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Is Change In Our Country Realizable At All? (Dialogue with Paul Dumol)

Manuel R. Guillermo 18.10.2008

I’m not that sorry to let 2009 go. And I definitely have aspirations for the newborn anno Domini. But before we all get quickly immersed into the business of business, let me share with you a thought-provoking encounter I had with a good old friend, Dr. Paul Dumol, last Christmas. Not known to many, Paul is a dedicated and respected contemporary authority in our midst on Philippine history. He is one who would rather defy popular conventions and myths and who would dig deeper into the makeup of the Filipino’s cultural values in its truest origin and evolution, including, to my amazement, the most intriguing topic among our people these days and would be up to the next four months or so. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
I began by asking: Paul, so, are our dysfunctional elections another sign of the mismatch between our American-style democratic institutions and that of our culture?
Dumol : Yes and no. Yes, they are the sign of a mismatch; and no, our elections are not American democratic institutions as might be popularly assumed.
Guillermo : What do you mean?
Dumol : I mean the Americans did not introduce elections into our culture.
Guillermo : I always thought, they did, as did many others, I assume.
Dumol : We have had elections since the end of the sixteenth century! When the missionaries established the first towns, they had a problem. You see, the first towns were conglomerations of barangays, and the Spaniards retained the datus as rulers, so when the barangays in a specific area were established as a town, there was a problem of who would rule over the town. The solution was elections. Obviously, the candidates were the datus. This went on till the end of the Spanish regime in 1898.
Guillermo : Wow! I’m sure very few people know that!
Dumol : An American historian has done a research on elections in Batangas in the 1890s and shown how there were all sorts of election protests—accusations of violations of election rules.
Guillermo : A bit true to form, I’d say. Were they identical to our elections today?
Dumol : Not quite. The electorate was limited to six former cabezas de barangay, six incumbent cabezas de barangay, and the outgoing gobernadorcillo. But in the beginning the electorate was all males.
Guillermo : That’s interesting. What brought about the change in the electorate?
Dumol : I suspect it is the problem we have now: that some people thought (the Spaniards, to be exact) that the wrong persons were getting elected because of popularity and not because of better qualifications. The reduced electorate was first imposed on the Tagalog and Pampango provinces around 1650, roughly two generations since the first elections were held. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, elections in all the Christian towns were limited to the reduced electorate. You see, wealth among the datus before the Spaniards came was not determined by how much money you had, but by how many alipin you had. The Spaniards abolished slavery in the Philippines, but Filipinos didn’t like that—neither the datus nor the alipin. So the relationship between datus and alipin continued covertly. In such a society, elections would be won by whoever had the most alipin. Basically, that’s what’s going on today in essence.
Guillermo : What do you mean?
Dumol : Well, I mean that today you have a huge segment of the population dependent on the patronage of a few. And that’s basically what it was like before the Spaniards came. If you have elections in such a society with everyone voting, then the best patron wins. That is still how it is today in the Philippines. There is a proposal to change that by switching to the parliamentary system, in effect reducing the electorate of the head of government to a few. That’s what the Spaniards attempted for two centuries and a half: it didn’t work. It did not guarantee better gobernadorcillos. It did not change Philippine society.
Guillermo : Now that you kinda alluded to that aspect, you don’t think then that the so-called Cha-cha would improve things?
Dumol : The Cha-cha is needed, I think. Everyone agrees the current constitution must be changed in this or that. But I don’t think switching to a parliamentary system would improve matters. We are barking up the wrong tree.
Guillermo : What’s the right tree?
Dumol : Values. Getting our values right. Institutions are tools, and they’re only as good as the hands which wield them. Get the best institutions and give them to people with the wrong values, and they will be distorted. Having the right values is fundamental.
Guillermo : Can you give examples of the right values?
Dumol : Thinking of the common good and not just about my family’s good. Respecting the dignity of others and not taking advantage of other people or manipulating them. Making a contribution to society instead of waiting for government to move.
Guillermo : How do you get the right values?
Dumol : Education. Not just formal education (through the school system), but informal and non-formal. Enlist the mass media.
Guillermo : But we’ve had campaigns for better values before. They don’t seem to work.
Dumol : I think we have had gains. EDSA 1 marked a gain. The whole civil society movement it pushed is a gain. And there are many more people today who are intolerant of violations of democracy than there were, say, twenty-five years ago. Society improves slowly.
Guillermo : Much too slowly, I’m afraid.
Dumol : But that’s the lesson from history. Review the histories of the democracies of North America and Europe: they took centuries to get where they are.
Guillermo : Oh, alright. Now that you said that, the United States began in 1776. Just a little less than three centuries and a half, I’d say.
Dumol : They were standing on the shoulders of the English. You have to input the centuries of English history that preceded the migration of those Englishmen to America.
Guillermo : Any way to speed up the process?
Dumol : Sure. Mass media. Quality education. I am fond of saying that we in the Philippines have compressed 1600 years of European history into 500 years. Modern-day Philippines, with its skyscrapers and highways, is the creation of Filipinos, not of some workforce imported from some foreign nation. Our professionals who have been schooled in the Philippines do well, very well in fact, in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Guillermo : Then why are we where we are today?
Dumol: You know the answer. Our government. Our politics. It’s the old datu politics extrapolated from the humble barangay to the entire archipelago. Our society is a society in transition; in transition from feudalism to democracy, and we have been in transition since the Americans came. How long will the transition last? We don’t know. There’s nothing automatic about social change, and we can certainly retrogress. But there has been change, and I suspect that if a deep study were made, we would see that it has kept pace with education, quality education. Free high school education has been available in the Philippines only since 1987. That’s twenty years ago. Less than a generation. Just wait and see what will happen in another twenty years.
Guillermo : Sorry, but I won’t be around by then.
Dumol : Neither would many more of us in twenty more years. That’s why we’ve all got to make a contribution to that change, to that transition here and now. It doesn’t help that many among us continue to migrate and grouse across the ocean. One big problem we need to solve is poverty. Poverty generates most of the values inimical to democracy and is friendly to feudalism. UP has published a study showing how the fight against poverty in the Philippines, compared with our neighboring countries, has in the last eight years been wretched, shameful. We have to do something about that.
Guillermo : Going back to the coming elections, is there hope for a major change?
Dumol : I don’t think so. Not if you’re thinking on a national level.
Guillermo: That’s quite pessimistic, isn’t it?
Dumol : I don’t think so. Even if we were to elect someone excellently qualified for President, that person would have to go against an entire system, an elaborate set of values. Take a look at what Panlilio was able to do or rather not do in the small province of Pampanga. However, a small change may be possible. Doesn’t have to be drastic. The future of the country, in fact, is not in national elections, but in the local ones. There are communities today in the Philippines—municipalities and cities—that are models of how communities should be, how democracy could become a reality, how feudalism could be overcome. It is from this pool of local politicians that our candidates for national offices come. We pay little attention to local politics, and yet that is the training ground for public office and for citizenship. The test of People Power, for example, is not in using it on a president, but rather in using it on a mayor. I doubt that would happen in the near future. It would be too bloody.
Too bad what was evolving to be a very provocative conversation had to be interrupted as Paul had to rush to his next meeting and I to mine. But clearly, for all the hype that our forthcoming election evokes, our political aspirants will do well to start thinking values and start walking the talk, so to speak. I speak for many who are so darn tired of hearing “motherhood statements”.
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