In a sense, all of us are egoists, particularly those of us who are writers because we are in everything we write and our personal memories are our best assets.
The reverse political tack, however, is taken by those who identify themselves with the poor, who claim community with the poor in our slums because they have lived in Tondo. But once these politicians have reached the pinnacle of their dreams, Tondo and the poor are forgotten.
For egoists, personal preening begins with “modesty aside," followed by a torrent of self-praise. This self-glorification is also very evident in the way we like to be addressed. My wife told me of her embarrassment when she introduced a professor as Professor So-and-so. He cut her short and re-introduced himself as Dr. So-and-so.
This hankering for titles to convey a prestigious or superior place in social hierarchy is part of our character.
Filipinos are deeply aware of ego. Introductions of public speakers are their curriculum vitae – education, from high school to advance degrees, past positions, awards. And many times, the speaker will repeat and embellish the information.
Filipino organizations proliferate to accommodate ego, social climbing, and personal ambition. In California, for example, there are hundreds of Filipino organizations. It is not unusual for a person wanting to be president to start his or her own organization. I don’t think there are more than a thousand immigrants from my hometown, Rosales, Pangasinan, in the San Francisco Bay Area but there are two Rosales organizations there.
Manila newspapers cater to ego. Our major dailies, compared with other respectable papers in the world, have unusually extensive "society" pages.
EGO CAN OBSTRUCT consensus for the common good. Ego has crippled political organizations that otherwise would have been united and strong.
That major upheaval in the late 1940s, the Hukbalahap uprising, our understanding is that it was defeated by Ramon Magsaysay with American assistance. That is only part of the truth.
I had wanted to understand why the Hukbalahap failed. Was it because the leaders were urban intellectuals and the soldiers were farmers? Or was there an ethnic rivalry between the Tagalogs and the Pampangos who led it?
In 1985, I brought together the four surviving Huk leaders, Luis Taruc and Casto Alejandrino, both Pampangos, and Fred Saulo and Jesus Lava, both Tagalogs. All four had been imprisoned for not less than ten years. When they met that morning in my bookshop, although they had had a falling out, they greeted each other amiably. The quarrelling began after lunch.
I have a bit of knowledge of Marxism and I listened carefully to their Marxist-loaded arguments, which became very heated. I soon realized that their arguments had very little ideological validity, that it was their vaulting egos that had destroyed the organization, the same ego that has also emasculated the New People's Army.
This ego and the self-righteousness of our leaders sunder our political parties. I remember an old argument with Harry Benda, the Czech scholar who specialized in Southeast Asia. We had talked about the necessity of a Filipino revolution, a continuation of 1896. He flatly concluded it would never happen because, as he said, "You Filipinos are such a divided people. Look at the Katipunan."
I know Harry Benda will one day be proven wrong, although I might not be able to see that triumphant event happen.
LET ME NOW ILLUSTRATE specific examples of Filipino ego-centrism.
Imelda Marcos epitomizes extravagance. She is over-coiffed, over-jeweled, overdressed. And those 3,000 pairs of shoes – the world still talks about them, even those who know little about the Philippines or Filipinos.
Ferdinand Marcos, too, for all his Ilokanoness, was a fastidious dresser, and also prided himself on his physique. He was always combing his hair. He even tried poetry to illustrate his literary prowess. He attracted loyal followers because of his perceived intelligence, patriotism, and military service, although some of his war medals are phony.
Max V. Soliven personifies the Filipino yabang. And, why not, he deserved all his awards. He was a spellbinding speaker: I remember his PEN Jose Rizal Lecture in Baguio, extemporaneous and without notes. It was a bravura performance. His essays on history, culture, and politics were brilliant. He could have easily ingratiated himself with Marcos because he was a fellow Ilokano. He fought Marcos instead, and the dictator respected him for it.
Carlos P. Romulo, the country's foremost diplomat, and author of I Walked with Heroes, I Saw the Fall of the Philippines, and I See the Philippines Rise, was the original. He was barely five feet tall, and handled this shortcoming with great self-confidence, wit, and humor. He said he stood on a couple of telephone books when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly after he was elected its president. He also said a dime is more valuable than a nickel. And this takes the cake: “My wife, Beth, charged me in court for assault with a dead weapon.”
The Duterte ego is as gigantic as the Titanic. It is even perhaps unique. It is shock treatment -- the same technique used to treat catatonic patients. It draws immediate reaction, but come a time when constant use induces numbness. To prevent that, Duterte has to concoct new and even perhaps more outlandish techniques.
The extreme opposite of the peacock leader is the selfless champion who gains devotees with his unadorned activism and simplicity. President Ramon Magsaysay comes to mind immediately. He was down to earth and identified himself with the masa, as Duterte now does. The similarities end there. Knowing his limitations, Magsaysay surrounded himself with the best and the brightest of his time. When he made mistakes, he corrected them immediately. No Filipino leader has equaled him.
