Screenshot from NHCP's "Lipunang Papel"

Only two out of five can identify the three branches of government. Hardly 30 percent know how many years are congressmen’s and senators’ terms of office. A low 25 percent can name the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Only 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters vote during elections.

The claim has been made before: Filipinos are dumb and clueless and hardly deserve the enjoyment of such democratic rights as that of choosing their leaders in free elections. Jose Rizal, whom the Spaniards executed on December 30, 1896, did after all assume the ignorance of his countrymen in arguing for the need for education in the making of a free Philippines.

No, the above numbers are not about Filipino voters; they refer to the American electorate. No study has made similar information available about the former. But anecdotal evidence suggests that not only could those numbers be even worse in the Philippine setting. What most Filipinos don’t know, or are misinformed about, could also include a range of areas in governance, politics and society about which knowledge is crucial in the election of their leaders.

The mass of voters who decide the outcome of this country’s elections vote on the basis of who can best smear their rivals by revealing the most sordid details about their personal lives, who tell bad, misogynist, tasteless jokes, or who’re ready to sing and dance to their amusement.

Only the organized have ever understood what the party list system is all about, and the rest defeat its purpose by choosing those groups that further tighten the hold of political dynasties on the legislature.

It is the names of those candidates that are frequently mentioned over radio or television that they vote for. Neither candidate track record nor program of government figure in their decisions.

Human rights violations and abuse of power are as arcane to them as global warming, and they dismiss as mere trouble-makers those who call attention to them. Instead they focus on the gender and the mannerisms of candidates rather than the issues. One is dismissed as “too soft” because she’s a woman, while another is hailed as decisive, strong-willed and “man enough” to destroy his enemies, and therefore worthy of support.

They see themselves in, and approve of, such characters as a movie actor whose most frequent role was as a vigilante disdainful of the law, and a provincial despot clueless about the arts of governance but who is prepared to kill anyone who dares stand in his way.

Meanwhile, even some of those who claim to be educated — they have a degree from one of the faux universities that proliferate in this country — dismiss corruption in government as of no moment because the offender “nevertheless did something” (may nagawa naman). To justify their plan to vote for his son, some are indeed saying that of Marcos Senior: that he might have been a thief, but he built roads and bridges, anyway.

This is not just an indication of how even some of the seemingly more educated decide on who to vote for on the basis of who among the candidates is the lesser evil. It is also a symptom of how corruption has become so much a part of Philippine culture — the ways of thought and of doing things dominant in this society — that it is no longer a cause for outrage or even concern.

It shows in the ease with which bribing voters has become pivotal in winning elections. Far from being offended, the corrupted welcome their votes’ or their presence in a political rally or motorcade’s being bought and paid for. Some do excuse themselves by saying they won’t be voting for their corruptors — in the process revealing the rot in their own moral universe. Corruption is not only an issue in Philippine elections. It is also one of the deciding factors in their outcomes.

All of the above have long been evident during the frequent elections in this rumored democracy. But they do not validate claims that Filipinos are inherently stupid and corrupt. There are huge pockets of ignorance and corruption even in such supposedly “mature democracies” like the USA. Despite the science behind it, for example, various groups in that country oppose the wearing of face masks, thus contributing to the surge in COVID-19 infections. As for corruption, nothing in the Philippines can equal US officialdom’s waging multiple wars in 2003 in behalf of the oil companies in which they have interests.

In this troubled archipelago, the deficit in mass knowledge of such fundamentals as the Constitution and of government policies and their implications, as well as corruption’s enshrinement as acceptable, are the consequences of the complexities of a feudal culture that goes back to the Spanish colonial period and after.

The colonized learned how to avoid forced labor by feigning illness among others, thus making cheating a legitimate means of self-protection. Colonial rule also kept them ignorant not only through its idealization by both Church and State but also through the cultivation of such racist notions as their supposed inferiority. But as US colonials and junior partners, the power elite later learned the intricacies of ward politics through their US overlords, and have since become masters of it.

Today as in the past, the culture of corruption is the creation of, and is sustained by, the corruptors. Meanwhile, what currently feeds the continuing deficit in information are schools that teach conformity and blind obedience to authority while hardly imbuing their charges with any sense of what happened in history much less what it means. And then there are the media, whether old or new, with their emphasis on trivia, mindless entertainment, and disinformation.

Thankfully, and despite formidable odds, there is a continuing campaign — a cultural movement, if you will — that is focused on combating disinformation and mass ignorance as well as the corruption that has metastasized in Philippine governance, politics and society.

A diverse conglomerate of youth and student groups, artists and writers, academics, professionals, journalists, progressive church people, and worker and farmer leaders, it has provided the information and moral compass this country sorely needs to pull itself out of the morass of poverty, injustice and mass misery in which it has been foundering for decades. They are the very same individuals and groups that the corrupt and hopelessly ignorant oligarchs and their minions demonize and condemn and label “red” because they fear the loss of their power and their access to public funds.

What the counter-culture movement is aiming for — a society of justice, freedom, prosperity and authentic democracy — will not be achieved overnight. But if this country’s own history is any guide, it can still happen. Despite the colonial press and Spanish control over the schools and the whole of Philippine society, the novels of Jose Rizal, whose 125th death anniversary the country will mark next week, and the writings of other patriots nevertheless nurtured the consciousness that led to the founding of the Katipunan, and the founding of the first Asian republic.

Among the signs today that real change is still possible even in this country of arrested development are the focus by some media organizations and journalists in examining the track records and platforms of the candidates for various posts, the growing demand among voters for better, real choices during elections rather than “the lesser evil,” and more and more Filipinos’ refusal to abide corruption. Perhaps things are not as hopeless as they seem in these isles of despair.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from NHCP YouTube account.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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