What’s at stake: A Modernizing Nation, or a Never-Never Land?

Saturn Devouring His Son ("Saturno devorando a uno de sus niños") by Francisco Goya, painted 1819-1823. WikiArt says, "Between the years of 1819 and 1823, Goya painted a series of paintings on the walls his villa at Quinto del Sordo, all of which portrayed terrible, fantastical, or morbid imagery. These paintings are now called the Black Paintings, referring to the mental state of Goya during this dark time in his life, due to his bout with illness, which made him deaf, as well internal strife in Spain. This painting was completed of the walls of his dining room, and is a rendition of Saturn, the Roman mythological character, who, fearing that his children would one day overthrow him, ate each one of them upon their births. "
Saturn Devouring His Son (“Saturno devorando a uno de sus niños”) by Francisco Goya, painted 1819-1823. WikiArt says, “Between the years of 1819 and 1823, Goya painted a series of paintings on the walls his villa at Quinto del Sordo, all of which portrayed terrible, fantastical, or morbid imagery. These paintings are now called the Black Paintings, referring to the mental state of Goya during this dark time in his life, due to his bout with illness, which made him deaf, as well internal strife in Spain. This painting was completed of the walls of his dining room, and is a rendition of Saturn, the Roman mythological character, who, fearing that his children would one day overthrow him, ate each one of them upon their births. “
Many of you are familiar with Jack Welch’s description of Americans as thinking in days, the Japanese thinking in terms of decades, and the Chinese thinking in centuries, a comparison also used for the oldest surviving institution on earth, the Catholic Church. More modestly, the Peace Advocate Paulynn Paredes Sicam once said it takes ten years for change to become permanent.
Ten years is a long time. Which brings up a quote I keep returning to. It comes from William Shirer, writing about the fall of France, who in turn got it from Titus Livy, the Roman historian:
We reached these last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.
We are in those last days –of a campaign that will decide if we are a ningas-cogon culture or one ready to embrace modernity– and we are confronted with staying the course, which is tiring, even boring, certainly frustrating –or throwing caution to the winds.
Back in October 2015, I wrote about the coming elections and what’s at stake, in The Great Referendum: The national election of 2016. To me, the battle is Reformism versus Populism (and for more about this, see: Mina Roces on Malakas at Mahina, and two parts of a 2010 series, A more balanced Philippines and The Philippines is OK): or as another shrewd observer describes it, in The Pap of Populism:
A shrewd analyst may point out that, conceptually, there is little difference between pap and populist. Pap, in the sense of pandering insubstantial statements, is the stock in trade of populism politicians; or demagogues. Populist politicians, by their very nature, are more fixated on the duality of oppositional politics and rabble-rousing through inflammatory language. Populism, however, differs in meaning and application depending on the country and context – and, as a result, is difficult to appreciably define.
Or perhaps populism is like pornography: You know it when you see it.
For better or worse, the world is currently gripped in a rising tide of populism; from European elections to the brouhaha brewing in the United States elections, to ours. Granted, more often than not, our elections are nothing more populist beauty contests driven by who is the most ‘sincere’ in their pap pronouncements. Rather disconcertingly, populism is not a political ideology; rather, it does not fall within the conservative-liberal spectrum of modern politics. Instead, it is “stance and rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions.”[1] How do we fix our country? Kill the criminals. How do we fix infrastructure? By instituting a ‘war room’ or having the will to spend more. These are not solutions by any means; what they do is tap into a going sense of restiveness and disillusionment with complex issues and problems. They offer simple solutions, grounded in a sense that “it’s been done wrong” without every explaining how to address the ‘wrongs’ in any meaningful way. Populism works within binaries: They’re wrong, I’m right. They’re evil. I am good. They’re stupid. I am smart. They’re criminals. I am not. Simple answers are all we need for complex problems.
