The last time I visited Calcutta, India’s cultural and intellectual capital, was in the 1960s. It was then a vast slum with people living and dying on the sidewalks. I recall an old joke about Calcutta told to me by a Bengali writer. That it is crowded with Banerjees, Sukherjees and Mukerjees, but no energies. But in spite of all the dire predictions for its future, Calcutta today is still very much alive, thriving and throbbing as energetically as before.
I was thirteen when I first came to Manila in 1938, and my memories of the city, which had less than a million people then, is still very vivid. All the way from the Bonifacio Monument to Antipolo Street were rice fields. Dimasalang and España were lined with kangkong plots. All the way from the Welcome Monument in Quezon City to Diliman was cogon wilderness. Makati was the world’s end, with few rice fields and vast stretches of grass.
I lived with my uncle and his family in a small accessoria in Requesens near Bambang, and I walked every day to the Far Eastern University High School, which today is now the Isetann Mall, on the corner of Quezon Avenue and Recto.
RIZAL AVENUE WAS LINED with banaba trees and a streetcar ran through it all the way from La Loma to Plaza Lawton. The Pasig was green and clean, and I remember swimming there with my classmates after school. Or we would walk through Escolta and Intramuros to swim in the Manila Bay, right in front of the Quirino grandstand. Not a single tree stood in the Luneta — it was grass all the way to Taft Avenue.
I was in the province when Manila was liberated in February 1945 and, almost immediately after, I visited Manila. Ruins everywhere, charred skeletons of buildings, cratered streets, Intramuros obliterated. As I sat in front of the blackened shell of Manila Hotel, recalling my fond memories of the city, I began to weep.
Over the next four decades, I saw Manila reconstructed and spread out. The other day I visited the places where I spent my early youth -- the Bambang Oroquita area, Antipolo Street which is the setting of my novel Mass, the last novel in the Rosales saga. Many old, wooden buildings, decrepit and unpainted, stand side by side with the new constructions of stone and steel.
I also went to Taguig via Makati and Forbes Park, and backtracked through the reclaimed area of Manila Bay to my bookshop in Padre Faura, Ermita. It was one of Manila’s most genteel neighborhoods, but today, like much of Manila, it is dirty and dilapidated.
I often say the Philippines is poor, but anyone visiting the country for the first time and touring through Taguig will be amazed by the magnificent truculence of its monoliths, brand new and shining in the sun. It is a strange ultra-modern world that could easily be in Southern California or in any of the new and bustling cities of Asia’s four little dragons.
HOW ELSE COULD all this modern magnificence come about but through the wealth and genius of the very rich Filipinos?
That famous English writer, Jan Morris, while traveling through America once wrote — and this I will always remember — America’s cathedrals are its highways. This apt observation unfolds when one travels those intertwining eight-lane freeways. Such beautiful symmetry in concrete.
To paraphrase Morris, let me say that our cathedrals are our shopping malls — so many of them, so huge, bursting with the world’s goods, so many restaurants, ritzy shops and, in each mall, a chapel. Indeed these malls are also our public parks, where people can watch other people, eat, and relax.
But Manila had been left behind.
Then in his first week as Mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno did something spectacular. He began ridding the sidewalks and streets of all vendors. He is faced with a City Hall that is broke, and he still has a lot to do -- garbage collection, for instance, the restoration of public services, or simply the painting of so many shabby buildings for Manila is perhaps Southeast Asia’s ugliest city. He could follow what San Francisco did, which makes that city so picture pretty. The city paints buildings whose owners have failed to do so and the owner is then charged for the job.
The sidewalks of Sampaloc and Sta. Cruz, too, should be cleared for the people. Manila is smaller than Quezon City, Isko Moreno is young. He must move around, make City Hall efficient. He should get to know each nook and cranny of his city, their problems, and improve their lighting and security.
MORENO COULD PUT all those non-performing city hall officials to work keeping the sidewalks clean and open, ensuring the cleanliness of restaurants, the safety of fire-trap buildings and that crime is at a minimum because the police are visible everywhere.
He could also take over the municipal golf links right in the heart of Manila and turn them into public parks. As for those peddlers who have been expelled from the streets, he should find a public area that could be a night market.
And, finally, having once been a movie actor himself, he should have a cultural program for the city wherein ordinary folk are exposed to the best performances in music, dance, and theatre.
The mansions, the soaring condos, and urban munificence of Makati and Taguig emphasize the wide, pernicious chasm between the Filipino elite and the masa. He must work to narrow this divide, and make Manila an exemplary city.
How I wish that the cathedrals of this country – our shopping malls -- are much, much less conspicuous cornucopias, that our cathedrals be our barangays instead, the smallest political units composed and managed by the masa. They will then become living and formidable representations and fitting symbols of our capacity for building democratic institutions, and of our creativity and genius as a people.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 15, 2019
Ah, those venerable Chinese sages, their standards are so high and they are so demanding. They say one is not a man until he has achieved three goals – sired a son, written a book, and planted a tree.
But as that poet Joyce Kilmer said, “Only God can make a tree.”
Whatever, I think these perilous times demand that each of us plant a tree. I read in the papers the other day that the denudation of the mountains forming the watershed of the Angat Dam, Manila’s main source of water, has caused the water shortage in Manila. Again, this illustrates the wanton nature of Filipinos, how we have become our worst enemy. A national effort now to plant trees not only in the Angat area but elsewhere is perhaps a little too late. Alternative sources of water must either be found or constructed immediately and will, of course, be very expensive.
