Source Asia Sentinel
SACRAMENTO, U.S.--By some measures, the Philippines needs a revolution, to throw off the old elites, end monopolies, open up to foreign competition, prioritize education, eliminate large-scale smuggling, and enforce taxes. The weakness of a divided left plus the economic growth, however unequal, in the pre-pandemic years kept popular discontent well- contained with some progress in poverty reduction and income transfers to the poor.
Things for the masses were not getting worse and the urban middle classes who had driven the EDSA Revolution in 1986 were doing fine. The future may well offer more of the same, with Overseas Filipino Workers, remittances, and business process outsourcing (BPO) all continuing to provide foreign exchange and jobs while progress in infrastructure remains underpinned by foreign support.
The country’s biggest challenge, though, is not to export more people but to make better use at home of the tens of millions in informal jobs in cities and low-productivity agriculture. Meanwhile, rebellion simmers on the margin of society and could yet grow much bigger again as in the latter Marcos days.
Political and economic domination by a China seeking regional hegemony is clearly a longer-term threat to the legacies of former foreign rulers – Christianity from Spain and a political and legal system from the US. China’s relative economic power is not likely to wane soon while that of others such as Japan, the US, and Australia may do.
Philippine historiography often has a distinctly nationalist tone but more as a reaction to Western imperialism than to a pre-colonial identity when there was no such place as the Philippines but, like Indonesia and Malaysia, a collection of lands of various kings, sultans, and chiefs speaking related languages and trading and sometimes warring with each other.
There remains a lot to do in improving relations with non-Chinese neighbors. Apart from occasional squabbles about Sabah, there were few specific aggravations, but little effort was made to cultivate them and they often seem baffled by a Philippines unsure of its position as a significant Asian country.
General lack of interest in foreign and neighboring country affairs was reflected in media coverage as well as in the simplistic notions of provincial politicians. Manila would have done well to look to Hanoi for guidance in balancing the defense of its territorial rights with economic ties with China.
Meanwhile, Japan received modest attention in spite of its far larger role than China in private investment and aid for infrastructure.
As for the Philippines’ military, though a proud and relatively disciplined force, it has spent 70 years fighting its own people. Its background political influence increased under Duterte and was a factor in persuading a reluctant president to renew the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.
The raised level of unpredictability over Taiwan as well as the nine-dash line claim made it more important than ever for the Philippines to maximize its diplomatic efforts to protect common interests while continuing to cooperate with the US and others on military issues.
For the longer term, it is possible to see demographic issues coming to play a bigger role in China relations – a fast-aging China looking for man and (especially) women power which would in time make it, not the Middle East or US, a golden opportunity for Philippine job seekers, and hence an income source for the nation.
Of course, China itself may prefer to avoid either importing labor or exporting retirees, Filipinos may resist an influx of Chinese, even old ones, but the issue of people movement could become a key influence on the direction of China relations.
The decline in the fertility rate has been quickening but there are still two decades ahead when pressure to create jobs for school leavers will remain severe.
That might change under a leader with a radical agenda and backed by populist sentiment but none has yet to emerge. Nor as yet does the Philippines have, for good or ill, a movement similar to Peronism in Argentina or to countries in Latin America and the Middle East with histories of left-leaning generals with populist slogans backed by an army. Even the old left might abandon outdated slogans and find a leader who can galvanize the masses.
There is no doubt that Filipinos remain eager participants in elections at every level even though choices are mostly limited to dynasts and media celebrities.
For what it is worth, for all its myriad problems of poverty and lawlessness, the nation regularly rates much higher in the Global Happiness Index than its socio-economic position would suggest. Foreign countries welcoming its workers and migrants seem to agree.
The nation, like its archipelago, is made up of many odd-shaped pieces which make a whole. Its 500-year history is a bond of identity but also a curse of continuity of a socio-political structure in need of a shake-up which would enable its people’s talents to be better reflected in the state of the nation.
Seventy- five years after independence, the Philippines is searching for a political answer to its relative failure to keep up with the economic and social progress of its once poorer neighbors.