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
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its revolutionary army, the New People’s Army, which has engaged in the longest-running communist insurgency in the world. Perhaps it is necessary to point out at this time why it has failed and yet continues to seduce all those young people who feel a compulsive need for revolution. Its attractiveness to intellectuals also lies in its “scientific” deductions, and its perceived historicity and foreordained success.
Indeed, the Philippines has needed a revolution, way before 1968. For so long, we have been tyrannized by a corrupt political system, which the democratic apparatus of elections cannot banish. For Filipinos then, revolution means the end of our ancient poverty and, hopefully, the disempowerment of our oppressor, the oligarchy.
By its very nature, revolution is a class war -- the people against the very rich and the politicians who support and profit from them. This wide social divide, as evidenced by widespread poverty, is in itself the "objective reality" that every revolutionary must understand. From the very beginning, however, the Communist Party and the NPA were blind to this and to the other objective realities in this country. This willful blindness doomed the Party; it was unable to attract the masa because it lacked credibility.
I remember the cadres who came to me fifty years ago, telling me why they were for Mao. I told them each country must shape its own revolution. I myself was very much for Mao, but it was obvious to me that the Philippines is not China. I pointed out to them the undercurrent of anti-Chinese feeling not only in the Philippines but in all of Southeast Asia. They were also anti-American and I asked how is that an argument for revolution when almost every Filipino wanted to migrate to the United States.
They also regarded the Philippine Army as the enemy. Of course, doctrinally, they were correct because it is an instrument of the government and the oligarchy. What they ignored is that the Army, including its officer corps, is composed primarily of the very poor. It is also a patriotic institution, its heroism tested in Tirad Pass, in World War II. It is also the Army, and only the Army, that can hold the country together. The Party should have worked to win the Army to their side.
THE NPA LEADERS also ignored the past, the peasant rebellions that are very much in our nationalist tradition. They did not learn from the mistakes of the Huk uprising, how that movement was weakened by internal dissension. The same dissension would weaken them later on. I asked the late Huk Supremo, Luis Taruc, if any of the NPA leaders had ever spoken with him about history, about organization, and tactics. Ka Luis said no one had ever approached him.
Let me state that during the Marcos regime, I was for the NPA. I saw it as the only formidable opposition to the dictatorship. Besides, it was Marcos, with the tyranny of his regime, who was their best recruiter.
Then EDSA I in February 1986 -- the NPA was not there because its leadership was composed of orthodox communists. They were unable to grasp the difference between Marcos and Cory Aquino, and did not appreciate the objective reality -- the masa supported Cory. Instead, they forfeited an opportunity that may never come again. I believe the outcome of EDSA I would have been different had they marched with the people and the Army. Perhaps the NPA would have been able to temper the restoration of the oligarchy.
After EDSA came the so-called cleansing of their ranks. So many cadres were killed in the internal purges, which could have been avoided had there been more party discipline in the upper levels of command. The NPA has not recovered from this tragic internal hemorrhage to this day.
And now, the supreme irony of the revolutionary tax it collects from capitalists. By exchanging the revolutionary tax for protection, the NPA has emasculated the very foundation of the revolution itself and has joined the ranks of the very enemy it wants to destroy.
THE CORRECT FORMULA for revolution, as I see it, still stands -- the need for a revolutionary party that is grounded in reality and has the support of the people. Remember always -- a revolution unites the people, not divides them. It is important for the leader to study the dynamics of successful organizations like the Iglesia Ni Kristo, to consider always the nationalist and religious underpinnings of the people so that in the end, this revolutionary party creates “the sea,” the masa who accept its credibility.
The Party must eventually be led by selfless leaders like Ho Chi Minh, who are willing to live poorly as their own people, and who are able to let go of power once the revolution has succeeded and let the administrators and the bureaucrats take over.
For all its gross errors and seeming irrelevance, revolutionary communism still resonates with the educated and idealistic young. They should not be reviled for this. They should be reminded instead that the communists, for all the noise and the havoc they have raised, did not invent revolution and that, as already evident in Eastern Europe, communism will collapse because of its own internal contradictions.
Revolutions are humanity's efforts -- sometimes violently pursued, sometimes peacefully achieved -- to create just and humane societies. Thus, it requires epic heroism and sacrifice, often made by men and women of obdurate faith and compassion. Above all, it is really untrammeled love of country that fuels the revolutionary leadership and the cadres as well.