Trees, water -- they are so vital in life. Now and all through history, agrarian societies instinctively know why trees are important. The Ilokanos almost always surround their houses with marunggay or fruit trees. Legend has it that one of the first Ilokano immigrants to Hawaii brought with him a marunggay stick, claiming it was a cane. He planted it, and that explains the abundance of marunggay trees in those islands.
Marunggay leaves are now established as one of the best sources of the minerals that the body needs. Way back in the 1950s, when I was traveling all over Mindanao, much of that island was forested. I went up the Agusan River to see huge forest trees had been cut down and floated down the river as logs, for direct export to Japan. Some Filipinos got rich despoiling our natural resources without replanting the barren land. It was the same in Northern Luzon. And so today, our forest cover is a mere 20 percent.
The Japanese, a very disciplined people, take good care of their forests and trees. For centuries, they have always used wood for their houses and their magnificent temples. In fact, the use of wood defines and gives character to their architecture. Very old trees, some several hundred years old, still stand in that country, the object of much love and veneration.
In contrast, we have very few old trees. Three of them -- all acacias -- were in Padre Faura, in Ermita, Manila. During the liberation of Manila, they were blasted by canon fire. A couple of them simply rotted with age and neglect, and fell last year.
Sometime back, the agriculture champion and guru, Zacarias Sarian, gifted me with a macopa sapling from Malaysia. The tamarind and jackfruit trees I had planted in my yard had to be cut down when my wife enlarged the house to fit our seven children. I planted the sapling in a hole about more than a foot deep.
It grew quickly, and when it reached five years old and still had not borne any fruit, I told it: If this year you still have no fruit, I’ll cut you down. Sure enough, it did bear fruit, and with such abundance that there was more than enough to give to neighbors and friends. The fruit, greenish-maroon and as big as an apple, is sweeter than the native variety.
In the village where I grew up, the tallest tree was the Dalipawen. It had a trunk three times thicker than that of a coconut, and it was much taller, too, than the coconut, with short branches at the very top. Its flowers have a strong scent. Martins made their nests at the top and, at night, fireflies ignited it.
Spirits were supposed to live in the tree and, every so often, when someone got sick in the vicinity, prayers and offerings were made to it. The atang or offering was usually a plate of gelatinous rice cooked in coconut oil, and topped with a hard-boiled egg, betel nut, and a hand-rolled cigar. After the devotee had left we kids feasted on the atang, daring the spirit of the tree to make us ill. It never did.
Way back in the 1950s, as the Baguio visitor climbed up Kennon Road, they were greeted with the scent of pine perfuming the air. Baguio then had so many pine trees, which have since been felled but not replaced. The Baguio government is now engaged in replanting. But it’s not Baguio only that needs replanting but also the entire Cordillera range.
The preservation of our forests is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is hampered by corruption and incompetence, its forest guards often threatened and killed. The present DENR Secretary, retired General Roy Cimatu, needs assistance and more champions like Gina Lopez. Espousing tree planting brings neither votes nor money.
The Balete is an unusual tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Its scientific name is Ficus Benjamina Linn. I used it as a motif and symbol in my novel, Tree. A story of growing up in a small Filipino town, Tree is the second novel in terms of chronology of the five-novel Rosales saga.
The Balete Tree grows as a slender sapling. I don’t know where they come from but soon vines surround the sapling. They grow big, close in on the sapling, eventually suffocating it. The vines then become the trunk of the tree itself, for which reason the Balete is often called the strangler tree. It is an apt and fitting symbol for people and for institutions, even for nations, that are strangled to death by impoverishment and decay.
The Balete is indeed an object metaphor for so many of us, and particularly for our leaders who, when elected, start green with promise and noble intentions. But within a few years, they are surrounded by panderers, by hypocrisies, and by grasping, greedy friends and relatives. They are then strangled, never realizing they had betrayed not just themselves but also their country.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 8, 2019
I have always admired Mao, the revolutionary who united his people and modernized China. But the grim reality today is although China professes to be our friend, China is in fact our enemy. China has violated our sovereignty by occupying Panatag and other areas within that sovereignty. Its latest ramming and sinking of a Filipino vessel in our own waters bespeaks blatant disregard for our sovereignty.
We must now know the nature of our enemy.
China is on its rapid rise as a world power, and that ascendancy is powered by a nationalism conducted by a very strong state. For 4,000 years, China was never democratic. It was ruled by warlords, emperors, and despots who claimed they had the mandate of heaven as confirmed by the Confucian ethic, which emphasized hierarchy.
This Confucian ethic also affirmed magnanimity to the people, but just the same, the harmony in society that the Confucian ethic espoused depended on obedience and respect for that hierarchy, with the emperor at the top. This explains the legitimacy of the despots who, to this day, rule China. Thus, we cannot expect China to change, to liberalize, and to respect the sovereign rights of other people, particularly the weak and small. China’s despots respect only power.
When the Chinese communists took over the country in 1945, there was no break with the past although it seemed otherwise with movements like the cultural revolution. Actually, the Communist Party under new leadership tightened its grip on the people. The state has no compunctions about using violence to enforce its will, to wit, the Tiananmen massacre 30 years ago. It rules with the mandate of heaven, which has morphed into the mandate of Marx.
Chinese expansion is unstoppable, building as it does both economic dominance and military superiority. China has also made significant advances in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence and robotics. In its current trade war with the United States, it will not give up. It may seem to do so with one step backward -- but it will then move two steps forward.
The future of Southeast Asia and of ourselves as a nation is in China’s hands. We will be sinicized in a few decades; I pray that we will not be colonized. What aggravates our piteous condition is that in much of Southeast Asia is a very small but powerful Chinese minority.
