Always the people

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

It has not been a good week for me as I am down with the flu. It has been such a long time since I last experienced the flu that I had forgotten how it feels. Well, I know now.

There is nothing more powerful than sickness to remind senior citizens like me about our mortality. Of course, throughout the years, I had grappled with the likelihood of death, even if only to prepare myself for that eventuality. People die all the time, but I seem to know so many of them who died recently as if to confirm that I belong to that vulnerable age range. In a group of classmates who have been tracking themselves, 20% of them who had been in the same school, in the same year, since Grade School to college, have gone ahead.

Mortality and Christmas are strange bedfellows, but they are today for me. I should be feeling better in a day or two and that will allow me to share the Christmas cheer with family and friends. But I must be grateful for having been struck by the flu because it has been a mild one and because I have been forced to go into introspection.

Senior citizenship brings with it some amount of forgetfulness. I have had my own share of it and it has provided me with several occasions to laugh at myself. But in some things, I have a very long and clear memory. While I may not have been very conscious at the early times of my life about them, I somehow recall a thread of people and events. From my earliest years, I remember the politicians, the presidential candidates, winners and losers, and issues they were talking about. Over 60 years, I have seen patterns of the same promises over the same issues, and the same failures to address those issues effectively.

The great changes have come, not because of presidents, but because of the Filipino people themselves. In fact, presidents have been unable to resolve perennial problems of poverty and corruption when they do not include the people in addressing them. In other words, people and not presidents are the real power in our country.

Take poverty. The millions of Overseas Filipino Workers over the last 35 years have lifted themselves and their families out of poverty. Yes, there was a great sacrifice in the process. Separation is an abnormal price to pay, but historical poverty is a great curse to dismantle. History tells us that many now developed nations used their own poor or peasants as armies when they do battle with other countries. The tide of material fortune depended so much on whether a country won over another and gained the proverbial loot and plunder – or whether the country lost and went deeper into poverty. But one spectacular era was when the Western countries began to attack over countries in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. From their colonization of the rest of the world, Western Europe gained their prosperity while the losers, like the Philippines and Indonesia, have yet to recover their lost prosperity.

In our case, our OFWs raised such a huge chunk of the population out of poverty. They became like soldiers for their families and motherland, but they, too, they conquered their own poverty. It was not a president but despite all presidents. They have only themselves to thank, their own determination to bear the pain of separation and the unknown treatment they could possibly get in another country. And president after president owed so much to these unsung heroes.

Of course, we now have a BPO industry that is bringing in revenue as much as OFWs. Again, it is the people themselves who slug it out daily to work in times zones not their own, punishing their body clocks along the way. Like OFWs, the BPO workers found opportunity because other countries needed their services, not because of political leadership. In fact, political leadership can only slow them down through restrictive regulations or inadequate support services.

It does not mean that our government and politicians have not been contributing to the dismantling of poverty. They are also responsible for building the necessary infrastructure that can carry the talents and roles of our people. But if we listen to all the complaints about the last several decades, it can very well seem that government and politicians did not do enough in both speeds, volume, and quality. By far, it remains not government policy or leadership but private initiatives from the people or businesses that are greatly responsible for whatever progress we have by today.

Now, to corruption. I do not think that the Philippines can claim substantial success in this field. That means government and politicians have struggled and failed, in really making us a more honest country. Corruption is extortion and bribery, public and private. Our record of corruption argues well for the case that a poor people will make a corrupt country just as the more progressive countries have become bastions of good and honest governance. It is like the chicken and the egg but I am convinced that the less poor we are, the more demanding we will be of our public officials.

I do hold an optimistic view of the future. Just as we have our OFWs and our BPO industry, we have new generations claiming their place in active society. The mindset of new generations is less rooted in past political patterns and more in rapidly advancing technology. The mobility of people, the light that the Internet brings to once ignorant minds, these make for newly empowered young generations. If they are less rooted in the past, they will be less rooted in the corruption that had enslaved our people in the past. It will be most interesting to observe if I will be granted the time, how our people and country will grow in this 21st century.

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