Barely two weeks after Barack Obama won the United States presidential election, the audacity of hope in America seems to have been quickly replaced by fear – stock markets plummeted right after his election and gun sales increased over the past days, as some worried that Obama might curtail the Second Amendment, while others feared racial supremacy conflicts.

I remember, in college, our Political Dynamics professor, Enrique Dela Cruz, a lawyer and city councilor in Bulacan province, said that “people do not resist change but they resist loss”. Discussing Karol Edward Soltan’s “The Constitution of Good Societies”, he explained that people at certain situations fail to adapt and institutions rarely evolve because while everyone says they want change, not everyone is willing to give up anything to achieve it.

Change, like everything else, has liabilities. To some, to people who thrive in the status quo, change may even be the liability. When people fail to shift their paradigms and refuse to sacrifice their comforts, they tend to rationalize their fears of change. Eventually, fear convinces them that the unknown is a gamble (as in the stock market drop after Obama’s win) or a threat (as in the increase in gun sales).

Obama’s campaign has been popular around the world for many reasons, but I think it’s mainly because it strikes a familiar chord, something which we can relate to however un-American we are. Change is such a universal theme that when resonated amid a dismal backdrop of widespread poverty, global warming, food and energy crises, near-economic depressions and political instabilities, creates an illuminating message. In imagery, it becomes a messianic promise.

But Americans seem to have been inspired to change only selectively. Apparently, while they voted for Obama, Californians voted “yes” on Proposition 8, a recall on the California Supreme Court’s decision to allow same sex marriage in the state. Are racial differences easier to accept than differences in sexual orientation then?

The landmark decision was celebrated not only by the gay community of California but also those around America, as the U.S. Supreme Court almost always use Californian rulings as precedent. But as far as I remember, Proposition 8 was not much of an issue during the campaign, at least not in international news coverage of the election (of course, Republicans are against gay marriage).

California is patently liberal. It’s home to Hollywood and is the most multi-racial state in America. In fact, even though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is Republican, his win proves how open Californians are to change, to the political system in this case. But the recall proposition won and that, based on voter profiling, black voters sided in favor of the recall with a ratio of more than 2 to 1.

Which makes me wonder: Are we, as a people, really incapable of accepting change, even as we believe in it? Is loss an imperative of change? Likewise, is double standard an imperative of decision-making? Are social changes like this really a corruption of our beliefs or a validation of our stubbornness to accept us wrong?

About a week before the U.S. election, Ashley Todd told police that a large black man assaulted her while withdrawing money from an automatic teller machine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a then battleground state which voted for the Democrats. She said the attacker robbed her and carved a backwards “B” on her cheek.

Expectedly, the racially and politically charged story spread like wildfire. But Friday before the election, Todd confessed that her story was fabricated. Apparently, the hoax crime, though not directly linked with or implicated John McCain’s camp, was a desperate attempt to influence voters to vote Republican.

Todd, who was described by the Agence France-Presse as “white” (it was the first time I ever read a foreign news item describe someone “white”, as opposed to usually describing people as “black” or “Muslim”) was a McCain volunteer. Unfortunately, sometimes, when we think what we hold good and true, what we strongly believe in, is being corrupted, we tend to prove ourselves to a corrupting point as well.


Not surprisingly, markets continue to fall about a week after the United States government agreed to bail Wall Street out for $700 billion. Markets in London, Tokyo and even Frankfurt continue to dive down and, to date, the crisis might just force Iceland to declare national bankruptcy. Clearly, the breadth of this financial disaster is as wide as American influence.

The Philippines’ resiliency, however, is a bit surpirsing. While preparing its own market aid plan to avert serious repercussions, the government said it was confident the economy would withstand any shockwave. Fiscal policy reforms during the last four years, such as the expanded value added tax, along with the innate and continued conservatism of Philippine banks prove to have secured certain economic fundamentals. Particularly in trade, however, the government apparently claims that the economy’s saving grace is China, now our biggest trading partner (which used to be the U.S.).

Early this semester, I had a discussion with Ellen, a colleague and former classmate in graduate school, and Dr. Lysander Padilla, our former professor in Economics of Development, where I disputed his claim that capitalism is an economic imperative. He said the fact that the former Soviet Union fell and China’s economy is gradually opening up proves the fallacy of communism.

While I agreed with him that a ‘communist’ state is quite improbable, I argued that capitalism was only a phase and, in the sense, is a means towards the ‘communist ideal’ (as opposed to capitalism being an end). I’m admittedly still feeling my way through global economic issues and cannot substantiate this yet as robustly as I would want to, but I suppose recent events already do so. As I attempt, nevertheless, take for example the economic boom and endurance of former and current authoritarian states of the post-war era, particularly in Asia.