In our case, this minority effectively controls 70 percent of our economy. This alone illustrates our great vulnerability because this is a minority that has sent billions to China to assist its modernization. It is also a small minority – they came to this country with nothing, but by exploiting the country and the people they have become economically dominant.
Filipinos should never stop demanding from this minority allegiance to the country that has made them powerful and rich because the truth is many of them are loyal to China, not to this country. All that one has to do is ask them, in the event of a war with China and the Philippines, on which side will you be? Their equivocation will mean they, too, are the enemy.
But we must also acknowledge the fact that many Chinese Filipinos work very hard to contribute to our cultural and economic progress. Those committed and loyal to this nation can do so much. Many have ties in China, some of them official. They can be the bridge to convince China about our rights and that China must respect these rights.
As a small, impoverished nation susceptible to exploitation, what are our outstanding problems? First and foremost is our poverty, and the second is that we are a very divided people and, finally and sadly, we Filipinos are not endowed with enough nationalism and love of country the way our neighbors are, particularly Vietnam. That small country not only stood up to America but to China as well. While it maintains good relations with China, Vietnam has not hesitated to confront the Chinese leviathan.
Some years back, when China placed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, the Vietnamese responded by burning Chinese factories in Vietnam. Earlier, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, wary of Chinese domination, they confiscated Chinese properties and expelled them from the country.
I do not advocate or expect that we do the same. But I also do not expect our people or our highest government officials to kowtow to China. But this is precisely what our President is doing. He is vastly popular, and many Filipinos are unwilling to oppose him and his pandering to Chinese policies.
In the end, we ourselves are also the enemy.
But how does a country whose leaders can think only of the next election confront a nation whose leaders look far and many generations ahead?
Even without military might, we are not powerless in our confrontation with China. The filing of a criminal complaint against the Chinese President in the International Court of Justice by former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former Foreign Minister Alberto del Rosario must be followed by similar action in international organizations like the United Nations.
We must emulate the tenacity of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio in safeguarding our sovereignty, and in urging the government to fulfill its constitutional duty to protect our territorial integrity.
We must strengthen our alliances with the friendly nations who want the South China Sea free for international navigation. And we must assist ASEAN to become the bulwark of Asian freedom.
Our voice must be heard all over the world. Most of all, this must be the voice of Filipinos, united and led by strong leaders.
In many instances, it is an enemy of a people that unites a divided people. As a Russian leader told the Americans when they won the cold war, “I pity you because now you have no enemy.”
But given our bleak condition, I will not be surprised if, one day, we Filipinos who could not be awakened by Chinese recalcitrance will wake up to find there is no longer a Filipino nation because the Philippines -- thanks to a weak-kneed leader -- had become a Chinese province.
I have been doing an informal survey, particularly with the young, asking them what they want most in life. Almost always, after giving the question some thought, their most common reply is happiness. Seldom are lofty ideals like peace, justice, or wisdom mentioned. For the young who still have to build a career or shape the future, happiness is the end-all.
I am not surprised, of course, because this is what most people, including myself, want. It is after all enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence which, “holds these truths” to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
We all know that happiness is state of mind, but it can also be very physical. Two of the great thinkers of the 18th century had their theories. Karl Marx postulated that happiness is a full stomach, while Sigmund Freud declared that happiness is satiated gonads.
These are, of course, gross over-simplifications of very complex theories. For politicians, happiness might be the possession of absolute power. For the greedy, immeasurable wealth, and for the common folk just an empty bladder.
SOME THOUGHT MUST BE GIVEN to the process by which happiness is achieved, and how it can be maintained. When we bring these factors to mind, then we recall the nature of man, the society that he creates for himself, and the liberty that makes real happiness possible.
That liberty is what sprouts when opposition is banished from society. The process is often violent and calls for committed agents. As the revolutionary Thomas Paine declared, show me the country where oppression is – that is my country.
For so many people, certain beliefs will bring happiness. As Marx said, religion is the opium of the poor. And for intellectuals, that opium is communism. To achieve happiness that is based on ideology requires unrelenting faith and conviction in that ideology. But then we must remember always what Nietzsche said, that convictions are prisons.
In our search for happiness (and utopia), we need to go back to the distant past to recall what the ancients did, how they created laws and institutions that gave them happiness. Some primitive societies have no word for liberty, but its essence is understood in the taboos and codes of conduct that are rigidly observed.
History is a very good teacher, but can also be a very bad master when it shackles us to the past and inhibits us from being innovative, creative, and critical. Indeed, history often repeats itself because we don’t learn from it.
ALL THROUGH HISTORY man has strived for liberty as the basis of happiness. Liberty, truth, justice are bound together and striving for these is a continuing struggle to this very day. Some years back, an American scholar postulated that with the end of the cold war, the major conflict of the future will be between civilizations.
If we look at this theory very closely and straddle it with fanatic jihadism and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, we may see some truth in this forecast. The deeper reality, however, is not so obvious. This continuing struggle is not between civilizations but humankind’s deep longing for liberty. And, therefore, the conflict will be as it had always been – between the oppressors and the oppressed, between those who crave liberty and those who refuse to give it.
But do you really want liberty?
Unfortunately, not all civilizations or individuals look at liberty as the basis of their happiness. There are people who want despots or dictators to govern them, and they become comfortable with their shackles.
Tradition, too, inhibits liberty. China is one such country that has always been ruled by despots, a continuum for four millennia to this very day. China also adeptly illustrates, contrary to common western logic, that development does not necessarily bring liberty. In fact, when a country progresses and becomes an empire, to hold on to power, the emperor or the imperialists suppress liberty with the Mandate of Heaven.
