The Philippines: An Obtuse Society



On arriving home after a month in the U.S., I observe that my keyboard is a bit dusty and many of the letters on the keys have been hammered into oblivion by the relentless poundings of the past few years.

Maybe I should write a book before they disappear altogether.

What would such a book be about?

Well, it would be about the Philippines of course. That is why the title of this article is “The Philippines: An Obtuse Society”. It could just as easily been “The United States: An Obtuse Society”, or “An Obese Society”. Or “China: An Extraordinarily Obtuse Society”.

But this book — our book — would be about the Philippines, specifically, and it would explain exactly why it is that the Philippines is what it is, a fascinating, invigorating, conflicted, under-performing, oft-dismaying place.

Starting at the Same Place

I suppose it is best to start a definition or two to get us tethered to the the same pole. From the Humpty Dumpty New World Dictionary:

  • Obtuse (adjective) A quality of mind that rejects knowledge.

Well, for a society to be obtuse, it means that somehow the operating mechanisms don’t work right. The members of the society don’t take knowledge and massage it thoughtfully to draw off lessons that will improve their lot in life, and their community. So stupid things keep happening. Or nothing strikingly new happens. Deeds just cycle around between function and dysfunction, repeating over and over again, a perpetual non-learning motion machine. Kind of like Senator Enrile keeps entering stage left, pontificating with a stern look and finger upraised, and then exits stage right spouting assorted rationalizations.

He is like the Ghost of Christmas Past who insists on invading our dreams.

A second definition is important, too.

  • Underperforming (adjective) The gap between the wealth and well-being that could be, and that which is.

So when I say the Philippines is under-performing, I mean that the nation and its peoples could be richer than they are, by far. And it could be a healthier, more harmonious place, too.

A Pox Upon History

Our book does not need to be a history book, although we might draw off some illustrations or lessons from the past. History is, after all, a less than perfect recitation of what has happened. Historical editors have their axes to grind and their slants to bevel, so history is not exactly trustworthy. Like, how do you characterize Japan, today, based on history?

You don’t. You take Japan today and move forward.

So instead of binding ourselves to the past, we ought to bind ourselves to something different. And I think we should bind ourselves to some principles.

  • Principle (noun) A guideline that promotes good behavior.

If we look at the Philippines in all its obtuse glamour, we can discern how the nation gets trapped in endless cycles of dysfunction. That kind of analysis has emerged from what we have been doing here lately in this blog via its insightful discussion threads. We have been examining the ways and wiles of the nation and its key players. Yet we strive earnestly to keep our heads up, to keep a stiff upper lip, to maintain a positive frame of mind, to not let the bastards get us down.

  • Bastards (noun, plural) Corruption, confusion, discord and lack of progress in the Philippines.

To hold to the upside, we must articulate some principles, some guidelines that see clearly what is here, in the Philippines, and define what can be done to reach the nation’s capacity to excel.

For Example

One of the more pronounced dysfunctional certainties of the Philippines is that the empowered like things the way they are. Power, privilege and favor are the the currencies in which the entitled trade so they can keep their grip on power, opportunity and wealth. It is likely that FOI was not passed before now because FOI would have revealed things like the pork barrel scam. Why would legislators pass a bill to do that? To reveal themselves as thieves? We had to get knowledge from a whistle-blower instead. The empowered defined the SYSTEM, and then milked it to get rich. If we get FOI, it is because the legislature has been humiliated into passing the law.

Well, the fates are tricksters. The empowered thieves have been outed by whistling Benhur Luy, tucked safely within a stylishly thick flack vest and the arms of a witness protection program without which Mr. Luy could easily exit stage right.

Now the SYSTEM is doing its very best to confuse, delay and obfuscate any renderings of justice. It would seem that the checks and balances in the Philippines make sure the empowered are not jailed. Endlessly detailed procedural rules tie justice in giant knots of red tape. And time plods relentlessly and ineffectively on, Filipino style.

But for sure the money is missing. And two elderly women are in jail.

Some macho society, eh? The sheriff in this town wears bloomers.

Or let’s take another example. Oligarchs don’t favor laws that handicap their ability to make money. Getting any meaningful anti-trust legislation into the Philippines is downright hard, even though the nation would benefit by more competition from a host of growing, hungry middle-class businesses. Fat cats like their fat fat, and so they back the politicians who ensure the SYSTEM keeps them monetarily obese.

