Understanding Philippine Culture

19 Dec 2019

The topic UNDERSTANDING PHILIPPINE CULTURE is so broad that we won’t know where to start. So, instead of discussing random attitudes and propensities among Filipinos and enumerating a rather inexhaustible list of individual “traits,” I will choose one value orientation--Philippine Collectivism--and show how many of these so-called Filipino “traits,” can be subsumed under the Collectivism--Individualism continuum. I have discussed this idea more exhaustively in my recently published book WHEN TURTLES COME HOME: A MEMOIR ON LIFE IN THE PHILIPPINES (available at Amazon.com or FullyBooked).

The psychologist Richard Nesbitt asked his experimental subjects to pick two of the three items that should go together, namely,

     COW,      CHICKEN,      HAY

Or, in a similar exercise

     TRAIN,      BUS,      RAIL TRACKS

He concluded that those who picked Cow and Hay, then Train and Rail Tracks are COLLECTIVISTS to varying degrees. Those who chose Cow and Chicken, then Train and Bus are INDIVIDUALISTS.

Collectivists think primarily of the needs of their group and favour interdependence, harmony or smooth interpersonal relationships, cooperation and accommodation, generosity, loyalty, and respect for hierarchies. Individualists, on the other hand, favour independence, personal freedom and autonomy, self-reliance, assertiveness, and competition. Individualists pride themselves in personal achievements whilst collectivists emphasise their affiliations.

Some say that we can trace the development of collectivism and individualism to centuries of cultural practices. Perhaps, we can even think back to some ten thousand years ago when our ancient forefathers, the first farmers, planted their staple food of, say, rice or wheat. The planting of rice is dependent on cooperation with your neighbours as rice irrigation is complex, whereas wheat only needs the skills of an individual and some rainfall. Over the millennia this value has been supported by myths and legends in a society’s traditions. For example, Confucius emphasised unity, filial piety, and the idea of reciprocity. America, on the other hand, was built on the premise of the myth popularised by the writer Horacio Alger, who filled his books with impoverished characters succeeding in life by dint of merit through hard work. Examples of collectivistic cultures are the Philippines and Japan. Examples of individualistic cultures are the U.S. and the U.K.

Thus, when Filipinos say mabait, (good) we do not mean someone is honest or fair, but rather that they are easy to be with. Conversely, when we say someone is suplada, a derogatory term, we mean that she is not warm and friendly, even though she may be kind and fair. These examples can go on and on and we can slot many specific Filipino values, attitudes, and practices within the Collectivism--Individualism Continuum.

One endemic lifestyle that readily comes to mind is the practice of corruption. Where does corruption fit when we consider this model? Firstly, I think, corruption is not necessarily dysfunctional in the development of societies. When a country is young and institutions have yet to mature, corruption could circumvent many rules which are unclear, redundant, or misconceived—thus, by-passing the red tape which could hinder productivity, and henceforth, societal development. The perfect example is the United States at the end of the 18th Century, as the newly independent country expanded exponentially to the West, building railroads from coast to coast, mining gold and silver, and constructing a nation out of annexed lands previously owned by the Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, French, Russians. In only a bit over a hundred years, it morphed from a fledgling country to the richest in the world. They would not have been able to do this without the rampant practice of corruption. The West was not called The Wild Wild West for nothing.

However, unchecked corruption can stunt the growth of societies, keeping its institutions weak and immature, and in the worst-case scenario, killing off useful institutions, and pushing the state to careen towards failure. Failed states are characterised by the absence of institutions, thus producing chaos instead of the rule of law.

So how does collectivism promote corruption? And how come Japan, a collectivistic county, is not corrupt? That’s because the Philippines has the misfortune of suffering from a variety of concomitant factors which, together, feed on collectivistic practices.

Firstly, collectivism necessarily comes with hierarchy. Hierarchies have a power structure. Those occupying the higher rungs have more power than those occupying the lower rungs. In a modern state, power should be used for the welfare of the community. Collectivists are, however, encouraged to first think of their group before their community. When resources are abundant, this is not a problem because there are enough for everyone. However, the Philippines as a poor country does not have sufficient resources to meet even the most basic needs of the community, such as social security. Further, this is coupled by a highly skewed income distribution, concentrating wealth on the hands of the very few, and hence developing a system of patronage.

Secondly, collectivism by its very nature, has a weaker concept of private property, as resources are supposed to be shared amongst members of the group according to their needs, not according to merit. There is moreover an outlook among poor countries that resources are finite. The pie can only grow to a certain size. Hence, if by fortune or God’s grace, one has a bigger share, others will have smaller shares. In short, there are winners and losers. It is incumbent on winners, therefore, to share what they have. Contrast this to the outlook of richer, and more achieving nations, where the size of the pie is limitless, bounded only by one’s imagination and industry. When we talk of the “dishonesty” of many Filipinos, therefore, we should think of it in this context.

Thirdly, our young institutions, which nonetheless were functioning by the time we had gained our independence, have been weakened through undisciplined actions. Over the years, they have not only remained stunted but have regressed. Like people, Institutions need exercise in order to become strong and to mature.

As ordinary people, what can we do in order to mitigate corruption? We can think of ourselves as those on the receiving end of corrupted institutions. In order to survive, do we draw a line in the sand, deciding that coffee money given through the palm of the hand, are administrative costs? But when do we say, enough is enough?

Or perhaps, we have greater effectiveness as leaders of our households, of our classrooms, of our companies—because we can then create structures that can limit the choices of our subordinates. These structures will force compliance, and over time, commitment to a changed attitude. For example, when I first left the country in the 1970s, I cringed about going to the airport as each passenger would crowd around the check-in counter, waving their ticket to the agent, wanting to be served first. When I got back in the early 2000s, I was pleased to see that a roped enclosure had been placed in front of the counter, forcing passengers to queue. After checking in, I went to the ladies room and was pleased to see that, without the ropes, the women were queuing; albeit, instead of one long queue, shorter ones were formed in front of each cubicle, thereby often obstructing the way of those leaving. Still, I thought that was a big improvement.

What was happening here? Leon Festinger, another psychologist, says that there has been an Attitude Change. Attitude is composed of three elements—Thinking, Feeling, and Acting. All these three elements must be in sync, otherwise, we feel conflicted within ourselves. We think as we feel, and we act as we feel and think. Anyone who wants to change the attitude of another person must dislodge one of these elements so that it pulls the rest into a new consonance, thereby restoring psychological comfort. The simplest way of doing this is through coercion by means of a changed structure. Giving new information such as smoking causes cancer can easily be rejected, or new slogans such as, Ang bayan ko, mahal ko (my country my love) to appeal to the emotion may not tickle the feelings sufficiently. On the other hand, as customs supervisor, for example, I could renovate a room such that privacy is minimized, by say, having glass walls and doors, installing CCTV cameras, and giving the inspectors desks with no drawers. I would then have removed choices among these inspectors until new habits would have been formed.

Most of us, in one way or another, supervise some Filipinos. If it is true that corruption has filtered through the value system of our people, then perhaps we each can do our share to ensure that we, as ordinary citizens regain what has been lost in our moral compass.