September 21st 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq: America's dilemma

EDITORIAL: Is there an answer to recurrent drought?

Singapore-style super scheme: interest stirs in ALP

AGRICULTURE: Cane farmers reject sugar package

Straws in the Wind: Boat opponents / The house that Don built

Indonesia: Who are the terrorists in West Papua?

COMMENT: Australia-US free trade: MAI through the back door?

Washington trade deal (letter)

Telstra sell off (letter)

Child abduction: parents beware (letter)

Community banks expand (letter)

Character in public life (letter)

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: East Timor: the challenge ahead

Media ownership and control: the next step

UNITED STATES: Greenspan hoists the white flag on economic policy

DOCUMENTATION: Can Professor Trounson's statements be trusted?

ASIA: The Philippines: no cause for optimism

BOOKS: Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University

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The Philippines: no cause for optimism

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 21, 2002
For anyone who has visited the Philippines and knows the Filipino people, it is impossible to dislike the people, and as equally impossible to feel anything except deep pessimism about that country's future.

Many people know the phrase "the white man's burden" without realizing that Rudyard Kipling used the term with a good deal of irony in a poem about the United States' conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898.

The United States, which eschewed imperialism, now had a colony of its own. Thus it had taken up "the white man's burden."


By the time the Americans left in 1946, and in the early 1950s, the Philippines was the richest and most prosperous country in Asia. However, the nature of the Philippines never really changed. A common saying to explain the Philippines is "400 years in a convent, 50 in Hollywood."

Land reform has been touted, but the ruling elite was - and remains - the mestizo Spanish speaking elite, the great landowners who often rule their estates like a separate country, supported by their own armies.

For a while, it looked as though the Philippines might have a chance, but Marcos did untold damaged to his unfortunate country.

The "People Power" revolution made the army a player in any future change of regime. The egregious President Joseph Estrada, usually known by his nickname "Erap," while astonishingly greedy and corrupt even by the unusually generous Filipino standard, amassing a fortune of some $150 million in under three years, was also ousted by "People Power," again with the military's kind permission.

The newly-revived New People's Army, the communist force which had almost been tamed, is now an increasingly irritation.

As for the Muslim south, especially in the large southern island of Mindinao, the current regime is not likely to bring peace to the area any more than did Marcos, or the Spanish, or the Americans, for that matter.

The Americans could not tame the Moros - the southern Malay Muslims - and indeed the Americans adopted the famous "forty five" revolver as a side arm, because the Moros had a crude form of armour made from jungle vines which could deflect a small calibre bullet. The forty-five would actually pick up the target and throw him back.

As for the southern island chain of Jolo, it is almost exclusively Muslim, and the writ of the Manila Government runs very weakly there.

The current president, Gloria Arroyo, is the daughter of a former president and desperately wants to rule in her own right, even though she is currently running third in most polls. She has taken to inspecting criminal suspects in the numerous kidnapping cases when brought to her palace. However, she can't conceal that the Philippines is slipping into lawlessness.

Of the Philippines' current population of 82 million, some 7.5 million have left the country as "overseas foreign workers" being unable to find a decent living in their own country and thus being forced to work abroad.

In many parts of Asia, the Filipino housemaid is part necessity and part status symbol. In the extremely unlikely event that the Australian Government throws the labour rule book out the window and lets Australians import Filipino maids, almost every middle class family in the country could afford one.

The Filipino population is growing rapidly, and the Catholic Church is a powerful influence on daily life. However, many Protestant denominations and sects, such as the Mormons, are gathering converts quickly. Indeed, the Mormons are converting so many people their hierarchy can't keep up with the pace. All this points to a high level of social disruption and a generalised search for truth and a loss of certainty.

If any nickname could be given to the Philippines, it could probably be called the "Republic of Delusion," because in few places in the world, with the possible exception of Argentina, is wealth squandered so prodigiously in a dysfunctional political process.

The Philippines is an example of what damage a dysfunctional political system can do, one that is based on privilege and an illusion of democracy.

Joseph Estrada is a prime example. A former movie star who played the underdog who made good, the impoverished masses of the Philippines rose to elect him, certain only that as everyone well knew, he was one of the least-equipped and most corrupt people to hold office in that or any other nation.

The economic statistics of the Philippines are little more than figments of the imagination about the economy of Manila, which accounts for half of the Philippines GDP.

While the Indonesians, close neighbors in a similar situation, seem to be muddling through, it is impossible to be optimistic about the Philippines in the long term.

  • Jeffry Babb

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