BOOK REVIEW: The Making of the Modern Philippines
By Philip Bowring. Bloomsbury Academic, London. Hard cover, with bibliography, maps and index. 256 pp. US$24.95 on Amazon
The Philippines is famously an anomaly, seemingly closer in identity to Latin America than to its littoral neighbors on the South China Sea, as author Philip Bowring notes, ruled at first by the Spanish, who “left a religion, a few genes and some aspects of culture” followed by the Americans, who left their own stamp of imperfect democracy, a free liberal press and high levels of violence. Of Austronesian ethnic identity, he writes, its singularity “does not make for an identity which is readily understood by its own citizens.” A basic Malay culture has been so influenced by Spain, the Catholic Church, and then America that its identity is sometimes seen as Latin American as much as Asian.
This is a book that Bowring set out to write out of his own efforts to understand a country that is a puzzle to much of Asia and itself. It suffers from a publisher’s deadline that meant the writing and researching had to be finished before the election that just happened on May 9, and a publication date that meant it would be delivered to the public after the polls were completed. As he wrote in an author’s preface, “I hope that any lack of immediacy and recent reportage is compensated by an attempt to put the situation today into the context of history, to see the foundations on which the current politics society and economy have been built.”
Along with Myanmar, then known as Burma, these are two countries that have been ruined by the actions of a single leader -- in Burma’s case, by Ne Win and his Burmese Road to Socialism, which meant locking the country behind an army dictatorship for 50 years, and in the Philippines, which was destroyed economically by Ferdinand Marcos and his grasping family.
As Bowring writes, at the start of independence following the end of World War II, “the Philippines boasted higher literacy levels than most of Asia and the highest income levels of populous Asian countries apart from Japan. It had an admired – at least at a distance – US-inspired legal and democratic system. Today, despite two decades of reasonable economic performance, it is widely seen as having failed to match those of its neighbors, in income growth and progress in education. It remains better known for natural disasters, flamboyant leaders, political violence, and sporadic insurgencies, and for its major export – its citizens finding work abroad which they could not find at home.”
To the utter astonishment of much of the world, the elder Marcos, who is believed to have stolen at least US$10 billion (with the family remaining unrepentant and in no hurry to return the boodle) and who jailed as many as 70,000 of his countrymen and was responsible the extrajudicial killings of thousands more, has been succeeded resoundingly in the presidency by a record vote of the people after a 35-year interregnum by his equally amoral son Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr., who fears returning to the US in the face of contempt charges amounting to US$335 million and who could be jailed if he shows his face. Bongbong managed to somehow evade a prison sentence in his own country on tax evasion charges, was found culpable in the theft of millions in the “Pork Barrel” scandal of the past decade, has continued the creative invention that his father built his wealth from fictional gold buried somewhere in the Philippines by Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita. For good measure, he lied about his university record both at Cambridge, where he didn’t graduate, and at Wharton School of Economics in Pennsylvania, which he left early.
So whatever possessed the Filipino population to trust the 62-year-old lackluster Bongbong with the presidency? “The weight of money and online propaganda appeared to favor Marcos in rewriting the history of his father’s rule among a population too young to remember the reality and more attuned to social media than to established news providers,” Bowring writes.
In an effort to explain the underlying conditions that brought about an electoral verdict he couldn’t predict, Bowring sets out to deal with the history of the archipelago from the period before the arrival of the Spanish and later the Americans with an analysis of these “pieces of a jigsaw state,” as the book is subtitled, a state deeply replete with priests, oligarchic families, nonstop insurgencies, celebrity politicians and massive cookery. It is a book that the world should be reading in an effort to understand the political tidal waves that caused the country to turn away from the progress it was making under the relatively dull but also relatively honest Benigno S. Aquino III for the AR15-waving Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs, when drugs were no worse in the Philippines than any other Asian country, to look for cheap, fast solutions that turned out to be illusory. That might sound familiar to some Americans who endured the presidency of Donald Trump.
Enumerating the country’s problems at the end of the book, Bowring writes that “the much bigger problem is the problem of governance. This, more than (a burgeoning) population lies at the heart of the nation’s underperformance. There have been many new starts: EDSA and the return of democracy, the Ramos presidency, the reforms of Noynoy Aquino, but the system has remained run by and for an elite of families and interests, provincial and central, with provincial politicians beholden to whoever is on top at the time. Improvements can and do happen from time to time and the fairly steady economic growth from 2000 to 2019 has demonstrated this. However, abysmal economic standards are no help towards policy rather than personality-based politics.”
That is generally a relatively grim assessment. Good governance, he says, means strengthening the role of permanent positions in the bureaucracy and limiting those political and personal appointees whose main talent is loyalty to the president. This may well be ominously proven illusory in the six-year term to come. Bowring’s assessment may seem indeed grim, but it is high time Filipinos themselves face it by buying this book and reading its lessons.
Disclosure: Philip Bowring is a co-founder and contributing editor to Asia Sentinel