Stepping into a troubled future

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Myk Miravalles on Unsplash

Although many journalists and socio-political writers, including myself, have been relatively consistent in pointing out how disruption is the central trait of the global environment, this very thought is way too often dismissed or simply glossed over. It seems to me that many already feel so stressed out with daily living that they do not care for more. Telling them that there is more makes them reluctant readers or non-readers.

In the Philippine scene, I have been fortunate enough to receive daily analyses about the most-read posts on social media or the most popular articles and television shows. I am a senior citizen in my 70s, and the topics and personalities most followed usually belong to the entertainment sector. Every so often, sports events and characters make it, too, primarily when international tournaments are staged and Filipino talents perform well.

Every so often, too, but not often enough, more substantial topics make it to top-of-mind issues. They are primarily controversies and scandals involving dirty, corrupt deals or violent incidents. For the past year, the shocking and painful increases of many food items and the uncontrollable rise of fuel products and electricity have also made headlines. Political issues like confidential funds have been noisier than the alarming economic weakening that seems to fly above the common understanding of most Filipinos.

There is a large amount of escapism among Filipinos for several reasons. The food-poor and food-insecure comprise 50% of Filipinos. When your lack of food, or the very fear of missing out on a meal, is a daily constant, I suppose that the affected would not like to know more problems that the country is facing. They would instead focus on how to secure more money to buy food or reach out to politicians and public officials who can help. The niceties of life or the nobler values of life and culture will mean little if they compete with their pursuit of food.

Sadly for ordinary Filipinos and the poorer among us, the coming storm will not be kind. The global turbulence will find many expressions in the local scenes, from further erratic food prices, reactive oil prices when the Israel-Hamas conflict worsens and draws other Middle East players, and the weakening domestic economy that keeps spending and borrowing more than we produce. Because our base is already food-poor, we do not have enough margin for error.

In fact, even if we do not make active mistakes, the passive ones will hurt us badly. The hungry and the vulnerable to hunger who do not take on new initiatives to secure their food cannot get more assistance from the government – because the government itself has not found a formula for producing more goods and services to grow the economy. When the leader cannot lead the way through economic challenges with a grand and doable enough vision to reverse the trend, the food-poor followers will become hungrier. And when the bottom teeters, the upper 50% will also feel tremors.

The challenge of government and other societal leaders is how to cushion the suffering of the largest sector of the population yet simultaneously urge and teach them to be more self-reliant. Just aiding them without the twin track of enabling them is to weaken them further. That is why poor and ordinary Filipinos know little beyond asking for aid. It is not their conscious dream to be active players in nation-building by increasing their productive capacity. Maybe they do not know how. Perhaps the rest of society and the government do not know how to make them, either.

“If I suggested that we discard elections and, instead, conduct auctions for all electoral positions, that strange idea makes more sense today. We do not need Smartmatic; we do not need the present Comelec; instead, we may need a national accounting firm to handle future elections.”

It has become customary for Filipinos to expect material assistance from the government. Funny, it also applies to those who are not food-poor or food-insecure. From all the data and opinions that experts have been giving, only 20% of Filipinos feel confident enough to claim that they are not poor. At the same time, learning poverty at 90% crosses into that non-poor sector.

We expect from government or should expect leadership and governance that are effective, efficient, and transparent. We should not tolerate corruption, but expecting honest and clean power is not realistic anymore. Vote-buying is part and parcel of any election; anti-vote-buying initiatives are pathetic because the politicians know they are part of the problem.

I may have said it out of sarcasm after the 2022 presidential elections, but now I am convinced that vote-buying is the most critical factor for a political victory. If I suggested that we discard elections and, instead, conduct auctions for all electoral positions, that strange idea makes more sense today. We do not need Smartmatic; we do not need the present Comelec; instead, we may need a national accounting firm to handle future elections.

What we need most of all, though, remains the same. We need Filipinos to increase their capacity to produce – to grow more food, to manufacture more products, to learn more skills for an industrial and digital world. Only citizens with the ability to be self-reliant can build a strong Philippines. Only that kind of citizenry can force honesty, transparency, and efficiency in governance. Only a capable and determined citizenry can demand and enforce new laws that will be relevant to them as well.

In other words, work to transition the top-down leadership to a bottom-up pathway for economic and political development. Just development of economic and political capacity because there has been none for most Filipinos. If the learned cannot match their superior knowledge, power, and wealth with superior ethics and deep concern for the common good, then the rest of society must find their own way to their aspirations.

That, however, is easier said than done. Only a profoundly frustrated citizenry will cross the line of resignation and tolerance and leap into the unknown. Yet, there is little sign of that. The continued hardship of the disadvantaged will probably stay for more generations to come.

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