A lack of ambition, a Cargo Cult culture, and gaming the system

I have a cousin who is rather high up in an American multinational (I think he’s the first Filipino to hold such responsibilities in the organization) and I asked him, once, why it seemed so few Filipinos reached really high positions in firms overseas. While the American bureaucracy, for one, has more than its fair share of Filipinos, and there are multinationals the world over, filled to the gills with mid-level Filipino managers, why are there so few Filipino top bosses? Hardly any, actually.

His answer came quickly, as befits an executive: “a lack of ambition.”

I asked him to elaborate on his opinion.

“We are easily contented,” he explained. “Once many Filipinos reach a certain level of comfort, they’re not inclined to go any higher.”

This was the genesis of my view that most Filipinos possess a bureaucrat’s mentality: and why the civil service seems so (cozily) ideal for many. I myself noticed I am inclined to be this way: I crave security, I want to minimize risks, I want to, most of all, work to live and not live to work. Employment makes this possible: the company health plan, the company union that fights for it, the predictable paycheck and annual bonuses.

Which is not to pass judgment on this mentality as unhealthy or inferior, per se. It can even be argued that it’s a healthier one than Darwinian capitalism taken to extremes. Yet, taken to extremes, too, there’s the danger that the bureaucratic mentality is not a mental framework that values innovation, or which, when you come to think of it, puts a premium on excellence.

The reality is that the mentality is so pervasive as to have nothing to do with education or social status. Some months ago I had a chat with a banker from Hong Kong who’s fond of the Philippines and Filipinos (with the kind of exasperated affection you might hear an ordnung-obsessed German talking about Italians and their dolce vita). His line is wealth management and so he’s intimately aware of the mental framework of the country’s economic movers and shakers.

“You’re an archipelago,” he began, “with this giant moat comprised of the sea, and so your Ayalas and Sys are, ultimately, safe. They have a captive audience and a natural barrier to anyone challenging them from overseas. Why innovate? Why compete? Once you figure out how to make money, it ends up reproducing itself. You don’t have to be particularly good, just well positioned, and so your energies are better used to preserving your preeminent position rather than embarking on taking risks or competing globally. It’s all very tidy, effortless, and really, quite lucrative. They are the envy of other businessmen in other countries who wish they had it so good.”

But I have gotten increasingly convinced that this mentality, while it has its charms, and may actually make for a better quality of life for most of us, is only made possible by a flawed understanding of business. I have been looking for an appropriate analogy, a useful comparison, and I think I’ve found it.

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion -or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say, I have a sneaking suspicion- that we live in a Cargo Cult society. As this article, The Cargo Cults, explains,

When soldiers and airmen from the United States and other allied countries arrived in the islands with huge war cargoes, it was for the worshipers proof that those who followed the beliefs of a cargo cult were to be rewarded for their faith. Though the natives did not benefit directly from the appearance on their islands of those types of cargo, the cultists believed that their predictions were confirmed and that the cargo-millennium was at hand. A time of plenty had arrived. There was no longer a need to work. Money was unnecessary. Crops could be, and were, neglected. Pigs were randomly slaughtered for feasts. It was a time to celebrate, and the cultists lived it up.

Things didn’t turn out as the cultists expected, but few lost the faith. When goods fail to appear, as in the postwar period, the followers usually assume it is because they have not yet performed the correct ritual, because foreigners have schemed against them, or because the cultists have neglected the gods.

The complexities of the modern world: it is like Darwinian evolution versus Man being made in God’s image. The ferocious debate between science and faith is like the ferocious debate between those approaching society and its problems from an economic perspective, with its focus on increasing value and promoting efficiency, an essentially remorseless and amoral attitude, to those who possess an essentially philosophical perspective, which has, at its heart, moral questions whether based on religious faith or a more secular approach. But just as the seemingly hopeless divide between faith and science can be bridged, perhaps the great divide between those who put a premium on business and those who hold things like democracy and freedom as what should be, properly, the main considerations of human society, can be closed, as well.