Asia is the next frontier for various reasons – its economies, both national and regional, are growing steadily at a higher rate relative to other developed and developing countries; over the years, many Asian nations have managed to increase per capita income and offer cheap labor at the same time, making it the regional hub of outsourcing in almost every industry; but more importantly, the political-economic fundamentals of many Asian nations (arguably with exception of the Philippines) have been shaped for the long-term by the authoritarian regimes of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. In fact, with the exception of India, the dragons of Asia today were once or are authoritarian states.

China is today’s fastest-growing economic superpower. An Australian editorial cartoon even touted it as the savior of capitalism. It has been experiencing a double-digit growth for the past years (even with the current crisis, its economy is still expected to grow by nine percent) and trafficking much of world trade (the export industry being one of their strongest).

The Chinese word for ‘crisis’, wei ji, is composed of two characters which means ‘dangerous’ (wei) and ‘opportunity’ (ji). It’s a rather optimistic view that every crisis is but good fortune waiting to happen. Indeed, despite the many industry crises (production issues with formaldehyde in food, high lead content in children’s toys and melamine in milk products), image concerns (assault on Tibet, allegedly supplying weapons to warring factions in Darfur, air pollution and cheating allegations during the Beijing Olympics), natural disasters (earthquake in Sichuan) and even epidemics (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Bird Flu), it has proved to be resilient and enduring.

Vietnam, also a ‘communist’ country, is likewise a fast-growing economy. It has surpassed the Philippines’ growth for a number of periods and is now drawing more foreign investors. Malaysia (though it did not technically went through an authoritarian period, it experienced a 22-year strongman rule under former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad) is poising itself as the center of Islamic finance and Singapore, the most successful of the Asian authoritarian experiments, continues to lead the Southeast Asian economies.

Authoritarian states are simply notorious for being non-democratic. But most people fail to see the genius that control, as a state function, in these countries is neither a definite boon nor bane. Control, both the sense of it and belief in it, is but a political tool that lends its authority to the ruler – and so authoritarian states may end up successful as in Singapore or a failure as in the Philippines. This genius is revealed today as current and former authoritarian states, which experienced heavy economic regulation and state intervention in markets, are enduring the unfolding global financial crises.

Some may say that Asia’s resilience is significantly due to its culture (or, in this case, lack of credit culture), but how come the Tokyo stock market just had its worst fall in more than 20 years? More intriguingly, despite the domino-effect of market crashes in Europe, how come Poland, also a former ‘communist’ state, is fast-becoming an economic hub? Which makes me wonder: is the world experience of ‘communism’ really a nation’s experiment towards the egalitarian, ‘communist’ ideal or was it a mislabeled incident of political-economic pragmatism? Is state regulation an imperative of economic development? If so, is the free market a myth?

Some 40 years ago, much of the world discriminated against authoritarian regimes. Former colonies were pressured and brutally forced to open up to democratic politics and free market economics. Communist leaders and dictators were vilified for both their vision and their means, some to a point that drove their government to fail one way or another.

Ironically, today, much of the world couldn’t help but look at China, and many of those authoritarian regimes they once bullied, for a clue and a way out of their economic turmoil. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is now even working on a plan similar to the Chinese banking model. Clearly, even with denial, such vindication proves something. In the words of the fictional Chinese emperor in Disney’s “Mulan,” “a flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made a very witty observation when he criticized United States President George Bush for calling the current American financial crisis a market “adjustment”. Juxtaposed with his televised speech were video clippings and sound bytes of news reports calling the market crash a “disaster”, “crisis”, “nightmare” and “blood bath” among others.

After his rather confident and reassuring speech, however, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress for a non-detailed but urgent bailout plan for Wall Street. He asked for $700 billion, without any assurance when the loan will be paid or if it can be paid in full at all. To date, while both Democrats and Republicans realize the need for a financial rescue, Congress still couldn’t agree on a bailout plan.

Some pundits have called the crisis a mortifying proof that free market capitalism does not work in the long term and that government regulation is an economic imperative.

Back when the U.S. financial predicament was only showing the tip of the iceberg (during the subprime crisis), Dr. William Robinson of the University of California, Santa Barbara, already called the situation a “restructuring crisis”.

In a series of lectures in the University of the Philippines, he explained that the post-war era (1945 to 1970) already saw the commodification of corporate capitalism, which then gave rise to a new social structure (1971 onwards). He called this new phase “global capitalism” and argued that the increased transnationalization of production has resulted to a global capitalist class concerned more of profit than a national hegemonic agenda (as opposed to the imperialist view of economic control).

According to his theory, globalization has successfully meshed world economies – meaning an upset in one market will definitely affect other markets, not necessarily in a domino effect, but as interdependent units. Indeed, the U.S. financial crisis has since created shockwaves on other world economies. Stock markets plunged when the subprime crisis broke and today, banks with exposure to Lehman Brothers, Meryll Lynch and the American International Group are also troubled with cushioning or even preventing their own collapse. In fact, the United Kingdom is now struggling with a relative mortgage crisis which is, perhaps, the most devastating jolt of the U.S. market crash yet.

