Filipino culture

[OPINION] Critical shift from within

Hendrik Garcia
[OPINION] Critical shift from within
What traits hold us back?

Racism, soaring education costs, and divisive politics – these were some of the problems facing the US that a classmate at the Harvard Kennedy School told me about.  I shared that in the Philippines, due to poverty, many believe it’s easier to succeed abroad than at home. He said, “that’s sad, man.” And indeed it is.

Most people in the US still believe they can “make it” if they work hard enough. Filipinos usually think if we work hard enough, we can make it overseas. Why are we prepared to separate from our families, risk loneliness and well-being, to earn dollars, yen, or dinars? 

Do we lack the rule of law and institutions which promote realization of our rights and potential?  Is our society too unequal, with limited upward mobility and well-paying jobs? Perhaps hundreds of years of colonialism shackled our will and abilities? 

Though we finally won freedom from Spain, the US, and Japan… those were only beginnings.  Did we expect all would be fine as long as we were independent and democratic? We had our EDSAs, too. But have we progressed as a nation and people?

President Manuel A. Quezon famously quipped a government “run like hell by Filipinos” was preferable to one run like heaven by foreigners. General Carlos P. Romulo wrote “I am a Filipino” in 1941, casting the Philippines as the best of East meets West.

Maybe it’s time to ask – what does it mean to be a Filipino in the 21st century? What do we believe in and value?  Why haven’t we fulfilled the promise of being the “Pearl of the Orient?”

Have we played it too safe and foregone the risks needed to transcend our feudal, colonial, and superstitious mindsets?  Are we the ones holding ourselves back?  Being complacent, wanting easy answers – without appreciating our complexity. And calling ourselves out.

Instead of moving abroad, serving others, we could say: “We will make our country a better place, by taking care of ourselves.  We will help each other and the government. We can make it in the Philippines.” 

‘Renegotiating loyalties’

This is how other countries have grown rich. Our neighbors South Korea, China, and Singapore made conscious, strategic choices to transform their societies and become more productive. How? By preserving and honoring what’s beautiful in their cultures. But also by having the courage to overcome negative habits and notions holding them back. By “renegotiating loyalties and lines of code,” as a leadership professor at the Kennedy School Ronald Heifetz says. 

Filipinos have so much to give to the world. Our people are among the most talented, flexible, and hardworking.  If we could fully harness the dynamism of our people, imagine how amazing our economy and country would be.

One might argue it just can’t be done, there are too many problems: corruption, typhoons, hunger, ignorance…. Yet, we must start somewhere. Fatalism is not a strategy. 

We can improve our communities without waiting and depending solely on the government and politicians. Development led by innovation and initiative builds strong and self-reliant societies.

We can be the change. But shaping our destiny requires individual and collective responsibility. 

The critical shift must happen within. In our hearts and minds. We need to foster a shared vision of our higher selves.  We must work towards a Philippines we can all be proud of.

It is time for self-reflection and national soul-searching about what it means to be Filipino, what traits hold us back, and how we want to be in the future.  Embarking on such a journey will not be comfortable.  But it is necessary.  Disruption is painful – but it stretches us to adapt and improve.

Despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and election season which can make us bitter, divided, and cynical – let’s not give up on the Philippines, on us, and in each other. We’re more than this. –

The author is pursuing a mid-career master’s in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s on study leave from the Department of Foreign Affairs