In so many instances, too, crimes are committed in the name of liberty for human nature does not take to liberty naturally. The great virtues of humanity are not embedded in human genes, they are acquired often at exorbitant cost.
FOR SEEKING AND TEACHING the truth, Socrates was condemned to death by poisoning by the Greek agora. For propagandizing for freedom from Spanish tyranny Rizal was executed by the Spanish. As the poet Bertolt Brecht said, we who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind. I recall Madame Roland who during the French Revolution lamented before she was guillotined, “Oh, liberty what crimes are committed in thy name!”
We ourselves did not realize the true value of freedom until Marcos took it away, we even welcomed him. And today, we are even nostalgic for his despotism.
The hunger for despots or dictators such as Hitler was aggravated by the Germans themselves who were looking for a savior in the midst of their impoverishment, much in the same way we are today hoping for a savior. That condition was summed up by the German poet and pastor, Martin Niemoller. I now paraphrase what he said: First they came for the leftists – and I did not speak out because I was not a leftist. Then they came for the social activists – and I did not speak out because I was not a social activist. Then they came for the Catholics – and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
I came across this Latin passage way back in the 1940s when I was in college. Keep this posted in your office, your desk, wherever it will greet you every day: “Ubi boni tacent, malum prosperat” – Evil prospers where good people are silent.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 24, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/24/1928992/why-liberty#034yRTeF7jyRSxvI.99
I was born and I grew up in an Ilokano village in eastern Pangasinan. In that part of the province and from there all the way to the Northern tip of Luzon, Ilokano is the lingua franca. In 1938, I moved to Manila for high school and it was here where I learned Tagalog, but the everyday Tagalog of Manila.
Tagalog and Spanish were taught while I was in college back in 1946. I almost flunked Tagalog with its “Balarila.” I came to realize the difference between my Tagalog and the Tagalog being taught in schools, and why it was not widely accepted as the national language, not only for ethnic reasons but also because it was purist.
Language is organic; it either grows or dies. The Oxford English Dictionary does a quarterly update with new words, colloquialisms. If you read the original Beowulf, the English epic written a thousand years ago, you will not understand a single word. I think President Quezon, because he was Tagalog, made a very big mistake in electing Tagalog as national language. Earlier, Spanish and English were accepted by us because both languages made all of us equal.
In the 1950s, I travelled all over the country, from Sabtang in the Batanes group in the north to Sitangkai in the Tawi-Tawi group in the south. In those days, Tagalog was not spoken in non-Tagalog regions. I communicated in English. Thank God, English was already understood by many Filipinos, especially those in official positions. But in the past 50 years, media – particularly movies, radio, and television – and the public schools, have turned Tagalog into a real national language. And during the recent senatorial election campaign, I watched non-Tagalogs give speeches and debate in a Tagalog far better than mine.
THE FINAL RULING of the Supreme Courtmaking Filipino (Tagalog) no longer a required college subject is absolutely correct. I think now is the time to make Tagalog the sole language of instruction from grade school to graduate school, and also the official language in government and in the courts. This Tagalog will be understandable, and will not be the Tagalog espoused today by the Commission on Language.
I know that such a monumental change will cause many difficulties and expense, and it is for these reasons why the transition will have to be carefully calibrated for at least 25 years. This will mean the gradual rewriting of textbooks and of procedures in government. Business will follow inevitably.
English should be phased out slowly to become like any of the foreign languages – Spanish, German, Japanese – taught in special schools. This change will be a daunting job for our Tagalog teachers. Many of them must change their mindset in order to turn Tagalog into Filipino. Many non-Tagalog words like balay (house), taytay (bridge), and bulan (moon) should be incorporated into the national language as mandated by law.
When I was with the old Manila Times, I received a copy of the Tagalog newspaper, Taliba, every day. I could not read it. I told the publisher of the Manila Times then, Joaquin P. Roces, to make Taliba more understandable with the use of Manila Tagalog, not the archaic Tagalog of Balagtas. When that change was made, the Taliba circulation surged from a few thousand to more than twenty thousand.
Twenty years ago, I managed a translation program wherein books in Japanese were translated into Tagalog. The books did not sell as indeed even today Tagalog translations of books – including mine – are not selling. This does not mean we should stop trying. Look at how successful the Indonesians and Malaysians have been with Bahasa.
LET ME RECOUNT how Bahasa became the national language of Indonesia and Malaysia. It was modernized and also made literary, and broad and rich enough for intellectual and scientific discourse. Takdir Alisjahbana, the Indonesian writer and scholar, and a significant influence on the modernization of Bahasa, told me how it came to be Indonesia’s national language.
When the leaders of the Indonesian independence movement were discussing their national language in the 1920s, they could have easily opted for Javanese. Most of the leaders themselves were Javanese but were educated in Dutch. But they realized that if Javanese became the national language there would be objections from the other language groups. So they elected Bahasa, which was used mainly in trading centers. They accommodated international words – ethnography became etnograpi, anthropology became antropologi, science became sains, and so on. This is a very good model for us to emulate, to use widely accepted terms instead of words like lungsod, pamantasan, mataas na paaralan, aklat, and so on.
I can think of no people more nationalistic than the Japanese, but they have Japanized many foreign terms.
In the 1950s, the writer, Rodrigo Perez, knowing the Indonesian example, suggested Tausug as our national language. Like English and Spanish, it would have been accepted because Tausug is such a tiny minority language spoken only by the Tausug of Sulu. It would have brought us closer to Indonesia but most important, it would have dampened or banished altogether the Moro separatist movement.