Diosdado Macapagal, a lawyer turned economist, once paid tribute to himself by suggesting he held a competitive edge over his peers:

Leadership in the country today requires a knowledge of economics. The vital problems of the nation are economic in character, namely, unemployment, high prices, underproduction, imbalance of payments, currency controls, etc. Public men who have hazy notions of the fundamentals of economic science and whose minds, for lack of background or aptitude, cannot fathom the mysteries of the economic issues involved in important matters of state, are at a disadvantage. They are like men who treat the sick without the knowledge of medicine, who handle a trial without knowledge of law, who fashion a table or chair without knowledge of carpentry. They are like the Pharisees of old who were the “blind guides of blind men. But if a blind man guides a blind man, both fall into a pit.”

He conveniently forgot to point out that a leader imbued with a thorough understanding of “economic science,” but who lacked political gifts, would be at a disadvantage, too: not least because he’d be unable to muster support for his programs. Most of all, as befitted a person with a doctorate, he put a premium on expertise while forgetting that the bedrock of democracy is popular participation by the non-experts, too. To be sure, a non-lawyer involved in legislation is handicapped compared to a lawyer, but not permanently so: among other things, the non-lawyer can bring fresh eyes and common sense to the legislative process; and economists, too, must realize that their science began as “political economy,” which suggests that what once was, must ever be: you cannot divorce the two. Everything is political and in essence, much of what is political predates the sciences and isn’t subject to the scientific method. But Cong Dadong was on to something, and it was something his daughter took to heart.

Though again, the two approaches are not irreconcilable; they are complimentary. Scientific methods and principles, the handling of statistics, are used in gauging public opinion; but it requires a certain dexterity, an instinctive feel and skill, to marshal that opinion, mold it, hold it, wield it. Politics will always have a mystical attribute attached to it, which is why I pointed out that even a pragmatist like the President consults prophesying nuns, her one time ally turned nemesis Jose de Venecia, Jr. pays attention to letters dictated by his dead daughter, and Romulo Neri, Jr. begins his day by consulting the I Ching and a high percentage of officialdom consults geomancers and fortune-tellers.

The difference between officialdom and their constituents is greater familiarity with the formal structures of government, the regulations the officials themselves make -and break- and perhaps, of the true sources of wealth in our country. Yet all belong to the Cargo Cult.

From the four corners of the world, transported in the holds of ships traveling the seven seas, or in the bellies of aircraft, our cargo comes: rich or poor, the balikbayan box is expected, because demanded; how it gets from door to door, is no one’s concern, really.

And this brings us to what makes possible the door to door service: gaming the system.

It may be more accurate to say that Gaming the System, and not really politics, is our national pastime. We’re very good at it and, indeed, we can game practically any system; and engaged in this collective gaming, what, then, is the real advantage or even logic, in reforming the system and making it invulnerable to being gamed? None. No one will admit it, everyone’s secretly content with it. Which is another reason nothing really happens.

In Wikitruth, there’s an entry on Gaming the system:

Gaming the System means, simply, using the rules, policies and procedures of a system against itself for purposes outside what these rules were intended for. Most of the time, a set of rules will be put in place towards a simple goal. The goal might be to prevent innocents from being harassed to preventing wasted time covering well-tread (and decided-upon) ground. Unfortunately, when a system puts too many rules in place, makes them too vague, or otherwise fails to know the consequences of these rules, people who study the rules closely can then use this massive (often contradictory) ruleset to play the “game” their own, unexpected way.

Think, for example, about the dizzying regulations concerning official corruption in our country, which actually fosters the very thing the laws are meant to prevent.

And it concludes with this solution:

Believe it or not, a stronger central authority fixes more of this problem than anything else. This may sound like something against the goals of Wikipedia, but currently Jimbo Wales or Danny will step in and apply rules against the system as they need to: hard, fast rules with no appeal that are permanent. These are called Wikipedia Office Decisions. They make total sense: the people who are running the system get to make choices. But because Wikipedia falsely makes it sound like everyone has a say, these moves look like dictators running roughshod on the People.