I define hindsight, which is also the title of this column, as the lowest form of wisdom. From that you can deduct that when it comes to humility, I am number one.
First published in the The Philippine Star, January 26, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/01/26/1888182/ego-enemy
The surveys continue to conclude that we trust the United States but we don’t trust China. For all the good will most of us feel towards America, it is time we subject this conclusion to further scrutiny.
For sure, the best test of America as a trusted ally was when China invaded Philippine territory -- Scarborough Shoal off the coast of Zambales -- in 2012. Our treaty with the United States says that the U.S. will assist us if we are attacked. And Scarborough Shoal was a downright attack, one which we could not repel. Only the United States could have helped us but it did not.
We have always overestimated our relationship with the United States. The reality is that a small laidback country like ours is just an expendable pawn in the game of international geopolitics, and we are ignored because we are not strong like Japan or South Korea.
American policies towards Asia do not always tally with ours. Mood swings in the United States can also affect its relationship with other countries. At the moment, there seems to be a slow swing towards isolation. This is not because America has lost its dynamism but because it finds that sustaining all its global commitments can be very expensive and can even sap the morale of the party in power and at the same time give strength to the opposition.
AMERICAN PRESIDENTS have always been wary of entanglement in a land war in Asia. This must be uppermost in the minds of those policymakers in Washington when they mulled over the problem of a recalcitrant China in the South China Sea.
Our South China Sea problem with China has an ominous collateral at home. Realize that 80 percent of the Philippine economy is now in the hands of ethnic Chinese. They came to the Philippines with nothing, and became wealthy through exploitation of the land and the people. The priority, therefore, is for us now to see to it that the economic power of these ethnic Chinese, whose loyalty to the Philippines is in doubt, should be emasculated. The silence of our Filipino Chinese on this crucial issue is deafening. Vietnam is a very good model.
Vietnam has not hesitated to fight the Chinese frontally and yet maintains a close relationship with China. Its economy had been dominated by ethnic Chinese. Cholon, then Saigon's busiest district, was actually a Chinese enclave. After the triumph of the Revolution in 1975, Vietnam applied a simple solution to its China problem. The Chinese were simply expelled and their properties were confiscated. Several Chinese establishments were set up through the following years, but during the riots some three years ago, when China set up an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, to which the Vietnamese objected furiously, the Chinese factories in Vietnam were burned.
The United States has billions of dollars in mothballed war material, and has excuses for why it is niggardly in its military aid to the Philippines, compared with its assistance to other governments.
WE MUST BE PREPARED to increase our military capability on our own, to sacrifice for it even. One of our first priorities is to build a navy with fast frigates to patrol and defend our country. We already have shipbuilding facilities to do this.
We should have three military academies, the military academy in Baguio, perhaps a naval academy in Cebu, and an air force academy in Davao. The first two years of military study will be spent in Baguio. And in the following four years, army officers will continue in Baguio, while naval officers will be in Davao, and air force officers in Cebu.
The ROTC should also be revived. It will be a two-year course, after which anyone aspiring for a military career is qualified to take exams for the military academy. The last six months of the course should be spent with the army units. We will then have ready reserve forces whenever the country needs them. We can gain some lessons from Singapore and Israel.
We also should strengthen our ties with our ASEAN neighbors, and also see to it that these ties have military significance. We must always remember that a strong and united ASEAN is our best defense against any imperial design to colonize Southeast Asia. It is important that ASEAN should form a pillar not only in trade and cultural relations but also in our military ties with neighbor countries.
OUR DIMINISHED RELATIONSHIP with the United States may be replaced with alliances with other nations -- Australia, Japan, South Korea. Because of its consensus decision making process, ASEAN may not be a military deterrent to China's land grabbing. On the other hand, we can forge alliances with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
The Defense Secretary has asked for a review of our defense treaties with the United States. All military aid from other countries should also be reviewed.
An American author described us in the 1930s as "the Orphans of the Pacific." Perhaps that definition fits us now for, in a sense, to be truly free, we must reject our colonial past and struggle not only to survive but to preserve our hard-won sovereignty. Orphans know they are alone so they strive hard to prevail.
To alter our barnacled attitudes towards the United States means that we will have to be less dependent on the United States for aid; we will also diminish the teacher-pupil relationship. In reviewing our alliances with America, it must be noted that Japan, Korea, and Taiwan took advantage of the American umbrella and market to develop economically and militarily. We did not.
I remember Joseph Lelyveld, former managing editor of the New York Times. He said it is very difficult for America to take our leaders seriously because they are silly. Herein lies the problem: if we should no longer trust America, with our kind of leaders, can we trust ourselves?
