Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Then and now

In an earlier blog, I made a reference to a quote attributed to Philippine Senator Miriam Santiago that majority of Filipinos are “not educated for voting.” Senator Santiago gave the example of movie stars getting elected in Congress because of the “ignorance of the Filipino electorate.” She probably spoke the truth.
With the pervasiveness of poverty in the Philippines, it’s not unimaginable that more than a majority of the Philippine population have actually attained a level of literacy that would enable every Filipino to vote without being told what to do. However, the lady senator obviously forgot that there is a historical explanation for this conundrum of the Filipino masses not educated for voting.
U.S. Governor-General William Howard Taft addressing the  First Philippine
Assembly in  1907. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
In an article, “The Philippine Muddle,” for Harper’s Magazine in 1926, William Howard Gardiner, who also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Navy and State Departments, wrote that mostly Chinese and Spanish mestizos were able to absorb the new emphasis on English, academics and American political history in the school curriculum at the time. The great masses, the common tao, who were children of peasants, virtually were left out uneducated and uninstructed in anything that would help them live their peasant lives more effectively. Among the more ambitious mestizo children, the aim was simply to get a “distinguishing diploma rather than a useful education; to be freed from future work rather than to be better equipped to work.” From this half-educated class of mestizos would rise what would locally be known as ilustrados, “whose one ambition is to be, first, political henchmen, and then affluent leaders.”
These mestizo politicos would eventually lord over the wretched millions of ordinary people who were ruthlessly exploited and forced to be absolutely subservient. Assisted by politically-appointed justices of the peace and fiscals, or magistrates and prosecuting attorneys, these mestizo politicos would hold the common folk in servile bondage, while the chief politico in each barrio would tell them how to vote. While it was the result of natural mestizo cupidity, Gardiner wrote that “it has been possible only because of the political incapacity of the tao millions and because of American neglect and ignorance of Philippine conditions. But as the power to prevent or to correct is ours, we Americans and not the natives, whether politicos or taos, are at fault.”
That early on, the great masses of Filipinos were deprived by an educational system that was geared mostly for the members of the upper social class. This pattern continued as the ilustrados became more politically and economically powerful. Election as the hallmark of democratic politics became the monopoly of the wealthy elite and their families. No wonder that Filipinos today are not educated for voting.
Quite contrary to the thinking of Conrado de Quiros, a columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, universal suffrage unhampered by the lack of education did not really amount to reforms or change in government or in society at large. Had the right to vote been limited to those who have education, de Quiros writes that “wealth and power would have remained with the landowners, the slave-owners, the gun-owners, the caciques, the compradors, the owners of fabricas and companias, with no end in sight.”
Mr. de Quiros is in denial of the great promise of democratic elections. The only change elections have brought was the circus of personalities playing musical chairs, a perpetual cycle of rotation of elective public officials among members of political dynasties. The material conditions of Philippine society never did change, the poor are still mired in poverty, and political power remains in the hands of the wealthy few.
Some members of the Philippine political elite. Click link to view "Political Dynasties in the

On the other hand, Senator Santiago is also equally and utterly wrong in belittling the lack of education that hinders the Filipino voter to choose wisely. Hers is an elitist position that echoes the contempt of the powerful over the misled masses. As a lawyer and a constitutionalist, Senator Santiago has forgotten that the Constitution she has faithfully sworn to uphold does not impose literacy, property or other limiting requirements on the exercise of suffrage. In fact, the Constitution mandates Congress to ensure that the disabled and illiterates can vote without the assistance of other persons.
Many of us Filipinos have been led to swallow hook, line and sinker that the United States was an altruistic colonizer. Gardiner’s article on the early years of American colonial administration in the Philippines is very informative, at least for two reasons: one, that the American Manifest Destiny to save the Philippines from its barbaric state was already failing at its earliest stage, and two, the American colonizers acquiesced in the creation of a native autocracy of mestizo politicos for their own particular profit, and it was America’s fault, not the natives, whether politicos or taos, in not preventing it. Instead of presiding over the evolution of a sound popular self-government, American colonial rule established the foundation for patronage politics which engendered the formation of oligarchic elites.
Gardiner’s prescription was to simply correct the political situation in the interest of the Philippine masses. First, he suggested to end the tragic farce of pseudo-popular self-government, then develop the material, first; second, the cultural; and finally, the political circumstances and capacities of the native population. The colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies made an impression on Gardiner. He had observed the orderly conduct of affairs, high state of development, and consequent contentment of the natives in the Dutch colonies which were in sharp contrast to the conditions in the Philippines, especially in view of their basic similarity and natural conditions.
But when the Jones Law, the organic law for the islands, was enacted by the U.S. Congress, a congressional system of government with separation of powers was transplanted on Philippine soil, an imitation of the American system without considering local conditions. With the establishment of the Philippine National Assembly, Filipinos were selected for their subservience to the chief politicos rather than their ability to serve. Such virtual control over every aspect of the government enabled the mestizo politicos to perpetuate their power over a politically-incompetent electorate.
What happened then is also happening now. After years of American tutelage in self-government, the Philippines is still attempting its best to acquire the material foundation and political maturity that are necessary for a real self-government to flourish. Successive Philippine governments and the Congress simply attempted to compromise the existing political conditions by adopting partially palliative measures, such as the 1987 Philippine Constitution which contains important democratic provisions like the party-list system of representation, the prohibition of political dynasties, and the people’s initiative to enact legislative reforms by referendum or plebiscite. But all these constitutional provisions remain nominal and aspirational at best without the operative and enabling legislation that would ensure the fulfilment of the purpose of the drafters of the Constitution. The reality is, the stranglehold of political power by the oligarchic elite is adequate insurance that such lofty purpose would never be achieved.
Senator Santiago may not be speaking in a time warp when she ridicules the Filipino masses for lacking the education to vote. Our political conditions in the past have not changed a bit, we have the same mestizo politicos like Senator Santiago and members of political dynasties whose glib assertiveness has entrenched them in our local autocracy. On the other hand, we also have people, especially politicians of the yellow kind, with the naiveté to continuously believe that our present leaders in government have already shattered the glass ceiling that excludes the masses from the political process.
Meet the Aquinos. The Aquino name crops up again and again in Philippine politics.
Benigno Aquino lll is the current president. His grandfather, Benigno S Aquino Sr,
was vice-president in the World War ll Japanese collaborationist government - his father
Benigno S. Aquino, Jr.  was a senator. He was assassinated in 1983 and his wife,
Corazon Aquino, became president in  1986. The current president's cousin, Bam
Aquino, is running for senator this time. Photo courtesy of AFP.
The horrible truth is time has probably stood still. From the colonial days to the present, Philippine politics continues to remain largely a preserve of the wealthy elite, with our present leaders in government being drawn from an entirely different economic class than the people they purport to represent.
Wealth above all shapes our political debate and determines its outcome, and special interests stand in the way of public policy and what is in the best interests of the people. No wonder we have voters not educated to make intelligent choices, for what is the point of it all when your voice doesn’t count.

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