Hence, the not-so-secret yearnings of so many Filipinos for a Man on Horseback who will “Hoy, Puñeta!” a fractious and undisciplined population into line. Which, besides being only a temporary solution at best, also causes more problems than it solves.

Which makes this tart piece of advice with which the Wikitruth article ends, apropos to our discussion:

Over time, Wikipedia’s central authority will make rules more hard and fast. But until then, we remind you that the only way to win against a gamed system is not to play.

Which is exactly what hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Filipinos have done. Incidentally, they are among our best and brightest or at least those with a more enterprising bent. It has ever been so: what brought the Malays to what’s now the Philippines in the first place, and led those from one island to move to another, and another, if not dissatisfaction with the status quo, so that there’s one theory that Tagalog is derived from Cebuano? An island peoples are, essentially, a nomadic people, we have wanderlust genetically programmed into us.

Anyway, let me finally get to this photo, which I took some weeks back to illustrate a point I wanted to make.DSC00012#2.JPG

Typhoons and bad weather are inevitable: and we’ve become used to thinking that power outtages and electrical fires are a predictable consequence of typhoons. But mitigating the reasons typhoons lead to power failures doesn’t occur to anyone: what happens is, energy is devoted to clearing up the mess in the wake of a typhoon and, as soon as that’s done, everything goes back to normal -until the next time a typhoon strikes. The power failures are blamed on trees whose branches are unpruned, mainly, but hardly ever on the truly abominable state of the electric lines, which are a chaotic mass of dangling or tangled wires on leaning posts, with buildings hooked up to them willy-nilly.

Now I’m sure if you ordered Meralco to take responsibility for the chaotic condition of the electrical wires, they’d plead that the effort would bankrupt them. Oddly enough, no order has been made, which might force the creation of some sort of plan: things being less tangled in places like Alabang, you could start with Tatalon. You could even insist, if you were the government, that any new development has to have underground wiring, which would be more typhoon-proof (though there’s the question of flooding!), and where old buildings are razed and new ones erected, underground connections should replace the old-fashioned posts. One reason no order’s been given is that it would bring up the inconvenient reality that local and national governments don’t take zoning particularly seriously, and that the population has swamped the existing infrastructure.

But the individual citizen thinks, do something, anything! But instead, nothing: the problems are so vast, no solution can be contemplated, much less attempted. And so, when the inevitable occurs -the system breaks down- everyone just has to appear busy long enough to patch things back together until the next time it all breaks down. And yet, with the tangled wires in plain sight, people end up shocked by transmission losses! It’s really a failure to even comprehend how electricity gets from point A to point B, what’s involved, how things work, and that electricity isn’t some sort of magical ether.

Never mind how the system’s supposed to work: everyone’s gamed it, anyway. Which is why, as a balikbayan recently told me, “everytime I come home, everything’s slightly more decayed, the people are poorer, life is a little worse, but everyone’s seems so accustomed to it.”

We have abandoned our ambitions, viewing coping as a kind of triumph; and because we have turned to worshipping the little-understood abstractions of the economy, raising it above the political, we fail to see how until and unless we master politics, everything, including progress, will truly be beyond our grasp.

smoke, who has put forward gaming the system quite often as a way to understand what’s going on, though, since hope springs eternal, we still have to strive for the reality she sees-

…far too many Filipinos are still lazy, unimaginative, and mediocre; far too many of our youth are pathologically enamored with consumerism; and we are still a nation run by morons, who are ‘fiscalized’ by idiots, with running commentary from mercenary retards.

Not being a permanent reality in our country (and change is taking place, on a smaller scale, with people groping their way towards trying to build up the momentum to achieve it on a bigger scale). But in the meantime, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the grimness of things, as The Warrior Lawyer sees it, and as {caffeine_sparks} experiences it.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

176 thoughts on “A lack of ambition, a Cargo Cult culture, and gaming the system

  1. to PSI: Yes, I agree with your message.