Remembering the many lives and billions of pesos that were wasted in the last half century, I lay most of the blame at the door of the Communist Party leader, Jose Maria Sison, a brilliant ideologue, a narcissist, and a second-rate poet.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 28, 2018
The coming of Christmas in the old hometown was announced by the land itself. The rains had ceased, the fields of living green had slowly turned to yellow, then gold. The grain had ripened and was now ready for the scythe. A coolness had also come upon the land and in the mornings, the two creeks that bracketed the town were covered with mist.
At school, the celebration of Christmas had already begun. We had scoured the nearby fields and brought to our classroom a sapling which we adorned with red papel de Japon and parol we made ourselves. The school festival was capped with exchange gifts that were readily recognizable. If they were round, they were usually apples or Sunkist oranges, luxuries to be enjoyed only in the last month of the year.
I recall three Christmas gifts I received as a child. The first was a small bar of Palmolive soap given to me by an uncle just returned from California. I never really used it. Every now and then, I would retrieve it from our wooden chest to enjoy its fragrance. I eventually gave it to my mother.
The second was a harmonica from a cousin. In two days, I had learned how to play it. I gathered five friends from the neighborhood. One played a tambourine I shaped from bottle caps, another blew on a length of bamboo -- he provided the bass rhythm -- the two others sang the Christmas carols on the harmonica. We went around the town caroling, and continued singing even when we were waved away. We never went to the same house twice, and when we had made ten centavos, we went to the town panciteria for pancit bihon, then called it a day.
MY MOST MEMORABLE Christmas gift was from my teacher, Miss Soledad Oriel, when I was in grade seven. By its shape, I suspected it was a book. I unwrapped it the moment I got home. It was, indeed, a book -- a secondhand dictionary, perhaps her very own. I brought my dictionary to school, and Miss Oriel taught me how to use it to improve my vocabulary. Run your finger down any page, she said, and if you come across a word you don’t know, use it in five different sentences and that word is yours for life.
And so, early on, I used the word "abomination" often. It was only later on that I realized that there are sentences better served with simpler words.
Fire crackers were expensive. For the New Year, I could have only two. But my friends and I did create a lot of noise, beating tin cans and pans. I also shaped a canon from bamboo, a six-foot length of the biggest and thickest variety. I hollowed it except for the last notch, above which I drilled a small hole, the size of a bottle cap. I then poured half a liter of kerosene through that hole. The bamboo is raised at 15 degrees. A flame under a bamboo heats the kerosene, which is then ignited through the hole. The first sound is usually a growl, which then grows into a loud boom as the kerosene is continually heated.
This week, as I was reminiscing about Christmas, a former college classmate, Father Pep, came to mind. I had lost track of him after I left Santo Tomas in 1949, then sometime in the late 1960s, he showed up at my bookshop.
He hadn’t changed much; he was still frail, soft-spoken, and he looked tired and shabby. I remember he was enamored with St. Francis de Assisi, and wrote poetry. He was now a priest of a poor parish in Bicol, and was in Manila to raise funds. He was also a nurse, and a teacher, teaching his flock “how to fish.” He said, “I don’t want them to be a beggar like me.”
IN REMEMBERING this dear, old classmate, I also remember Pope Francis recalling St. Francis de Assisi when he said, “how I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.” I think about the vast wealth of our churches, the elegant panoply of their bishops, their palaces and their laden tables, the communities they serve, the weddings they perform, the people they bless, the deathbeds over which they pray for the salvation of souls. Why isn’t their wealth used to build a church for our poor, invested in efforts that will help overcome rather than exacerbate our poverty, our country’s biggest challenge? It is time our churches are taxed, and their incomes revealed. Then we will know how sincere they are in the practice of the faith.
If Rome is gone as all empires must wither and die, how will we explain the longevity of the Vatican empire, its power? It was Stalin who asked, how many divisions does the Pope have? No, it is not divisions that should matter to the church, but a praetorian vanguard of quiet, dedicated, committed workers like Father Pep -- faithful, strong, and loyal workers who are in touch with the people and who, in their hearts, have built a church for the poor.
So we come to the Christmas story, how there was no room at the inn so Jesus was born in the lowliest of places and laid in a manger. And in his life, He cured the sick, restored sight to the blind, and turned water into wine. Then He drove the money lenders from the temple and declared, "I give you not peace but the sword."
