17 November 2006

Belmont Club on the Overseas Filipino Revolution

At the end of a long post comparing and contrasting insurrection and pacification efforts in Iraq now and the Philippines a century ago, Belmont Club offers an interesting take on the socioeconomic revolution now underway in the Philippines.
What finally weakened the Filipino elite was economic globalization. By the late 20th century the descendants of the illustrados had nearly run their patrimony into the ground. And to cover up their failures they resorted to the time-tested technique of scapegoating their enemies; first blaming the economic role of foreigners; then junking the American-era Constitution modeled largely after that of the US; finally in 1992 closing the last of the American bases .... The one legacy they had not succeeded in completely dismantling was that of the Thomasites [President McKinley's Peace Corps?]. English remained the official, though declining, medium of higher instruction until 2001 when it was finally replaced by Pilipino at all levels of education. The displacement was to last two whole years.

Even as the "nationalists" put the capstone on their decaying edifice the "peasants" were deserting their structure wholesale. By the early 21st century fully 11% of the entire Filipino population had fled to work abroad, though the percentage was probably higher. As a proportion of population it was a diaspora unprecedented in modern history. There are twelve million overseas Filipinos. By comparison there are only 35 million overseas Chinese. In 2003 the Philippine elite woke to the fact that overseas Filipinos were literally keeping their decaying kingdom afloat, providing 13.5% of total GDP, chiefly in sums sent to relatives. That year the Philippine Department of Education ordered English reinstated as the medium of instruction. Like some strange delayed explosion, the Thomasite weapon had detonated a hundred years into the future. But this time it was not the American teachers who crossed oceans to teach Philippine peasants. It was the Philippine peasants who went overseas to work and to learn.

Contemporary Manila is reeling under the impact of the Overseas Filipino revolution. Some of the changes are subtly cultural. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos of lower-class origin return for holidays or furlough between contracts with more money than the old social elite. They often return with more sophisticated consumer tastes and better foreign language skills then their social betters, who have never been to anything other than local finishing schools. In particular, many Filipinos of lower-class origin speak American or British standard English learned by immersion overseas unselfconsciously, at a stroke removing the class stigma that often attended the use of fluent English. The ultimate testimony to the return of English has been the widespread rise of that bizarre product of globalization, the Korean-run English academy for Filipinos, pitched at the those desperate to learn enough English to go abroad for a job. One of these unusual academies is shown below beside the another compelling reason to learn English: the Internet Cafe. If anything symbolizes the Overseas Filipino revolution, it is these English academies cheek by jowl with Internet portals.

But if some changes are subtle, others are glaringly obvious. Almost overnight, the ability to stand in line at a ticket booth or at a taxi stand has become a mainstream Filipino value in a country formerly renowned for jumping queues. At a business district in mid-Manila, thousands of call-center workers -- another incentive to learn English and hook into the wider world -- stop for fast-food meals at restaurants open on a 24 hour basis before manning workstations serving every corner of the globe. Perhaps most importantly, many Filipinos no longer expect the government to do anything for them. They simply go out and do it for themselves. A country in which telephones were until recently a comparative rarity has become a hive of cell phones and the text-messaging capital of the world. Nor does anybody rely on government mail when a private courier can be used. Coup rumors which until recently have set the country on its ears are now greeted with indifference. It is the elites who are treated with a amused condescenscion, as a source of entertainment.

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