But watching the news lately seems to reveal that the root of the crisis may be less complex than Wall Street, economists and theorists project it to be. I think, through the technical clutter and corporate jargon, what actually lies is the fallacy of a credit economy.

I remember, in high school economics, we were told that the value of money is pegged with the amount of national gold reserves. Our teacher told us that people used paper money mainly for a practical purpose – gold is heavy to carry around. And so, every paper money we have supposedly has a certain gold value. But then how come currencies appreciate and depreciate? Does that mean gold is also traded as currencies fluctuate?

Most, if not all, developed nations’ economies rely on credit as their markets have allowed people to acquire things they can’t pay for the mean time. Apparently, the prevailing mindset of economic activity is household consumption, since economic growth relies on profitable businesses and businesses rely on customer purchases.

For decades, this has actually worked, so to speak, but the change of economic rhetoric from production (during the European Industrial Revolution) to consumption is not sustainable, primarily because labor is compromised. When businesses focus on profit, they tend to explore ways to be more efficient using technology or by outsourcing. In sum, less need for labor means less employment opportunities, less employment opportunities means less people employed and less people employed means less household income. How then can there be economic activity if people don’t have the means to consume? Credit.

In plain theory, a credit economy can continue to function provided that mortgages and loans are paid within an agreed period; else, it will only bloat economic growth with unpaid purchases. But outsourcing, as an efficiency measure, limits domestic jobs (as Dr. Robinson argued, production has become transnational) and prevents households from acquiring enough income to pay for mortgages and loans. The U.S. subprime crisis and the current wave of market crash is, in fact, a result of unpaid dues. Unfortunately, banks and investment firms already traded these credits as if they already have existing value. Simply put, they counted and even sold the chickens before the eggs hatched – and the eggs didn’t.

Which makes me wonder: is a free market economic system sustainable? Will this “restructuring crisis” change the economic status quo for the better or will the planned bailout of Wall Street only humble capitalism for a while and enable the credit economy again? More importantly, I think, have we been relying on bloated growth as an indication of economic development all this time?

As I watch foreign news these days, I see Americans asking where to put their money. Panic has prompted many to withdraw their bank deposits and sell their investments and these jitters, in turn, have continuously affected the Dow Jones and other world economies badly. I do not, for one, think that this crisis is the end of capitalism but I definitely think the credit economy should end. As the cliché goes, “your credit is good, but we need cash.”

It was raining on my way to a research conference in the University of the Philippines early today. But although it was a cold and very windy morning, the Metro Rail Transit’s (MRT) air conditioning was on high. Ironically, on my way home this warm and humid afternoon, MRT’s air conditioning was out. The experience felt like I was a sardine taken from cold storage and then heated in an oven.

The MRT has become the fastest and cheapest way to get from one point to another along Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare. Standard bus fare, at eight pesos (roughly 17 American cents), used to be cheaper, but soaring oil prices these last few months has forced many passengers to take the train instead (which charges only 10 to 15 pesos or approximately 21 to 32 American cents).

Although congested MRT trains aren’t a sudden phenomenon. When I was still in college, it was already difficult to ride the train during peak hours; back then, most people took the train to save travel time. But MRT congestion has now become a given. Even people working in corporate offices, wearing long-sleeved shirts, sometimes even with coats or blazers on, have migrated from riding cabs to taking the train. To spend less, however, they have to literally struggle (and, more often than not, swelter and probably stench) inside a crowded train.

As I was on the train, I remembered my discussion with Claudio, a good friend I met in Singapore last July. Claudio Sopranzetti is a Harvard doctorate student of Anthropology who did a commendable study on Bangkok’s Skytrain, Thailand’s version of MRT, and claimed that it wasn’t so much a mode of mass transportation, as the fare was expensive, but a retail system, which delivers passengers from one mall to another.

He told me that riding the Skytrain is close to an awkward experience – people are seated (or standing) apart and are consciously avoiding each other’s gaze. He even said that the LCD screens inside, not only function to advertise but also becomes a convenient focus for the passengers’ eyes and avoid contact.

I told him Thailand is supposedly the Philippines twin country and while mall compounds also thrive along the train’s stops, I don’t think our MRT could be viewed exactly with the same lens. For one, MRT passengers are forced to have physical contact with each other, sometimes to an irritating and harassing extent.

Dr. Lysander Padilla, one of my professors in the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, did a study on Metro Manila’s population and argued that it had a transient one, which balloons during the day, as residents of nearby provinces like Bulacan and Pampanga in the north and Cavite, Laguna and Batangas in the south migrate to work. He said that mass transportation to, from and within Metro Manila, a mega urban region, should be a policy imperative, especially since it’s both the country’s political and economic center. His study was published in a national daily some years ago.