First published in The Philippine Star, January 19,2019
Photo credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
Vernon Loeb, his wife Pat, and their four grown children dropped by the bookshop the other day, and we reminisced about the Manila of 25 years ago, when Vernon was based here as Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent. He is now political editor of The Atlantic in Washington.
They were amazed at Manila’s evident progress – the shopping malls, the soaring skyscrapers – and, yes, the population explosion and the traffic jams. I told them the surface progress is an illusion. Twenty-five years ago, there was no one sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the bookshop. Now there are. Vernon asked if Smokey Mountain was still in Tondo. I assured him it was, but is no longer a smoky garbage dump. It is now green with grass and some houses.
And, as with most conversations about America, the topic turned to Trump, immigrants, and what the Trump presidency means for the future of America and for regional relations.
Perhaps, it is because we were colonized by the United States that that nation’s politics and culture have always fascinated me. While I am critical of three aspects of that culture – the racism, the wastage, and the smugness that there are American solutions for all the world’s problems – America has one enduring strength: it is capable of self-renewal. And this strength is brought about by its openness, its self-criticism, and the continuing immigration of the best minds from all over the world. America has always provided a sanctuary, a place where their genius can bloom, and a future for their children.
WHEN I WAS at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto in the mid-1980s, some of my Japanese colleagues were convinced that America was in irreversible decline. At the time, Ezra Vogel’s book, Japan as Number One, had just come out. The Japanese blamed America’s educational system. Drugs, too, had sapped the American spirit. I told them they were wrong, that what they were saying had long been expressed by the Americans themselves.
Now comes Martin Jacques’s bestselling When China Rules the World. The author implies that, again, the United States will be left behind because of its incapability to equal China’s dynamism. Sure, China has more than 4,000 years of civilization, that it was already literate when Europe was peopled by primitive hunters and food gatherers. Some observers say that China is now in the same period like Japan was in the 1930s when it modernized, became militarily strong, and began to advance its imperial ambition.
To be credible, empires claim that they maintain noble motives and should therefore be welcomed by their colonies. The British claimed they were bringing British law and civilization to a benighted world. The Spanish empire sought to spread Catholicism, and to make the world safe for democracy is America’s excuse for its hegemony. In fairness to the Americans, there is some nobility in its imperial posturing. In pursuit of its own self- interest, it helped Europe rise from the rubble of World War II with its Marshall Plan. Maybe China’s future hype will be its Confucian ethic, which emphasizes hierarchy and harmony.
Chinese civilization is a continuum. There are serious gaps in its development when it lagged behind the west in science and modernization, and was easy prey for the Imperial west. But it is the knowledge of this gap that has fired Chinese nationalism and its consequent imperial reach. Now China and the United States are engaged in a trade war and, at the moment, the United States seems to be winning. However, China is still developing its industrial sinews, and has not yet reached its maximum potential.
THE TWO COUNTRIES are headed toward a military war both do not really want. But they are engaged in a game of chicken, and one of them is likely going to make a mistake soon. The possibility of that war is very real, given the growing tensions between the two powers in the South China Sea. In the event that it does happen, whether we like it or not, we will get involved. As the old Burmese saying goes, when the elephants quarrel, the grass gets trampled. To this, I add my own caveat: when the elephants make peace, the grass gets eaten.
It would seem that China today – like Japan in the 1930s – is testing its muscle, even at the risk of antagonizing its small weak neighbors. For sure, all of Southeast Asia will be sinicized in the next hundred years. The richest in all these Southeast Asian nations are ethnic Chinese. In the Philippines, seven of our top ten billionaires are ethnic Chinese. They are a powerful presence, and in the event that war erupts, where will their loyalties lie? Always remember, all came to the Philippines with nothing and they became rich by exploiting the Filipinos and their land.
Eventually comparisons have to be made. I say that the United States can afford the likes of Trump for the free institutions in that country are all working, and the Americans themselves are always alert.
AS FOR DUTERTE, I told Vernon that in the beginning I was for the man, foul-mouthed though he is. No Philippine president has ever challenged the oligarchy, the Catholic Church and the media. I really thought he would bring about the revolution this country needs and that I had been hoping for, for decades. But he has divided the country instead of uniting us as revolution always does.
The Chinese always take a long view of history, in keeping with their own venerable past. The story goes, that when the Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, was asked about what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution on western civilization, he replied, “It’s too early to tell.”
Perhaps we may say the same thing of the American empire. Will it last longer than the Roman and the Spanish empires? Or the Vatican?