That sort of rather reductive thinking has been all too apparent during the recent SSS brouhaha. Insurance and pension management, by its very nature, is a complex undertaking requiring careful strategy and execution. Whether appreciated or not, the answer is never something as simple as increasing benefits or raising premiums or enhancing collection efficiency. The SSS pension hike offers us, as well, insight into the difference between a policy statement and a populist statement. A policy statement would be: “We must raise pensions, let’s figure out the best formula to do so.” A populist statement is: “Pensions must be raised, but the rich managers, elites, and hacienderos won’t!” Inflammatory, class-based rabble-rousing. It devolves issues into reductive ‘villains’ and ‘heroes;’ with the heroes, shaking their fist and the sky hurling invectives and decrying ‘elitism.’[2]
Other contentious issues of the day aptly demonstrate the reductive binary formulations, one such is Poe’s citizenship and residency. The issue based approach focuses on text, implied silence and absences, and interpretations based on schools of thought. The other, the populist pap approach, focuses on shrouding a candidate in the cloak of foundling, OFW, and even balikbayan ‘rights.’ There has been a concerted effort, so much so that the Supreme Court issued a sort of ‘gag order’, to use standard legal processes to buoy a political campaign through advertisements: Conditioning public opinion (though standard practice for all politicians) and veiled threats of public unrest if the ‘will of the people’ is stymied by the Supreme Court represented by the continual calls of “let the people decide.” These calls attack the very firmament and structure of representative and constitutional democracies, yet are commonplace precisely because populism allows for this sort of primacy of personality over law and legal processes.
The MRT is another such contentious issue where the language surrounding much of the discourse on the MRT is not necessarily about solving or delineating the issues that stymie the rehabilitation of the MRT, but instead applying ‘blame,’ seeking ‘justice,’ and leveraging and mobilizing the (rather rightful) anger of segments of the population against another group, or person. Obscurancy through fear-mongering rhetoric. Politicking through base populism. Again, this is not to say thatMRT failures and mismanagement are not legitimate issues – They really and truly are. But, themethod in which the issue is approached prohibits not only understanding, but solutions. Populism, by its nature, does not allow for complex solutions to complex problems – it is not solution oriented, nor issue oriented, but emotion-centric.
Notably, one of the key elements of populism in any of its historical or current incarnations is the leveraging of the perception of ‘class warfare;’ the vilification and dismissal a group of people based on their economic standing, whether they be ‘elites’ or the impoverished (or as Duterte likes to call them, criminals). The out-group vs the in-group; the ‘haughty elite’, looking down on everyone else[3]. It is not only class warfare, though, that feeds into this sort of simplistic delineation of in vs out groups. We also see it in dismissals of anyone who holds a contrary opinion as a ‘critic,’ or an ‘anti.’ Politicians are not the only purveyors of this sort of pat pap; witness normally insightful commentators like Tony La Viña calling elites ‘untrustworthy’ and urging his candidate to go to the ‘people,’ who are more trustworthy. This sort of binary populism is de rigueur in any volatile political milieu, especially during election silly season. Cringingly, it also represents the devolution and fall of populism as a powerful force in politics; instead of harnessing the voice and desire of the unrepresented, it has become a tool used by demagogues, politicians, and their supporters to further an agenda.
Following from the axis of the ‘in-group’ vs ‘out-group’ is the requirement to scapegoat. Whether ‘criminals,’ communists, elites, those in power, or even the poor, this is a standard practice in populist rhetoric. Trump has his immigrants, Duterte has his ‘criminals’. In both cases, the solution is to eliminate immigrants, kill the criminals, and all social ills will be solved. This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so resonant. Even the discussions of federalism, primarily because of the sheer superficiality of it, can be structured within the in/out group dichotomy. Federalism, as it is being presented now, reflects nothing more than a cynical attempt to leverage provincial dissatisfaction with ‘Imperial Manila.’[4] Whether there are elements of truth or not (there are), this sort of binary construction does leverage this latent discontents. Recently, Duterte tried to further inflame this disconnect by vilifying Tagalogs while he was in the Visayas. Federalism is a legitimate and compelling issue; but, the manner it is being approached by its primary proponent in the election betrays.
