|home / today's asian business strategy ezine / columns / pearl of the orient seas index (business in Asia & the philippines) /|
|The Social Volcano|
|21 May 2001|
Well, it looks like the Republic of the Philippines has survived its latest series of crises, albeit by the skin of its skinny skin skin. The country has been through the wringer the last few months: the impeachment trial, the notorious sealed envelope, People Power II spearheaded by the Makati business élites, the installation of GMA with the blessing of the Supreme Court, Erap's sympathy-creating arrest, the uprising of the masa (manipulated by certain corrupt and unethical members of the opposition), and now the muddled elections characterized by more-than-usual violence and corruption. An extreme confabulation, even by Philippine standards. At least it's never boring around here.
A caveat regarding what follows, lest anyone think I am gleefully bashing the Philippines. I am not your typical parachute journalist who flies into Manila when crisis calls, talks to biased sources, gets manipulated by folks with axes to grind, makes snap judgments, and dashes off hyper-critical pieces for the world's newsweeklies. I live and work here, and always try hard to give the Philippines and the Filipino people the benefit of a doubt. Looking for the silver lining is sort of a hobby. Unfortunately, I can't guarantee much of one in this piece given the current reality.
After three years of planning for the election, Comelec (the Commission on Elections) blew it big time. The 2001 election is probably one of the most corrupt in Philippine history, which is saying something - localized blackouts at polling stations, missing election paraphernalia, confused precincts, and bewildered voters abounded. The going rate for a straight Puwera ng Masa ticket (the opposition) was reportedly running at about 1,000 pesos in the provinces.
Before judging those who sold their votes however, remember that while that US $20 might be chump change for an ex-pat executive or an élite Filipino capitalist, it's a sizable sum for an impoverished Filipino family. If both mom and pop sell their votes, they earn more in a day than they normally do in a month, maybe enough to buy shoes for the kids and decent food for a change. Given the pervasive sense of powerlessness, many poor folks see nothing wrong with selling their vote. And who are we to judge them?
In the goons category, one of the more interesting sideshows of election day, which went largely unreported and occurred right here in Metro Manila, involved an interesting discovery by alert policemen. Seems they came across some suspicious-looking fellows in military uniforms, fully armed, bearing official-looking "mission orders" and gun permits. They claimed to be reservists assigned to protect the polls. However, cursory investigation revealed that their documents were bogus.
While in custody, their cell phones kept ringing, with the voice on the other end of the line asking for location info and situation assessment. Investigators gave misleading answers, which lured more fake soldiers to converge at a nearby mall, where they were also busted. In fairly short order, they led authorities to a building where about 50 more goons were nabbed. A total of 68 militia members were collared, with evidence indicating that the private army had been operating from that building for the last six months. A certain incumbent Congressmen owned up to being their employer (hey, everybody who's anybody needs bodyguards in Manila, but still ...). The key point is that if there's one such private army, there are probably a lot more. Geez, these are the kind of guys that make folks disappear from the face of the earth.
Anyway, still-inconclusive election results (based on quick counts by NAMFREL, an NGO with an oversight role on elections) confirm the huge chasm that continues to dominate the country. Polarization is the name of the game. Most attention is focused on the all-important Senate race. The upper chamber has 24 seats, 13 of them up for grabs right now. Most counts now are running either 8-4-1 or 7-5-1 (that's administration, opposition, and independent respectively). If the opposition wins five seats and it's the wrong five - including, say, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Enrile, Lacson, and Honason, the gang that voted to keep the envelope sealed and who pranced around the EDSA Shrine inciting the masses to rebellion - the Senate will be dominated by demagogues looking to pick a fight with the administration. And even if it falls out 8-4-1, the administration's edge is mucho tentative (they would have 11 of 24 seats, the opposition 10, with three independents swinging the balance).
Thus, it is indeed a nervous time. However, fears of total stalemate may be unfounded given the fluidity of political party boundaries in the Philippines and the free-wheeling horse trading that always goes on. Senators are elected nation-wide, not by geographical district, and pride themselves on their independence - they see themselves as free agents and party-switching is common. While few of the opposition Senators are likely to defect to GMA's People Power Coalition, they may opt to play ball with the administration. The President has many resources at her command (including the pork barrel), and there are just enough "moderates" among the opposition to swing votes the administration's way in a crunch. Let's hope so, as there are some truly crucial pieces of legislation that need to be pushed through if the country is to avoid further economic paralysis between now and 2004 (the next election).
One might note that President Diosdado Macapagal pushed through his pet project, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in Philippine history (agrarian reform) in the face of an opposition-dominated Senate. Perhaps a historical lesson to give his daughter hope?
Ninoy Aquino often used the "social volcano" metaphor, referring to the molten rock down below getting hotter and hotter, bubbling slowly toward the surface, then finally erupting with dire consequences. And the Philippine social volcano has erupted before - for example, when the poor rioted and burned churches in Pampanga in the 1930's, when the Hukbalhap rebellion of the late 1940's almost brought down the government, and at various times during the long insurrections of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army.
The events that followed the arrest of the mythologically poor Erap represent yet another volcanic letting off of steam. However, those events should also be seen as a warning sign that the Philippine social volcano is storing up a huge load of molten lava that can only continue to be ignored at tremendous risk to this nation.