He truly was a revolutionary whose creed was love. He was then reviled, betrayed, and tortured on the cross where he died, for our redemption.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 22, 2018
Literature is important, not so much because it is entertainment but because it brightens our humdrum lives. Journalism -- what we read or see every day in the news, or sometimes the narration of events on Facebook -- is history in a hurry. But literature, by its very nature, by exciting the mind, is history that is lived.
It is, of course, much more than text that makes history come alive. Literature is a great teacher with its artful rendition of so many prosaic lives, with its elucidation of life itself, the resolution of human dilemmas. It is through literature that we learn ethics, a most important component in living, which we cannot get even if we spent years in a seminary studying cosmology and theology.
And the people who write, who tell us stories, and bring us poetry and dramas -- even if they may not be very good at their craft -- they perform a very important function. They are the staunch keepers of memory. Without this memory, there is no nation. We see then how important literature is. Through literature we will know our history, and eventually, we will have a deeper understanding of human nature, of our very selves. And this knowledge of ourselves is the most important knowledge of all. Just one caveat here -- knowledge is not wisdom. How we use knowledge is wisdom.
WE HAVE A VERY STRONG tradition in political criticism, most of it personal in nature, seldom substantive or ideological because of the very personal nature of our politics. Our politicians attack one another and yet, they can remain personal friends for their kind of criticism is superficial and insincere.
We have very little cultural criticism, maybe because cultural criticism requires thinking and analysis, as well as very good background on culture and the arts. Let me put it this way, folk criticism has great validity in the sense that the folk themselves are involved in folk culture. Go to an Ifugao community in the Cordilleras and ask anyone there who is the best weaver, the best woodcarver, and the whole village knows because all the villagers are engaged in the crafts native to the village. Modern art, including literature, has become anarchical. It requires more astute understanding and criticism, after all the function of criticism is to identify excellence and separate it from the mediocre.
When you read a novel or a short story, ask this simple question. Is it art? Then you must be able to define art -- its originality, its creativity and, most of all, its beauty. Is it boring? If so, find out why. It is an artist's job to be interesting and not to be boring at all. Is the prose literary? The syntax, the grammar, are they all in place? Is there logic to the plot? Are the characters believable? What is the meaning of the story, the novel? Does it teach us anything? And, yes, you may also ask, is the story moral. And when you ask this question, you begin in earnest to criticize for you give value to art itself. In the end you may even ask, if God is the ultimate artist, is God moral?
I now come to a very important observation, the relevance of the New Criticism which was a literary fad in the United States shortly after World War II. It influenced the Filipino writer-teachers who went to the United States during that period -- NVM Gonzalez, the Tiempos of Silliman, Franz Arcellana, and the whole generation of student writers they influenced and who are now teachers repeating the tired clichés and teaching those workshops. I advise you not to attend workshops. I never did. They should be replaced by lectures on philosophy, anthropology, sociology, politics and history, even revolution -- all the major themes that make for good literature. And let us not forget that the Bible is great literature.
THERE IS A TERM in technology transfer which refers particularly to this critical fad: inappropriate technology. What did the New Criticism teach? Focus on the leaves and not on the whole tree itself. Technique was paramount, and irony was a virtue that every good fiction must have.
In time, within a few short years, this literary fad disappeared from the American campus, but not in the Philippines, where its tenets persist to this very day, preached by the teachers who were weaned in it. The result is emphasis on form rather than substance, and this has produced fiction that is arid and dull primarily because these writers ignored the verities that make for good literature -- the conflicts, the tensions of everyday living, and the harsh truths of human frailty and of society itself.
It is time then to abandon this outmoded fad, this crippling American influence on our literature, and to echo Emerson, that great American sage who advised American writers to abandon European romanticism and celebrate America instead.
So, then we too must celebrate the Philippines, bring out the Filipino genius, and get our artists truly rooted in native soil.
BUT ART, LITERATURE, is never enough. Beyond our puny lives and our puny aspirations is something much, much bigger than ourselves. This is no other than our community, our nation, without which we are nothing but chaff that can be wafted away by the slightest breeze.
Literature and nation -- with our literature, we define ourselves, our nation, its cultural boundaries, its spirit most of all, for it is a nation's literature which expresses its soul.
We celebrate the land, and in turn celebrate ourselves, give meaning to our very lives, which otherwise is meaningless because it is lived only for ourselves. This is the essence of nationality, of nationhood, that sometimes escapes us, concerned as we are only with our own ambitions. By transcending the self, we reach out and are firmly welded into something bigger than us, inchoate and unrecognized because the imagination has yet to define it.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 15, 2018
We turn this week from high and ghastly matters that is politics to high and ghostly matters that is literature. If we are not writers, we can very well be readers; we need literature from which we learn ethics. With literature, too, we will understand ourselves better so we can live with ourselves.