Scapegoating within a polarized political and social milieu like ours is standard practice. An upcoming example is the re-opening of the Mamasapano probe by a master of rhetoric and populism in Juan Ponce Enrile. The complexities surrounding Mamasapano have been discussed and dismissed in the past in favor of grandstanding, emotion inducing rhetoric. Yet at the very point in which various survey results are starting to shift, the probe is re-opened; more than anything, a tacit and dismissal of the previous findings of the Senate committee. Senators such as Serge Osmeña are already on record saying this is an attempt by Enrile to ‘hit’ back at President Aquino for his incarceration. Ignore the damage re-opening this probe may well do to the likely only now recovering families of the victims (on both sides), it is apparent that Enrile is seeking to scapegoat Aquino for the deaths of SAF members (note, not the deaths of the other side). If Enrile has legitimate and actionable intel, then that can be presented in the here and now; instead it is being held for a committee hearing, where a questioning senator has expansive powers for questioning, haranguing, grandstanding, and presenting to a captive audience (the Filipino people). As the Philippine Daily Inquirer rather adroitlypointed out: All we need to know about the aims and goals of the hearing are found in its (original) start date, January 25.
Notably, the MRT and Mamasapano are two issues which have consistently plagued the Aquino administration in terms of popularity and trust ratings; it should not be a surprise that they are being consistently deployed through populist rhetoric at this point in our election cycle. Populism does not hold with exploring the complexity of issues, but only at leveraging them for gain.
All this being said, populism is invigorating precisely because it taps into and inflames latent and apparent biases and prejudices; it revolves on an axis of antagonistic oppositionalism, informed by emotion. Cunningly and correctly used populism is an immense driving force.


From Rappler
From Rappler
For his part, another shrewd observer, John Nery, back in March said Three nations would be voting in May:
There is the reform constituency. I think of certain voters who are choosing between Poe and Roxas, or who are comfortable casting their ballot for either candidate. I use the word “reform” because that is how both campaigns perceive themselves, as essentially continuing the initiatives undertaken by the second Aquino administration, and because that is how these voters’ concerns—about continuing the fight against corruption, continuing the macroeconomic gains, continuing the emergence of the Philippines on the world stage—are best classified. I am a lone voice when I say, yet again, that the popularity of Poe’s late father does not explain her own personal popularity… millions of young voters voted for Poe in 2013 who did not even know who FPJ was, or cared.
There is the authoritarian constituency. I borrow the term from Amanda Taub’s “The rise of American authoritarianism,” which explores a “psychological profile of individual voters” that best predicts support for a rogue candidate like Donald Trump. The term refers to the voter who is “characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders,” who “when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary.” I think of voters who support Duterte, but who are also ready to cast their ballot for Binay or even Santiago: They place their hopes on the man or woman on horseback (or, in Duterte’s case, in the taxi or pickup truck) who will make things right.
And there is the pragmatic constituency, the voters who want results, who recognize that the role of today’s politician is like that of the father in a traditional family: a provider. There are voters who will vote for Binay because he is the only candidate who has bothered to visit them in their sitio, and who can be persuaded that Duterte, another local executive, is perhaps cut from the same durable retail-politics cloth.
Back in 1966, Nick Joaquin wrote an essay entitled, “A Heritage of Smallness,” in which he said the Philippines then viewed society as a small boat, the barangay, and geography as a small locality, the barrio. He said that enterprise for the Filipino was strictly the sari-sari stall; industry and production, no more than an immediate day-to-day search; and commerce, the smallest unit possible, the tingi. No wonder, then, that six years after Nick Joaquin published this piece, as our society grappled with the contradictions of modernity, Ferdinand Marcos was able to impose datu-style leadership which promised a return to a Lost Eden but which actually substituted paternalism for democracy, and cronyism for actual competition. As Carlos P. Romulo once wrote in his memoirs, what Filipinos seek in a president is someone who will make decisions for them. In other words, old habits die hard: the tendency to surrender to a supreme leader, in the hope of returning to past that never was. The opposite of what modernity means (read on Max Weber on charismatic leadership versus modern rule). Recently, I wrote about this, in the context of Rodrigo Duterte, in The Presidency and the Crisis of Modernity.
