Whenever I think of the Philippines my eyes revert to The Manila Shawl by Henri Matisse, painted in 1911 upon the French artist’s return from a two-month trip to Spain. Matisse had purchased the shawl in Seville, and draped it around a model whom he depicted in the pose of a flamenco bailaora. The embroidered silk shawls were a popular treasure brought to Europe by Spanish galleons sailing from the Philippines across the Pacific to New Spain (Mexico), from where the shawls were shipped to Spain itself.
Showy, garish, with glittering splashes of red, orange, and green oil paint in floral designs, Matisse’s Shawl is the image I associate with the tropical grandeur and sensuality of the Philippine Islands, and with their occupation by Spain, by way of Mexico, for nearly three and a half centuries beginning in 1556.
For the Philippines are not only burdened with hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, which, with its heavy, pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch, and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Island Chain, but they are doubly burdened by the imprint of Mexican colonizers, who represented an even lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those from Spain.
Hence the shock the visitor experiences upon arrival here after traveling elsewhere in East Asia: a shock that has never dissipated for me after four lengthy trips to the Philippines within a decade. Instead of gleaming, stage-lit boulevards with cutting-edge twenty-first-century architecture that is the fare of Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and coastal China (not to mention Japan and South Korea); and instead of the beehive pace of human activity evident in Vietnam, whose French Catholic colonizers stayed for less than a hundred years (even as they brought education and development in their wake), the cityscape of the Philippine capital of Manila is, by comparison, one of aesthetic and material devastation.
Bad roads, immense puddles of rainwater because of poor drainage, beggars at stop lights, neon nightclub signs with letters missing, crummy buildings with the look of broken crates bearing no architectural style and none matching with any other, old air-conditioning units sticking out of this and that window like black eyes, jumbles of electric wires crisscrossing the twisted palm trees: these are the visual facts that impress one upon arrival. Amidst the sparkling, watery sunlight diffused through the mist and monsoon clouds there is a near-total lack of an identifying aesthetic.
Whether it is the chrome jeepneys with their comic book designs or the weather-stained building facades with their occasional garish colors, there is an amateurish, just-put-together feel to many a surface, as if this entire cityscape— minus the old Spanish Quarter and the upscale malls— is held together by glue. Whereas Vietnamese cities (which have their own economic problems) are frenetic, Manila, despite the dense crowds, is somnolent and purposeless by comparison. Weeds and crumbling cement dominate. The sprawl beyond downtown is not that of suburban houses but of slums with blackened, sheet-metal roofs and peaks of garbage.
Private security guards, whose epaulets and insignias remind me of those in Mexico, guard five-star hotel lobbies and fast food restaurants with sniffer dogs and sawed-off shotguns. The interiors of government buildings are rendered bleak by the dead light of fluorescent tubes. Of course, there is the large and consequential splatter of up-to-date, middle-class shopping centers and chain restaurants.
But what becomes apparent after several days is that despite what the guidebooks claim, there really isn’t any distinctive Filipino cuisine beyond fish, pork, and indifferently cooked rice. This is a borrowed culture, without the residue of civilizational richness that is apparent at the archaeological sites in places like Vietnam and Indonesia, to say nothing of China or India.
And of course, in such a culture, prominent are the luxury, gated communities, inside which the wealthy can escape the dysfunctional environment through life-support systems.
“This is still a bad Latin American economy, not an Asian one,” a Manila-based Western economist told me. “It’s true that the Philippines was not much affected by the global recession of 2008, but that’s only because it was never integrated into the global economy in the first place. What you have,” he went on, “is admittedly steady economic growth, lately over 6 percent per year, undermined by population growth of 1.7 percent, unlike other Pacific Rim economies that have churned ahead by almost a third higher that amount for decades, and without commensurate increases in population.”
Crucially, a staggering 76.5 percent of that GDP growth in recent years went to the forty richest Filipino families. It’s the old story, the Manila elite are getting rich at the expense of everyone else.
Whereas the Asian tiger economies have strong manufacturing bases, and are consequently built on export, in the Philippines exports account for only 25 percent of economic activity as opposed to the standard Asian model of 75 percent. And that 25 percent consists of low-value electronic components, bananas, and coconuts mainly.
The economist pulled out a cheat sheet and rattled off statistics: the Philippines ranks 129 out of 182 countries, according to Transparency International, making it the most corrupt major Asian economy, more corrupt than Indonesia even; according to the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business indicator, the Philippines ranked 136 out of 183; in every list and in every category, the Philippines— with the world’s twelfth largest population— was the worst of the large Asian economies.
No one can deny the situation is improving. The World Economic Forum in Switzerland recently moved the Philippines to the top half of its rankings on global competitiveness. Nevertheless, corruption, restrictions on foreign ownership, and endless paperwork make the Philippines the most hostile country in maritime Asia for the foreign investor.
No country in Asia, with the possible exceptions of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia, has weaker, more feckless institutions.
The Philippines is where an objective, statistical reality is registered in the subjective first impressions of the traveler. Perhaps no other large country in the world has seen such a political, military, and economic investment by the United States for decades on end. Perhaps nowhere else has it made so little difference.
* * *
The Philippines has remained one of the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin America-style fatalism and class divides. Indeed, the Philippines has been described as a “gambling republic” where politicians “hold power without virtue,” dominating by means of “capital” and “crime.
From the book: “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” by Robert Kaplan