The Indolent Filipino?

By Marites Sison-Paez
October 11, 1999

The other week, I took a picture of an ambulant vendor. His cart got stuck on the muddy road and it took him a while to navigate through. This morning as I was sorting my digital photos, I came across that picture again, and as I was looking at it, I remembered an old article relevant to the story portrayed in the picture. But is this article still relevant today? Well, read on and decide for yourself.

If you ask the rich in the Philippines why majority of Filipinos are poor they would automatically say it's because they are lazy.

A businessman would say that he has to be extra careful about driving in the rural areas because chances are, he might run over a farmer who's dead drunk by the side of the road.

A banker's wife would complain incessantly about how her maid is not thankful she has a job cleaning a mansion in Forbes Park or how her driver wants to rest on Sunday and refuses to drive her to the beauty parlor.

A manufacturer would point to the men in the squatters area who are playing pool or having a "drinking session."

Some would say it's cultural. The Filipino would rather attend a fiesta or a wedding than earn extra by working overtime.

If you ask the poor why they are poor, most of them have no idea why they can't seem to get out of the rut.

The farmer cannot understand why despite backbreaking work-- from sunrise to sundown under the heat of the sun in the bare fields -- he still doesn't have enough to feed his family and he still owes his landlord a month's harvest.

The private sector employee wakes up at the crack of dawn,too, to catch that early bus to Makati where she answers phones and sells underwear and make up on the side. She comes home late at night after an agonizing two-hour ride home and at the end of the day, the money she earns combined with that of her husband's pay is hardly enough to make both ends meet.

Poverty is the biggest problem confronting the Philippines today and in my view, none of it has to do with the so-called indolence of the Filipino. In fact, recent studies by economic researchers have shown that the poor in the Philippines work harder than most. They often have three or more jobs to supplement their meager income.

Last week I was stuck in traffic in Makati at 3 p.m. and my eyes fell on a man with a pushcart who was on the side of the road trying to uproot something from an empty lot beside a construction site. Upon closer look I saw that he was trying his best to pull and saw off iron bars that were protruding from the ground. He was going to sell the bars as scraps. He saw opportunity in those iron bars and no pollution, no scorching heat, no hardship was going to stop him from getting them. Lazy?

The rain was pouring heavily one Sunday afternoon and outside our building an old man was shivering as he piled cardboard boxes that he had flattened and stored in his pushcart. He had no absolutely no protection and he was wet all over. The plastic he could have used as makeshift raincoat was used to cover the precious cardboard boxes he was going to sell. Lazy?

The streets of Manila are a paradox: There are visible signs of grinding poverty but there's also a lot of productivity spurred by the so-called underground economy. In the absence of opportunities both from government and big businesses, and in the absence of safety nets, the country's poor are trying their best to help themselves. But clearly, it is not enough because the jobs they've carved out for themselves are hardly enough for them to keep body and soul together.

Do you ever wonder how much the man selling Storck or Halls candies along the main thoroughfares of Manila is earning daily at 3 pieces for P2? Factor in the deadly elements he has to face daily in the form of pollution, unruly drivers not to mention the unbearable heat or the rains and you ask yourself how on earth he survives and how he manages to wake up every morning with the same mind-numbing existence. Lazy?

I've seen a man going door-to-door selling an unknown detergent brand and my impulse is to buy just to give him hope because God knows what he can do if his family is hungry and he does not bring home anything.

Also think about the millions of Filipinos we export every year as domestic helpers, drivers and construction workers to the world. A Filipino soldier who was assigned in the Middle East during the Gulf War told me couldn't believe that there were Filipinos working there for $200 a month or the equivalent of P8,000. The Filipinos couldn't earn that same amount of money in their own homeland so they had to leave behind their family, hock whatever assets they had in order to land those menial jobs. That same amount, the soldier said, was used by his European counterparts to rent a swimming pool for a day.

The bottom line is that Filipinos will grab whatever opportunity is out there to make a buck or two. Provide them the right incentive, the right environment and they will work harder than most. It has become normal in America, for instance, for a Filipino to have two to three jobs.

On the other hand, the farmer by the road is drunk because in between planting and harvesting season he has nothing to do; he has no other means of livelihood. He has neither the money nor the skills to begin a new livelihood; there are no temporary jobs either because there are no businesses in his area that can hire him. His ignorance because of lack of quality education also hinders him from looking beyond his immediate surroundings.

Most of the rich likewise blame the rural folk for coming to Manila saying "life is much better in the provinces. You just stick a plant and it will grow." What the rich do not understand is the rural poor come to Manila or the urban cities like Cebu and Davao because that's where the jobs are -- no matter how menial or low-paying they may be.

My sister's household help, for example, left her hometown in Surigao because with her salary of P2,000 a month her children could at least have the chance to eat at least twice a day and maybe even go to school. But part of her salary also goes to cigarettes and we had asked her why she was wasting her money on them. She said she had started smoking when she was eight because it was the way people in her barrio could ward off mosquitoes that feasted on them daily. Now she couldn't kick the habit. In short, there was no government that could provide them with basic services or with opportunities, nor even warn them that cigarettes don't kill mosquitoes but humans.

It is also no longer true that whatever you plant grows in the provinces. Life has changed, the environment has changed drastically through the years.

Thousands of families went hungry during the drought in Mindanao last year. The fishermen are getting less and less catch each year due to a number of factors including pollution and over fishing by big trawlers.

