What’s astounding about Philippine society–that one where a handful lord it over the many–is how steadfastly it has managed to hang on despite the crisis that has afflicted it for decades (some say centuries). That’s equally true of Philippine government as we know it– though not of Philippine administrations, of which we have witnessed rapid changes in recent years. The Philippine crisis is after all also a crisis of leadership and governance as much as it is a social one.

By all standards including the very lowest, both should have long gone the way of the dinosaur. What earthy reason justifies the existence of a society in which the disparities between rich and poor are so vast a few families maintain several homes not only in this country but even abroad, while millions bed down nightly on the pavements of its putrid cities? And what does one make of a society in which the wealthy happily kill themselves daily on prawns, steak and pork while the children of the poor go without a few grains of rice, sometimes for days? And what kind of a society is it, except one begging for extinction, in which the rich send off their children to study in US and European private schools while Philippine classrooms have no desks, blackboards, chalk, and even teachers?

In recent times Filipinos are also seeing something they once saw only in Calcutta: mothers and fathers laying out flattened cardboard boxes under building doorways or waiting sheds at night while their children scavenge for food in the garbage that litters the streets. But metro Manila may be doing Calcutta worse. While the latter is notorious for its hoards of beggars, in certain intersections in metro-Manila children as young as five years old risk their young lives by scampering onboard stopped jeepneys to wipe the shoes of passengers for a few coins.

In Manila’s University Belt as well as in University of the Philippines Diliman eateries, ragged children wait for student eaters to leave so they can grab whatever left-overs there are–or just grab at the plates of eaters without waiting for them to finish. At the mouth of UP’s University Avenue where it intersects Commonwealth, children openly sniff solvent to soothe hunger pangs, pausing only occasionally to beg for coins from cars making a right turn towards Fairview.

These are some of the human expressions of the official statistics. Eleven million Filipinos–almost 14 percent, unprecedented in 50 years– were out of work last April. In 2003 the World Health Organization reported that a quarter of a million Filipino nurses had left the country for jobs and residency in other countries. A huge 12 percent of the Filipino population is working abroad, mostly as domestics, says the Department of Labor.

That many prefer to clean toilets and wash dishes in another country is understandable. Among the employed, the majority in Manila and elsewhere in the country earn wages well below the amounts needed for their families’ survival. In the National Capital Region where the mandated minimum wage is P250 a day, the monthly cost of living for a family of six has risen to P17,820, but the most a minimum wage worker can earn is P7,500 if he works every day each month including weekends and holidays. In the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a minimum wage earner can gross only P4, 200 a month by working 30 days–while the cost of living has risen to P22,400 a month, according to the National Wages and Productivity Commission.

Meanwhile, the cost of utilities, primarily electricity, is rising, as is the cost of cooking gas and other oil products, pushing inflation last October to a high of 7.1 percent, the highest in five years. In millions of households across the country of our sorrows, fathers and mothers are going out of their minds–some of them literally–trying to find the means to keep not only their bodies and souls together, but also those of their children.

Although every government this country has ever had disclaims any responsibility for Filipino poverty, blaming it instead on external factors–for example on the price of crude oil per barrel and the over-all state of the world economy–government is a crucial factor in it nevertheless. Obvious, for example, is the role of the Fidel Ramos watch in the continuing spiral of electricity rates, even as government deregulation of the oil industry has pushed the prices of cooking gas, diesel fuel and gasoline to the stratosphere.

But it is true that the Arroyo administration has brought government mismanagement and corruption to new lows. It has also brought official spin to new heights, with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself blithely claiming that she announced a fiscal crisis two months ago only to push Congress into enacting new tax laws–and then declared an end to the same crisis after a watered-down tax bill on cigarettes and liquor squeaked through Congress.

At the same time, the exponent of the Strong Republic is proving daily how actually weak both that Republic and her hold on power are. The most obvious and most recent indication of both is her bowing to the military determination to try Maj. Gen Carlos F. Garcia by court martial, which will almost certainly turn into a reverse kangaroo court. (A kangaroo court assures conviction from the start; a reverse kangaroo court assures acquittal). Although the battle for custody of General Garcia’s corpulent person has been labeled a tug of war between the Sandiganbayan and the AFP, it is in fact more than that. That battle has for subtext who and what has the real power in this country–and it’s turning out to be, as it was during martial law, the institution that has the guns over the one that doesn’t.

But Mrs. Arroyo’s claim that she had to concoct a crisis to push Congress to pass her tax laws was itself a manifestation of how weak government institutions including the presidency are, since Congress is in the first place the realm of her allies. Did Mrs. Arroyo’s ploy mean that she’s not sure of them either, which could explain why she’s once more willing to take members of the opposition into her Cabinet?

Meanwhile, so desperate for excuses for its failures has the administration become that Mrs. Arroyo’s Press Secretary has morphed into a male version of Imelda Marcos by going into absurd flights of fancy. Ignacio Bunye has been telling the poor that they can actually be happy this Christmas if only they eschewed “material things” and “gifts”–by which he probably means the food more and more families are learning to do without or at least do with less and less of, or a roof over their heads despite Mike Velarde’s P350 million loan from the Pag-Ibig Fund, to which all of us still employed have been contributing these many years.

Both Philippine society and government as we know them are a failure in design and function as outstanding as the brontosaurus, which had a huge body that needed tons of vegetation to sustain each day, but had so small a brain in its small head it needed a secondary one to control its hind quarters. Unlike the brontosaurus, however, both survive despite the laws of nature–and, one might add, the laws of God, principally that one which says that men and women being fashioned in God’s own image, to savage them as they are being daily savaged in the Philippines is an affront and insult to God himself.

Bunye and his corps of spin doctors probably have an answer to that too by now, just as they have an answer to their government’s own depressing statistics. But the really bad news is that in the Land That Time Forgot, the outstanding failures that are Philippine society and government will continue to survive in defiance of the laws of evolution. As a result they will take everyone down the slopes of misery and madness with them, with no relief either expected or in sight. At least the dinosaurs disappeared, and allowed superior mammals to flourish.


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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