The Philippines: Not Just “Bus and Miss Universe”
The Philippine Bus and Miss Universe
The Huffington Post
Social media sites are abuzz with opinions lately, thanks to our country. The tragic bus hostage. The “botched” Miss Universe effort. And a Huffington Post article discussing why both incidents reflect the hopelessness of the Filipinos as a people. Much judgment has been passed recently on our national identity based on these instances. He’s right, many say, agreeing to Daniel Wagner’s August 25 article, he’s just being objective, Filipinos make too many excuses. Others oppose this judgment, saying we’re actually hopeful. Either way, there is a tendency to define Filipinos with these blunders.
It is tempting in particular to dismiss Wagner’s article as mere American arrogance. Filipinos, after all, are no stranger to being the object of ridicule and disdain, enduring centuries of being called indio, little brown brother, monkey. However, unlike Wagner, we choose not to generalize—there are, after all, Americans who are wont to exploit and look down on other nationalities, and there are those who don’t, and perhaps Wagner deserves the benefit of the daw. Moreover, the sheer number of fellow Filipinos sharing and agreeing with Wagner’s article is worrisome, so perhaps it would be wiser to engage the points Wagner makes.
Global Events, Local Judgment
Wagner, a “political risk consultant,” begins with a conclusion on the nation’s future based on the Quirino grandstand incident and Venus Raj’s pageant performance. “The result of actions like this are unfortunately consistent with the expectations many people have of performance in other areas,” he says. “What does this say about the country’s future? Nothing good.”
He then uses both incidents as a springboard for discussing Philippine politics and culture:
Politically, the Philippines has descended into an ongoing competition between political dynasties: Marcos, Arroyo, and yes, Aquino. What I don’t understand is, why do Filipinos continue to vote them in, election after election? Is it because of a lack of viable alternatives? No. Is it because of political apathy? Possibly. Or is it because they have no expectations that anything will change, regardless of who is in power? Definitely.
The country has “descended” into a war of the rich families, Wagner argues. But has it ever been otherwise? In a nation with a long history of colonialism, the present situation is merely reflective of its subjugated past. The Philippines has long been a global battlefield where conquistadors and shrewd businessmen laid claim to everything as far as their eyes could see.
Why do Filipinos keep on handing them political power, Wagner asks, as if the ultimate gift of American “benevolent assimilation,” democracy, is an infallible system. Sure, people can vote, but do they really have a choice? In the first place, the election system in the Philippines is crafted in such a way that only the insanely rich—those who can afford to bankroll months of campaigning throughout the archipelago—can clinch top posts in government. The elite class, with its monopoly in both political and economic spheres, has pretty much ensured its grip on power. Centuries of culture and (mis-)education, as a factor of the ruling ideology, further cement this stranglehold. Does Wagner—or any Filipino, for that matter—really expect things to change by a simple vote?
The difference here is, many of the countries experiencing political instability and economic dislocation don’t have the things the Philippines has: agricultural self-sufficiency, a high literacy rate, and a largely homogeneous population.
How can we accept judgment as a nation from this man, who, according to a BusinessWorld profile, has 15 years of experience working with global (and neoliberal) groups like AIG, the Asian Development Bank, GE, and the World Bank, who has the gall to act as a connoisseur on the Philippines based on four years of living here, most probably in gentrified urban spaces and perhaps the occasional exoticised rural locale?
The Philippine population, for example, with hundreds of languages and ethnic groups scattered over seven thousand islands, each with its particular experience of colonialism and migration, is not “homogeneous.” And given the sorry state of agriculture in our country, where farmers remain landless, agricultural technologies remain undeveloped and wealthy families (like that of President Benigno Aquino III) maintain control of haciendas (like Luisita), it is also presumptuous to say that we are “agriculturally sufficient.” Even rice, the staple food of Filipinos, is prone to monopoly manipulation, as seen in the “rice crisis” a few years back.
