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"Rojak" is a Malay word, used to describe a Malay dish consisting of a mix of fruit usually with syrup or some other sauce. It is also used in the vernacular to describe any "mix" of ingredients making up a whole that seems to be "thrown together" with limited regard to complementarity or "synergy". A policy can be a rojak, as can a strategy or business plan. ..Eds.
This Month's Focus: History and origins of Filipino - American relationships and how it has developed into a unique culture today. Implications for foreigners and Americans doing business in the Philippines.
One of the fascinating dynamics that drives Filipino society and culture is the psychologically complex relationship between the Filipino and American peoples. On the surface, Manila is an extremely Americanized/Westernized place, as indeed it has been since the early 1900's. However, under the surface lies a subtle and elusive Filipino essence that is obscured by layer upon layer of cultural baggage and an unpredictable mixture of resentment and admiration.
As I have made my way in Philippine society in general and the Manila business world in particular, I have worked hard to "fit in" and play the game in a culturally appropriate fashion. When in Rome and all that. Most objective reports suggest that I am doing about as well as any Yankee could expect after a mere two years in-country. Nevertheless, the more I learn about Filipino culture the more I realize how little I really understand and how much work lies ahead.
Having thus noted my relative ignorance, I will now stubbornly plunge ahead with a few random notes that may possibly contribute to the reader's understanding of this elusive issue.
The roots of the word "culture" can be traced to the Latin cultura ("cultivation" or "tending"). One useful contemporary (dictionary) definition of culture: "The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought." Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, acts as a template with relatively predictable form and content, shaping behavior and consciousness within a particular society from generation to generation.
Cultures are above all else dynamic and constantly changing, and impact one another in unpredictable ways, especially when superimposed as they have been in the Philippines. However, this has not been a particularly equitable process. Indeed, the cultural impact has been very much one-sided, with American culture having had a major - some would say dominant - impact on Filipino culture, while Filipino culture has had basically zero effect on American culture.
This cultural hegemony was present from the beginning. When the Americans steamed into Manila Bay, they did so with a spirit of triumph and manifest destiny. The Spanish American War had been tremendously popular with the American people. For the first time since the Civil War, men from the North and the South had closed ranks and marched off to war, their adrenaline pumping to the stirring marches of John Philip Sousa. The conflict, which lasted less than 100 days and cost only 289 American lives, was truly a "splendid little war" (in the words of Secretary of State John Hay).
The U.S. Navy's Asiatic squadron, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, defeated the ramshackle Spanish fleet in the battle of Manila Bay in less than a morning, without losing a single man. The American Navy gained great popularity and every American schoolboy of the time could recite the names and specifications of the major ships. After a two-decade effort to build a modern "steel navy," the United States was finally a great naval power.
The United States new imperialist status was symbolized by its takeovers of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and the subsequent annexation of Hawaii. With Spain no longer a significant player in the region, the Americans could now stand proud against the threat of the Japanese Empire (although that confrontation would remain dormant for another 40 years).
In the early 1900s, Manila was crafted quite consciously in the US mold. And there's no denying that Manila at the turn of the century was pretty much a mess. Not much had changed since the 17th century. Manila remained basically a walled medieval town surrounded by swamps that bred cholera and malaria. There was very little fresh water, and the rotting garbage and excrement in the streets almost choked the first American troops to enter the city in August, 1898. William Howard Taft, the first civilian governor, himself contracted dysentery.
Taft was instrumental in bringing in American medical and hygiene specialists to work with Army sanitation programs. Yankee doctors in the Caribbean had already learned how to deal with tropical diseases, and they applied those lessons effectively in the Philippines. Through the simple expedient of teaching people to boil water they defeated cholera, with equally straightforward strategies being deployed to deal with malaria (mosquito control) and smallpox (compulsory vaccination). These interventions represented some of the more successful public health campaigns of the time, and indeed in world history.