To be fair, the government has since been following a mass rail transit system plan that aims to facilitate inter-city travel within the mega urban region. The plan started during Ferdinand Marcos’ term and was modified during Fidel Ramos’ and again in Gloria Arroyo’s. Arroyo’s plan is more ambitious, however, as it includes the revival and modification of the Philippine National Railway, a rail transit system that extends to northern and southern provinces.

Roads and mass transportation are imperative to progress. They serve as vital veins of an urbanizing and urban region, which circulates people and products and furthers economic growth. In fact, the grid-like zoning most cities follow today are based on the European blueprint during the industrialization period, which, above all, aimed to facilitate the transportation of mass produced goods to consumers. Arroyo, being an economist, knows this, so it’s not surprising that her administration’s road network (including the commendable nautical highway) and mass transportation plans are more ambitious.

But most roads in Metro Manila were patterned after the Spanish plan in old Intramuros, which had narrow in-city networks, and are comparably taper than most developed and many developing countries. Which makes me wonder: we’re the twelfth largest country in the world by population, but why hasn’t road networks and mass transportation been a prevailing campaign or policy issue whether in local or national politics? Why do people seem to only care about mass transportation when oil price spikes? Why hasn’t it been a national or even regional development concern?

With the Metro Manila Development Authority Chair, Bayani Fernando (also a former Marikina City mayor) openly expressing his desire to run for president in 2010 and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay (chief of the country’s financial district for more than two decades) hinting to do the same (two very experienced executives, as opposed to a number of legislators, in the presidential derby), I hope mass transportation will finally become a campaign issue. After all, if road networks and mass transportation are imperative to progress, they’re a must in addressing poverty, an over-used, misused and abused political rhetoric.

Civil society has been a staple rhetoric of democracy in the Philippines. To my mind, it has rationalized and ‘modernized’, so to speak, the historic drama of the Filipinos’ struggle over the past centuries.

It has been pervasive, so much so that it embraced different sectors of society in broad strokes, from the poor to members of the elite, the left to business and various religious groups and even members of the press (which are supposed to be objective). But its struggle for inclusivity has seemingly ignored ideological roots and conceptual compatibility and consequently diminished its essence into an amorphous social force that is invoked, almost always, as a political opposition.

Dr. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, of the Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (LIPI) or Indonesian Institute of Sciences, thinks that the country’s preoccupation on civil society is a Western democratic imperative that may not necessarily fit Asian societies. She argued that once we see South East Asian countries in perspective of the West, we are already at a disadvantage and pointed out that Asian countries develop in a certain way that may not follow the Western model, but is effective just the same.

In fact, during the late 1960’s to 1970’s, South East Asian countries underwent a political transition distinct from the hypothesis of Western-brand democracy. At that time, the “strong man rule” was the theme of governance (Sukarno then Suharto in Indonesia, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines).

To my mind, the logic of such theme is to create a strong political core and institutions that would serve as the base of economic development. It’s similar to Fareed Zakaria’s concept of liberal autocracy, which he also said was probably the best political transition model for former colonies. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, our version of the “strong man rule” got corrupted. And today, it’s ironic to think that while our political institutions remain unstable, we already have a juggernaut waiting to pound on its walls – civil society.

Civil society’s ever-pronounced purpose is battling government corruption and it has done so in many ways, including advocating for a so-called third political force (which in a country with a weak party system may remain a quixotic feat). But the most prevalent advocacy for many civil society groups is the call for transparency.

The Access to Information Network (ATIN), a group actively lobbying for the passage of a freedom of information act, suggests that anomalies and corrupt practices in government would be best prevented and resolved if and when the public is given access to certain government documents currently held in secrecy. The logic is to allow a convenient check and balance, with the press as a watchdog. Such a call is in line with the Western rationale that development requires democracy and democracy necessitates a free flow of information.

In “The Right to Know”, a book comparing the degree of freedom of information in South East Asian countries (published in 2001), the Philippines and Thailand ranked as the most transparent countries and Vietnam and Burma as the most secretive. Among South East Asian countries, the Philippines is the only country that enshrines the right to information in the constitution and Thailand is the only one who has a freedom of information law.

The book, edited by Sheila Coronel, said that “Southeast Asian experience shows that the struggle for freedom of information cannot be taken separately from the struggle for democracy.”

However, Lee, in an interview with Time Magazine in 2005, said that he is “not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That’s the test.” The book criticized Singapore and Malaysia’s “paternalistic but restrictive governments” for keeping social and political information closed to scrutiny.