How does a story, a novel, begin and when should it end? These are crucial problems for writers. Readers want beginnings that will grip them and endings that are neat, conclusive, and satisfying.
As a teenager starting to write stories, I was very fascinated with so-called O’Henry endings. Having read such classics like "The Gift of the Magi" and Maupassant's "The Necklace," I tried to plot out stories with similar surprise endings. All of them were rejected by the pre-war Free Press, The Sunday Tribune Magazine, and The Graphic. Plotting them required so much mental effort I eventually had to stop writing that kind of fiction and ended my stories where they should logically end.
I also had considered Hemingway’s advice never to empty the well, and so the endings of my novels and short stories were sometimes inconclusive. I wanted my readers, given all the data, to make their own conclusions. This is the way my novel, Ermita, ends.
A good read starts with tension. In detective or spy novels, the reader reads on because he wants to know how the crime is solved or how the mission is fulfilled, and how the detective or spy triumphs. This can be reversed. The end becomes the beginning and the tension lies in answering the question why. Tony Samson is dead in the beginning of The Pretenders, and why he killed himself is the story.
SOMETIMES I LEAVE REALITY to venture into the realm of fantasy; fiction anyway is imagination and therefore unreal in the sense that although the events and characters may look like life creations, they are not. I see to it, as does every careful writer, that these so-called fantastic events are believable enough to fit into the logic of narrative.
My last two novels, Sherds and The Feet of Juan Bacnang, are examples of fantasies woven into the narrative. In writing these novels, I must admit that in Sherds, I was influenced very much by that old Greek myth, Pygmalion. In The Feet of Juan Bacnang, however, it was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Albert Camus’s The Plague that influenced me.
As a writer I am not satisfied with the endings of some of the famous works of fiction. If I had my way, I would change the endings of several stories and novels that have gained world popularity.
Rizal's novels, for instance, are required reading in our schools. I do not like the way he ended his second novel, El Filibusterismo, which is a sequel to his first, Noli Me Tangere. The novel is an exposition of Spanish abuses in the last days of the Spanish regime in the country. To hasten the revolution, conspirators brought a bomb to a house, to be exploded at a meeting of the country's elite. The bomb is thrown into the sea instead. I would have had the bomb go off and then reap the conclusion as the fitting end of the novel and the beginning of a new one.
The ending of Don Quixote dela Mancha is undramatic. The sick, old man is dying and he apologizes to his squire, Sancho Panza, for having led him astray with his fantasies. And so he dies and the story dies with him. I would have ended it differently. I would have Don Quixote go to Cadiz, the seaport in Andalucia, where those tiny ships sailed to the New World. Sancho Panza remembers taking him to the quay and it is there where the old knight disappears. Then the story could continue from there -- Don Quixote goes to the New World perhaps, where he continues his crusade for righteousness.
AND NOW, THE BOOK OF JOB, in the Old Testament. In this book, God punishes Job and makes his life miserable. Job loses so many of the things that he had earned through hard work, and all his sons and daughters, all these to test his faith. In the end, when God was satisfied with Job's loyalty, He gives back all that Job had lost. In my version of the ending, Job loses everything and suffers immeasurably, yet he endures and does not lose his faith. With this ending, Job’s story becomes more heroic, more telling in its message and faith.
Fairy tales usually end with “and they lived happily ever after.” This is what we expect and want, endings where all the loose ends are tied together. But this is not what happens in real life, where endings are never really certain unless a person commits suicide.
Would the world be happier, better, and society more compassionate if from the very beginning of our existence we are guided by the knowledge that we won't bring anything to the grave? When Alexander the Great died, his hands were both exposed to show that he was leaving the world as he had entered it, empty-handed.
And this world itself, how will it end? “Not with a bang but a whimper?”
All through the grim Marcos years, I wished I would live to see how the dictatorship would end. I did see that the end was coming when I witnessed the millions that followed the coffin of Ninoy to the cemetery. My expectations became more pronounced with the massive demonstrations against Marcos. Then EDSA I -- it was a complete surprise. I recall that late afternoon when news reached us at EDSA that Marcos had fled. Such joy swept through the crowd. Many wept and strangers embraced one another -- a celebration that will never be repeated.
And what about the Duterte regime? How will this story end?
First published in The Philippine Star, December 8, 2018.