But that attitude in itself is a relict of what Nick Joaquin called the heritage of smallness. We must replace that with a society that has as its hallmark, modernity. Name any society we envy: Japan, Korea, or Singapore, and what they have at heart is this: perseverance. It is that quality that has allowed Singapore, for example, to punch way above its weight as a city-state. It is the quality we find in our countrymen abroad who succeed, and that is so lacking in our institutions here which undergo a memory-wipe and thus a collective state of amnesia, every six years.
A memory-wipe would be very satisfactory not only to those vested interests who cannot tolerate another six years of being on the defensive; it is reassuring, too, to the elements in society who fear modernity.
But we can, and should, stay the course, for as Mar Roxas put it, “the best is yet to come.”
The late Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez, one of the traditional politicians who knew how dangerous Marcos would be and tried to derail his climb to power, once said, “In the long of time, we shall success!” Success is impermissible for those for whom an Aquino victory in 2010 would permanently consign them to the wrong side of history as in 1986. This is an important point, because it explains the sustained barrage over the past six years, the purpose of which is to discount every gain, magnify every error, and promote a brand of crisis.
Back in February, 2010, I wrote in Showdown that,
In the great showdown of 2010, you have Aquino on one side, and arrayed against him are those for whom an Aquino victory in 2010 would represent another repudiation on the scale they had endured in 1986. The ruling coalition has to contend with being in a position similar to what the KBL found itself in in 1986: entrenched locally and despised nationally for many of the same reasons that Marcos’ machinery was hated. The other contenders, in turn, belong to a political line that can be traced back to the showdown in 1986 and opposition to the Aquino administration and Cory herself over the years.
I don’t think the grudge-match aspect of the present presidential race should be discounted. Then, as now, the hallmark of official impunity was what Marcos himself, in his private diaries, dismissed as “technical legalism,” combined with brute force, electoral manipulation, the power of the pork barrel and a dismissive attitude toward public opinion, all the while insisting that national leadership is about credentials and not about integrity. It took a bar topnotcher, after all, to engineer a legal system that put a premium on the appearance of legality while ignoring the court of public opinion, substituting it with the blunt reality that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
They lost that round, regrouped, and learned some lessons. Their strategy: to swarm.
The first imperative was to consolidate the Marcos constituency. See Who is voting for Bongbong Marcos? It’s not the supposedly politically naive millennial voters in Rappler. In addition to this, two presidential candidates are carrying Marcos Jr. (most notably, Mayor Duterte), while a third, Grace Poe, has pandered to the Loyalist vote.
The second imperative was to relentlessly continue the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo talk points. Those talking points already produced a decade of apathy: ”parepareho lang sila,” or “sino ang papalit?” combined with the twin traumas of Edsa Dos (a disappointment) and Edsa Tres (which raised the specter of urban insurrection) allowed the nation to rationalize sitting in place and waiting out the Arroyo administration after 2005. Here, Vice President Binay, Senator Poe, and Mayor Duterte, have pandered to the Arroyo Loyalists, too.
The third imperative, of course, was to seek out vulnerabilities of the administration. Callous and heartless? See my Rogue article, The mourning after. Lacking in competence? See my note on Yolanda. MRT? See this Note. Crime? Here’s a tidbit our short-term memory has led us to fail to see. Since I can remember, every election –or the run up to the election– was marked with spectacular bank robberies and an epidemic of kidnappings “for the funds of it,” as journalists often remarked. There is no news of this not only this time around, but in 2013 –but that’s the point. No news, is not news, and good news is even less newsworthy.
The Coalition of the Unwilling to Change may have its various component parts competing to become the Supreme Faction; but those components –Marcos Loyalists, Arroyo Loyalists, their allied interests who have been on the defensive since 2010, the Communist Party and its fronts who have shifted from one candidate to another– even as they compete, are all part of the same nasty, brutish whole. And they have tried to game the system to return to prevent their exile being permanent.
