The Greening of the Philippines

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(Hold your breath for a stunning prediction!)

Imagine.

There was a time when the Philippines was the most promising nation in all of Asia. In 1898, the value of the Philippine peso was just half that of the U.S. dollar. Industrialization was on the rise, way ahead of Japan and China.

Then the Philippine Dream all went to pot.

Zoom up to the present. A Japanese visitor casts a thoughtful eye at a crowded Manila slum he’s passing and turns to the taxi driver beside him. “The best resource your country has is its many, many young people,” the Japanese says. “Your future is bright.”

This anecdote, making the rounds in the Philippines, reached me via my aunt in Davao City. Retired, she is a font of much trivia. The opinion of this Japanese gentleman now whirls in my head like a tune that won’t go away. Thanks, Auntie.

The future WAS bright when the Philippines toddled on baby legs testing out her independence from the United States in 1946. The infrastructure left behind by the departing Americans and the partnerships they’d formed with aspiring Filipino entrepreneurs gave the new nation an amazing head-start.

The people of the Philippines were arguably the best fed among their neighbours in Asia in the years after World War Two, before the sixties. Then politics took a wrong turn, and the starving people of India began to eat better than a great number of Filipinos. During the crony-corrupted Marcos regime, forty percent of Filipino deaths came by way of malnutrition.

So why would the Japanese think the Filipino future bright? At the last count of 2014, Japan had a population of  126,999,808. The median age was 46.2 years old. The Philippine count was 100,096,496 with a median of 23.2 years old. In terms of having more youthful, more energetic people to run a country, the Philippines trumps Japan two to one.

If you were to ask me: What’s the Philippines got going for her? I’d have to say: Her people.

We’re in the middle of an explosive phenomenon that many of us don’t realize. I call it: “The Greening of the Philippines.” And the major players in the Southeast Asian theatre, namely China, the United States of America and Japan, should pay attention because their interests are at stake.

According to the American English Dictionary, “greening” means “becoming more mature and less naïve, esp. in one’s understanding of social and political forces.”

The Philippines is undergoing a mutation of consciousness, a greening.

Remember the 1970 book by Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America, a homily to the counterculture of the 1960s, broken down into three phases of consciousness, leading to utopian harmony? The Filipino consciousness also evolves in three phases, although that’s where the similarity ends, because each phase has the strain of a difficult childbirth, more akin to a death throe, unlike the American experience given to lyrical heroism and weed. And the end for the Filipino is not aerie-faerie bliss, but a hard-nosed demand for a better quality of life.

The first phase of Filipino consciousness, the worldview that the status quo determines proper behaviour and good taste, comes from a pliable indio in awe of colonial values, preferring imported goods to locally made ones. It’s dogged him under Spanish, American and Japanese rule, and continues to influence his actions afterwards. It makes him follow a tribal code of behavior around hiya (shame), utang-na-loob (debt-of-gratitude) and pakikisama (cooperation) from his ancestors, to heed the wishes of his peer group even against his better judgment.

The politicians who sought to fill the leadership void left by the Americans after Philippine independence, were typically from landowning clans with an awful lot of influence. Appreciating the one-man-one-vote style of American democracy they’d inherited, these politicians learned to play the numbers game on the growing middle class below them and the peasantry farther down. They cut through class lines by sharing the spoils of electoral victory (patronage appointments, disbursement of public funds, awarding of government contracts) throughout their political networks.

In his first phase of consciousness, the typical Filipino is a willing participant in this political farce. It’s the norm, so he complies.

President Ferdinand E. Marcos sold to the masses his grand vision of a “New Society.” A rough equivalent of the American “New Deal” to help people recover from the Great Depression, Marcos’ “New Society” offered make-work projects to solve the poverty crisis, but interference by his corrupt cronies threw a monkey wrench into his plans.

The screw-up brought about a Communist insurgency, a Moro separatist movement and finally the assassination of Marcos’ arch-rival, Benigno Aquino Jr.

These multiple stressors hammered the second phase of consciousness into the Filipino muddling his way in the world

It came with the People’s Power Revolution that sent Marcos to exile in Hawaii. It had its beginnings in the new politics of the protest movement squaring off against the old politics of nepotism and graft. Blooming in Filipino consciousness was the cause-oriented movement to replace the patron-client sideshow he’d grown up with.

In the Philippines, small middle-class groups joined forces to form a coalition that would counter the traditional politics of Marcos loyalists. One such group was the August Twenty-One Movement or ATOM formed by Agapito Aquino (the assassinated Aquino’s brother) with close friends from his Ateneo de Manila high school class of 1955. Once its job was done, the ad hoc coalition dispersed to its separate middle class entities and their lower class supporters without bringing any dramatic changes to the Philippine power structure.

Groups springing out of nowhere to say “enough is enough” to political abuse, reflect the second phase of consciousness, the worldview that taking a collective stance for a moral and just cause is the right thing to do.

To date, according to the National Statistics Office in Manila, the literacy rate of Filipinos stands at 97.5 percent. The number of college graduates exceeds half a million a year (553,706 in 2014). And the Philippines can prove her claim to have the third largest English-speaking population in the world.

Still with me? Good, because you’re about to be served up the third phase of Filipino consciousness .

After the People’s Power Revolution, crony capitalism was dismantled and the rebuilding started. Government corporations designed to provide lucrative jobs to recipients of political favours, were privatized. Of the new leadership, it was President Fidel V. Ramos who pushed deregulation and trade liberalization to steady the shaky economy.

Then guess what? The tsunami of the Asian financial crisis came crashing down on what he’d accomplished. Luckily, his people live around the Pacific Ring of Fire where storms and earthquakes are the way of life. Filipinos as a rule pick up the pieces and move on.

New ideas from fresh minds keep cropping up to feed the third phase of Filipino consciousness. One such concept is a federalism proposal that would spread the wealth across the archipelago and bring to bear banditry, insurgency and Moro unrest.

In the Greening of the Philippines, the third phase of consciousness is the worldview that bright minds can be harnessed to improve overall quality of life.

There is no shortage of brain power in the Philippines. Thousands of foreign students flock to her universities where English is the medium of instruction. Korean, Iranian, Chinese, American, Indian, Russian and Japanese number among them.

The Philippines has become the call centre of the world, surpassing India, because of the Filipino’s proficiency in English. That’s $25 billion in yearly revenue, according estimates, roughly one-tenth of the Philippine economy.

The Philippines is a plum to be had, not only because of its natural resources and strategic location in the sea lanes but also because of her bright young people. China, the United States and Japan are the major players in the area. They’re not blind to The Greening of the Philippines.

So it’s a waiting game. Like wondering if and when Manny Pacquiao will have a next bout.

Here’s the nitty-gritty. A partnering of the Philippines with a major economic power would mean a sudden influx of capitalization and jobs, vastly improving the Filipino quality of life. Whom should she partner up with? A resource-needy China with a voracious appetite for more territory? The U.S. renewing old ties with the Philippines to regain lost prestige in the Far East? Japan quietly donating millions of dollars to infrastructure projects in the Philippines before the next stage of courtship?

Remember, the third phase of Filipino consciousness is the worldview that bright minds can be harnessed to improve overall quality of life.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew shared this worldview and acted on it. Now Singapore’s dollar is almost on par with that of the U.S. Singapore’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low of 1.8 percent compared to 5.5 percent in the U.S.

A breakthrough is around the corner for the Philippines. Who is she going to partner up with to make this happen?

Watch for the answer here.