In fairness to Wagner, a tamer and more sober version of his article appears in the BusinessWorld. Citing the country’s economic dependence on OFW remittances and multinational outsourcing industries, he concludes that “[t]he country remains chronically challenged by its inability to create a sustainable economic foundation, a meaningful tax base, and a truly diversified source of revenue.” In short, the Philippines remains economically unstable because of its export-dependent, import-oriented tendencies, which stunts national industrialization in favor of allowing foreign multinational monopolies.
Regardless of the presumptuous tone (despite his outsider position), it is important to recognize two key points that Wagner makes. First, he agrees that this dominance of dynasties, the rule of the rich, is a main factor in the nation’s stunted development. Second, his article demonstrates that even an American outsider can see, whether consciously or not, that at the heart of our issues is imperialism.
The Filipina as Candidate
It is odd how we make such a big deal out of the Miss Universe pageant. Surely, any nation would hate for their psyche and culture to be judged based solely on their country’s performance in the pageant. The funny thing is that people, Facebookers and “political risk consultants” like Wagner alike, are really into this spectacle of “universal” femininity, the pageantry of national “representation,” the fantasy of global competition with the illusion of an even playing field. Not to downplay the hard work of Filipinas like Venus Raj, but we all know it’s all an act, and the “national glory” it brings is just as fake, temporary and flimsy as the contestants’ eyelashes.
Why are we allowing our national identity to be judged on how we perform in a Donald Trump franchise?
The real Filipinas to emulate are the health workers who walk stiletto-less with the countryside as their stage. The sad thing is that three days before Venus Raj wowed judges in the Miss Universe preliminaries, Morong courts junked the petition to free Judilyn Oliveros, a Morong 43 detainee, so she can take care of the child she bore under detention. While we were screaming about who made it to the top 15, we were silent about those who were among the Morong 43. While our eyes were glued to Venus Raj pondering her big mistake, Filipinas like Judilyn were contending with other bigger “mistakes”: being a woman in a nation where to be a rural health worker is tantamount to being a threat to national security.
Perhaps it’s easier to watch a Filipina strutting around, shedding sheer, silvery scarves, instead of watching one in a wheelchair, a Filipina who cannot even carry their own newborn because of the silvery steel handcuffs she cannot shed as easily.
Venus is judged based on how well she articulates universalized virtues, how well she negotiates between strong-careerist-achiever and fragile-gentle-beautiful-mother—all hallmarks of the woman’s role in a capitalist-feudal world. Judilyn is a casualty of Oplan Bantay Laya, the US-devised, Philippine-adopted counterinsurgency strategy. Both women are targets of an imperialist agenda deeply ingrained in our culture, manifesting as both humanitarianism (Venus, corporate social responsibility) and inhumanity (Judilyn, fascism).
Wagner raises a storm of questions and judgment based on our Miss Universe appearance, but that’s just the struggle of one Filipina among millions. To respond to such, it is necessary to broaden the discussion on context—especially if our “national identity” is in question.
There are Filipinos who express embarrassment when state forces cause the death of eight foreigners, but remain mum when the same forces are involved in the harassment and deaths of hundreds of political dissenters and activists. There are Filipinos who are quick to express disappointment when a President fails to act somber and apologetic on a television interview, but are not outraged by his and his family’s continued usurpation of land and suppression of genuine agrarian reform. There are Filipinos who anchor the nation’s glory on beauty queens in the global spotlight, rather than ordinary Filipinas who work tirelessly without seeking media attention. What we react to, what we look at, what embarrasses us, what we cheer for. These speak volumes about who we are, how we got here and why it remains to be so.
We know our nation’s big mistakes. The major major question is, what do we do to make it right? That is for each one of us, and not a foreign commentator, to decide.#
The infamous answer to the even more infamous question.
Venus Raj breezes though questions like a true-blue Miss Gay gandidate.
The infamous reaction of the Half-Pinays that Venus Raj reprezents.
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Writings. Tags: commentary, daniel wagner, donald trump, filipino, filipino identity, filipino psyche, hong kong, hostage, hostage incident, huffington post, imperialism, judilyn oliveros, major major, manila, maria venus raj, miss philippines, miss universe, morong 43, noynoy aquino, philippine bus, philippine identity, philippines, quirino grandstand, venus raj.