The first Tagalog novel I’ve read in its entirety is Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada 70. I am very happy with her translation of my novel, Mass. She uses “alarm clock” instead of “relos ng panggising.” This is how it should be.
I’m only too aware that language carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, but this cultural baggage should enrich our language, not diminish it. As a writer in English, I hope that much of what I have written can be translated into Tagalog, so too the works of those writing in Filipino languages such as Bicolano, Cebuano, and Ilokano. This is a formidable task particularly for our Tagalogs who despair over the Supreme Court decision. Then Tagalog shall have become truly “Filipino” and no longer a euphemism.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 17, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/17/1927069/tagalog-all-way#SxXwqWDsydmFy7Mz.99
Let us pause and recall on this, the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Declaration of Independence in Kawit, Cavite, in 1898.
I have recently been re-reading ancient history – about Alexander the Great, the building of Rome, the Renaissance. I can see how human the ancient politicians were, how they built institutions that survive to this very day. Motivated by power and glory, they built empires that lasted centuries, then decayed. The decay of these empires is just as interesting as their rise; it illustrates how the character of leaders decide as well the fate of their power, their imperial reach.
Looking back at Asia’s First Republic and the ilustrados who shaped it, I wonder if it would have been able to escape the American hegemony, or Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the Germans were in Manila Bay, waiting, when Admiral Dewey arrived.
But there are no ifs in history. We are what we have become because we have not really learned from our past, that we were easily subjugated first by foreign colonizers, then by our own elites because we are a weak and divided people, because we didn’t have the institutions that support a sovereign state.
The sneering, lying response of some readers to my recent column, “Why it is difficult to love this country,” informs me, alas, why we rot in this swamp. We refuse to learn from our history. There is even a conscious effort now to deny this past and revise it, and to denigrate those who remember. These revisionist efforts are the termite mounds we have to identify and demolish before they destroy our country.
WE CAN NEVER EVER alter history or rescue Marcos from the ignominy which he created. Did he do anything good? Sure, his first decree freeing the peasant from his ancient yoke. I commend him for abolishing tenancy in the rice and corn areas, and replacing it with leasehold. No Filipino leader, not even Magsaysay who championed agrarian reform, could have done that with a Congress dominated by landlords. Marcos as dictator did it and reaped political largesse.
I also applaud him for abrogating the 99-year US Bases lease. This could have led to perpetuity. And, finally, for opening our country to new diplomatic relationships as, for instance, with China and Russia.
But all that good is nullified by the massive corruption and the brutality of his martial law regime. This is known not only in our country but internationally, and no matter how much his champions strive to remove this stigma, they cannot because the whole world knows it.
We need not speculate if the United States was involved with his staying power or his ouster. The big powers, China included, always interfere with the destiny of other countries, particularly the weak. This to preserve their hegemony and to enlarge their markets and sources of raw materials. Always keep this in mind as the rationale for the origins of war. But the big powers can do little when countries are strong, their people unified.
How, for instance, did Cuba survive American overt incursions? The Cubans did because their leader, Fidel Castro, was credible. How did tiny Vietnam humble the United States, the world’s most powerful country, in the Vietnam War? Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, too, was credible. More than anything he personified Vietnamese nationalism.
It was not communism that the United States fought against in Vietnam. It was nationalism – the strongest element that binds a people, the sturdiest bastion for survival that, alas, is woefully absent in this country.
How can we possess it? Imbibe it in our very blood, the air we breathe?
We must know our history, nurture our memory, and love this ravaged homeland.
OUR HISTORY DEFINES US, confirms us as a heroic people, but we have to look at ourselves and our past honestly, realize that we want a strong leader who is willing to make sacrifices, and this we should ask of ourselves as well. We must always beware, however, of leaders who claim kinship with the poor but whose actions deny that claim.
Looking back, Marcos had every good reason to declare martial law. But he failed to use that power to modernize this country. He was going to create a New Society and was surrounded by our finest technocrats. He grabbed power when we were next to Japan in prosperity; we were then in the take-off stage. His rhetoric was democratic even noble, but alas, he was crippled by his ego, by insatiable greed, and lust for power.
So now, we seem to be on the verge of the same old scenario. The emerging portents are ominous. I recall us welcoming Marcos who was then vastly popular with a landslide election victory. Will history repeat itself?
To conclude: The grievous problems that plague our people were already evident more than a hundred years ago and were described by the ilustrados, most of all by Rizal. How do we learn from history?
How do we create a just society and abolish poverty? We have arable land three times that of Japan. How can we use this to produce enough food for our people?
The vast wealth in this country – how do we use it to develop the economy? Our very rich must undergo tremendous change, transform themselves from landlords to producers and industrialists. We are now more than a hundred million – a mass market and at the same time a vast labor pool.
How do we bring back the thousands of talented Filipinos abroad?
At the bottom of all these and perhaps the most important question for us all -- how do we truly love this motherland sincerely enough to sacrifice for her?
First published in The Philippine Star, June 8, 2019
All of us know how finite life is, that nothing in this world really lasts. But though this knowledge is with us every moment of our lives, we often fight it because it is very difficult to let go.
Many politicians, used to privilege and power, can’t let go; if they lose an election, it is almost always because they were “cheated.” Political power is an aphrodisiac, an addiction, so they cling to it to their dying day. Women – many of them cling to a past when they were beautiful, their faces unlined with wrinkles. And the rich dream of bringing their wealth to the grave but that narrow pit cannot contain all their loot or their corpulent corpses which turn to dust.
