The Same Mistakes Eventually

Arab News

The Same Mistakes Eventually

 by Manuel L. Quezon III


Filipinos tend to compare their political development with that of the Americans. In turn, Americans have always been in denial over their Philippine experiment ending up more like the 1930’s corrupt machine politics in the Louisiana of Huey Long, than the Massachusetts of the turn-of-the-century Boston Brahmins. Filipinos have been in denial over how Philippine democracy not only differs from the kind practiced in the US, but also, that whatever similarities existed relied on a linguistic legacy of democracy that has been systematically dismantled in the Philippine education system since the 1960s. The result is that the Philippine Middle class, the bulwark of American-style democracy, has essentially fled to the United States, gutting the liberal democratic chances of the Philippines.

I say gutted, because on the other hand, Filipinos continue to obsess over the American democratic experience, while ignoring lessons in democracy they could learn from their more immediate neighbors. The ones who do pay attention to regional goings-on are those who are unenthusiastic about liberal, pluralistic democracy. They prefer “guided” democracy, where leaders may be periodically elected but then generally rule undisturbed by public opinion; or better yet, where elections can be discarded and technocrats given free rein to decide what’s best for the nation.

If there is such a thing as “Asian values” in politics, then foremost among them as far as Asians are concerned, is the urge to belong. This is followed by the desire to conform, and be subjected, within certain limits (chiefly those imposed by membership in an ethnic group or subscribing to a regional affiliation), to the direction of a strong leader. If you were to chart the political development of the Philippines, in comparison to other Asian countries, the charts would look remarkably similar: practically a half-century of single-party domination, followed in turn by a process of fragmentation. From 1907 to 1941 and then briefly, from 1944 to 1946, one party dominated the political landscape in the Philippines: the Nacionalista Party. Its 39 years of dominance is comparable to the period of single-party rule in Malaysia under UNMO, Indonesia under Golkar, and even as far afield as Taiwan under the Kuomintang, Japan under the LDP, and India under the Congress party.

All of these Asian parties, under various forms of government ranging from dictatorships to presidential and parliamentary governments, were all umbrella organizations that shielded (often vicious) infighting among the various factions that composed the leadership of these parties. All were dominated by larger-than-life party leaders who clawed their way to the top, and stayed there, usually even when they were past their prime, by serving as referees among the various factions, and uniting them when they faced threats from other parties.

There are many reasons for the long era of single-party domination (and stagnation, as scholars far and wide tend to assert): some of them inherently cultural, while external factors, such as the role parties played as the focal point of independence efforts, also played a role. Internal and external factors thus combined to foster these “Asian values.”

Whether from established families possessing both wealth and prestige (the Philippine principalia, Malaysian, Indonesian, Japanese, Indian nobility), or from the relatively newer, class of professionals that gained political influence due to colonial patronage, when tended to instill a desire for separation from the old colonial masters (again, in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and also in India, the lawyers and merchants who were at times, educated in the colonizer’s countries), political identification came by means of how various leaders decided to tackle the colonial question: to uphold foreign rule, or oppose it (though in opposition, the means to achieve the goal might range from the peaceful to the violent).

In the end, these ties of not only leadership, but the means necessary to maintain that leadership in the face of both domestic and foreign opposition, fostered the need to belong, thereafter to conform, to seek, or at least accept, rule by a single leader; and also, to be factional. The Philippines at the outbreak of World War II was a single-party state, ruled by leaders who showed every intention of continuing one-party rule after independence, which is what happened in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, after all (and continued long after independence). The difference was that alone of the colonized nations in the region, only the Philippines entered the war with a guarantee of independence.

When Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) and Malaysia (then the Malayan territories of Great Britain) were invaded by the Japanese, the governments they displaced were entirely alien, had no more legitimacy than the Japanese military authorities that replaced them (without even the claim the Japanese initially had, to pan-Asian sympathies as enemies of the Western colonial powers). Only Filipino officials could claim a mandate from their own peoples: but having fought, not just because of political affiliation, but ideological conviction, the Filipino people found themselves dissatisfied with the cautious attitude of their political leadership.

A rift therefore arose between public opinion in the Philippines and the portion of the their political leadership who embarked on a policy of collaboration with the Japanese. In other Asian countries, the leadership of the various independence movements were divided, too (whether to welcome the Japanese as allies, or oppose them as new colonizers, for example) but these leaders, with few exceptions, since they lacked any real authority prior to the war, weren’t held responsible for their conduct during the conflict: at the very least, they weren’t as obviously hampered by questions over their wartime conduct.

Gandhi and Nehru, for example, were in jail during World War II, but did not speak up in favor of the Japanese-sponsored forces of Subhash Chandra Bose, while millions of Indians volunteered to fight in the British army. Thailand submitted to Japanese occupation, but a government-in-exile was formed in Washington, DC. The Indian Congress party professed neutrality during the war, but afterward, could not be accused of condoning fascism — the issue could not be used against them, as the British did with the Burmese leader Ba Maw, imprisoned with Jose P. Laurel in Tokyo, for example.

All this is necessary to review, to understand that the one-party development in the Philippines prior to the war was not only to be expected, but to explain why it lasted a much shorter time than in similarly situated (vis-à-vis the colonial question) nations. Having had a head start, Filipinos have had more time to make mistakes — but I am not convinced othe r Southeast Asians aren’t headed to learning the same bitter lessons.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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