operations—which generated $22 billion in 2015 and directly employed 1.1 million Filipinos, among the best performances in the world. That draws directly on our colonial legacy of English-speaking education, which we never really abandoned despite the upsurge of nationalist sentiment.

As our economists have noted, these two factors have had tremendous multiplier effects, driving consumption expenditure and commercial and housing construction. Foreign direct investment is at a decade-long high, buoyed by the previous administration’s strong stance against corruption. A 2012 study by HSBC predicted that by 2050, the Philippines shall have risen 27 places to become the world’s 16th largest economy. According to that report, “The star performer [in the region] is the Philippines where the combination of strong fundamentals and powerful demographics gives rise to an average growth rate of 7% for the coming 40 years.”

We can see how this will happen. Tax reforms and increased spending on education, health, and infrastructure will grow the economy further in the coming years. The key will be consistency of policy and sustained implementation, political unity and will (admittedly not the easiest thing to achieve), and the willingness to adapt and to invest. In education, to align ourselves more closely with the rest of the world, we have adopted a K-12 program and even adjusted our academic calendar. Bucking decades of neglect, the government has also begun to invest massively in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and research, particularly through the National Science Complex in my university.

But I’d like to draw special attention to one of my pet concerns: the emergence of what have been called the creative industries, which embrace a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts. These are areas which tap into centuries of cultural talent and expressiveness in the Filipino, adapted to the digital and global age.

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than $14 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines, over 7% of GDP for that year. Indeed, cultural talent has become one of our major exports. In an article I’m writing for Esquire magazine, I point to the fact that the animation industry in the US—Pixar, for example—is dominated by Filipinos, who also figure very prominently in the booming comics industry, at Marvel and DC. The Emmy award-winning animator of “The Simpsons” was a Filipino, an alumnus of our university. Clearly this is where we’ve taken advantage of our experience and position at the nexus of East and West, of tradition and technology. (I should also add that Filipino scientists and engineers have made key global breakthroughs in areas as diverse as graphics accelerators and microbial cellulose.)

But beyond the bottom line, of course, culture is a powerful instrument of social and political reform and modernization. Considering the contradictions and the gaps I mentioned earlier, culture can do much to bridge the divides, to forge and sustain a set of core values, of national interests that cut across family, class, and region.

We need nothing less than a new cultural revolution leading to our own understanding and acceptance of what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world. We have to agree on who we are, what we want, and how to get what we want—and achieving that agreement is the task of culture.

Forging that identity is crucial to securing our future, again in a world and in a part of the world where our neighbors seem to have very clear ideas about their roles and capabilities. In this ocean of resurgent nationalisms, we Filipinos need to redefine ourselves as more than America’s students and surrogates. And again, it will likely be the educated Filipino, steeped in political and cultural discourse, who will lead in this enterprise.

I prefer to see democracy as a process rather than a product; the aspiration can be as powerful as its actualization. This democracy is first formed by its assertion: by seeking democracy, we begin to achieve it, and this assertion is the task of our artists, writers, thinkers, teachers, and opinion makers, the imaginative shapers of our national identity.

The chatter of Filipino voices may sound like conflict or confusion to others, but I like to think that it’s the hallmark of a society where people have not stopped asking questions and seeking answers, as we encourage our students to do—the best environment for education that we can hope for.

Thank you all for your attention.