A litany of woe

Niels Mulder

In an interview at the time of Aquino, a UP professor lamented, 'I do not deserve this country'. Some twenty years later, at the ISEAS Conference 'Whither the Philippines in the 21st Century?' (Singapore, 13-14 July 2006), we were presented with the reasons why the good professor held that opinion.

Conferences must have names, and new centuries or millennia offer a ready source of inspiration. A university hereabout advertises, 'Towards excellence in education in the 3rd millennium', which leaves it plenty of time to achieve it. The thirteen papers presented in the present conference proceedings breathe more urgency, and leave us, only two years and an impending economic implosion later, with no sense of where the country is heading for. The desiderata that conclude most chapters are no more than lists of ifs that cannot take shape as long as the state is captured by a few self-perpetuating oligarchs.

Debilitating political system

At the same time that several of the contributions start on the hope-giving note that the Philippines is slowly achieving a rather respectable economic growth, virtually all of them then note the deadweight of a nonproductive, dysfunctional political set-up that will keep the country's masses mired in poverty and that spells no good for any sort of social development. In Rocamora's characterization, that set-up is based on personalistic, clan-based networks of local political notables that are organized in ascending order up to the president of the republic. This corrupt, patronage-ridden system was fully institutionalized through Quezon's revision of Recto's 1935 constitution, although some may argue that it has practically been in place since the early twenties when old and new Filipino elites could relish considerable political autonomy, or even that it dates back to Quezon's meanwhile inveterate invention of foul politicking, known as trapo-ism, that enabled him to snatch the governorship of Tayabas in 1906.

Even as Marcos attempted to change the basics that are at the roots of 'the malaise that plagues one of Asia's gifted underachievers' (2), he was too much a product of the Quezonian 'system' to stand a chance of succeeding. Whatever the chances, had he been a visionary rather than a gifted manipulator, came to naught when Aquino's Freedom Constitution (1986) fully restored the status quo ante, albeit with the provision that the voices of program-oriented politicians should be heard. At the same time, this apparent generosity on behalf of the state-owning class was muted with the clauses that party representation be restricted to 20% of the membership of Congress, and that no single party is to have more than three seats in the House.

In other words, the structural weakness of the state has been consciously built in, and in this absence of strong institutions, the rule of law remains an empty phrase, basic social services cannot be delivered, while giving free rein to the debilitating corruption that undermines the correct execution of infrastructural projects. No wonder, therefore, that the population at large is alienated from the state, and that appeals to nationalism are doomed to fail. The only real challenges the political class faces come from the political desiderata of institutionalized religion, especially the RC Church, a disaffected, politicized military, and a radical constitutional revision.

Virtually all authors present their wish lists about amending the sorry state the country is in. A strong political society needs to be constructed; the rule of law should reign; the state must have strong institutions; economic society should be strong, too, and a flourishing civil society is mandatory. This is most exhaustively argued by Abueva in his chapter on 'Proposed Constitutional Reform for Good Governance and Nation Building', but by adopting such measures, the ruling class would legislate itself out of power. Besides, Abueva is naive when he argues that in the past, charter change could succeed because it was supported by the sitting presidents. In that way, Quezon assured himself of a second term and instituted a servile Senate as his handmaiden. Marcos's revisions were equally self-serving, while Aquino's constitution simply restored her class to power. So, when the present president is in favor of charter change, opponents cannot but suspect her of ulterior motives.



The books first four chapters contain lucid political-science analysis. They range from Caballero-Anthony's situating the Philippines in Southeast Asia (its 'basket case') to Rocamora's well-argued chapter on why the present political set-up cannot and will not deliver. It is followed by Abueva's recommendations, and Hernandez's conclusion that a weak state and corrupted institutions provide an invitation to the military to play an interventionist, non-constitutional role.


The next two chapters, on 'Religion and Politics' and 'The Philippine Press', are descriptive, and their conclusions are not world-shattering. In the first, it is noted that under current circumstances, institutional religion is politicized and efficacious in influencing decisions. Yet, it does not tell us why it is popular among the populace (which ultimately lends it its mobilizing force). When political avenues for the expression and negotiation of demands are closed, religion may become the vehicle of protest of a disfranchised population. The Shah was brought down by it, and it played a considerable role in ousting Marcos, Suharto, and Estrada, at the same time that the Burmese junta may have to fear peaceable monks more than Aung San Suu Kyi. Be that as it may, there is no predicting of the hold of religion on the faithful whence open politics have been established.


The chapter on the English-language press leaves no doubt that its shrinking readership has to contend itself with the antics of traditional politicians, scandal, and in the main ad hoc, extemporized commentary. Investigative journalism is seriously underdeveloped, and incisive analysis of national, let alone world issues is absent. Even so, journalism is a very dangerous occupation, as 'the killings [of its practitioners] are part of a systemic failure, another shameful reflection of the national "culture of impunity"' (137).


The sobering tone of the first six chapters reverberates through the five on the economy. Sicat concludes his review of 'Philippine Macroeconomic Issues and Challenges' with 'the macroeconomic fundamentals could be immensely strengthened through the pursuit of economic ... and structural policy reforms ... that need to address the liberalization of foreign capital participation' (169), and with this we are basically back at the dysfunctional political process. Such conclusions also come to the fore in Wallace's 'Investment Climate and Business Opportunities' that summarizes it neatly as, 'the biggest worry is the level of investment, which will [italics NM] remain far too low for a country that needs to grow' (199). No wonder that these economic considerations, plus the burgeoning population, explain Balisacan's 'Why does Poverty Persist?', while this very persistence largely explains the 'Diaspora, Remittances and Poverty' that Pernia addresses. 'The Philippine Development Record' by Hill and Piza concludes the economics section with the assessment that 'the Philippine development record must surely be judged a disappointment, in the light of its relatively favourable initial conditions and compared to almost all of its East Asian neighbours' (273).


The last two substantive chapters deal with the dogged persistence of the two rebellions plaguing the country for the past forty years. In the first, Abinales deals especially with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose pernicious activities are rooted in 'the long history of Muslim alienation from the national body politic, and the consistent failure of government efforts to address the pervasive deprivation of the Muslim provinces' (300). The author also addresses the possibility that the militants are disaffected by the feudal, hierarchical structure of Muslim society, even as they do not envision the contours of an alternative society other than the idea that 'Islam is the solution'.

The chapter by Magno contains an assessment of the New People's Army that seems to have degenerated to an extortionist racket in the service of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and that is plagued by dogmatic rigidity, and ever narrowing recruitment and logistics bases, at the same time that the once impressive front is frittering away in small cells and commands. Since the latter avoid confrontation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the headache they present is far from over.


The last chapter by Severino is an apt summary of the thirteen chapters, and even as some positive things need to be said in conclusion, it doesn't make for cheerful reading. It leaves the Conference's theme, 'Whither the Philippines in the 21st Century?', open: if we hope for progress, the political economy must change, but since it would deprive those who man it of their privilege, this is not likely to occur anytime soon.

The book's merit also spells its limitation: it offers an inventory of the state of affairs up to 2006. Because of its wealth of ideas, data and documentation, it is a valuable source of reference, even as I missed a chapter-analysis and recommendations-on education, as the new generation deserves the signal investment to break the vicious circle of 'going nowhere'.