What Good is Bad News?: Some thoughts on the half truths we tell our people

When I was in China in 2005, I caught our tour guide, George, making a joke.

“Welcome to Shanghai,” he began as we walked through what appeared to be their premiere shopping avenue. “We have the richest politicians here.

“One day, one top city official entertained another official from Kenya. They went to a fancy restaurant and had a wonderful Chinese meal that lasted for hours. After dinner, the Kenyan official was curious how much that meal cost the Chinese official. He asked him if the meal was too expensive for a government official.

“The Chinese official merely said, ‘See that bridge out there?’ Then they look out the window. ’10 percent.’ Then the Chinese official gestured to his wallet.

“The Kenyan official just smiled, clearly amused.

“A year later, it was the Chinese official’s turn to visit Kenya. After all the official functions, the Kenyan official entertained him at one of their premiere villas. They had a hearty meal too, and after, the Chinese official asked he Kenyan if it was too much for him to prepare such a meal.

“The Kenyan simply said, ‘See that bridge out there?’

“The Chinese official look outside but saw no bridge. He had a confused look on his face.

“Then the Kenyan gestured at his wallet and said, ‘One hundred percent.'”

And that is actually a joke on corruption. Whenever they would talk percentages, that would be the commission they get from the project. At one point in the tour, I approached George and in a manner of speaking, asked him what was so funny about it.

“It happens all the time!” George exclaimed.

“What does?” I ask.

“Corruption. Everybody knows they get at least 10% for every project.”

“Everybody?”

“Yes, that’s accepted here.”

“That’s interesting.”

“Why? Is the Philippines corrupt too?”

I told George that most of my people — that would be us — see our country as the most corrupt in the world. He simply laughed and said, “I thought we were.”

I remembered this story after an activity I did today with one class where I checked their perceptions on how they see our country. There was a unanimous response when I asked them to step on the line if they felt that our country was the most corrupt country in the world. The entire class ended up on the line.

It didn’t get any better when I asked them whether we were one of the poorest countries in the world.

My class and I processed their responses and we discovered that they have learned of these perceptions through mostly the media, their parents, and then their [former] teachers. I suppose that if our youth are destined to become the hope of our nation, they have to learn what despair is first, right? I disagree.

I disagree especially when the youth choose not to vote. I disagree especially when the youth choose to leave the country. I disagree especially when the youth feel like giving up. And I disagree most especially so that they could choose to stand their ground and make a difference.

This is not to generalize that all youth have given up of course, but only to acknowledge that they live in a society that makes it so easy to. I continue to work with students who everyone else sees as the best of the best. And yet even among them there is a dangerous prevailing pessimism (or practicalism?) that lead many to invest their intellectual and social capital in another country that would pay them more. What more for those who have less? If those who have everything can give it all up, what more those who have nothing and can go nowhere?

On my way home from work, I ride with the tide of the rush hour and can’t help but smell the resignation in the air. The pollution dims the sunlight, casting a heavy shadow over the city. The roads slow to a crawl and as I look around the other drivers, I can’t help but imagine what could be going through their minds. Most of them have that look in their eyes. The look that even those falling in line for buses, jeeps and the MRT have in theirs too. The look that people have when hailing a cab. A look accompanied by drooped shoulders, a subtle frown and a heart heavy with the weight of the world. A look that simply says, “I shouldn’t be here.”

I shouldn’t be here. But we are. So what do we make of it?

On the most basic level, to begin believing that we can make a difference or that we can even change things in the slightest requires that we are able to stand on our own feet. Filipinos aren’t the most confident of people, but we do have our moments when we cheer on our boxing heroes and everybody else who have climbed mountains, whether it be physical, economic or intellectual. The Filipino is a truly global competitor, but then all politics is local.

Something is weighing down on our shoulders all the time, dimming our perceptions and dashing our hopes. It used to be that news reports chanting our global corruption standing or the number of people still hungry would rouse our people to action. Now, they just rouse our people further to apathy.

What good is bad news? Why sow pessimism, mistrust and discord? For the sake of truth perhaps, but whose? In a country in need of nation-building, we have a mass media focused on station-building. For the sake of ratings, they have forsaken responsibility and citizenship for marketability and sensationalism. And while there are those who promise fearless views, all we get peddled is biased news.

It is clear to me that our country is plagued by despair mongers. Our country is in bad shape, and they’re here to tell us that it’s much worse. We have too many people who ask the tough questions but come with barely the roughest answers.

Our people too quickly believe that we are the most corrupt country in the world. But do they even know what that means? For one, there are too many indices measuring corruption. Each index has its own standard and agenda, especially when it is peddled by the media. And yet despite this, what never makes it to our people is that there are many forms of corruption. You have procedural ones like in George’s country. You have institutionalized ones like in ours.

Perhaps, it would be a good perspective to give our people that corruption is done not just by politicians. When you slip two hundred pesos into an MMDA’s shirt pocket after being caught, that is corruption. When you run a red light because no one is looking, that is corruption. And when you receive pocket money from a candidate during election time, you are both being corrupt.