As I have noted in other Pearls, one of the major challenges here is the continued unchecked population growth aided and abetted by the Catholic Church. There are now 77 million Filipinos and counting, with perhaps 50 million living below the poverty line. An estimated one-third of Manila's 10.5 million inhabitants live in subhuman conditions few of us can even imagine. We're talking disease-infested, polluted, and downright dangerous squatter settlements, under bridges, in hovels with no sewage or potable water, along railroad tracks. We're talking an ever-larger population of hungry street urchins and beggars, malnourished children sniffing glue and sleeping in cardboard boxes, bony fingers tapping on our closed car windows on dark rainy nights, toothless old women peddling cigarettes by the stick while they're dying of untreated chronic illnesses. We're talking man's inhumanity to man.
But these poor folks live on the fringes of consciousness of the people who matter - the people who make the decisions, the people sitting behind the dark-tinted, bullet-proof windows of their chauffered Benzes on their way to steak and lobster at five-star hotels.
But even the slowly growing middle classes have a low opinion of the masa and would just as soon not be confronted with the reality of what poor peoples' lives are really like. One of the more disturbing things about "EDSA III" was the way office workers and managers got such a kick out of passing around text messages making fun of those less fortunate, forwarding vitriolic messages peppered with obscenities putting down the ignorant poor folks as a mob of ignorant hooligans, foolish enough to be so easily duped by Erap cronies.
Those text messages were generated by the opposition; the rumor mill has it that Ronnie Puno had 200 people with 200 cells churning out the texts. That sort of dirty trick is to be expected in this situation. But why did the office workers have to forward them around, adding to the 100 million texts a day that clog Manila's telecoms grid? For that matter, why did so many Manila columnists react with pious chest-thumping about good triumphing over evil, exhibiting smug hubris and self-righteous moral superiority? Such messages are guaranteed to stir up even more resentment among the poor.
The social volcano, then, continues to simmer. One of the more fascinating (and dangerous) aspects of the situation is that there are few coherent political groups among the "working classes," no charismatic revolutionary leaders, and lots of room for manipulation. Indeed, the opposition Senators who inflamed the mob at EDSA that night and got them to march to the Palace had an easy job of it. The poor in the Philippines have always been manipulated, whether by politicians, businessmen, oppressive landlords, jueteng lords, usurious merchants and money lenders, or unethical companies selling shoddy goods. Why should this time be any different?
The wretched of the Philippines have been used for so long that it's no wonder they rallied around the cause of "Asiong Salonga" (the name of a prototypical Erap/Robin Hood movie character). Having experienced centuries of exploitation, Erap was the first President whom they were able to identify with. The fact that Erap abused the trust of the poor is beside the point, this is about symbolism.
All in all, the uprising should serve as a huge wake-up call highlighting the serious political risks associated with having such a large proportion of the population living in dire poverty. There is tremendous resentment and hostility pent up in that volcano, papered over with the thinnest veneer of courtesy. And, as any good seismologist can tell you, all that energy will eventually find an outlet.
President Magapagal-Arroyo has consolidated her power with skillful tap dancing, balancing the complex interests of the military, Church, and civil society. And her stock has gone up considerably based on her now tested-by-fire political savvy. But the bottom line is that she has solidified her position while ignoring the masses.
GMA has recently pledged her support to the National Anti-Povery Commission - a well-intentioned group whose mission is to ensure "meaningful participation of marginalized sectors" in planning and implementation of anti-poverty programs. We can only hope she is serious about it in a way that her predecessors have never been. The tendency in the Philippines, as in many other developing countries, has been to give lip service to poverty alleviation, only to quickly place the issue on the back burner with overarching goals of economic growth taking precedence. That's what happened under Aquino and Ramos.
Addressing the issue of poverty in a serious and sustainable fashion will not be easy. For one thing, the Philippines now has a huge budgetary deficit in the billions of pesos and seriously stalled economic growth. Investors are hiding, yet large capital infusions are badly needed to boost productivity and create jobs to keep up with the always and rapidly growing labor force. But will that happen in today's globalized economy? Why should a rational multinational corporation invest here, and take on the many challenges and problems of doing business in the Philippines, when there are so many other options? Why indeed?
Donor agencies and development professionals will have to play a key role. But the problem in development work is that those who formulate policies and programs, whether with the World Bank, USAID, or whomever, have never been poor. It's all pretty abstract, and "fast track poverty alleviation projects" designed by voodoo economists from New Haven or Berkley aren't necessarily the answer. And the country's long-term prospects for economic development can't be addressed with international handouts; the private sector must play a key role and the entrenched elites must eventually lighten up their rate of exploitation and show a willingness to help their less fortunate brethren.
In closing, a quick quote from JFK is in order: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." The bottom line is that, like a forest in the American West during a long drought, the Filipino social volcano is basically waiting for a spark. The country got off lightly this time. In my humble opinion, it's a wonder the Mayday mob didn't grow even larger and march into elite enclaves like Forbes Park in Makati to exact their long-awaited revenge. If I were in their shoes, I'd be out there lugging a big two-by-four over my shoulder and throwing chunks of cement at capitalists. And if I were a leftist or communist organizer, I'd be out there signing 'em up by the truckload.
|...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.||
About Clarence -
Other Columnists |
|See also Clarence Henderson's Philippines Capsule and Prospect Reviews at Asia Market Research dot Com|
Asia Pacific Management Forum Asia Market Research dot com Branding Asia dot com
asia's only dedicated daily ezine for the asian business, management, strategy & marketing professional
research articles news independent columnists business strategy market & street intelligence
© Asia Pacific Management Forum and Clarence Henderson 2001
|email updates | email this page | discuss | search | today's asian business strategy news | advertise | about|
|daily asian news, research & commentary for the international business strategy, market research & strategic management professional|