TIME Person of the Year: Barack Obama

Oh really. Was there ever any doubt?

To mark this moment, here is the full text of my first piece for Planet Philippines. It captures everything Obama means for this off-shore Filipino observer.

Change and Revolution
by Martin Benedict Perez

I do not see Barack Obama as an African-American. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, he was raised by his grandparents in the islands of Hawaii and moved on to Indonesia where he was joined by a half-sister of Indonesian and American descent. He often says that his family reunions span at least three continents; it is no surprise therefore that when he became President-elect on November 4th, Kenya declared a holiday the next day. His political identity goes beyond his race, and it is this that makes him such a compelling figure.

Barack Obama is the ultimate immigrant success story. His father went on to America believing that it was the land of opportunity, and his son moved on to become its first African-American President and the caretaker of a proud civil rights tradition highlighted by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. As he himself said in his victory speech, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Thus it is no surprise how the historic nature of his win dominated the headlines. But Obama may even mean more. In an era where migration has shattered the barriers to opportunity, and information communication technology has blurred the boundaries between peoples and cultures, Barack Obama also presents a new type of leader. He promises to be a truly global figure, and with that comes new challenges and opportunities too.

Writing from the Philippines, I noticed an odd silence after his win. Not from our pundits and commentators; they had too much to say about how Obama won and McCain lost. Not from the man on the street; Philippine politics hardly matters to them so how much less America’s. Instead, I noticed an eerie silence from our politicians. After their knee-jerk comments (almost all to the tune of “he will be good for us”), there was not much mulling about what his victory really means for us. Though Sen. Francis Pangilinan warned about those who may peddle “hope and change” in the upcoming 2010 elections. And Sen. Aquilino Pimentel opined that our politics have not reached the maturity to go beyond “guns, goons and gold.”

But there is no discourse whatsoever about how we go beyond guns, goons and gold. There is no discussion yet about who will inspire our people to hope and believe in the change we need. The local media remain pettily fixated on the corruption scandals of the hour, and hence they are squandering the opportunity to lead the nation into an informed discussion of what an historic American election can teach us. Sadly, some quarters of society may even consider such discussions as manifestations of colonial mentality, and hence we should not be surprised when the question of “Where is our Barack Obama?” remains unanswered. Our politicians seem to be resigned to the fact that our politics is as good as it gets. And we don’t seem to be looking for something better.

This is tragic. For if one closely observes the route Obama took to the White House, one cannot miss the parallels with the Philippine story. He organized and energized campaign volunteers unlike any other in the history of politics. His campaign worked from the ground up, knocking from door to door and getting people registered and involved. He prevailed over Hillary Clinton by stringing together victories from smaller states rather taking the traditional route of dominating in the big states. He beat John McCain by keeping his supporters involved in the process until the very last ballot was cast on Election Day. What else could we call the Obama effect rather than another manifestation of People Power?

Of course, it was not People Power in our sense. It was not a mass civil disobedience to actively topple a dictator. It was not a virtuous rally against an ineffective incumbent. It was not a loud and rapturous moment that struggled for a place in history. Instead, it showed a people working together within a system to elect new leadership into power. It showed a record breaking electoral turnout that protested against an ineffective incumbent. And though it wasn’t tumultuous, the result was nonetheless a moment in history. It was People Power nonetheless.

Political commentators in the Philippines long for that time when our aspirations for People Power translate into genuine engagement in the political process. By this they don’t just mean voting. They call out to the best of us to actually run for office. To volunteer for a candidate. To advocate an issue. To engage our congressmen and senators. To sign up for the military. To teach our children, and to heal our people. Indeed, we all do this to one degree or another. But do we do so out of a desire to serve? Do we do so out of own ability and the possibility to inspire others? Do we do so because we are Filipino and we owe it to everyone else?

That day will come. And when it does there will not just be revolution, but change. However, we do not know when. All we know is that by doing our best now, we go one step closer.

We cannot say that this is not possible. A nation that hurled the world into two needless wars, left one of its cities in the path of a devastating hurricane, and began a chain of events that led to today’s financial crisis, has shown last November 4 that it can change. Barack Obama just happened to be at the right place at the right time, but it made all the difference. What the Americans had was a belief in their capacity for change, so perhaps we start with that.

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2 Comments

  1. Obama victory is a watershed moment that is soul-stirring and a moment in which we all would remember as the time in which the world as we knew it had changed.

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