Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

TWM – 72. The Paradoxes of the Philippines

Just as there are many stereotypes of The Philippines so too are there paradoxes. Internal contradictory parallel existences. I suppose every country and society has these social contrasts but in The Philippines they are often dramatic and you wonder how stable the social fabric is. And these days I often wonder about Canada’s social fabric too.

Pride and Prejudice

Pilipiñas is a messy, dirty, littered country. And a paradox. There is litter and junk and trash in every ravine and gully and empty lot and yet you see people everywhere sweeping and cleaning their tiny abodes and even the roads in front of their abodes. Where does all this litter come from? Well from the people themselves of course. You don’t see litter boxes anywhere in The Philippines and so people just pitch their plastic bottles and wrappers and anything else they want to dispose of in the gutters and gullies. The civic service does not seem to include municipal clean-up and the people’s attitude seems to be, ‘not my job’. I don’t get the sense of national pride, only national shrug. Or maybe people are overwhelmed by the national environmental mess and so can only focus on the street in front of them. But in Makati the towering towers of glass are pristine, and in the cities and towns of the provinces, we have modern sleek shopping centres, spotless, unblemished by trash and graffiti, and armies of janitorial staff with brooms and pans. 

But even this may be changing. The people are proud of President Duterte sending the containers of Canada’s trash back, declaring Philippines is not a dumping ground for Canada’s garbage. 

Despite their penchant for littering, Filipinos are proud of their country. They are patriotic, the nationalistic spirit of devotion drummed into them for more than 100 years. Every morning at 10:00 the shopping malls open with the playing of the National Anthem, and everyone stops to listen, or even sing, their hands over their hearts. Everyone knows who Dr. José Rizal is, and a host of other national heroes, their names on every street and roadway and edifice. I suppose it’s the same in Canada, we just don’t notice, except for Sir John A. MacDonald, and even he is gradually being consigned to the revisionist bin by modern politically correct egalitarians.

Wealth disparities

There are huge gulfs between the top 1% of Filipinos in terms of the resources and wealth, and the bottom 1%, or more likely bottom 30%. So much for Pareto’s Rule. Apparently there are only a few dozen families who control almost all of the property in Philippines. Some of this family wealth goes back hundreds of years but one shouldn’t conclude that opportunity is shut out to the rest. Entrepreneurism is alive and well and for a few hardworking risk takers immense wealth can still be accumulated. Many of the wealthiest families today, and many of them are Chinese-Philippinos, acquired their wealth only since the boom coincident with the rebuilding of the country after the Second World War, the Asian version of the Marshall Plan. These latter day barons of industry began as modest retailers and gradually accumulated property and resources to become huge conglomerates. They are role models for the millions of small business owners who hope one day to break out from being a tiny tindahan to a thriving business, if not a conglomerate. Not all Filipinos are entrepreneurs however; some hope for the breakthrough via show business or sports. Karaoke and beauty pageants are big industries in the Philippines. And Manny Pacquiao is a national role model, fighting his way out of poverty to become a wealthy man, a Philippines Senator and possibly the next President of The Republic of The Philippines.

The wealthy families’ wealth is not on ostentatious display. Unlike Florida or Southern California, you never see Ferraris or Bentleys in the streets, but maybe the wealthy keep them in their gated communities. There are definitely enclaves with tree-lined boulevards within modern day Intramuros. Native Filipinos must be aware of them – they all know where Manny lives – but to the casual tourist these communities are almost a hidden world.

What is not hidden is the wretched world of the squatters. Drive along any highway and see the corrugated roofs of one room huts jumbled everywhere. Look more closely for entire villages bundled in the valleys and ditches of the country. Walk and notice the amazing maze of wires illegally tapped into power lines. And the tent and tin cities under every bridge and overpass, and not just in Manila. Manila of course is the main study in contrasts between prosperity and poverty, with modern skyscrapers, condos and immense shopping centres, and right next door, squeezed into alleys and narrow streets five stories of clothes lines, evidence of tenements for thousands.

When I first came to The Philippines I found the poverty stricken realities of the country shocking, unnerving. I was grateful for the more even distribution of wealth and resources we have in Canada, and wondered how I could help. In my own way I have helped but to really make a difference requires a huge sociological and economic shift. In fact what happens is you become inured to it all. I have almost developed the Filipino shrug. Almost.

Trying to make progress

But the country is aware of its situation, and successive Presidents have vowed to build the country into a modern economy lifting all boats. Some presidents were allegedly more sensitive to the poverty stricken plight of Pilipiñas than others – and these are revered by the average Filipino – Ferdinand Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte; others were seen to be looking out for their cronies and their own corrupt wealth grabs – the Aquinos, and the actor Erap, and Gloria Macapagal who overthrew him.