Homage to Justice Antonio Carpio
Much as I abhor communism, I've always admired Mao Zedong for having united China and for establishing the Communist Party, the major institution that drove China’s modernization. The first and only time I was in China was in 1979, after Mao's tragic cultural revolution had already ended. I asked the same question to all the cadres I met: If you had your way, where would you work? Everyone said, wherever the Party will send me. Until Shanghai, when, finally alone with me, a man took back his stock answer and said, "In the kitchen because there, I will never be hungry."
Before 1949, with a population of half a billion, China had famine every year. Now, with nearly a billion-and-a-half people, hunger no longer afflicts the country. This is Mao's magnificent achievement. More than this, with their own genius and brawn, China is now a world power and, as such, it must compulsively expand, seek raw materials, and spread its influence wherever and whenever it can. Now, it has even grabbed portions of our territory in the West Philippine Sea, which it should not have done to a neighbor that is defenseless and poor.
This is the foremost challenge to our country today. Thank God, we have a patriot who sees this -- Justice Antonio Carpio. He warns that at any time in the future, China's People's Liberation Army might be right at our front door. China justifies its territorial and maritime grab as a historic right. While false, the claim is embedded as a national mantra in every child from grade school onwards.
Justice Carpio gathered a vast array of ancient maps -- including ancient Chinese maps -- and even official documents of China, and convinced those wise men in the Hague to decide in our favor. The Spratlys are central to our survival. Much of the fish caught in our waters spawn in the Spratlys. The oil, gas and mineral reserve, estimated to be vast, have yet to be measured. However, we do not have the power to enforce our rights to these resources.
WHAT ARE WE TO DO? We are small and weak, but we have a voice and the capacity to be heard globally. Justice Carpio suggests that we must help make ASEAN formidable and united to counter China's claims. We are not the only complainants; so are ASEAN members Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well.
We must urge other countries to understand the implications of China's disregard for international law and of its aggression in the South China Sea. What for instance if India claims possession of the Indian ocean? Or if Italy as the heir of the Roman Empire claims the Mediterranean which that empire dominated? It is important for the world to recognize that the West Philippine Sea is open to international navigation.
Even the smallest and weakest animals are capable of defending themselves. The porcupine has its quills and the skunk its awful smell. As I have said before, we should have built a fleet of patrol boats to defend our territory. We must now hasten to build that capability, taking a cue from the Vietnamese who have, through the centuries, fought Chinese recalcitrance.
To the Chinese, saving “face” is almost everything; it is the very core of their foreign policy. We can dent that face. We have thousands of overseas workers in the world’s capitals. We can harness them to demonstrate in front of Chinese consulates and embassies in furtherance of our national interest.
JUSTICE CARPIO URGES US to educate our own people, to be united and steadfast in the face of Chinese incursion on our sovereignty. This government has collaborated shamelessly, willingly, with China. It should be rejected in the next election. The Duterte aberration is just a tiny wrinkle in our history and it will fade. The Philippines will endure.
As much as we would like to be free from strangling American influence, what China is doing is forcing us to seek even more close ties with the United States, knowing that it is the only power that can challenge China's hegemony. This is perhaps inevitable. Filipinos trust the United States. As recent surveys have shown, Filipinos do not trust China.
For all its bellicose posturing and armed might, China does not really want war. Steeped in Sun Tzu's precepts on war, it wants victory on its own terms with an aggressive aid program and slow, piecemeal territorial expansion. Its occupation of Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales is an example. We should have sent our Navy and Armed Forces there at the very start, come what may.
But let us not look at China as the implacable enemy that cannot be appeased. We must broaden and deepen our dialogue with the Chinese and hope for China to become a China that is respected not feared. There is much in the Chinese Confucian tradition to support this expectation. The Confucian precepts of hierarchy and harmony should enable the Chinese leadership to look at countries like ours not as meek tributaries of an empire but as minor partners in the building of a harmonious world.
This nation owes Justice Carpio enduring gratitude. Almost single-handedly, with courage and a magnificent intellect, he has built a formidable bastion for this nation's sovereignty which China's mendacious fiction cannot destroy.
In speaking as he does, Justice Antonio Carpio is the shining, unswerving conscience of the Filipino people. By his singular example, he has exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of our highest elected officials who have not protected or defended our sovereignty. May his patriotism motivate all public servants who feel helpless in the face of the inaction and apathy of our leaders, and give life and direction to the idealism of the new generation of Filipinos who are eager to serve this nation.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 1, 2018
Ambeth Ocampo asked me the other day why I am still always angry. Another old friend asked me, again, when I would write a novel with a sunshiny ending. I get asked these questions often, and I look back and recall what the late Anding Roces said, that we both would leave a country in far worse shape than when we were young.