Taft made the renovation of Manila his pet project. The celebrated architect Daniel Burnham was brought in to spearhead the effort. Burnham, a leading figure in the "City Beautiful" movement, had designed the symmetrical layout of the District of Columbia. Taft was determined to transform Manila into a glittering symbol of the American presence in the Pacific. There is much architectural evidence of his efforts even today, in the form of the majestic Manila Hotel, the Army and Navy Club, and various pseudo-Grecian government buildings that still cluster along Roxas Boulevard by Manila Bay.
Although all of these things sounds pretty progressive and (probably) in the interests of the Filipino people, the reality was not so simple.
One problem was the significant and enduring theme of racism. Taft saw himself as a missionary sent to educate his "little brown brothers", a term he used on more than one occasion. In general, the American colonial administration's attitude was condescending at best (arrogant, racist, and disrespectful are also relevant adjectives). Most Americans saw the Filipinos as needing careful tutelage. There was always a presumption that they had to be guided every step of the way and that, if left to their own devices, their inferior racial tendencies would ensure a terrible outcome.
In contrast to the Spanish, who derived their legitimacy from Catholicism, American imperialism derived its legitimacy from secular concepts such as democracy, literacy, universal primary schooling, and health and hygiene. From the beginning, the Americans coopted the local élites and emphasized the many benefits of their administration to the Filipino people. The colonial governors never tired of pointing out how the now-expanded civil service was manned almost entirely by locals (for more detail on the evolution of American colonialism, see An Oversimplified History Lesson and Cronies and Booty Capitalism).
More generally, the Americans constantly reminded the Filipinos of how much better off they were under Uncle Sam's leadership and how well taken care of they were. How could they possibly do any better? Fueled by the march of democracy and the unquestioned benefits of 20th century capitalism, material and economic progress was sure to follow. American school teachers and sanitation inspectors symbolized cultural superiority, but with the veneer of truly caring for their poor little brown brothers.
The complexities of the Filipino-American relationship are reflected in the military career of General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. Although retired in 1937, he was recalled by FDR in 1941 to head the newly formed Philippine Army. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December of that year, MacArthur led the American and Philippine troops in a gallant but hopeless defense. MacArthur was ordered out in March 1942 uttering those famous words ("I shall return"), and the islands fell in May of that same year. He eventually returned in triumph, landing on Leyte's Red Beach on October 20, 1944. MacArthur remains very much a venerated folk hero in the Philippines.
After the war, the Philippines was still a quasi-feudal society. Even though political independence was finally achieved, the Philippine government remained subservient to the Americans. American multinational and political interests, defined in terms of the emerging cold war ethos of democracy vs. communism, corresponded nicely with those of the Filipino élites. An informal quid pro quo quickly evolved. In exchange for their continued support, the Filipino élites gave up their autonomy in the area of foreign policy.
The symbiotic relationship between local élites and American patrons was at its peak during the 1950s, a period during which the Americans focused on the global Communist threat. That world view was translated into the domestic scene by encouraging and actively helping the Filipinos repress indigenous uprisings such as the Hukbalap rebellion in Central Luzon (i.e., the doctrine of "containment" was relevant both globally and in specific countries).
Another mythical American figure was Edward Lansdale, a CIA operative whose close relationship with Ramon Magsaysay gave him major decision-making power in the Philippines. Lansdale had learned his trade as an advertising man, and was proud of his ability in "symbol manipulation." Lansdale carefully orchestrated Magsaysay's successful presidential campaign, including the use of the US Information Service to generate substantial pro-Magsaysay propoganda for both the international and domestic press. Magsaysay, often (and correctly) identified as an American proxy, was an unrepentent admirer of Uncle Sam, prone to statements like: "With US guidance and assistance, this country can become the head of a family of democratic nations in this part of the globe."