There are those rare individuals who lead quiet, useful lives, moral lives even, who should linger a little longer, not for themselves but for others. But they let go quietly, silently. I knew three of them.
My father-in-law, Antonio Jovellanos, was a government doctor who, for much of his life, worked with lepers. He was on call day and night, not only for hospital patients but also for the people of the surrounding barrios. He reached his patients on foot or horseback. He encountered ignorance, superstition, and crushing poverty. He was often paid with chickens and eggs, which he would always decline.
He belonged to a middle-class Ermita family. His father, Cesareo, was an Ateneo classmate of Rizal, who used to visit the Jovellanos home in Padre Faura, the same place where my bookshop now stands. As recounted by my father-in-law, Rizal was very judicious. He was already being watched by the Spaniards as a filibuster and he didn’t want to jeopardize his friend so they would go somewhere else to talk.
MY FATHER-IN-LAW was quiet and appeared distant, but was actually very warm. He read a lot, particularly history. He resented me at first because I eloped with his daughter, but we eventually made peace, well enough for him to agree with my politics. It was pleasurable talking with him because he was insightful. With his background, he would often trace how perverse family relationships and character leads to social decay.
Like his oldest brother, Jose, parish priest of Tondo, and his sister, Bernarda, who was a Benedictine nun, he was almost saintly. He was the epitome of hard work and honesty. He was a great influence in my life. Once, he came upon my wealthy acquaintances in the bookshop. After they left, he asked about them and my revolution which would sweep them away; he was aware of moral dilemmas. My reply was ambiguous. I said, I’ll cross the river when I reach it. He died without a fortune other than the fondness and respect that I and the others who knew him kept in our hearts.
When President Elpidio Quirino retired in Novaliches, I visited him a few times. His retirement home was on the way to Tala, where the girl who became my wife was staying with her parents. President Quirino was magnanimity personified. He was a great President, honest, with a stern eye to the future. It was he who planned our economic recovery and development with the assistance of superb technocrats like the late Cornelio Balmaceda.
He was, however, portrayed as weak. It was a very wrong perception – he was very strong but was the traditional Filipino patrician, well-mannered, without bombast. He did not have the common touch of Ramon Magsaysay, the man he selected to be his Defense Minister to fight the Huks.
He had a land reform program, his answer to the Huk demand for agrarian reform, which Magsaysay followed. He was so charitable, he forgave the Japanese who massacred his family. He said to bear anger is to bear a heavy and useless burden. I always addressed him as “Apo,” the Ilokano term for someone venerable or in authority. And as Apo, he let go of that primal anger and declined the arrogance of those who hold power.
I was out of the country when Luis Taruc, the heroic guerrilla and Huk leader, died. I watched the old rebel grow old, and saw how much he loved his people and how hard he worked for them. He even accepted the Marcos dictatorship so he could get assistance for them in return. To the very end, he was vocal in stating and reiterating his socialist faith, that he was never a communist. His communist critics and colleagues reproached him for that: he fought with the communists, therefore he was one of them.
HE LIVED SIMPLY, FRUGALLY, and let go the many opportunities that would have improved his income. He was vocal and emphatic about what he believed in – democracy, social justice, land reform. He might have sounded like a broken record, but he meant every word. At one time, we visited a poor village where he had followers. They crowded around him, some of them weeping. He said, I have no more tears to shed.
I cite these three men who I admire very much because to my mind, they illustrate the fortitude and truthfulness that make ordinary existence more meaningful. Many of us strive to live morally, but human as we are, we commit mistakes, we sin, and are mortified.
We try to be honest with ourselves so we can be true to others and find that we are sometimes “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” How true what Rizal said, that it’s the honest man who has enemies. Jesus’ sermon on the mount should comfort us, but even if it doesn’t, we must remember that tattered cliché, virtue is its own reward.
It is really difficult to let go when we have a job left undone, an unfinished novel, a debt unpaid, or we are engaged in an effort that fulfills us and lifts our spirit. But time is running out. So then, let go gladly, peacefully even, but never, ever let go of the dream.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 1, 2019
In November 1987, I attended a seminar on Asian security in Bangkok, courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation. For three days we discussed the problems affecting peace in the region.
To my left sat the eminent Henry Kissinger of the United States and to my right was Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's economic architect. I listened to these two men and the other participants expound on their ideas about how peace in Asia and elsewhere can be nurtured.
Kissinger was obsessed with power and how it should be used, saying that only powerful nations are secure. It was Goh Keng Swee from miniscule Singapore who empathized with the weak Asian countries and their aspirations for the good life.
In adhering closely to the power principle, North Korea's Kim Il Sung is therefore correct; he had achieved parity with the world's most powerful nations by possessing nuclear weapons with a delivery system.
Goh Keng Swee argued for political stability as a major requirement for the survival of the state. He explained to me the fragility of the prosperity of Singapore and why it was necessary to enforce strict discipline, to keep away from the rambunctious freedom such as what we have in the Philippines.
All the discussions at that meeting now come to mind as recently there have been discussions in media and academe on the future of peace, particularly in Southeast Asia, why ASEAN is relevant, and why we must all look at the new bully on the block -- China -- with apprehension and, perhaps, with understanding as well.
WE MUST LOOK AT CHINA from the perspective of the Chinese, its four millennia of continuous civilization, and its brief humiliation by the imperial powers. All the countries of Southeast Asia are heirs to the cultural legacy of Asia, much of it Chinese. With the exception of Singapore, all are struggling with economic problems exacerbated by divisive diversities, often tribal in nature. All are in great need of economic infrastructure, as well as a stable and competent government.