    To all whose higher education was subsidized by the people, please renew or double your pledges</b. Especially those doing well in the United States and abroad, please renew or double your pledges</b.

    The Philippines has contributed to your success. This is as good a time as any for payback-time to share fortune with the university and the younger-generation iskolars ng bayan.

  2. Question;

    what is the difference between the Peter Principle and the Dilbert Principle?

  3. ambition, of course, is measured by what one has already achieved in comparison from say 20 years ago (d0d0ng now in the States being unrecognizable to his kababayan’s who may still remember a 5-year old planting rice in Mindanao) versus a Jamby Madrigal (with the “silver spoon” at birth).

    The word “easily” in “We are easily contented” is a judgment-call. The middle-level manager (having obtained the director- or VP-title) who then says “this is as far as I go re the corporate rat-race” may reflect “normal ambition” (masaya na ako dito — it is time to relax and have more vacation-time with my kids!), frustration (what they say is not what they feel because they did desire, but just can’t be the full-package to obtain the fame and $$$ of CEO-rank) or it may reflect re-directed ambition (pagkatapos nito, iba naman (say to work to get elected into public office — for the power, not the money).

  4. Dilbert is damage-control. What to do with employees you can’t fire. Wikipedia says :
    The Dilbert Principle refers to a 1990s satirical observation by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams stating that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they’re capable of doing.

    Peter Principle is what happens to competent employees who stays in the same company for many years. Wikipedia, for Peter: The principle holds that in a hierarchy members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain. Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.

    When I mentioned “…. taking advantage of the Peter Principle”, I refer to leapfrogging. Having achieved 90%-expert at current position, one applies for a better position (even if one is only currently 75%-capable for the new position) in expectation that the competition are “Peter-ed” out and are only at 85% or less. One gets the job (75% plus younger/more savvy/more ambitious/willing to work weekends trumps 85%-smooth-sailing-and-probably-unhappy), and after 3 years or less…. do it again.

  5. Companies do promote employees who are working competently, and they will promote you into a position which is different from the one where you are competent at. The “ambition”-part is wanting the more challenging position AND running the risk of rejection. A number of folks say “… I don’t want to apply. Baka hindi ako tanggapin.”

  6. Of course, there is also the risk that your DNA-composition-for-hard-work fails to match your bravado should you get the new job (and that your unit’s performance gets worse, not better). Then you use the 3-envelope game plan.

  7. first envelope — blame previous admin; 2nd-envelope — blame the overall economy and say you and entire office are working weekends; 3rd-envelope — look for next job.

  8. We have our own share of bold, unabashed risk takers: the army special forces. Mottos of various elite forces:

    United Kingdom and commonwealth countries: Who dares wins

    United States of America: Liberate the oppressed

    Philippine Army Special Forces: Strike anywhere

    Need you doubt?

  9. upn, your “dilbert principle” reminds me of the joke about a 3d grade class which elected their officers. the best and the brightest was elected as sargeant-at-arms (because he was good at enforcing rules). the dullest and least articulate was chosen president.

  10. bencard: machiavelli sergeant-at-arms can get a 3rd-grade class moving for sure.

    happy 4th!

  11. Most pinoy are introverted and use “feeling” at the work place. The tend to keep issue to themselves. Meaning, they just want to comply and complicate the issue. Americans and the others love us for that. Indians are just good n marketing themselves but trust me, my american friends prefer to talk to us on customer service matter. Indians are too mean with lots of RRRRRRR.

  12. I wish to echo UPn.

    To all U.S.-based commenters, Happy Fourth of July!

    But don’t forget the Philippines, aka payback time.

  13. Manolo,

    Your dissertation on the MERALCO poles are well and good but given the current penchant of MERALCO in placing electrical meters on poles practically 3 floors up themselves; might indicate that underground wiring by itself won’t insulate against power failures from typhoons with regards to poles.

    Along the Metropolis, one might note the increasing number of MERALCO poles housing the electrical meters of consumers in that particular area even in seemingly residential areas.

