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The Philippines, Went From Numero Uno to Kulelat

Roxas Boulevard back when it was called Dewey Boulevard.
Photo: pinterest.com

he Philippines is being left behind by many of her neighbors. Once the leader in the region, we are now the laggard. How did this happen? Here’s my take. I think it is because we Filipinos have just been too lazy to do anything about it—period! When I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s there were those who said that Juan Tamad—the extremely lazy character in Philippine folklore—described Filipinos “to a T.” As a young Pinoy growing up, I resented that description. Unfortunately, over the decades, I think I have now come to a similar conclusion. If it’s not laziness, then something else must be very wrong in our character because our country should not be where it is today. Based on our starting point after World War II, the Philippines should be way ahead of Taiwan, South Korea, even Singapore.

When the United States left the Philippines in 1946, it is true the country was still in bad shape. Filipinos were just recovering from the horrors of World War II. Manila and many major cities were in ruins, the economy was in disarray, and most Filipinos were still reeling from the pain and suffering inflicted on them by their Japanese occupiers.

Nevertheless, we were more fortunate than most of our Southeast Asian neighbors, also devastated by the war. During the 1950s, through the 1960s, the Philippines was a major player in the region. It had one of the oldest stock exchanges in Asia. The country proudly heralded the fact that it had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The best and brightest business leaders from across Asia enrolled in the country’s Asian Institute of Management (AIM), the top business school in the region.

Today, all the countries that were following our lead back then, have surged past us. At one point, we were called the “sick man of Asia.” A backhanded compliment from today’s perspective, as “sickness” connoted it was just a “temporary” state, and the country would soon be back in the pink of health. Sadly, today the country is seen more as a backwater—a supplier of household help and cheap labor around the globe.

Manila International Airport in the 1960s. Photo: lougopal.com

In this age of surging science and technology, we are a country that still believes in myths, mystics and the supernatural—ghosts, kapres, dwendes, and enkantados. We have failed to do the heavy lifting that most of our Asian neighbors have undertaken. Like Juan Tamad, we chose instead to just lay back and wait under the guava tree for the fruit to fall on our laps.

It is time we Pinoys change things. It is time we stop being followers and start becoming leaders. It is time we take our place in the world and help shape the future of mankind. It will take a different mindset—a different kind of Filipino. A Pinoy who sees himself or herself as one among equals across the globe. If our Taiwanese, South Korean, and Singaporean neighbors can do it, why can’t we. I’ll talk more about this in a future column. Meanwhile, tell me what you think by joining the discussion below. Published 3/7/2018

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