Given this condition, they are often competitors in trade rather than partners. Being poor and often divided, they were easy prey to the imperial West and now to China. In these countries, China already has an elite presence through its ethnic immigrants who, in almost all instances, control the national economy.
In the Philippines, for instance, 70 percent of the economy is effectively in the hands of ethnic Chinese. It is well-acknowledged that China is enforcing an important role for its overseas Chinese in influencing national opinion and promoting China’s global ambitions.
As Malaysia's Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir defines it, China is practicing a new form of colonialism. This is perhaps inevitable. And as the law of nations succinctly states, if a country is strong, it expands and looks for raw materials. If a country is weak, it contracts and looks for markets.
At the moment, China's economy has apparently slowed down. But China has already saved billions of dollars in its ascendancy and it must use that vast capital to further its reach and influence. It has to use it imaginatively: its Belt and Road program is a major attempt to gird the globe with its financial web. This includes us, our ASEAN, a most fertile region in need of investments in infrastructure projects.
The Philippines, with its very cooperative president, is easy to penetrate and exploit. And so today, a massive influx not only of Chinese money but of Chinese nationals are already in place. The Chinese flood has inundated the country and there is no stopping it.
HERE WE ARE, TRYING VERY HARD to shake off the crippling American influence and China, with its intransigence, is pushing us to welcome the American embrace. The reality in Asia, and particularly in the South China Sea, is that only the United States can counteract China's imperial ambition. And China knows this and is responding with increasing bellicosity.
It is ideal for us to be neutral in this United States-China contest but we cannot do this for the simple reason that we have an alliance with the U.S. And also because Filipinos trust America more than China.
I don’t think we can rely on the United States with great certitude. It is up to us to develop our own defense potential, not so much with a bigger Armed Forces, but to infuse in ourselves a sense of nation that will unite and strengthen us in our defense of our sovereignty, knowing that if we lose it, we can never regain it.
On those few occasions that I was asked to speak before the National Defense College, I have been asked how culture can contribute to security. It is easy to quantify a country's defense capability, but not its spirit. As the late Russian dictator asked, how many divisions does the Pope have. What art and culture does is endow a people with pride, a strong sense of nation and patriotism to stand for their country, even die for her. The Spartans of ancient Greece, for instance, built their society on a martial foundation; they trained their youth in the arts of war and gave them the valor and the skills with which they fought their enemies.
In the end, a nation's security is premised on several important factors -- the first is the national interest, its survival. Having established this, that nation must then be very precise in identifying the enemies that threaten its survival. And, finally, that nation must be able to look at itself honestly and realize whether or not it has the determination, meaning the patriotism and the unity, to protect its national interest.
It is extremely important that a people or a nation, particularly its leaders, must have the answers to these questions. Otherwise, it will be easy prey to the machinations of its enemies to colonize it or transform it into a failed state.
First published in The Philippine Star: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/05/25/1920755/our-national-insecurity
Ask any of the new college graduates about their plans for their future, and you will find that most of them want to leave this country. They do not see their future here. I had the same feeling way back.
When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I was not allowed to travel. I lost my journal Solidarity and, now censored, I lost income as a publisher, and was also harassed with fictitious lawsuits. But I should not complain too much. What I suffered was trivial compared to those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
When I finally got my passport back in 1976, I went to the United States to look for a job. At the time, several Filipino expats in the United States were actively opposing Marcos. I was invited to one of their meetings in the Chicago area. I was amazed at the vociferousness of the meeting and I found it ironic and even comic -- these Filipinos shouting revolution in the comfort and safety of the United States.
In Washington, I saw Raul Manglapus, an old friend, who was in Tokyo when Marcos declared martial law. From there, he went to the United States knowing that, like many of his colleagues, he would have been arrested and jailed had he returned to Manila. He was anxious to go back to Manila but I said he was safer in the United States.
I looked up acquaintances in Washington and found out that Pat Kelly, the secretary of Henry Miller when he was Public Affairs counselor in Manila, was now the wife of General Edward Lansdale. I was asked to give a talk to Americans who had served in the Philippines.
They were anxious to know what it was like under Marcos, and I told them how it was to live under a dictatorship, that Marcos’s best supporter in the United States was President Reagan himself. They told me there were those in the State Department, however, who knew the score. When I was through speaking, General Lansdale came up to me and said affectionately, Frankie, you are not leaving the Philippines. You are going back.
And, indeed, I did go back. I walked away from two jobs and from a future with my family in either Washington or New York. I don’t want to call myself a patriot for returning to my home country. That was farthest from my mind. I recalled the two years I was with the Colombo Plan in Ceylon and my brief stint with the Asia Magazine in Hong Kong. In these places where I had the most comfortable job, I had not produced a single story. So back to Manila I went to suffer Marcos and witness his end, and to see the promise of EDSA I squandered and lost.
Marcos did something very important for us. He drew a very clear line for the country's cultural workers and identified those who were on the side of freedom and those who were not. For those of us who opposed Marcos, the choice was very difficult and hazardous. We felt so abandoned and helpless and, thank God, we had an organization like PEN to bond us together and help us survive. We also had visits by writers who sympathized with us and who understood our plight. Among them Mochtar Lubis, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Norman Mailer, who expressed admiration for all the Russians who defied their government. He said he would have conformed because he liked his comforts.
When I reached seventy, I decided to forgive all those who had done me wrong. It was a lifting experience, as I freed myself from a heavy, almost unbearable burden. It filled me with peace. I told a good friend, the writer Teddy Benigno, and he said I should not have done this for those who did us wrong would be unburdened of their guilt.