It isn't, of course, not just the absence of jobs or productivity that makes poverty persist in the Philippines.

The rich do not point to the inequitable distribution of assets as a cause of poverty. Why should they when they benefit from the centuries-old landholding patterns that puts the entire country to shame when compared to its Asian neighbors? The rich do not point to economic structures that protect their interests. But then again why should they when it enables them to acquire apartments in Manhattan and Paris? The rich do not point to the lack of taxes that could otherwise go to social services and infrastructures that will uplift the plight of the poor. Why should they when they are the first to evade taxes and point to graft and corruption as the reason why. The rich do not point to the political economy that drives politicians to pursue projects that make them popular but have no redeeming value. Why should they when they are the ones who also control political power?

The rich in the Philippines have a lot of soul-searching to do in these hard times. They are as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution. It is not enough that they set up so-called philanthropic foundations -- some even resort to this as a tax shield. Sure it is a start, but like the rest of us they need to bite the bullet, they must be willing to sacrifice their privileges for the good of all.

As one enlightened capitalist warned members of her class, "if you continue with this old practice one day you will just wake up and your children will have no country anymore."

A Reader's Reaction
October 25, 1999

Jose Sison is the leader of the Communist party of the Philippines. I wonder if he has any relation with the author, Marites Sison-Paez.

It is difficult to mobilize the masses. They don't want to change even in their misery. But, writings, like the "Indolent Filipino?", hits a soft spot upon the gullible peasants. A technique effectively used by my own relatives, who were once brilliant students in the mid 70s, and now, perhaps all dead, wasted their lives hiding in the verdant hills and mountains in and around the countryside.

Commentaries about the "Indolent Filipino?" attracted passionate and subjective appreciation for the beauty, the story as presented by the author. The working class, we the people, blame the polis, and the system of governance, along with the employers for the hardships being felt by the masses during hard times.

Political actors create causal stories to describe harms and difficulties, to attribute them to actions of other individuals and organizations, and thereby to invoke government power to stop the harm. Like other forms of symbolic representation, causal stories can be emotionally compelling; they are stories of innocence and guilt, victims and oppressors, suffering and evil. But, sometimes, scriptwriters like Ms. Sison-Paez conveniently forgets the fact that "life is what we make it", by Henry Noble McCracken.

We have two primary frameworks for interpreting the world: the natural and social. In the natural world we understand occurrences to be undirected, unoriented, unanimated, unguided, purely physical. There may be natural determinants -- the clash of a cold front and a warm front causes a storm -- but there is no willful intention behind the occurrences. The natural world is the realm of fate and accident, and we believe we have an adequate understanding of causation when we describe the sequence of events by which one thing leads to another.

In the social world we understand events to be the result of will, usually human but perhaps animal. The social world is the realm of control and intent. We usually think we have adequate understanding of causation when we can identify the purposes or motives of a person or group and link those purposes to their actions.

In everyday discourse, we use the term causality to refer to both the blind effect of nature and the intended effect of man, the first seen as an infinitely extended chain of caused and causing effects and the second something that somehow begins with a mental decision. Yet in politics, the distinction between actions that have purpose, will, or motivation, and those that do not are crucial. So, too, is the distinction between effects that are intended and those that are not, since we know all too well that our purposeful actions may have unintended consequences.

These two distinctions -- between action and consequences and between purpose and lack of purpose -- can be used to create a framework for describing the causal stories used in politics. In our society, stories of inadvertent cause are common social problems, like the "Indolent Filipino?", and captivated the emotions of some of our people.

Problems such as poverty, disease and malnutrition, are said to result when people do not understand the harmful consequences of their willful actions. The poor do not realize how important it is to get an education or save money; the elderly do not understand how important it is to eat balance diet even if they are not hungry; the sick do not understand that overeating leads to diabetes and heart disease. Inadvertence here is ignorance. The consequences are predictable by experts but unappreciated by those taking the actions. These stories are liberal versions of blaming the victim: if the person with the problem only changed his or her behavior, the problem would not exist. The conservative version of blaming the victim is intentional causation: the victim actually chooses to have the problem.

Thus, as a famous statesman said about the homeless, "there are those who sleep on grates by choice". (Herbert Block, Through the Looking Glass,1984). Often, a fight about the cause of a problem is a debate about whether certain people are acting out of their own will or carrying out the will of others.

To return to the problem of malnutrition, the liberal causal story rests on unintended consequences of purposeful action: malnourished people do not know how to eat a proper diet. Thus, Ms. Sison-Paez, blamed the smoking addiction of the young girl, to society's lack of warning and failure to educate the children, that smoking is addictive and harmful to their health. The conservative story rests on intended consequences of purposeful action: malnourished people knowingly choose to spend their food money on beer and junk food, drugs, and tobacco products.

People with power and resources to stop a problem benefit from the social organization that keeps them in power, as Ms. Sison-Paez mentioned, and so maintain it through control over selection of elites and socialization of both elites and nonelites. People who are victimized by a problem do not seek political change because they do not see the problem as changeable, do not believe they could bring about change, and need the material resources for survival provided by the status quo. And that is where we are today.

If for a moment we focus on economic problems, let's borrow the idea of Milton Friedman in his essay, Capitalism and Freedom: "Fundamentally, there are only two ways of coordinating activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion -- the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals -- the technique of the market place."