Filipino culture

[OPINION] Crossing the cultural divide

Melba Padilla Maggay

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[OPINION] Crossing the cultural divide

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'This Cultural Divide, I submit, mostly accounts for the lack of feeling on the part of the elite for the miserable condition of our people'

On my recent trip to Indonesia for an ASEAN talk, the most frequent and most telling question asked of me was, “How can we avoid what happened to the Philippines?,” meaning the return of forces associated with the Marcos authoritarian rule. Hanging over the minds of Indonesians was the long military dictatorship of Suharto and the renewed threat of the present ruling class turning into perpetual political dynasties.    

It occurred to me that decades ago our People Power uprising, from narratives told to me first-hand, inspired many color-coded revolutions in Eastern Europe. Now we are the poster country for historical atavism – the feared reappearance of those dark forces that maimed an entire generation and through a muzzled media scrambled our memories of what it must have been like.   

One explanation behind the return of the Marcos forces is the lack of historical memory among the majority of voters in the May 2022 presidential elections. The Comelec data itself, according to Ferdinand C. Llanes in his Introduction to the recent book The Marcos Years, reported that 56% were voters aged 18 to 41. “Calculating the years backward, the oldest (aged 41) in this bracket was only born in 1981, when martial law was formally lifted. By 1986, they were just about six years old, so young and innocent to know, much less understand or grasp the meaning of, the massive events and struggles of this historical period.”   

Besides the demographics, there was the failure to grasp early enough the impact of the massive disinformation cascading down grassroots communities. As well, there is the contentious mystery of what is behind the constant 47% ratio between the votes of the contending candidates, still unexplained even by the “law of large numbers.”

But perhaps a deeper explanation is the cultural undercurrent that runs beneath the debacle and to date has been largely unnoticed and undiscerned. This is what scholars call the Great Cultural Divide, a conceptual frame that originated from those within the orbit of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, an indigenizing movement started by the late UP psychologist Virgilio Enriquez. 

Simply put, Philippine society can be described as having a thin layer of elite culture on top of a large mass culture at the bottom. 

Those in the elite culture have been laundered into the thought systems and lifestyle patterns of what we call the “West,” via colonization, education, and now globalization. “Mga Inglesero sila,” remarked a former prostitute who attended Leni’s miting de avance in Makati. She felt uncomfortable mixing with a crowd that belonged to elite schools like UP and Ateneo, and whose liberal discourse on democracy and citizenship was way too far from the primal concerns of hungry stomachs like hers.  

Like her, those at the bottom of the Cultural Divide remain as native culture bearers, even as OFWs in foreign lands. You can always tell by the loads of balikbayan boxes passing through conveyor belts at airports. The passion for fiesta and connectedness surfaces in the way they occupy public spaces as communities, whether Statue Square in Hongkong or Grove Hall Park in London. Wherever Filipinos abroad get together, I am almost always invited to sample food, even if I may be a total stranger. 

This Cultural Divide, I submit, mostly accounts for the lack of feeling on the part of the elite for the miserable condition of our people. 

You find such incongruities as the president of a relatively poor country going to Davos with a retinue of 70 business allies and hangers-on, while back at home the surge in prices makes even onions beyond reach of ordinary people. The economy is turned towards meeting the elaborate needs of the elite, such as high-rises, luxury cars, designer clothes, and Birkin bags that cost a million and a half pesos, while half the population has no potable water and people in cities live in hovels. The Filipino elite prides itself in belonging to a sophisticated “global middle class,” whose consumption patterns and mental habits have more in common with inhabitants of Europe or America. 

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This Divide can also be seen in the way our professional classes, schooled in systems borrowed from the West, make decisions for the rest of us. 

The current move towards “modernizing” our transport system by eliminating the jeepneys off the streets is a case in point.

This iconic transmutation of the American wartime transport may look inefficient when compared to large buses. Viewed from within the cultural context, however, the jeepney remains the most convenient for commuters. For one thing, jeepneys ply short distances where loading and unloading zones are often nearer to where commuters live. They are also less time-bound. Commuters do not have to wait long before the jeep gets full and off it goes. 

Buses have to wait longer to fill up, and those that operate according to the time system of cultures that go by the clock often suffer losses because they have to get going even if only half-full. Modern rationalities in organizing time and space is not necessarily cost-efficient in a culture where time is measured not by the clock but by the event or happening that is deemed as important. It is not an accident that in remote provinces, buses do not move until after the bus is full, even if the clock says it is time to go.  

Those who espouse “modernization” will need to show evidence through time-and-motion studies that traffic will get better if the jeepneys are re-fitted as mini-buses, and suspiciously at a much higher cost, according to operators. On the other hand, you have Francisco Motors, whose engineers have designed electrically-powered jeepneys with the original iconic look intact.

The current transport crisis has surfaced once again the gross inattention on cultural context, on what actually works given the people’s life system. It has also shown up the government’s indifference in prioritizing the welfare of commuters. 

A 2017 study of traffic in this country has found that private cars occupy 67% of road space along EDSA. Public commuters comprise 70% of total trips, but only account for 20% of road usage. This shows that traffic congestion is mostly due to too many cars and inadequate infrastructure. The economic cost of this is estimated at P5.4 billion daily, according to an early study of the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Singapore has shown the kind of vision and political will that is needed to decongest traffic and stop the proliferation of cars. They built a mass rail transport system, which has been proven efficient. Its train system has north-south and east-west lines traversing the city, stopping at 48 stations. In addition, the government made it very expensive to own a car. You pay fees just to get a certificate entitling you to buy a car, and you get slapped with a tax for road usage, all on top of its actual price. 

To encourage walking and cycling, they increased connectivity such that all MRT/LRT stations are connected by sheltered walkways to nearby schools, hospitals, and public facilities. No area is outside the 400-meter radius from transport nodes, enabling people to make short trips to shops and leisure hubs without taking a car. The result is that 68% of commuters walk or use public transport.

“Modernization” should begin and end with the people, with their culture and environment in mind. Our technocrats should think out of their boxes and cross the cultural and social divide that allots precious land to parking and road use while sweeping away the poor who barely make a living on the sidewalks. –

Melba Padilla Maggay is President of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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