When I was thirty, I had already published three novels, novels that I built with short stories written when I was still in my teens. One of these novels is The Pretenders. One of the main characters in it is an entrepreneur who sets up a steel mill. That early on, I already knew that the production of steel was the beginning of industrialization; that is the story of all industrialized countries.
In the 1950s, two naval officers, Commander Ramon Alcaraz and Captain Carlos Albert, and I went to Sandakan in North Borneo. We cruised first around the Sulu Sea, to the Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi, and then Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan on a hand-me-down patrol boat from the U.S. Navy. We discussed then the possibility of our having a maritime industry, that we would build ships in the finest maritime tradition. After all, Filipinos built the galleons, the best ships ever built. Their hulls of solid molave withstood the canon of British buccaneer ships.
I remember having a talk with then President Elpidio Quirino, who envisioned a maritime industry. I also discussed this with Mike Magsaysay of the Magsaysay Shipping Company and Carlos Fernandez of Compania Maritima. We were not going to build battleships or aircraft carriers, just merchant ships and a fleet of patrol boats that could not be out-raced by the Moro kumpits in Sulu.
We needed, aside from a steel industry, metallurgists and ship designers.Then, in the 1960s, shortly after the Korean War, South Korea started a shipping industry from scratch. Today, they are the world's biggest builder of ships. If we had started building those patrol boats in the 1950s we perhaps would be able to defend our sovereignty today, the sovereignty that China has mocked.
In the 1950s, as a staff member of the old Manila Times, I covered the Kamlon campaign in Sulu. Hajji Kamlon, with some hundred Tausug warriors, had defied the government. He brought the smoldering Moro problem to the surface. The government sent battalion combat teams and navy boats to blockade Sulu. They failed; the solution was not military. A negotiated settlement ended that uprising, and an incompetent government continued its military response. The problem worsened, culminating in the recent Marawi siege.
OUR MORO PROBLEM has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and billions of pesos, all of which could have been avoided had we looked at the root of the problem and given our Moros the active participation in the development of their own region. This is the solution not just for the Moros but for all Filipinos, particularly our ethnic minorities in the depressed regions.
In the month that I was in Jolo, I visited Maimbung and met with Sultan Ismail Jamalul Kiram and Princess Tarhata Kiram. Both told me that Sabah-North Borneo was ours for it was leased by the Sultan of Sulu to the British North Borneo Company. I remember that in the early fifties, the British governors asked our government to send Filipinos to settle there, and that much earlier, Rizal had suggested the same. But instead we lost Borneo to Malaysia.
I knew personally some of the communist leaders who led the Hukbalahap uprising in 1949. The origins of their grievances go back deep into our past, when the ownership of land was not available to the farmers who tilled the land itself. The agrarian problem too could have been resolved earlier on, by a government responsive to the aspirations of the peasantry.
Then Marcos came. He decimated a whole generation of leaders and wasted that generation, too, although he had gathered around him some of our very best technocrats. He could have modernized this country as the leaders of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan modernized theirs. Like him, they were autocrats. And the leaders who succeeded Marcos? What was wrong with them, and what is so wrong with us?
Many of our past problems were imposed upon us by colonization. But we are no longer oppressed by a foreign power; we are colonized by our own elites, by our own leaders and politicians. I see all these past opportunities they had failed to grasp and I see how we ourselves are to blame for enabling them to belittle and abuse positions of power that are meant for those committed to service of people and nation. We are truly our own worst enemy.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of vision or of expertise to change this country, to make it truly just and sovereign. But we must all transcend ourselves, our petty personal ambitions, and think of the larger community, the nation to which all of us belong.
So I am asked why am I angry? Why are my stories sad?
I am angry because I have seen us squander all our opportunities. Anger can keep us alive for if we are not angry, it means we are dead and can no longer respond to the challenges that portend to wipe out this unhappy country.
Nationalists of the post-Marcos era like Oscar Orbos say that we are waking up, that there’s a new consciousness that now pervades the country and our people — our young, the Catholic Church. Is the long night about to end?
And what about that novel with a sunshiny ending? I am working on one, its title is Esperanza, and I struggle to be hopeful.
First published in The Philippine Star, November 24, 2018