But all pledged to build infrastructure to attract investment and industry and jobs. Each presidential administration is, by the constitution, limited to one term of six years only. Most major infrastructure projects take longer than six years to build, often much longer with the persistent culture of corruption and bureaucracy. Each president wants to leave a legacy and put his or her own stamp on the country and so inevitably this leads to displacing the unfinished initiatives of the outgoing president with his own. That is the reason we see so many stalled projects all over the Philippines and of course especially in Manila. The only president with a truly lasting legacy is Ferdinand Marcos but of course he extended his term to 20 years after declaring martial law in 1972 until expelled in 1986. He was an ambitious genius and his landmarks are everywhere still, but he was a ruthless kleptocrat and his greatest legacy was to thrust the nation into bankruptcy and even greater poverty. He is one of the most compelling examples of Lord Acton’s famous axiom.

The most visible paradox of the Philippines in its effort to build and expand infrastructure is its road system. I’ve already spoken in an earlier chapter of the widening of the main thoroughfares and highways of the Philippines, isa-isa, bit by bit. But these are not the symbols of progress the presidents seek. What they want are airports, and expressways, and scenic highways, all necessary in their way, to ease congestion in Manila, and to attract tourists in the outer regions, such as Marcos’ viaduct in his home province of Ilocas! And each time a new road to nowhere is built, or an expressway on stilts, or a road widened, the squatters move in and occupy the new roadsides and underpasses and bridges.

Relationships with its historical masters: Spain, America, Japan

Spain has left a legacy in The Philippines but it grows smaller and smaller each decade. The Catholic Church still casts a large shadow but like traditional religion everywhere in the developing world, it is less and less, displaced by revivalist churches, or shopping plazas, and celebrities. The Fraternal Orders, so dominant for 350 years, are almost non-existent. Spanish words litter the national language, Tagalog, but only old-timers can still speak Castilian. Filipinos are proud of their Spanish family names though, and their alleged Spanish blood, and pale skin. Dark skinned indiosare still second class. 

The Philippines have a love/hate relationship with America, more complex than the world-wide enmity the USA gets. Everyone resents America in some way or another, and yet everyone would jump at the chance to live there. To Filipinos, Canada is an afterthought, America North, and icebound. The American echo is everywhere still in The Philippines: the political system is modeled on America’s; the infrastructure buildup in the 1920s (Manila, the Pearl of the Orient, devasted by the Japanese rampage); and the rebuilding of a shattered society after WWII. Filipinos are very grateful to America for liberating The Philippines from Japanese tyranny. And Douglas MacArthur continues to be a national hero. The Philippines is becoming a bilingual country, Tagalog and English; even Tagalog is more like Taglish than its own language.

America is still a major trading partner with Philippines, though now substantially displaced by Korea and China, and Japan. 


And I’m not speaking of Financial markets and modern commerce, I’m speaking of wet markets, throw-backs to another time.

Every town has a market, probably located in the same piece of land that it occupied for hundreds of years. Now the markets are large warehouse type buildings – well, roofs actually, on pillars, there are usually no walls – built by the town for the use of individual merchants and vendors who pay a small fee to rent the space. The markets are divided into wet and dry. Dry is for clothes and toys and tools and such; wet is fresh food products, and that includes meat and fish. The food is on display in open stalls and the hygiene, not to mention the smell and the sight, raise a powerful disgust response in the untrained sensitivities of foreigners used to seeing all our consumables in refrigerated cases under glass and wrapped in plastic. (At least the Philippines’ wet markets don’t include live animals like bats and pangolin and civets, as they have in China.) Filipinos are increasingly patrons of modern supermarkets too, the SMs and Robinson’s and Hypermarts that are the anchors of many a super mall these days; as the younger generation of Filipinos buy their food from refrigerated cases they may be developing the same aversion to wet markets as we westerners and in time the markets may disappear. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad; we love our antiseptic merchandizing but is it really so awful to have open cases of freshly slaughtered chickens and barely dead squid? Is all our hyper-hygiene actually good for our health? Or are we eroding our natural immune systems?

This begs an even bigger question, as the Filipino population continues to expand, and the divide between rich and poor widens, will the contrast between Robinson’s Supermarket and the local wet market become a symbol of a divided society, modern versus traditional? Are we seeing something similar in Canada, the divide between rural and urban?

As you have perhaps appreciated throughout this book/blog the education of Doug Jordan has been an education on many fronts. My experience of Pilipiñas has had both pluses and minuses. I knew coming in (really?) that I would be shocked by what I found here, and I was. I had challenged myself to do things and see things I never would have contemplated in my past conventional life. But I have gradually acclimated and learned acceptance of the desperation of the mass of humanity, at least here in The Philippines. I’m not sure this is a good thing. I knew before I was no Albert Schweitzer, nor Mother Teresa, but I can make my own small difference.  

I will explore this further in my last chapter, Travels with Myself.

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