A third example . . . divorce would make for a kinder, more free and modern Philippines, but try selling that to a Church that has incredible power in the voting booths. The SYSTEM is locked down pat. Spouses are held in bondage under a contract that has no escape clause. Unless you happen to be among the empowered and privileged, of course.

So let us take these examples and extract from them a principle aimed at making the Philippines a right regular place:

  • Principle 1: To get change, those who establish the rules must be led to see things differently.

Well, perhaps that is a little wordy and vague for a principle, but we can work to clean it up.

Essentially, we must encourage the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government to welcome some new rules. We don’t need to riot or stage coups to get this done. We simply need to develop some keen ideas and then sell them.

For instance, government officials cheat because regular pay scales are low. So favors are traded and budgets for the “offices” in which legislators work are expanded and they connive some wealth from that. It got out of hand. Encouragingly, Senator Trillanes grasps the source of the problem and has filed a bill to increase the pay of government officials from the President to lower grade workers (PhilStar article). That is a good example of Principle 1 being deployed. I’d even go further to put incentives in place that offer generous rewards to officials based on achieving target benchmarks for economic progress: GDP growth, job creation, personal income levels.

Furthermore, getting anti-trust legislation into place to better distribute economic wealth ought to be seen as an essential element of job creation and poverty reduction, not a crablike effort to rein in the rich and successful. And sold on that basis.

And divorce ought to be positioned as a civilized human right. Bondage is, after all, a tad outdated in modern and compassionate societies. For sure, we should encourage the Philippines to develop forthrightly as a modern and compassionate society. Perhaps we can extract from that idea a good Principle 2.

Our Agenda

This blog will spend some time during the next few months developing a set of principles aimed at energizing the Philippine economy and sense of social well-being. Principle 1 needs more elaboration and the insights readers can bring to the table. So we will come back to that.

Somehow we have to build an infrastructure of thinking that gets beyond the tendency to think tree to tree, incident to incident, and, in the dust, lose sight of how to move with a sense of purpose.

Somehow we have to get past obtuse.


6 Responses to “The Philippines: An Obtuse Society”
  1. andrew lim says:

    Welcome back, Joe. Just came back a few days ago myself, trying to compose something based on my trip to the Old World.

    “Somehow we have to build an infrastructure of thinking that gets beyond the tendency to think tree to tree, incident to incident, and, in the dust, lose sight of how to move with a sense of purpose.” Hits it right with one of my insights from the trip.

    • Joe America says:

      Thanks, Andrew. Welcome back yourself. Travel is invigorating and exhausting, eh? I hope you get your insights into production. Sloth is not allowed once the jetlag is conquered. 🙂

  2. macspeed says:

    Principle 1:
    The CEO is the President with his cabinet members creating Rules for development and laying them to Senators and Congressmen for implementation. The previous governments has no valid checklist of what is required to guard the economy, the current PNOY administration is on the right track cleansing and purging the old ways and old school of running the government. Perhaps given enough time, PNOY and his cabinet formula will succeed, if not however, the next admin will be force to continue using the forms of PNOY and his cabinet has started. This is PRINCIPLE 1. Organized Management (OM) to prevent manipulation of funds from President down to lower house.

    The Senators and Congressmen are supposed to be the Managers to organize development, yet because of the luck of checklist for spending, they tend to corrupt and leave the society worst than before. The OM will change the bad habits of stealing to a concrete checked development benefiting all walks of life. Delivering substantial growth up to the farthest area will be automatic. People will by themselves demolished their bad area and create a new view acceptable to their new status. OM will bring forth growth and disable crime.

    • Joe America says:

      That is a superb Principle 1 because it establishes a clear mandate as to who drives change, and is not a huge step from where we are. I would even extend the idea to get to the fundamental drives found in successful corporations, not only in structure, but in how executives are paid: bonuses based on tangible achievements. The natural drive for self-enrichment in the legislature has been expressed in a negative way in the past (theft of pork); it could be converted to a positive way (incentives tied to achievement).

  3. J says:

    Welcome back, Joe!

    • Joe America says:

      Thanks J. I have to retrain myself at how to drive here, as I spent most of the month cruising the interstates at 80mph. Didn’t see a single jeepney . . .:)

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