Thursday, September 07, 2006

No Past, No Present, No Future

Reading Conrado de Quiros’ column today, I am reminded of a heart-breaking discussion in class lately. De Quiros laments that contrary to what certain Filipino taipans say, the Philippine educational system is heartily responding to demands of industry. Fly-by night institutions as well as established universities have put up countless Nursing schools in the past few years. The problem isn’t supply of skilled workers. The problem is where these workers want to work. We aren’t responding to demands of local industries, but to those of global labor markets. We make teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers for export.

Many of my students are also bent on gaining their degrees so they can finally migrate abroad in search of a better life. About 2/3 of them can afford their P25,000 per semester tuition because either or both parents are also migrant workers abroad. Yes, they and their parents have given up on this country, but they say they love the Philippines. They just can’t imagine making a decent living here. Yes they will go back when they are old and gray, to die in the embrace of their motherland once their productive years have been spent enriching other societies in other continents far, far away.

In our classes we take a virtual tour of the world, examining and picturing countries we most likely will never see in our lifetime. But always, always, the discussions lead to home as comparisons are inevitably made. We had been talking about the post-colonial obstacles to development and how some countries were more successful than others.

We talked about Japan’s developmental model, copied by many East-Asian tigers; Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea. These countries were proverbial backwaters at the end of the Second World War while the Philippines was second only to Japan in the Asian region. South Korea was ravaged by the civil war in the early 50s, made the war grounds of Cold War rivals the US and the Soviet Union. South Korea is now a successful peripheral state which has made the transition to “late-late” industrialization. And they were able to do it in thirty years. Today, we see how the “good life” has been achieved in countless Koreanovelas on Philippine TV while we are where we are still.

On the surface the Philippines and South Korea share similarities difficult to ignore. Both experienced significant colonial intermediation, although the Philippines has had a much longer colonial history. The two countries were put under hard authoritarian regimes in the 70’s. Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972. General Park Chung-Hee coincidentally followed suit less than a month later on October 17. Both countries then “transitioned” to democracy in the mid-80s. Both had similar GDP per capita after the 2nd World War. They also had comparable political institutions installed by the US, particularly a strong executive in a universally elected representative government. Culturally, both exhibit strong familial ties.

I have always wondered why South Korea was able to take advantage of their neocolonial arrangements with the United States. Why it was able to bargain hard for American foreign investment, technology transfers and economic aid. The two largest American bases outside of the US mainland were located here, why couldn’t we do the same as the Koreans? Why weren’t we smart and wily enough to want more?

I had varied answers from my students. Some said maybe we were thankful for having such a benevolent new colonial master. Compared to three centuries of Spanish cruelty and ineptitude, the Yanks were heaven-sent. They educated us, taught us English and gave us the “gift” of democracy even though we were nowhere near ready to run a democratic government.

Some said maybe we were just plain stupid, so enamored of these whites, so convinced of their superiority and of our own inferiority. They had to know what was best for us, their little brown brothers, their poor carbon copies.

Some said maybe we lacked ambition, content with what we had, surviving every day. Happy to be alive and letting God take care of the rest. We had no cause to want more to be more to achieve more. We suffered and suffer still from low expectations. Low expectations from our government, our officials, our country and ourselves.

And so we leave in the tens of thousands each year, expecting nothing, wanting nothing, demanding nothin from our native soil. We take our chances out there, in some obscure corner of the planet, in search of seemingly limitless opportunities. We leave and will continue to do so, repatratriating our hard-earned income to those we leave behind, keeping families afloat, keeping this government afloat, keeping the system afloat.

There is desperation in the air, especially in the last year or so. Since the Hello Garci tapes. Some are so desperate as to peddle cheating on board exams. Some are so desperate as to brave the bullets of Lebanese and Israeli arms. Anything to fulfill our dreams elsewhere. To want more, to be more, to achieve more in an adopted home, in an alien land always far, far away.

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