Lederer and Burdick's The Ugly American painted a rather flattering image of Landsale in the fictional form of Colonial Hillendale, a larger-than-life character who used his harmonica to capture hearts and minds in the American fight against Communism. Graham Greene's much more critical portrayal of the fictional Pyle (also modeled on Lansdale) in The Quiet American (i.e., as a na´ve US official who believed that even the simplest peasants would fight Communism once they saw the light about the value of truth, justice, and the American way) was probably a lot more accurate. Indeed, Lansdale was a master of psy ops (psychological operations) and committed horrendous atrocities in various guerilla operations against the Huk rebellion.
Over the years, the interests of the Filipino élites and their American mentors were portrayed as representing the true interests of the Filipino people. In reality, the interests of the large and growing peasantry, the growing proletariat, and cultural minorities were ignored, denied, and suppressed if necessary.
Inevitably, there was a growing awareness of the internal contradictions of the "all is well" cover story. By the Marcos years (the mid and late 1960's), there was a growing sense of protest and outrage over the disproportionate American influence and dominance of Philippines culture, politics, and economics. Many Filipinos, particularly among the intelligentsia, came to see themselves as part of the Third World and rejected the conventional wisdom that the interests of the Filipino people always coincided with those of the US . These new convictions were substantially reinforced by the American's enmeshment in Vietnam, yet another country in which Cold War values were used as an excuse for unwanted intervention.
Given this history, it's not surprising that the Filipino-American relationship is so convoluted. Since the EDSA Revolution, now 14 years past, the bonds between the two countries, especially in terms of business linkages, have become stronger than ever. The old historical dynamics have faded in some respects, evolving in tandem with the forces of globalization and increased foreign investment (see Globalization Part 1).
Filipino attitudes towards Americans remain nuanced and conflicted. There are many Filipino nationalistic icons and cultural symbols that pack quite a punch - Rizal at the Luneta facing the Spanish firing squad, Ninoy Aquino lying dead on the tarmac, and Cory in yellow at the EDSA barricades are obvious ones. But what about the echoes of Filipino and American men fighting side-by-side in places like Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, Lingayen, and the Surigao Straits? What about MacArthur in that absurdly cocked hat promising to return, and by God making good on that promise? For that matter, what are we to make of the fact that a good proportion of Filipinos yearn to get to the states by hook or by crook, ambitions reflected in the Los Angeles immigration lawyers who write columns in the Manila papers telling how to find loopholes in INS regulations?
On the one hand, Filipinos have tremendous admiration (albeit perhaps grudging at times) for all things American. They watch NBA games with great enthusiasm, consume American products voraciously (the "Made in USA" label is in general highly coveted), and throng to the latest Schwarzenegger movies at the American-style malls. On the other hand, they resent Americans when they are overbearing and have a very low tolerance for know-it-all Yankees or American tourists who spend all their time in Manila complaining about the traffic, dirt, and human masses. In the business world, they resent Americans (or other "white people") who think they know everything (see Filipino Cultural Norms and Filipino Business World 101 for some tips on how to avoid falling into the "Ugly Foreigner" category).
To be sure, all those years of being talked down to and treated as little brown brothers have left a lasting legacy of under-the-surface resentment of American cockiness. The Filipinos are a proud people, and resent being told what to do. It was precisely those feelings that led to the termination of the bases agreement and eviction of the American military from Clark, Subic, and other facilities.
Nevertheless, the Filipino people are also an open and honest people, and - despite all those years of colonialism and repression by the Americans - there remains a strong affiliation between Filipinos and Americans, a certain "relatedness" that has to do with the shared history, however checkered, of the last hundred years. I speak from experience, in that I often notice a subtle benefit in the business world simply because I happen to be an American - it's not something you can quite put your finger on, but it's still something very real. However, that particular advantage can be quickly squandered if you don't work hard to respect Filipino cultural and communications norms.
Comments, questions?... Post a note to the APMF discussion board (See left hand sidebar) or email Clarence direct
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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