But how does this reconcile with the Western archetype that democracy is the key to development? While scoring as one of the worst (probably essentially because of being communist), Vietnam is now one of the fastest growing economy in the South East Asian region. Singapore and Malaysia, which quickly recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, are admired as models of economic progress. In stark contrast, the most transparent ones are lagging behind – the Philippines’ growth remains a balloon and Thailand is currently going through a political turmoil similar to our earlier experience with Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Apparently, with the Western lens, at least in South East Asia, there’s a paradox between freedom and development. Which makes me wonder: is democracy really an imperative to development or is it the other way around? Do our fixation on civil society and certain freedoms hinder our own political institutions to develop into strong foundations of development, which is supposedly the goal if not benefit of having a democracy? Are we, as a people, already in denial that we may have romanticized our social struggle to a delusive and probably destructive extent?

Lee, who has been aggressively promoting the Asian logic, said he admired American society but explained that what makes their system work is its compatibility with their values and capacity as a people and that not all society can emulate such, at least not now. “We believe in the marketplace of ideas,” he said. “Let the ideas contend, and the best ideas the public will buy. But that assumes a large well-educated group of people as readers.”

While it may be practical for business, a lot of people find the government’s Holiday Economics policy a nuisance, as it supposedly diminishes the historical importance of events that we commemorate. Except for Christmas, New Year and Holy Week, it officially declares all Philippine holidays movable to the nearest Saturday or Sunday. The logic is to have a long weekend instead of an interrupted week of work and business.

One of such events, which celebration was moved three days earlier this week, is Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr.’s death anniversary. He died 25 years ago today and his death sparked the public outrage which resulted to the first People Power, a non-violent revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.

He was assassinated upon returning home from exile in the United States. His wife, Corazon Aquino, took his mantle and soon became president and he was immortalized as a national hero. No one has been in such high pedestal since then and commemorating his death anniversary has become an annual nostalgia that dramatizes the search for someone like him – a hero who believed that “the Filipino is worth dying for.”

Ninoy was born with a silver spoon, but was determined since his youth. He was the youngest war correspondent at 17 (he covered the Korean War for “Manila Times,” a national daily); a distinguished journalist at 18 (he received a Philippine Legion of Honor award from former President Elpidio Quirino); a close adviser to then defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay at 21; mayor of Concepcion, Tarlac at 22; and the youngest senator ever elected at 34.

But what I think was his best quality, as far as politics is concerned, was his gift of gab. Though he didn’t finish college, he was eloquent with words, as Marcos was, and this charm has catapulted him to limelight as a popular figure of the opposition.

I remember, exactly a year ago, I attended a youth leadership forum which made him an example of servant leadership. In an activity we had, the moderator asked us what question we would like to ask Ninoy if he was still alive. Everyone, but me, asked about his experiences and what life lessons he has for today’s generation. I asked a political question: “what was going on in your mind when Marcos bolted the Liberal Party to join the Nacionalista Party and run for president?”

Marcos and Ninoy shared a lot of things. They were both young achievers, ambitious, calculating, eloquent and popular. They once belonged to the same political party (Liberal Party) and both their wives have been iconic and helped their political careers. In fact, they were even married in the same year (1954) and both their weddings were sponsored by President Magsaysay.

But history has pitted them as exact opposites. Marcos has been demonized and his regime is now a benchmark of government excess, corruption and oppression. Ninoy has been hailed and remains as the contemporary equivalent of Jose Rizal. And these images have since defined the public imagination of our political struggle.

When I was doing my field work for my thesis on democratization, I encountered some people who were privy of the backroom negotiations during Martial Law and the 1986 People Power. Some were members of the left, some were political elites. Our conversations painted a different picture of what history books tell about Marcos, his regime, Ninoy and his death. I continue to meet people who say similar things nowadays.

Some said Ninoy was a very ambitious and crafty politician who wanted to become president at all cost; that he helped found the communist military arm, New Peoples’ Army, under the auspices of the United States government; that he was privy to the Plaza Miranda bombing in 1971, which was why he wasn’t there; that he insisted on coming back to the Philippines in 1983 (despite threats to his life) because he knew Marcos was ill, had knowledge of a plan to topple the dictatorship and wanted to make sure that he becomes the next president when that happens (instead of having a junta).

The “Annotations on the Anti-CPP attacks of the so-called PKP-1930” released by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) on November 8, 2005 confirms some of such allegations. “The formation of the CPP, and later of its ‘New People’s Army’ (NPA), had the covert support of then-Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino and media magnate Don Chino Roces,” the document said. “Both (were) known agents of the US CIA.” Roces was the publisher of “Manila Times,” which had Ninoy as a war correspondent.

Ninoy’s CIA connections prove to be a fact. In “Subversion as Foreign Policy,” Audrey and George Kahin notes him as “probably the most important” Filipino who “worked with the CIA in logistical aspects” of the American-supported rebellion in Indonesia under Sukarno. “He opened up his family’s Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac as a training camp for the rebels,” they said and quoted Ninoy as saying “we even set up an elaborate radio network so the rebels could contact their people.”