As The Economist put it (see Fatal distraction):
FOR too long the Philippines was the sick man of Asia—cheerful, democratic but a chronic underperformer. In recent years, though, its fortunes have begun to turn. Much of the credit should go to the outgoing president, Benigno Aquino. The economy is booming and investors are flocking in. The country has gained in geopolitical importance, too, thanks to its resistance to China’s expansionism.
But Mr Aquino’s achievements risk being squandered by an old weakness at the heart of Filipino politics: its love of showmanship and personality over policy and administrative ability. Boxers and film stars project themselves into public jobs while the diligent and competent too often languish.
Or, as the Wall Street Journal bluntly asked, Can the Philippines Stay on Track?
Other observers, at home and abroad, see what’s at stake. See A Scary Moment for the Philippines and The End of Philippine Democracy?.
We can persevere, or take the easy way out. Three easy ways out –three escape hatches that allow the voter to bail out of the tough task of nation-building—have been put before you by the other candidates.
You can surrender to fear, and select someone who will essentially act, not as a chief executive, but as your enforcer and goon. This is Rodrigo Duterte. This, despite there being an inherent contradiction in Duterte and it is one Filipinos of an older generations figured out, belatedly, during the Marcos era: there will always be collateral damage when the iron fist is invoked. As this editorial says,
Over the years Duterte has built a reputation as the tough-talking, get-things-done mayor of Davao City. His detractors claim he cleaned out the city of drug pushers and drug dealers by resorting to extra-judicial means. Pushers, some still in their teens were found dead—the handiwork of vigilante groups operating in Davao that Duterte admitted having ties to.
Since his bid for the presidency, Duterte appears to have distanced himself from any connection with vigilante groups. But “old habits die hard” and those groups may not be ready or willing to break their ties to him. And that becomes a very serious problem for the Philippines if he becomes president.
Like Marcos before him, if Duterte becomes president, his henchmen could start deciding who deserves to be “eliminated” and who deserves to be spared. Duterte’s tongue-in-cheek prediction that if he becomes president, Manila Bay will be filled with thousands of dead bodies, might seriously come to pass—even without his approval. As many a tyrant who went down that same dark path knows, it is almost impossible to “dial back” that kind of behavior. And as with Marcos, it can only lead to grave injustice and a frightened population stripped of their legal rights.
In The neo-authoritarian threat in the Philippines, Julio Teehankee and Mark Thompson observe,
Duterte’s emerging neo-authoritarian constituency was initially concentrated among the elite, and middle class and only recently has moved down the social ladder. Duterte is the candidate of the wealthy, newly rich, well off, and the modestly successful (including taxi drivers, small shopkeepers and overseas Filipino workers abroad).
In the closing days of the campaign, he is now besieged not just by accusations, but by his own responses. His response has been to warn that he would tear up the Constitution if he is elected and impeachment is attempted. But even if he wasn’t confronted by the hollowness of his claim to be excusable in everything because he won’t be corrupt, there is who he is: Take his MBC speech, whether as delivered, or in English translation, you cannot ignore what he himself has revealed about himself.
As an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald put it, “Australia’s traditionally strong defence and diplomatic relationship with the Philippines could be barrelling towards a cliff.” Bloomberg, for its part, reported, Philippine Peso Sinks as Mayor Likened to Trump Leads Election Race. The damage is already being done; and it will require a cohesive team not only to take up the reins of power on June 30, 2016, but to start repairing the damage already being done.
So we cannot gamble on someone who would simply turn municipal larceny into grand larceny on a national scale, but at least be a devil you already know. This is Jejomar Binay. But his candidacy is premised on escaping, so to speak, the hangman’s noose.
We could, possibly, tire of efforts to level the playing field, and succumb to the temptation to try to outfox your competitors by gambling on a malleable president who you think will be beholden and dependent on you. This is Grace Poe; but her hitherto seductive combination of populism and reformism has begun to wear thin.
If you were to choose any one of the options above, you would be opting for the familiar, because our boom-and-bust past would, at least, be comfortingly familiar. No need to be ambitious, because we would be too busy building back what we ourselves dismantled at the polls. Don’t forget you ought to be choosing a package deal. While there is no perfect tandem, no perfect combination, and no perfect coalition, better one that takes being a tandem seriously, and which takes having a platform seriously. But you have to weigh the overall composition to see if you are comfortable with what you will get.
