A year ago this week, as I was getting a rare pandemic haircut, the chatty barber recounted stories by other clients of his from, he said, “the north.” The northerners, he said, told him “entire mountains” had been flattened, their earth destined to be landfill used by the Chinese in the Spratlys. The northerners, the barber added, were complaining of flooding where once there hadn’t been floods.
I thought of what that barber said as we were wrapping up the recording of the first episode of “Proyekto Pilipino” (a weekly podcast series on civics) that hopes to inspire discussion on elections. Not in the usual context of partisanship but rather, in the light of being involved citizens.
In each “Proyekto Pilipino” episode, it’s Leloy Claudio’s task to share a reflection on the topic of the week. In his kick-off reflection, he suggested that being Filipino can’t rely on race or religion as its basis; instead, it should be a shared commitment to the project of having a Filipino Nation.
Last Jan. 31 happened to be the birth anniversary of Salvador Araneta, one of four figures about whom Leloy has recently written a book. Araneta, to borrow the Indian writer Ramachandra Guha’s words, was one of those who paid “close attention to the promotion of institutions of civil society such as the law courts and universities, and to the fostering of rule-bound procedures within them.” Summing up their lives, it might be said of individuals like Araneta, as Leloy himself said of Guha, that they had “an image of the postcolony comfortable with modernity.”
Which brings me to a term Araneta used: the “tripod of civilization,” meaning the soil, water, and forests. In his time Araneta had advocated policies that would Filipinize credit and maintain Filipino control over our economy and resources. His economic thinking spilled over into not just political, but educational advocacy, on the principle that Filipinos would be more able to protect their national interests if they viewed things from a national perspective. It would make it more difficult, at the very least, for Filipino officials and other leaders to sidestep, discount, or disregard, the national interest.
Araneta’s contemporary, Carlos P. Romulo, once observed that as far as presidents are concerned, what Filipinos want is someone who will make decisions for them. I’ve long thought one reason for this is it excuses ordinary citizens from taking responsibility both for their decisions and those made in their name by those claiming to serve. We are told, and the surveys prove, that public opinion is hostile to any policy that ignores our interests in the West Philippine Sea and even beyond; but what neither the press nor the polls tell us, is the ease with which mountains are leveled, or sand is hauled away. We can thunder and shrill against presidents but there is willful ignorance when it comes to the multiple means by which so many palms must be greased and profits tidily pocketed away.
Think of the process of leveling a mountain, and the many accomplices it requires, as it happens, slowly. By now everyone has forgotten how the late Gina Lopez vowed to get to the bottom of similar allegations back in 2016, or how the Senate was rebuffed in 2020 when it asked the government to terminate deals with firms associated with reclamation in the Spratlys. Could any of our presidential candidates—or even senatorial ones since they are expected to demonstrate a national perspective—actually get away with suggesting that if any of our perennial problems are going to be solved, it must include the citizenry?
What if the citizenry itself asks those campaigning to be president, or senator, what they would do, in cases where public opinion is strong, but the actual behavior of the citizenry, is weak? At the very least we might know more about the kinds of decisions the candidates are willing to make.
Proyekto Pilipino, a weekly podcast on civics to contextualize the choices we will be making in May, is led by Fr. Tito Caluag, with myself, Leloy Claudio, and Carlo Santiago, begins on Feb. 3. You can catch it on SkyCable, and on JeepneyTV, or the Conscience Collective on YouTube. Join us!