Monday, August 21, 2006

The Philippine Soul

"We Filipinos of today are soft and easygoing. Our tendency toward parasitism is not inclined to sustained strenuous effort. Face-saving is our dominant note in the confused symphony of our existence. Our sense of righteousness often is dulled by a desire for personal gain."

This powerful indictment of the Filipino character was made close to 70 years ago on August 19, 1938 by Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. In a Time magazine article dated August 28, 1938 ("Moral Criticism"), Quezon pontificated on the "state of the Philippine soul" in a speech delivered to 40,000 students and teachers.

"We lack the superb courage which impels action because it is right," he said. "Our greatest fear is not to do wrong, but to be caught doing wrong. Our conception of virtue is conventional. We take religion lightly and we think lip-service equivalent to a deep, abiding faith. Patriotism among us is only skin deep and incapable of inspiring heroic deeds."

It was refreshing to read that a Philippine leader could actually "tell it like it is." Too often we have been so used to hearing leaders heap platitudes on how great we are as a people, how morally righteous is our collective soul, etc, ad nauseum.

But to be fair, what Quezon described as character flaws more aptly describe Philippine politicians, more than it does the Filipino people. Whether they are in the Arroyo administration or in the opposition, these politicians' collective "desire for personal gain" overwhelms any sense of righteousness they may have personally harbored at one time or another.

To be "caught doing wrong" is their greatest fear as it will diminish their chances of becoming president or even of retaining power for themselves and their families.

The true state of the Filipino people's soul, at least the best of it, may be found in the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and in the movement known as Gawad Kalinga.

Imagine the incredible sacrifices that these OFWs, especially those employed as domestics, have to make on a daily basis, in some cases in the Middle East as the virtual slaves of their employers, or even as TNTs in the US. It is the poverty of their lives in the Philippines that make them willingly choose to work in the most miserable conditions abroad just so that they can send money to feed their families at home.

There is no "desire for personal gain" for these overseas Filipino workers, only family survival.

There are close to 4,000 Filipino workers in Iraq (mostly TNTs) working at US-managed facilities where every day puts them in harm's way and yet they willingly choose to remain there because their families back home need the money they earn to survive.

Most of the 34,000 OFWs in Lebanon have decided to remain there because of work, even if Israeli planes may rain bombs on Lebanon again if the tenuous ceasefire fails.

The best of the Filipino soul can also be found in the selfless dedication of the people behind Gawad Kalinga which has so far built 19,321 homes in 809 communities throughout the Philippines. It has laid for itself the ambitious goal of building 700,000 homes in 7000 communities in 7 years. It is ahead of schedule.

Tony Meloto, the founder of Gawad Kalinga, will receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award this month on August 31 for Community Leadership for "harnessing the faith and generosity of Filipinos the world over to confront poverty in their homeland and to provide every Filipino the dignity of a decent home and neighborhood."

Those of us who heard Tony Meloto speak at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco earlier this month can attest to the truth of the citation that he truly has the gift for "inspiring Filipinos to believe with pride that theirs can be a nation without slums."

When I visited the Gawad Kalinga Baseco project in Tondo, Manila early this year, I was given a guided tour by Oscar Tuazon, the GK volunteer who was managing the project. When I asked Oscar why he was pouring all his time and effort to build these homes for the poorest of the poor, he told me that the year before, his son had been stabbed by thieves. Oscar and his wife, a registered nurse who works full-time for both of them, resolved that the best way to make all their children safe was to work to change society, to remove the slums which produce a slum mentality, the kind that caused his son to be stabbed. Working with GK was the best decision he ever made, he said.

This week marks the 128th birth anniversary of Quezon (August 19, 1878) and the 23rd death anniversary of Ninoy Aquino (August 21, 1983). Quezon derided the flaws in the Philippine soul in 1938. Ninoy, as well as Tony Meloto, Oscar Tuazon and other patriots of today, have shown that Filipinos possess "the superb courage which impels action because it is right."

In the "confused symphony of our existence", Ninoy, Tony Meloto, Oscar Tuazon, Gawad Kalinga and the OFWs inspire our souls.

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