So we have a choice. We, as a nation, can persevere, which requires continuity. Over the past five years, we have seen how following the rules leads to predictability of outcomes, which in turn leads to stability, allowing us to plan towards a vision. What is that vision? It is of a country that is finally comfortable in its own skin, which consigns the heritage of smallness to the past where it belongs, and truly, even madly, and certainly, deeply, embraces modernity.
Violent passions have been unleashed. This is a consequence of demagoguery; of populism exercised with impunity. Those passions will not go away after election day. Which means, all the more, that we must stand up for what the majority truly stands for.
As Gerry Cacanindin put it so well,
That’s it. I’m voting for Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo. I no longer wish to stay silent. I hope I can still sway some of you who are still undecided or are fiercely supporting the current frontrunners. I will not attack your chosen candidates nor exalt mine. But I will tell you why I have made my choice.
I choose gains over faults. This is not a country about to implode nor destroy itself. It is experiencing its best growth in decades. That’s a fact. What this country needs is more stability and fewer risks. More thoughtful decisions and fewer rogue moves.
I choose the carrot over the stick. Crime cannot be solved through violence. It can only be solved through better opportunities. The more opportunities for people to have decent jobs, the lesser the tendency to lead a life of crime.
I choose humanity over brutality. I believe that the end does not justify the means. I want a country that I can be proud of. A country that can somehow show the world that it can solve its problems through means which are humane, just, and good.
I choose patience over instant gratification. I choose small gains made over long periods of time. It’s a proven method. Ask our own Taipans. There are no shortcuts to lasting wealth. There is only sustained hard work.
I choose self-imposed discipline over state-imposed discipline. We already have rules on almost everything. It is unrealistic to pin the responsibility of imposing them to one person. Try to discipline one kid. It’s not easy. Try to discipline 100 million people. It will be a bloody affair.
I choose building brick by brick over the sheen of a silver bullet. The problems we often complain about–traffic, poor infrastructure, crime, corruption, poverty–are moving from being hopeless to solvable. But for a country of 100 million, it will take time. Not in six years, maybe not in 20. These are complex, deeply-rooted problems. If you believe someone can solve all these within a six-year term, I’m sorry but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I choose selflessness. I have done the math. I have accepted the fact that I will never see this country become the one we all dream about in my lifetime. I’m no longer voting for my own future, but for my child’s. I’d rather see glimmers of hope than dark, uncertain clouds over the horizon.
I choose to suppress my passion and anger. Instead I looked at what is undeniable. I just saw Tacloban. It was obliterated by the most violent typhoon to ever hit a major city. In just three years it has not only recovered. It is thriving and bustling. Good job, government.
I choose what my elders taught me. That we should respect each other. This country is not beyond saving that we should resort to a savior with unrealistic promises. Nor should we begin demanding for heads to literally roll just to get things done. We are not that kind of people.
Lastly, I choose democracy. Whoever wins, I will call him or her my president. I will hope for the best. But when democracy itself becomes threatened I will not stay silent.
Peace out. Vote.
In 54 million of our fellow Filipinos who are voters, lies the future.
Continuity, though, is just the first step. Consistency is what our nation has long lacked. Let us prove that the Filipino is not fickle; that the Filipino cannot be fooled; that the Filipino is not just world class, but rather, the Filipino can become the global benchmark for excellence.
Let us go beyond saying yes, we can, and instead, prove that yes, we are: Peaceful, prosperous, responsible, faithful, decent, cooperative and honorable men and women who can dream big. That we can build prosperity on firm foundations, instead of making a desert and calling it peace.
True that!
True that!
Just recently, I compared the last presidential debate to The Jungle Book. You can find archetypes a-plenty for yourself. But the question before us is, who are best-equipped to bring us to the next stage of development?
On May 9, 2016, they can only be:
For the change that truly makes a difference.
For the change that truly makes a difference.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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