Bayan O Sarili

by Jose Ma. Montelibano
The movie “Heneral Luna” is touching the hearts of many. If it can be shown, especially to the poor who cannot just afford to pay to watch movies, it will resonate to millions.
That is how much I have to thank the movie, because it struck an inner chord, buried as it is too deep to hum its tune often enough. The phrase, bayan o sarili, is not a new, not in spirit, not in form. I can see and hear in my mind so many patriots, in trying circumstances, against the Spaniards, against the Americans, against the Japanese, resorting to this phrase.  But without external threats, we forget. That is why we should keep asking ourselves, bayan o sarili, every morning when we wake up.
It is high time, too, that we shrug off the ever-recurring illusion that a savior lies ahead, waiting only for the right time, for the right circumstance, to suddenly burst into the scene to bring this country to peace and prosperity. It has not happened, and it will never happen—not in a democracy.  Of course, good governance is a blessing. It is an ideal that we can pray for. However, it is a dream that can only come true more from our efforts and less from those who govern.

The misunderstanding of what democracy is leads to the illusion of good governance without its more crucial counterpart—good citizenship. Democracy, after all, is less about good governance than it is about participative citizenship, the common good and the majority rule being its most fundamental principle. Good governance is something any form of government can aspire for, but good citizenship is the unique feature that defines democracy.

How can our people transition from submission to responsible contribution? Most cannot, not from the platform of poverty. That is why we have remained weak, because an impoverished people can never bee strong. And a weak people fed with the panacea of good governance over participative citizenship will find it next to impossible to shed off a dependency on masters, Filipino or foreign.
I wonder if those who have been pushing for good governance ever since the Philippines gained independence in 1946 can say we have been better governed after their 70-year effort.  I remember that in the 2010 presidential elections, corruption and poverty remained the monsters defying all previous moves to dismantle them. I suspect that the 2016 presidential elections will not stray far from the same issues, the same cancers eroding the body politik.
It is undeniable that millions of Filipinos have crawled up the ladder from poverty to a notch or two beyond it, thanks to the OFWs and the migrants who keep supporting their families here. But even the opportunity to work abroad is a development we only responded to, not the work of good governance.
It is also undeniable that the information technology thrust of the developed world provided a unique opportunity for Filipinos who have taken on to IT work like duck to water.  They follow the path that Filipino mariners and entertainers had started so long ago, from Filipino talent and culture, not from good governance.
I am so happy that it has been the quiet contribution, creativity, productivity, and sacrifice of millions that have lifted the country, if only to prove that the citizenry has power to survive, even progress, despite weak governance. The only problem is that the same citizenry devalues its worth and contribution, still hooked to the illusion of messiahs in the political circle.
Leadership cannot resist exploitation of a weak and dependent people. A nation of laws would be ideal, just as the possibility of good governance. Unfortunately, life does not go that way. The laws created by the top can never be against them, and what is not against them will naturally continue to favor them. Only the majority of Filipinos, including the more enlightened from the top, can be the counterforce against abuse and exploitation. A nation of laws needs gestation, needs to become the norm, a rising majority is its only guarantee of being.
In another election, we too eagerly look for our political saviors, for the magical few who can do it all for us. There is no greater formula for failure. Decade after decade, even the return of authoritarian rule, is testament to the failure of that mindset. We keep looking out, looking up, as though gods and demigods will exempt us from our obligation and contribution to our own well-being.
I think about what must have entered the thoughts of our heroes, of Rizal, Bonifacio and Luna. They must have agonized at our vulnerability to divisiveness, at how we tear at each other, how we have depended so much on the perennial few despite their penchant for betrayal. But they must have seen that this is the inevitable journey, the struggle for unity. They must have wept silently, but still offered their lives for the future generations.
It is the advent of the 21st century in a world that seems so different from what it was a hundred years ago. Admittedly, the changes have been phenomenal, and our heroes and patriots then will not recognize the Philippines today.  But they will be quick to recognize what has not changed, the same bickering and politicking at the top—and the same dependency of the ordinary people on those who cannot be trusted.
The question—bayan o sarili?—is no less provocative, no less necessary, today as it was a hundred years ago. And it should not remain a question of one leader to another, but of each Filipino to himself or herself. If we want to have a strong nation, a proud nation, that means us, more us here on the ground than them at the top. Because we have been set free, because Rizal, Bonifacio, and Luna died for us, and because we must prove them right.

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