First published in The Philippine Star, January 12, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/01/12/1884326/pax-americana#ApTikGiOdJkUm2rX.99
No Man Left Behind by P. R. Fortuno, 384 pp, Php 980
Marawi, Mindanao's brightest jewel of a city but now a wasteland, is a stark reminder to any secessionist movement that this country cannot be dismembered. It is also one more shining monument to the valor of the Filipino soldier; 168 of them were killed there, together with about 50 civilians and nearly a thousand terrorists who subscribed to the ISIS tenets.
Marawi evokes many happy memories for me. I knew it in the 1950s as Dansalan, when I was a journalist for the Sunday Manila Times Magazine writing about Mindanao, the promised land for the land-hungry in Luzon and Visayas. Mindanao then was a big, big blank for most Filipinos. I covered the fabulous wedding of Emily Marohombsar; the Marohombsars were considered the creme de la creme of Maranao society and the bride, who would later become Mindanao State University’s first woman president, was also very beautiful.
One of my closest friends was Mamitua Saber, a scholar of Maranao culture and history. I met the father of former Senator Mike Tamano in his traditional Maranao house, and I saw Singkil, the most beautiful and most complicated of Philippine folk dances, performed by Maranao youth themselves rather than a university folk dance troupe.
THE MORO PROBLEM is not religious, but religion is being used to exacerbate it. It is about land and political power, and the ancient conflict between tradition and modernity. The Marawi siege, which lasted five months, is perhaps its most tragic culmination, and carries many lessons for us all.
These lessons are In No Man Left Behind by Scout Ranger Philip Fortuno. The book covers the daily battles in the siege, and the historical roots of the Moro problem, how it ballooned and became infiltrated by Middle East radicalism. Written with firsthand knowledge and understanding, it is a gripping, detailed narrative that describes the difficulties of our soldiers, outnumbered and outgunned at the start, the gallantry and perseverance not only of the Ranger companies but of the regular Army units and the civilian officials of Marawi who stood their ground.
The Rangers were well-trained in guerilla tactics but not well-equipped. The companies dispatched to Marawi crossed mountains and jungles when they should have been airlifted by helicopters. For the first time, too, the Army, more adept in jungle rather than urban operations, was exposed to the problems of urban warfare of a greater magnitude, involving brutal foreign fighters and violent religious extremism. It was not prepared to fight an enemy well-entrenched in closely adjacent buildings where, as the Rangers often realized, it was only a wall that separated them from their enemies. But the Marawi houses are built like fortresses for defense in the vicious clan wars, and they had difficulty drilling holes in those walls to flush out the enemy.
They also realized how important it is to have the people on their side, not only to provide intelligence but also so that they could understand how giving sanctuary to the terrorists would affect their communities. Some of the Marawi residents knew the terrorists were in their midst but could not inform on them for they were relatives. But during the siege, the Maranaos showed compassion -- they protected the Christians with whom they shared the same dangers.
PHILIP FORTUNO concludes that young Moros must be nurtured and educated in the real tenets of Islam because it is a religion of peace, and that the process of winning their trust starts with education. In the very depressed areas of Southern Lanao, there are not enough public schools and, in many instances, simple, safe drinking water and artesian wells are lacking. It is in these deprived regions where the very young are easily indoctrinated to hate the government and Christians.
Post Marawi, it must now be very clear to the Moro rebels that armed rebellion will not succeed. The Philippine state and its Armed Forces will not permit it. The Armed Forces is the army of the people and it is this army which keeps the country together. There should be more Moros in it, not just in its lowest ranks but in its officer corps.
As for the Moros, they should understand that they have never been oppressed. Neither are they our poorest. In this benighted country, the most oppressed, the real minorities, are the landless workers, our very poor, who have no access to justice, to healthcare, to higher education, who sleep on the sidewalks, and who eat only once a day.
Even without the new Bangsamoro Law, our Moros are as free as all other Filipinos. In this struggle for nationhood, and for political and social ascendancy, there is no stopping them. In those regions they dominate, they are power holders as politicians, and can pursue professions of their choice.
SOCIAL CHANGE should be clearly understood. To do this, the Moros should also look carefully at their own societies and realize that it is their datu system which inhibits social mobility. And the internal wars between clans and families -- the rido -- has cost them so much. They should, as all Filipinos should, consider public office as a public trust. Nur Misuari, the Tausug leader -- what did he do when he got all that power and money?
Sure, we must all know more about Moro history. They can contribute so much to the shaping of the Filipino identity because Moro culture is also very rich. From my own perspective as a writer, I wonder who will replace writers like Ibrahim Jubaira, who opened a window to Moro life.
Minority conflicts have festered all over the world, some for centuries and yet still unresolved. Men and women of good will on both sides of the conflict have persevered to bring peace, knowing as they do that without peace there can be no development. This is perhaps the most important lesson that Marawi can teach all of us.
First published in The Philippine Star, January 5, 2019