    Formerly, the usual occurrence was that electrical meters were placed on the structures of consumers themselves like on buildings, houses, etc… For reasons the Devil knows, the power firm has digressed from this.

    Given the nature of electricity, there should still be a connection between any underground wiring and the electrical meter several floors up. Anything that happens to that pole itself could still trip power to a big area.

    At any rate, this MERALCO penchant appears to be contradictory to the Magna Carta for “Residential” Electricity Consumers. Based on it, a residential costumer has the right to a meter that is easily accessible and visible for reading by both utility personnel and the costumer and that electrical meters are to be installed between 1.5 to 3 meters up from a surface from where one would stand to repair or inspect a meter (unless there are justifiable reasons).

    Since ordinary “residents” don’t own one of those elevating scaffoldings like MERALCO, I take it to mean from the ground floor. Those electrical meters placed several floors up would tend to abridge a consumer’s right to inspect one’s own meter.

    It is now as if only MERALCO personnel have the right to read your meter. A consumer is going to need binoculars and the need for an ability to read from an angle and I’m not even sure if that will work.

    Maybe things would be fine if MERALCO is a heavenly angel.

    Unfortunately I’m not inclined to think so.

  14. Insightful observation, JL.

    Its basically the state-of-play of business in most sectors in the Philippines. The public is left to swallow the “take-it-or-leave it” positioning of dominant companies. In a similar manner, the universal (?) banks are basically a cartel in the country not contributing to overall progress, but parking captive, low-interest deposits in government securities. What a rip-off!

    Its also why we’re getting trash from cable companies (subject of Nash’ comment in the other thread) and the expensive and anomalous take-or-pay power from the IPPs.

    This situation has pervaded because of weak regulation on the one hand, and the lengthy public hearings that must be done to correct the situation. And Congressional ‘oversight’ is of no help either.

    As Benign0 says, ‘wawa naman tayo.” Oh well.

  15. And of course, Sulpicio Lines’ market dominance of the lower cost (?) Manila-Cebu passenger traffic, has been fatal.

    I don’t know what to say.

  16. I also get the impression that the “limited ambition” among filipinos especially in Pinas is the lack of heroes.

    Has the media written an article to highlight one or two acts of heroism during the past typhoon? [I do not think the dolphin-story counts.]

  17. liam on, “i find your enmity towards me odd as i was nowhere near ridiculing you..”

    If you have time to reread, the post is stating about me on the lack of ambition or opposite of it. To take it as “enmity towards you”, is an overreaching interpretation to your disadvantage that might limit your potential of getting clients as web contents writer if you read too much on any write ups.

    Up n Student on, “companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees”.

    That is how we do it and then fire. It is less aggravating and better defensible position from legal standpoint to fire a person that fails on new position. In contrast, it is hard to get rid of a person who had been doing the same thing over the years like a machine because it is difficult to prove a significant variance of performance that can hold up in court.

  18. d0d0ng: you give me the impression that you are a diligent conscientious worker. Are you still ambitious for a promotion? And among your office mates and among those in your immediate Filipino community, how do you do it when you sense that people sometimes ridicule you or how do you react when you sense some people envious and maybe resentful about what you have accomplished after years of persevering? It must be such a feeling you get when you notice the big change between when you were back in Mindanao and the material wealth of the life where you are now in USA.

    And to think that some in your office (like your former bosses who are now gone) may want to get you fired…. not fun at all.

  19. UP n student – there is a nature way to compensate as expenses tend to use up whatever increase of income one might have. On the other hand, for every additional dollar, only 60 cents is your take home pay. Hence, other non-cash items like stock options are great.

    Regardless of country locations, pinoys are engaged in sourgrapings which generally have no tractions other than for entertainment. I just think good luck to people at work who might be envious coz I care less as long as I am the driver.

    The change between then and now is relatively invisible. My old friends and relatives don’t know what I am doing nor have any idea. I don’t mix my relatives with friends. When I went back to Philippines, I still ride PUJs and tricycle. The funny part is I can claim I am working in Manila or in Cebu unless somebody learned from nanay. Most of all no cellphone, it is a distraction.

