History Inside The Balikbayan Box

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I wonder how many of us ever became interested in understanding the pasalubong tradition. It is so common among Filipinos that we simply take it for granted. In the years when I was frequently traveling, I had noticed that many people from other countries would also try to pick up a thing or two to bring home after a trip. But I just never did come across any other people, as a people, who are so captured by the practice.

Is culture, then, an excuse for bending the law? Because we feel almost forced to bring pasalubongs to loved ones, even officemates, does that make taxing by Customs of these items something to complain about? Beyond what we bring home, what about balikbayan boxes we send from abroad, even before we go home? Should these be taxed even if most items are simple giveaways like clothes, canned goods and small personal items?

No, obviously, the law is the law and no one is above the law—at least in intent if not in practice. Even cultural practices are not above the law. Lawmakers, though, would do well to understand and appreciate the power of culture before making laws that are insensitive to it. That understanding spells the difference between success and failure.

Let us assume that taxing pasalubongs, accompanied or not, is a deliberate effort to raise taxes. There is nothing wrong with that if it is made clear to people that their government is in need of money so it can operate more efficiently and provide more public services. Taxes and duties are standard sources for government revenue in most countries around the world. But taxing culture, so to speak, means forcing people to pay for something they almost cannot help but do. It takes not only a greater understanding of whatever cultural trait is to be taxed but also a more intelligent way of going about it.

Take the case of income taxes. It is always a bummer in poor countries, simply because the poor have little to give. To apply taxes on anything or anyone inside the poverty curse is kind of inhuman, almost criminal. The poor are to be helped, to be nurtured and developed, free of charge, from the largesse of greater society that has more to share, so that the collective will slowly but surely become more productive. This is usual pathway of development.

But taxes in the Philippines have a particularly twisted context. It is not uncommon in history, but it has uncommon appreciation here by those who govern. Historical amnesia is a deadly vice way beyond simple ignorance. It has both the coldness of heart and the stupidity of power.

In the remembered history of taxes, in the last 400 years, taxes were not taxes—they were tribute imposed on a conquered people to enrich their masters. Development had nothing to do with it unless development enabled the masters to exact more tribute from the people.

As I mentioned, the origin of taxation is from the origin of tribute from the conquered to enrich the conquerors. People have been fighting with one another since the dawn of mankind, and there are always winners and losers. Obviously, the rules are different for each class, for the conqueror and the conquered. The difference is not small either, more like the difference between night and day.

Paying income taxes, therefore, is particularly bitter for most Filipinos because most Filipinos were the conquered who became poor yet had to pay tribute nonetheless. The government of masters was the one studying how much to tax and how well to collect. The art was how to get the most but not push the ones taxed to rise in rebellion because the harshness of tribute was like living death anyway.

What is even more galling is that there is severity on one hand in the lives of the people who are being taxed while there is luxury in the lives of the rulers who are spending the taxes collected. National government as first understood by Filipinos mean the Spanish rulers, then the American rulers, and lastly the Japanese rulers. From the 16th century to the first half of the 20th century, or almost four hundred years, government was the enemy, tribute was the enemy, taxes were the enemy.

The relationship between conqueror and the conquered became a cultural reality. The historical amnesia of the first national Filipino rulers, and they are just 70 years old in the context of a 400-year old cultural evolution from a colonization platform, prevented them from transitioning the people from being the conquered to being the boss. Worse, forgetting history also made those in the first national governments forget to transition from being the boss to public servants. The radical “No Wang-Wang” pronouncement of President Noynoy Aquino in his inaugural speech was the first-ever serious warning to the ruling class that their entitlement to be boss was going to be challenged.

The traditional practice of giving pasalubongs has been raised to unprecedented levels simply because of one fact—that more Filipinos can go abroad than ever before. It used to be that only the very rich and their executives could go abroad. Well, that is already history because of the 20th century migration of Filipinos to basically the United States, Canada and Australia, and the awesome OFW phenomenon. With an estimated 10 million Filipinos abroad, then expect 10 million potential pasalubong givers.

The national government, particularly the Department of Finance and the Bureau of Customs, are now confronted with the sins of the past because they have forgotten history or cared little about it. Now, it is the cultural dynamics of the ruler and the ruled that is haunting them, the will of the few and the rising anger of the many.

There is a confrontation today because a forgotten history does not die; it just waits for the right time to wake up.

It is not just a balikbayan box, it is the Filipino in the box.

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