In “Necessary Illusions,” Noam Chomsky explains how public thought, opinion and consent are controlled and manufactured by the state and said that the media plays a big role in the process. He took his book’s title from Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, who once said that because of the “stupidity of the average man,” he must be given “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” instead of the truth. This was one of the foundations of what Chomsky called Propaganda Theory. Likewise, studies prove that emotional messages work more than facts in making people understand issues and events.

I do not, in any way, attempt to stain Ninoy’s legacy, but to my mind, given the facts and accounts I’ve encountered so far, his is a necessary illusion. The concept of Ninoy as hero was a natural response then. The people needed to pin their hopes on someone who will embody and fight for their aspirations, someone who will dramatize good, a zeitgeist who will trigger the collective imagination of a helpless public and inspire them to put their stake in the fight against the bedeviled dictator. All things considered, his life and his immortalized quote remain iconic of the Filipino ideal to this day for a reason.

But necessary illusions are false impressions just the same. No matter how circumstances may justify it, they’re lies. Which makes me wonder: how can we claim truth if we accept some lies as necessary? How can we, as a people, realize our situation, how we came to be and where we should go if we continue to deny truths and take comfort in imagined realities? If we continue to move forward, without a genuine recollection and appreciation of our past, how do we make sense of the present and our future?

Proponents of the People’s Patriotic Movement argue that we, as a people, have to learn the historical truth, accept it for what it is and draw from its lessons. They say that while history may paint an unpleasant picture of certain people and events in the course of shattering long-believed myths, we should approach such truths with a level head.

In “Wall-E,” people were made to believe that life in the Axiom, a space colony, was everything they needed and wanted. It was necessary, 700 years ago. But the people grew socially disconnected and physically inutile (they have grown obese, their bones were less dense and machines raised them in hover chairs from childhood). They were fed with numerous illusions that even their night and day was mechanic. Only upon their return to Earth did they literally learn to stand up, walk and build their future amid the grim reality their ancestors left centuries ago.

The mess we have, as a republic, is just a hundred and ten years old and our political and social struggles have been periodic. The cliché “history repeats itself” is a cliché for a reason, but it does not constitute a rule. After all, “the truth will set us free” is also a cliché. Maybe if we learn to face and accept the historical truth, we don’t have to wait as long as the ones in Axiom to realize where we are and what we’re supposed to do.

I find great interest in the looming debate to revise the Philippine Constitution, especially now that Malacañang is using the issue of Moro emancipation as a frame of rhetoric to change the system of government into federal.

But, jaded as it may sound, I do not see the “great debate on charter change” (as it has been branded) discussing the merits of such a proposal, as those opposing it do not even entertain the idea of having the Constitution revised under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s term. The issue now is simplified as a political question on whether or not people will support a charter change that could extend her term as president. But, beyond political interests, the federalism proposal does present many issues worth discussing.

One of such issues that I find very interesting is the proposal’s provision to have nine senators represent overseas Filipinos (12% of the planned 75-member chamber). Some European countries like Croatia, France, Italy, and Portugal have already granted their expatriates direct representation in their national parliaments and a similar advocacy is now being pushed in the United States.

Filipinos are the third most dispersed people around the world, next only to Chinese and Indians, so calls to have them represented in government isn’t much of a surprise, especially if other countries, which are less dispersed, have already been doing it.

Benjamin San Jose, doctorate student of international political economy in the University of Tsukuba and a good friend I met in the 8th International Conference on Philippine Studies last month, posited an interesting thesis on Philippine overseas migration. He argued that instead of responding to the economic woes that drove millions of Filipinos abroad to look for opportunities, the government has in fact been promoting such migration.

With a concise historical review, he claimed that the present government’s move to re-brand overseas Filipinos as “Global Filipinos” (as opposed to “Bagong Bayani” or “Modern-Day Heroes”) only attempts to legitimize the intensifying overseas migration. He even noted that the government has since set an annual deployment target of one million.

Clearly, as others have claimed, he was proposing that overseas migration is generally a bane. In fact, despite attempts to highlight the intellectual, technological and skills transfer of returning migrants as “brain gain,” the government’s own public health system is ailing of “brain drain” as doctors continue to prefer to work or change careers as nurses abroad. He argued that the government is denying the problem.

Following his line of thought, I would also then consider that the overseas absentee voting we have (empowering as it may be) and the proposed Senate representation of overseas Filipinos are but modes to rationalize migration. But should overseas migration be seen as a bane? Should it be dramatized by the rhetoric of broken families, of a bread winner forced to go abroad for financial purposes?

