From the moment I landed in Manila to the moment I left, there was something that just didn’t seem right with the Philippines. The Philippines in an Asian country, but it feels like a Latin American Country. I mean that in the best and worst sense. It gets its latin influences from being a Spanish colony, same as most of Latin America. But it also seems to have caught the disease that most former Spanish colonies suffer from.
Let me start at the beginning…
While traveling through the Pacific, I noticed on most islands there was a lot of idleness. People just sitting around doing nothing. I wont pin down a reason, but I think it is part geographic, cultural, and even environmental. I could write a lot more on the economic prospects of Pacific countries, but let me just say they aren’t good. No matter what happens, being isolated in the middle of the Pacific ocean with few resources or people isn’t a recipe for success.In the Philippines I saw something very different. Everywhere I went, people were busy. In every village, no matter how small, I saw signs in front of houses offering services. Everyone seemed to be selling something, offering tire repair services, welding, operating tricycles, all usually in addition to farming. Even the guys in Manila who were trying to sell me fake Rolex watches were at least hustling, trying to make a buck. There seems to be no lack of work ethic or entrepreneurial spirit in the Philippines.
Every college I drove past you would see a sea of white from the uniforms of nursing students. Nursing is a very popular area to get into in the Philippines. They produce an abnormally large number of nurses.
English is widely spoken in the Philippines, which gives everyone them a leg up over other companies in the global economy. They also have close ties with the US, which you would think would also be to their benefit. To top it all off, they are in a region, South East Asia, which is experiencing tremendous growth.
Despite all this, the Philippines is poor. By all rights, they should e doing much better. The question that kept running through my head during my entire stay was “why”?
Approximately 8,000,000 Filipinos work overseas. That is about 10% of the country. One of the reasons that nursing is so popular of a profession to enter is that it is relatively easy to study (compared to becoming an MD) and it provides an easy path to getting a work visa outside of the Philippines. In particular, to the US which has a nursing shortage. The country is suffering from a tremendous brain drain. I went to the US Embassy in Manila to look into getting a new passport. I was stunned by the lines at the embassy for people applying for an immigration visa to the US.
One young man I talked to flat out told me he has six years to wait before he can go to the US. He will probably study nursing and maybe even get into a sham marriage so he could move to New York. The sham marriage would cost him 20% of his income. I read one article in a paper which lamented how common it was to have doctor appointments canceled because the doctor has left the country.
Another editorial I read stated that for bright young people, you desire to either a) leave the country, or b) get into politics or law enforcement. Everyone I talked to sort of took it for granted that they wanted to leave the Philippines, preferably to the US or Canada. In fact, when I brought the subject up, I usually got a look that said “duh”.
After having spent two and a half weeks there, I wont claim to be an expert in Filipino domestic affairs or know what the answer is to the Filipino problem, but I think it lies squarely in the political system. (BTW, if you are Filipino and reading this, feel free to chime in the comments. I’d love to hear your opinion)The only thing you ever really hear about the Philippines in the international news is about politics. For much of the post war era, the Philippines was run by a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. He was tolerated by the US because he was an anti-communist and allowed the US keep a naval and air force base in the country. When he was overthrown in the mid 80’s, there was a lot of speculation that the Philippines would be the next Asian economic miracle. It never really happened.
What seems to have happened, is that the corruption which was concentrated in the hands of Marcos go distributed throughout the whole system. It is as if they Filipinos said when Macros left, “No longer will we be subject to the whims of a corrupt dictator! Now we will be subject to the whims of corrupt democratically elected officials!!”
The Philippines is very corrupt. Their previous president, Jose Estrada, was ousted by a popular revolt due to his corruption. While I was in the Philippines one of the big stories was if he was going to be given a pardon. There were also charges in the newspapers against the current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA for short), of corruption regarding her and her husband.
Transparency International ranks the Philippines 131st in the world in the perception of corruption index. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world. 53 journalists have been assassinated since the presidency of Gloria Arroyo started. Sort of makes it difficult to fight corruption when there is a good chance you’ll die if you do.
To really hammer home what Filipino politics is like, I need to present the case of the HONORABLE MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN, mayor of Puerto Princesa. I should note, that I really don’t know anything about MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might be a great guy. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might run a really clean city. I have no idea.I do however know the name of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN because on anything which is remotely touched with city funding, you will find the name and face of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. In the taxi tricycles, every license sticker has the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. Every garbage can in the city has “A project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN” printed on the side. The road to the Puerto Princesa underground river park has signs saying the road is a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. The rest stop on the way there is touted as a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. When you get to the park, the building at the park says it is a project of “MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN”. There is a giant billboard at the park with the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN at the mouth of the cave. At the airport, there was a poster of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN looking at you in the waiting area.
MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN was usually printed much larger than the name of the project itself.
The only public works projects that didn’t have MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN printed on it were the bus stop shelters. They had GOVERNOR JOEL T. REYES painted on it.
The most egregious example of this I saw in Manila. I saw a sign congratulating a man who won the purple heart award in the US Marines. The sign had a photo of the young man shaking the hand of the local mayor and below that, was a portrait of the mayor, with the name of the mayor in very large font. This guy was injured in battle, and yet it was only there to promote the mayor. Kind of sad.
The reason why law enforcement and politics are such desirable professions is that it allows you to attach your car to the corruption train. Every public works project is liable to kickbacks, cronyism, and will all be used to keep the incumbents in power.
Sadly, so long as the best and brightest keep leaving the country, those who might have the greatest incentive for reform aren’t around to make it happen. Then again, I can’t really blame them for wanting to leave the Philippines for greater opportunity elsewhere.