As the sole Catholic-majority nation in Asia, with a distinct combination of Spanish and American colonial past, the Philippines stands as one of the most unique countries. Yet, many Westerners tend to find the country too familiar — that is to say, not as “exotic” as other neighboring countries — precisely because of its tremendous cultural and architectural affinity with the Western civilization, specifically the Iberian and Anglo-Saxon varieties. Almost all Filipinos carry Spanish names, while government and educational institutions rely on English as their primary medium of communication.
Sometimes, members of the Filipino elite tend to boast about how the Philippines is the most Westernized country in Asia, with others openly relishing the fact that the Southeast Asian country was carved out of Western colonial machinations and imagination. The very name of the archipelagic country — derived from King Philip II of Spain — perhaps says it all. In many ways, Filipinos share more common characteristics with, say, Latin Americans than their immediate neighbors. (Except that most Filipinos can’t speak proper Spanish, thanks to the regrettable fact that the Spaniards never bothered to introduce universal education in their key Asian colony. Spanish was used as a language of distinction and exclusion rather than nation-building and collective identity.)
Ordinary Filipinos, meanwhile, also boast about the astonishing fact that the Philippines — among the poorest countries in Asia — is home to 3 out of the 10 biggest shopping malls on earth. And with the country (again) featuring among the fastest growing emerging markets, there is a growing feeling that the Philippines can finally claim a place of pride among modern and vibrant capitalist societies in Asia.
And that renewed sense of confidence is trickling down to the younger generation. (Nowadays, it isn’t hard to find youthful, ambitious Filipinos confidently expressing their views in international conferences and gathering, especially when they seat among fellow Asians, who happen to be less adept at English and cosmopolitan in outlook.) Ideologically, the Philippines is largely situated in the Western episteme: Westernized lifestyles and pro-Western socio-political outlooks dominate the Filipino public sphere. One sometimes wonders whether the country has been placed in the wrong corner of the world.
A closer look at the country, however, reveals a fundamental paradox: centuries of Westernization has not led to genuine modernization, while years of rapid economic growth haven’t brought about prosperity for the majority of the people. The country continues to remain as a semi-feudal (especially in rural areas) society under the grip of a vicious form of crony capitalism. Formal ‘electoral democracy’, in turn, provides a comfortable veneer of legitimacy (for the political elite) and an illusion of egalitarianism in a country mired in poverty and glaring inequality.
Shopping malls dominate — both physically and cognitively — the urban landscape in the Philippines. All key public transport systems cluster around major shopping centers, which provide unrivaled comfort, the right temperature (in a humid, tropical country), and breathless access to a wide range of brands that cater to all social classes.
Urban cultures pivot and are shaped by shopping malls that are often located close to Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies, which employ hundreds of thousands of yuppies, who have redefined the Filipino urban lifestyle. One can find both Prada and Penshoppe (a local clothing brand) in major malls, with both the uber-rich and working classes participating in a global consumerist culture, which has taken over almost all corners of the plant. It is a classic form of faux egalitarianism. (Having visited numerous countries across five continents, I seldom come across a product, which I can’t find, often at better prices, back in Metro Manila.)
Few steps away and one can discover new residential suites, which, similar to shopping malls, offer a variety of options for up-and-coming urban residents, who chase modern amenities and perfect location in a congested city like Manila or Cebu. Major cities across the Philippines have transformed into virtual construction sites, resembling the construction boom that have seen in places such as Dubai, Tehran, Moscow, and Shanghai in the past decades.
More recently, even small towns and municipalities have been transformed into frontier markets for few major conglomerates, which dominate the retail and real estate sectors in the country. The past decade has been among the best years in terms of corporate profits and business expansion opportunities for the country’s elite, which have disproportionally swallowed much of the recently-created growth in the economy.
Slowly but surely, the Philippines is beginning to resemble hyper-consumerist countries such as the U.S., which have endlessly indulged in ever-increasing demand for goods and services on the back of decades of robust industrialization, specifically during the Keynesian era that lasted until the late-1970s, and massive borrowing from foreign creditors, particularly export-oriented economies such as China and Japan, in the age of neo-liberal globalization.
Today, the Philippines is simulating American-style consumerism without going through the “valley of tears” of state-led industrial development, high rates of household saving rates, and mass production of affordable exports — the very factors, which allowed Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) such as South Korea to get out of the cycle of poverty in recent times.
Illusion of Prosperity
The mind-boggling expansion in the Philippines’ real estate sector has gone hand in hand with the perennially disappointing absence of modern public infrastructure. There is hardly any massive “green” public park area (think of Singapore’s Botanic Gardens or New York’s Central Park), where Filipinos from all walks of life can safely and comfortably enjoy the wonders and serenity of nature in an ocean of congestion and pollution. Public spaces are often neglected by the authorities or vandalized by uncaring residents.
There is limited public space for (spiritual and physical) disengagement from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The Filipino state has basically outsourced such responsibilities to profit-driven enterprises. And this is precisely why the shopping malls have become the core of urban life in the Philippines. Meanwhile, shopping malls have been on the verge of extinction in other countries, especially in the U.S., where online shopping and urban picnics have captured the hearts and minds of many urban residents.
The Philippines, shaped by its colonial legacy, has emulated Western lifestyles and urban architectures. But it has not truly modernized, at least in the Weberian sense. We are yet to see truly rational, impersonal state institutions, which stand beyond patronage and personalized politics. Even much of the business sector is dominated by few old families, so it is preposterous to talk about “free market” competition.
The country’s public infrastructure is among the least developed in Asia, while the country’s elite educational institutions have struggled to keep up with regional peers. With the exception of the country’s premiere university, the University of the Philippines, all other top Filipino universities have been rapidly falling behind their counterparts in other parts of Asia and the developing world.
Modernity isn’t about speaking English per se — or any global lingua franca for that matter. It is also not about having big shopping malls, wearing global brands, and preaching liberal socio-political values per se. Those are only manifestations of modernization, not the core of it. Modernity, above all, is about placing efficiency, meritocracy and knowledge above connections, patronage, and discredited traditions. This is precisely why many of the Philippines’ neighboring countries, which have held onto much of their cultural heritage, stand as significantly more modern and prosperous: Social mobility, merit-based success, and knowledge-intensive productivity are incredibly more visible in places such as Taiwan or South Korea than the Philippines.
More importantly, the Philippines’ rapid rates of economic growth in recent years haven’t brought about an egalitarian, modern form of capitalism, which is capable of generating waves of prosperity that lift all the boats regardless of gender, class, and ethnicity. Low-end services and speculative sectors such as real estate have been the backbone of recent economic growth, with multi-billion remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) fuelling domestic consumption.
The tremendous lack of inclusive growth in the country is a reflection of the absence of modern state institutions, which can efficiently provide public services and regulate overweening markets; the lack of investment in Research and Development (R&D) across educational and corporate institutions; and a centuries-old tradition of patronage-politics as well as feudal economic institutions in rural areas, which have kept millions of Filipinos from realizing their great potentials.
Perhaps it is time for the Filipino elite to rediscover the true meaning of modernity, democracy, and progress. And for the wider population to fight for genuine prosperity.
*Originally published in the Huffington Post on 01/12/2015, by Richard Javad Heydarian