We surrender too quickly to the fact that we’re the most corrupt country, yet are even quicker to put the blame squarely on our politicians. It must be made clear to our people that corruption is not a political disease but a social one. Anytime you take a shortcut because the legitimate way is too much a hassle, that is corruption.

In principle, I disagree that we are the most corrupt country in the world. Looking at the most recent study of Transparency International, there are about forty countries in the world more corrupt than we are. But perhaps I would agree with it in theory, given the Filipino culture as it is. We are only the most corrupt country because we all made it so.

Another perception common to many Filipinos is the belief that we are the poorest country in the world. This is simply wrong. Our economic indicators are all fine and our country has even been growing lately. However, why does this perception persist?

One reason not often stated in many analyses is that globalization has exposed the Filipino to foreign ways of life. The American lifestyle, with its Hiltons, Trumps and emphasis on opportunity, is particularly tempting. The diaspora only reinforces this, with OFWs telling stories to their relatives at home of how life is so much better since it’s cooler and it simply pays so much higher.

But another reason this perception persists is that for the majority of our people, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. A sizable chuck of our population would chide me and label me elitist for even suggesting that it isn’t true that we are poor. Fair enough. Thus I would rather phrase the problem not as why we are the poorest country in the world.

I would rather ask why there remains to be a large, poor majority despite our economic progress. Isn’t that a more sensible question to ask?

At this point, I would put the spotlight back on government and ask them what is happening to our money. But people like you, George and I already know the answer.

People often fall into the chicken-and-the-egg trap. There is this very popular mode of thinking that asks, “Who to blame first?” Do we develop economically before we can make sure that the politicians get high enough salaries in order to stop being corrupt? Or do we kick out all the politicians and put more fiscally responsible people into power?

Instead, the approach I would rather adopt is one of confluence, an approach where I recognize that there is a multitude of factors at work and while one of them can tip the rest, there is no single factor that we can decisively identify as a catalyst or ground zero.

Thus in the fight against corruption or poverty, there is no single arena. We need new blood in politics. We need more capital flowing within our country. We need more of our minds present here. We need to implement the too many laws authored to protect the disenfranchised. The rural areas are in need of micro-financing, and the urban areas require greater civic education.

The fight is fought on so many fronts, with every one of us having something at stake in the battle. In taking things as a confluence, the only guarantee is that we citizens will never run out of things to do.

I have always been a believer in dharma, the sacred duty that one performs to achieve liberation from karma. I am not one to author or subscribe to a universal, totalitarian philosophy that would mobilize our people to a common good since that always brings up the problem of whose good. Instead, all I hope for our people is that they do the best in whatever it is they do, whether they be doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers business owners, students, or teachers.

Perhaps what we all just need is a little nudge, a little awareness that anything we do goes a long way. We all live in a society that makes it so easy to give up but in the end, we all have something to live for. We all have our families and what we want to be. We all have the future to think of, and the legacies we wish to leave behind.

Lately, I’ve come to grips with what I’ve come to live for. I saw it in the eyes of the one hundred fifty people I met last week. It was the same light I saw the year before, and the years before that. It was the light of the future, reflected in these young men and women who can make it all possible.

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9 Comments

  1. I totally agree with all you said sir. Haha I was thinking about the question you asked before on the link between the problems we have in the political and economic fronts and well I was kinda stumped with the chicken-and-egg thing of which came first. But I guess, as you said, its irrelevant. Our nation needs to attack both problems at the same time. I guess the solution begins with understanding the problems in the right perspective.

    My parents and I often have “intellectual arguements” over my future. They want me to work abroad and they feel my foundation can really bring me to places. I want to work here. I guess if there was a lot more good news coming out of the media, it’ll be easier to defend my position, using something more compelling than nationalism (because well nationalism can’t exactly feed people, directly at least).

  2. Great point you raised there. There is actually so much good to be said about our country, but it hasn’t been the focus of the media. It’s there. You just have to find it. I hope your years in the Ateneo show you something. Good luck! 🙂

  3. we aren’t one of the poorest, yes, but we shouldn’t be content with not being dead-last. The sad part is, whatever the truth may be we have this notion that the country will never improve as long as our politicians are corrupt hogs. That’s hypocrisy seeing as all this vote-selling, buying and whatnot shouldn’t work unless the people are actively participating in it. We need education. The people must be cured of indifference.

    I think that real and evident change will begin with one politician. One that can effectively shatter and defy the well-known image of our corrupt senators and other government officials. But the question is, will such a hero ever come to rouse the Filipino people from numbness?

  4. I am confident that the one person you’re looking for will come around, but then again I’m no longer a believer in the Messiah complex. It doesn’t take just one, but everyone. That is why I agree with you. We need education.

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  6. To add to your confluence list: We need to have hope and optimism that we will be better. We need to point our the positive things we see.

    The tipping point might be near. And I believe it will be on or before 2010. Just my gut feel =)

    Off topic: check out Taste of Asia post at abuggedlife.com or any of the other blogs. i’m coming and i hope to see you there too just to chill.

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