Dr. Mary Racelis, a renowned anthropologist, doesn’t think so. In a forum I attended yesterday, she argued that while the family of an overseas migrant may be physically apart, many of them have remained emotionally intact through constant communication with the aid of technology. She posited that looking at migration using the frame of broken families create assumptions that the phenomenon is a definite nuisance that has to be resolved a certain way and in doing so prevents us to respond appropriately to the challenges it presents.

Civilization thrives from migration. History lists several momentous periods of migration that occurred for a various number of reasons, but mostly because of economic opportunities. So I would agree with her that one of the most significant reasons why migration is generally viewed as a bane is the government’s inability to aptly address the phenomenon, particularly the fact of a brain drain. But isn’t this denial just the same?

The Philippine government has been seemingly fixated on remittance gain as a formula for economic growth, seemingly ignoring the fact that sustainable development demands nurturing the capacity of a domestic workforce and economy. In fact a 2006 population-based survey on the spending patterns of remittance-receiving families reveal that contrary to reports that remittances fuel domestic investments, only 10% of these families use such as capital for a business, only 11% deposit in banks and only two percent purchase real estate. In stark contrast, 93% use remittances to finance daily living expenses, including education (the question was multiple response). Interestingly, while the government ignores it, families of migrant Filipinos know better to invest in capacity (i.e. education).

Which makes me wonder: political interests aside, is the proposal to have nine senators represent overseas Filipinos really a wise suggestion? Is Senate representation really a political expression in line with the discourse of democratic participation or, given our circumstances, is it more of a rationalization, albeit unconscious, of the current phenomenon that we, as a people, continue to deny as a natural course of human events?

Four of the original twelve senators who filed the joint resolution on constitutional revision in favor of federalism signed “with reservations as to the mode.” If in arguing for such representation, proponents would compare the Philippines with the European countries that already practice it, I believe it would be critical to look at these countries’ political (parliamentary form, party-system, political culture) and social (causes of migration, demographics of families of migrants) structures more than just their success of applying such system. Else, it might just contribute to something problematic or we delude ourselves that it will solve what we think is a problem.

Unlike when I arrived, the taxi driver who took me to Changi Airport last week for my flight back to Manila was engaging. He asked me how I liked Singapore. I said I like it very much and that it was a very good first trip out of the country.

He seemed to have taken pride with what I said and started telling me about how Singapore looked like some thirty years ago. He pointed at the trees along the road and though I could barely understand his English, I was pretty sure he told me that he planted some of them before.

Singapore is a model country in many ways – it has shown that democratization in Asia is distinct from Western, particularly American, patterns; that authoritarianism can produce economic development and civil peace, as opposed to the American ideological assumption that economic prosperity is only gained in a free market couched in democratic governance; but more importantly, Singapore’s success proved that social discipline is both necessary and attainable.

In “The Future of Freedom,” Fareed Zakaria wrote that Lee Kwan Yew once told him that culture was the key to Singapore’s success. Indeed, people in Singapore seem to have a built-in police mechanism; out of the tens waiting to cross the road, only about two or three would dare do so without waiting for the green walk sign to flash, even as there are no authorities in sight.

But Zakaria found it odd that Lee was “such a fierce proponent of cultural arguments,” since Singapore is culturally diverse to begin with. Instead, he argued that the key to Singapore’s success was Lee Kwan Yew’s leadership.

Culture isn’t destiny. It’s not constantly the logical cause of economic, political and social direction as opposed to those who always refer to culture as an end-all premise of any circumstantial consequence. While culture remains a very important factor, a zeitgeist is equally, if not more, important in achieving national development.

I found it particularly amusing that in some of their toilets (they call comfort rooms that way), there were graphic, comic-like posters explaining the proper use of facilities. There were also ubiquitous reminders to conserve water and a noticeable effort to have such reminders written in English, Malay and Chinese. The taxi driver also told me that the government occasionally writes a memorandum to property owners, reminding them to repair or at least repaint their establishment (fortunately, he also said that Singapore is not a typhoon-prone area). These practices of social control are policies of a determined leadership, not a result of culture.

In fact, these modes of social control created (and are continuously managing) a grand, national discipline experiment under a controlled environment. To my mind, this is similar to what Ferdinand Marcos envisioned when he first entered Malacañang in 1965 and said: “Each generation writes its own history. Our forebearers have written theirs. With fortitude and excellence, we must write ours.” Unfortunately, through many factors, he failed.

Dr. Allen John Chun, one of Asia Research Institute’s scholars on cultural studies, told me that the logic of Singapore is simple. “If you don’t like the rules here, you can always get out,” he said. Having been once part of Malaysia and with most citizens being immigrants, Singapore is able to rationalize authoritarianism in the context of freedom of choice, a rare opportunity for developing countries. I couldn’t imagine such logic to have sense in our context. Dr. Chun, however, said that some are already disgruntled with how the ruling party runs the government and that some people are complaining about the lack of certain freedoms that many democratic countries enjoy.