    In personal life as in business, you don’t want to advertise yourself as an easy target unless you want something in return.

  20. i think the average pinoy’s fear of risks or of being too successful are misunderstood. he is simply easily contented. mababaw and kaligayahan. ayaw nya ng mga skyscraper at nakakalulang mga suweldo kung sobra naman ang banat sa buto na kinakailangan. yes, we are masipag and self-sacrificing but largely for reasons of sustaining the family. beyond that, the idea of sustaining the country or a large business enterprise, di na masyado kayang arukin. we’d rather watch showbiz gossip shows and telenovelas doled out by abs and gma. we revel in our low-information mindset, cunningly exploited (but not alleviated) by gma and abs.

    so the task of being ambitious and risk-happy is left to the middle class and the elites. unfortunately, they too can’t be ambitious for country. they will be greedy for family, true, but they will let the rest of the country go hang. wala tayong sense of nation. once we imagine ourselves successfully as a nation, we might be able to care enough and transcend tribal, social, economic barriers to think of our common fate. now, we might think of ourselves as pinoys but that aint intense enough to get us all through.

  21. to justice league: the reason why those meters are up high, especially in low-income areas, is to prevent theft of electricity. if electric cables are underground, you can be sure the rate of loss of cable and profits due to theft will be horrendous.

  22. PSI,

    Sorry for the very late reply.

    Cheers anyway.


    I didn’t have time to scan if you addressed your main concern on the issue of underground electrical cables to our host (since that issue is originally his while the issue of high electrical meters is mine).

    But its quite obvious that you as a resident would be willing to relinquish your right to inspect your meter. Unless of course your vision is that good with or without binoculars to inspect your meter that high up.

    As I implied before, a resident consumer has the right (as based on the Magna Carta for Residential Electricity Consumers) to a properly installed meter that is easily accessible and visible for reading by him/herself.

    Unless MERALCO has justifiable reasons to deny that right; that right must be respected.

  23. to justice league: i was only repeating meralco’s reason for locating the electric consumption meters high above the level of sight. i understand that the readings of those “high-altitude” meters of low-income neighborhoods are not actually billed to the end-users. instead, meralco has a “special way” of determining consumption in those neighborhoods and charging the users accordingly. you might want to ask around the communities in commonwealth avenue for the details of this practice.

  24. Qwerty,

    Good to know that you know MERALCO’s reason for doing that.

    Thanks for the advice on asking the communities on Commonwealth Avenue but may be some other time.

    But since you understand that the readings of those “high-altitude” meters of low-income neighborhoods are not actually billed to the end-users and instead, meralco has a “special way” of determining consumption in those neighborhoods and charging the users accordingly;

    did MERALCO say WHY they installed meters in the first place when the actual reading of such meters aren’t the basis for billing charges anyway?

  25. Supremo, FILIPINIOS ARE GREAT! FILIPINOS ARE INTELLIGENT!! PROOF? We earn more than others!!! HA!HA!HA!


    Why can’t I read of Filipinos in Economic and science journals? Like Wall Street Journals or Scientific American?

    What has the Filipinos contributed in life-altering accomplishments and business-improvement decisions? ZERO!!! BIG FAT ZERO!!! These high-income Filipinos are working their butt off as nurses being led, commanded and controlled and Filipinos just follow!!!

    All we brag about is our english!!! Dude, Vietnameses, Hong-Kongeses come to America nary an english yet they have contributed life-altering-business improvement ideas!!! Filipinos zero!!!

    We brag about our impeccable spellings!!! Tell me who are the line up in Scripps Spelling Bee!!!

    Hey, I take you are from New YOrk. Here’s a story from New Jersey. A nurse mother child was told to look for another school for her child.

    She complained to my brother and said, “I’ll bring my Mercedes so they’ll know who I am” SO A MERCEDES CAN MAKE A FILIPINO INTELLIGENT?

    HOW EXTRA DUMB!!!!!!!


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