When she was on her deathbed, Kerima Polotan sent one of her daughters to me. She wanted to see me. Kerima became an aide to Imelda Marcos, and her husband became Marcos’s executive secretary. He was the old friend who put me on the black list.
It is difficult to love this country – thus lamented a young lawyer who was considering a future in politics. And, indeed, looking closely at this country and us Filipinos, how can anyone love this country? Look at the result of the senatorial elections last week, how unthinking Filipinos elected nincompoops. Look at how Filipinos themselves are their own worst enemies, look at them despoil their country, and betray and kill one another. Indeed, there are many good reasons why Filipinos today are leaving; it is not just for economic reasons for there are comfortable middle-class Filipinos who have joined this diaspora.
It is difficult to love this country. But it is easier to do so if we think of her as our motherland, the way our mothers nurtured us, embraced us, and gave us their warmth, their loyalty, and caring. Perhaps, it was this realization that made me return to a fate closely entwined with the land where I was born.
Every so often, I meet someone who has returned "to give back." Indeed, some have come back as masochists perhaps, to share the agony of their countrymen. As romantics, they take pride in their history of valor, they live with nostalgia, and see reason for optimism.
And so I go to the old hometown often, to look at immemorial vistas of well-cared fields and a people made enduring by work. I go there to listen to a language to which I was born but which I don’t really use anymore. Listening to it, I wallow in memory and I feel alive, keen to the sound of living, of memories of the past that I have read about which I know are now entwined with every fiber of my being as a writer who belongs to this unhappy country.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 18, 2019
In October 1967, I visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Writers Union on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was my first time in Russia. I was told there were shortages, but as a guest, I was treated warmly and was never in need. One of the high points of that visit, aside from meeting my translator, Igor Podbereszky, was a session with the editors of the literary journal, Novy Mir.
I had by then, of course, read a lot of Russian literature in translation -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, and of course Dostoevsky. I had also read Pasternak. I had compared the two English translations of Dr. Zhivago and was anxious to ask the Russian writers about him, particularly since he had been prohibited by the Soviet government from going to Stockholm to claim his Nobel Prize.
What was Boris Pasternak’s status in Russia? The editors of Novy Mir said he was best known as a lyric poet. And Dr. Zhivago? They said one reason he was not allowed to go to Stockholm was that, from his novel, it appeared he did not love his motherland all that much.
I told them then that his writing showed exactly the opposite, that the most evocative descriptions of the Russian winter and spring, the likes of which I had never read before, were in Dr. Zhivago. It would not be possible for any writer to write with such affection if he did not love his native land.
While I was saying this, I recalled Manuel Arguilla who, to my mind, had written the most beautiful descriptions of the Ilokos countryside. Arguilla's life was cut short at the peak of his artistic genius; in 1944, the Japanese executed him for being a guerilla.
Jose Rizal also came to mind. At 34, at the height of his creative powers, he was executed by the Spaniards. His two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, vividly illustrate his affection for his country and his disdain for Spanish tyranny.
AND SO WE WRITE THE LAND, celebrate its width and breadth, its foamy beaches, emerald islands, the majesty of our mountains, our golden plains, the cozy lethargy of our villages, the spanking shine and glitter of our sprawling cities. We remember the stench of our slums, the fragrance of newly harvested fields, and the sharp odor of a parched earth drenched at last by the first rain. We give our writing a sense of place, our characters distinct faces, our history its heroism, our people an infallible identity. And with all of these, hopefully, we invoke a sense of nation as well.
But is there enough celebration of the land in our literature? Why are we not writing? Why are we not producing literature as much as we should? Is it because our writers are simply too comfortable to care? Or, distanced as they are from their own kin, they cannot understand or empathize with their trials and their griefs?
I brought these thoughts to a recent visit by Samuel Chua, the poet who now teaches at the University of Oregon. He had just attended a writers meeting at the Cultural Center, and the questions asked led him to realize that Filipino writers are not writing as much as they should. Yet there is so much material around us -- in the very front page of our newspapers, and in our history, where so much is yet to be unraveled. I agreed with him.
We tend to view others in the light of our own perspective, and I told him that when I was thirty, I had already written three novels, all of them serialized in a weekly magazine but not published in book form. I always knew writing would be hard work. I also knew writing does not pay. But just the same, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was apparently driven, which is not so with many of our brilliant young writers, whose language is superior to mine. Is it because they are comfortable? Is it because their roots in this country are shallow and fragile? Or maybe they haven’t suffered at all, or if they have, they cannot remember.
I do not know; it is for these writers, particularly the very young, to probe deeply into themselves, and realize the reasons why.
ALMOST ALWAYS, literature is remembered pain or sorrow. In all of us is an essential loneliness, a melancholy that is the essence of art and literature itself. In that solitude wherein we immerse ourselves, we come face to face with the transience of our very lives and our puny efforts to live beyond it. What have we made of the life, the poetry, the music, the art that we will leave behind?
Pasternak recorded with brilliant faithfulness the pathos and heroism of the Russian people in that cataclysm that changed Russia forever. So did Rizal record the last years of Spanish domination -- history come alive so we will know what it had been like, and also realize who we are.
And so I ask myself and so should all of us who write – why write at all? I look deeply into myself and find no abiding reason, other than writing seems so natural, like breathing, because writing and reading, thinking and imagining have become my life.
It is all ego and vanity of course, and the hope that somehow someone will read me and appreciate what I have written because they see themselves in it the way I see myself in what I write. And I realize then that I belong to something bigger, something beyond myself, and that by writing I have brought meaning and purpose to my life.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 11, 2019