But who can argue with results? A good friend I met in the research conference I attended, Claudio, and his girlfriend, Futura, toured me around Little India and Chinatown last Monday night. The streets were clean and except for some three or four homeless people we saw sleeping in a public park, everything was calm and safe, even without policemen in sight – no rowdy drinking sessions, no gangs roaming around and no waste mongers scouting trash bins for recyclables. Of course, that meant no night life too. It was a Monday night so I guess people were early to bed; either way I don’t suppose anyone would consider having a bustling night life over public safety.

Any scientist would say that if the positive hypothesis is achieved, the experiment is a success. Which makes me wonder: if development is imperative, leadership noted, is social control the future of developing countries? Can the Singaporean experiment really serve as a template, if not for the rest of the third world, at least for Asian or South East Asian countries?

As I was reading Zakaria’s book two years ago, I couldn’t help but think that the Philippines already missed the momentous opportunity that could have triggered development and that amid the so-called “islands of democracy or good governance” that we have now, another zeitgeist rising with a popular mandate remains improbable. I continue to believe that Martial Law was such an opportunity, double-edged the prospect may be. Following Zakaria’s thesis, and Lee’s (who happens to be Marcos’ contemporary) experiment, such period of authoritarianism could have restructured social modes and engineered a culture of discipline necessary to serve as the built-in conscience mechanism (akin to the characteristically Asian sense of duty and honor that we, Filipinos, seem to lack) of our national consciousness once civil liberties are regained.

I do not suggest, however, that in order to steer the country towards development, what we need now is Martial Law. I consider that as an opportunity, fleeting in nature, not as a key factor, which suggests feasibility at all times. “I see the market place of ideas, as in the Philippines,” said Lee in a 2005 interview with Time Magazine, “and I see chaos.”

During my first semester in the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School in 2005, I learned something that I consider a very valuable piece of insight. Some may consider it trivial, but I’ve subscribed to it as a principle and it has, so far, challenged and harnessed my world view. Dr. Jaime Jimenez, who also became my thesis adviser, told us in class about the Filipino misconception of “crab mentality.”

Crab mentality is an idiom that describes an envious (and to an extent, destructive) behavior. It’s the tendency to outdo others at their expense. The term is endemic to Filipino language and is hardly understood by foreigners (although some people in Hawaii, Guam, Africa and natives in New Zealand and America reportedly have a similar concept).

It takes its name from the supposed behavior that crabs display when placed in a kaing. As the crabs struggle to climb out, some crabs hold on to the legs of other crabs who already reached a certain height clawing on the holes of a basket made of bamboo. The weight on their legs eventually pulls them down and no matter how the crabs try, they can’t get out.

Filipinos have long regarded this as a negative behavior. To the Filipino psyche, such crab mentality smacks of envy and the inability of a person to be happy for the success of another. While envy may be human nature (and being happy for others’ success improbable for some, as American Idol’s Simon Cowell said last season) and because of such, makes the interpretation of crab mentality sound, this is in fact a wrong view of reality.

Dr. Jimenez told us that when he was in the mountains with the Communist Party during Martial Law, he observed the opposite. He narrated how he saw crabs climbing upstream, against the current, build a base for other crabs to climb on. Of course, even though I was fascinated, I had to check it for myself first before I take it as fact. So I went to a wet market and observed crabs in a kaing.

It was tricky to see them building a base when they’re all piled up, but it’s true. In fact, when we bought crabs, I cut the twine on their claws, placed them in the sink and continued to observe the same behavior.

Our long-held view of crab mentality not only reflects how jaded we are, as a people, but also our inability to see things as they are. We assume too much and in some cases use such assumptions as premises for assumptive conclusions. Then we eventually hold these notions as truth by sheer familiarity.

In effect, we look at things the way we want to see them and fail to understand them for their value. When, based on our assumptions, our hopes fail, we become more jaded and will continue to see things based on our dismal perspective of the world. In the process, we get trapped in a vicious cycle of cynicism.

Some people, however, tend to end up in a different cycle. Those whose assumptions are positive tend to look at things ideally or at least mechanically hopeful. But because such, however encouraging, are still assumptions, I would consider it a vicious cycle of optimism, a quixotic perspective that is prone to be out of touch with reality. Admittedly, I have been trapped in one in many aspects of my life and for long periods and I still have the tendency to whirl around it.

As I do my field work, travel or just go through my daily routine, I will note my musings in this public blog in connection with some of the theories and concepts I’ve encountered so far. I do not claim authority, however, as my entries are but reflections anchored on what I like to call the principle of crab mentality – that which is from a different or combined perspective, as a result of looking at the world with a constructivist lens, even as it may contend with socially accepted truths (or myths, as the case may be). After all, aside from those measured by the physical sciences, what we hold true are but a weave of our collective imagination.