In the 1880s, scores of Filipino students started to arrive in Europe to study. Many of them were sent abroad by their parents to keep them from getting into trouble with the Spanish Government in Manila that had become more repressive in its vain effort to pre-empt the revolutionary tide. Many went to Europe to obtain the professional training they could not get in Manila because higher learning at that time was still reserved for the Spanish elite and members of the Clergy.
What these Filipino expatriates in obtained in Europe was more than university education. There, in a climate of freedom of tolerance, they quickly imbibed the Enlightenment ethos of liberalism and equality, and belief in reason and scientific progress. They became the first Filipino moderns – young intellectuals who imagined themselves as the nervous system of a new nation that was being born.
They became obsessed with showing the world that Filipinos were the equal of any race. They campaigned for their people to be treated like rational beings, and for the Filipino nation to ultimately be free.
When they returned to the Philippines, these Indios Bravos, as they proudly called themselves, brought home with them, not only new skills and new knowledge, but an entire world view that enabled them to see their society from the standpoint of what it could be if it were free to decide its own destiny.
These Ilustrados were the first Filipinos to step out of the skin of their own culture, and to see the reality of their existence through the prism of liberty and equality. It was natural that they would become the leaders of a new nation and the agents of a new way of life.
Jose Rizal became the icon of this first generation of modern Filipinos. In Berlin, while training to be an eye surgeon, he completed his first novel, ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ a compelling political satire of the abuses of the Spanish colonial rulers and the folly of their pathetic Filipino surrogates.
Rizal decided from the start that Europe would not be his permanent home. He was in a hurry to return to the Philippines, where he felt he had a mission to achieve. No doubt, here was a man who was very much ahead of his time. He had great ambitions for his people. He became a curious observer of everything European and modern, and his encounter with 19th century Europe framed his concept of what Filipinos would be if they were given the same opportunity to develop themselves.
Rizal never tired of sharing his keen observations of the modern way of life with the members of his family. To his eighteen-year-old sister, Trining, for example, he offered this fascinating profile of the 19th century German woman: “The German woman is serious, studious, and diligent, and … they do not pay much attention to their clothes nor to jewels…they go everywhere, walking so nimbly or faster than men, carrying their books, their baskets, without minding anyone and only their own business… If our sister Maria had been educated in Germany, she would have been notable, because German women are active and somewhat masculine. They are not afraid of men. They are more concerned with the substance than with appearances… It is a pity that there in our country the principal adornment of all women almost always consists of clothes and finery, rather than of knowledge. In our province, women still preserve a virtue that compensates for their little instruction – the virtue of industry and tenderness. In no woman in Europe have I found a latter virtue in such a high degree as among the women there. If these qualities that nature gives to the women there were exalted by intellectual qualities, as it happens in Europe, the Filipino has nothing to envy the European.” (Rizal’s letter to Trinidad, March 11, 1886)
I have quoted extensively from one of these charming letters that Rizal wrote to his sisters because it could well have been addressed to all the young Filipinos of his time. But it was not merely because he was brilliant that he could make these insightful comparisons. It was also because, for the first time, Rizal the expatriate could look at his own from the perspective of another. He envisioned a nation that was as progressive, as disciplined, and as confident as Europe – but one where the gift of tenderness, of which our people seem to have so much, survives. In the 1980s, a century after Rizal, Filipinos returned to Europe. They came, not by the hundreds, but by the tens of thousands. Unlike the ilustrado generation of the 19th century, they were not escaping political persecution; they were fleeing from poverty and lack of opportunity. They came not to study, for indeed many of them were already highly educated, but to earn a living or to start a new life. Interestingly, most were women, whereas the 19th century Filipinos in Europe were almost all men. Unlike the early Filipino students, most of these recent migrants have opted to make Europe their permanent home.
But like those first Filipino travelers, they, too, remained loyal to the country – regularly sending money to their loved ones, and avidly watching the nation’s journey from turmoil to turmoil, as if they never left home. With modern communication, they continue to bear witness to the relentless political and economic storms that have hit the same criteria of responsible governance by which Europeans measure their leaders. In more ways than they can imagine, they, too, have been more influential agents of change in the nation they left behind.
They download the electronic version of Manila’s major dailies, and watch the early evening news beamed from our local television networks. They tirelessly write letters to the editors. They comment on issues, publicize their views, grumble about corruption and incompetence, and instruct their relatives to reject unfit candidates during elections.
More than half of the comments I get to my Sunday Inquirer column, for instance, come from Filipinos abroad. I would say they are far more informed about events taking place in our country and, certainly, in the rest of the world than the average middle class Filipino living in the Philippines. Very much like Rizal, they tell their families at home what life is like in societies governed by accountable leaders.
They form a view of how states in mature democracies are like, how citizens behave when their freedoms are threatened, and what civil liberties mean when people have the capacity to assert them. Perhaps, most importantly, their prolonged separation from their families and culture gives them an insight into their own personal needs and inner selves, which modern culture allows them to recognize and express.
The net effect of all this is that Filipinos living abroad have become the most demanding constituency of the Filipino nation. They know how the nation’s economy has become very dependent on their remittances. Like Rizal’s generation of émigrés, today’s Overseas Filipino Workers know their power, even if they may still be groping for effective ways to use it. The structurally flawed Absentee Voting Law hardly affords them the occasion to use this power.
Overseas work has become the most dynamic element in the economic life of the Philippines. OFW remittances have funded the education of millions of young people from poor families who would otherwise be excluded from our society’s structure of opportunity. Consumption patterns throughout the country have changed overnight because of the steady flow of remittances. Television sets, DVD players, mobile phones, and personal computers have become ordinary fixtures in many homes, serving as channels for new and varied forms of information.
Among the millions of Filipino residents abroad, many have acquired second homes in the Philippines, shuttling back and forth at least once a year. Their mobility, their incredible international experience, and their encounters with various cultures have made them truly modern individuals – in the words of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann – human beings “with an enhanced capacity, both for impersonal and for more intensive personal relationships.”
The OFW phenomenon is an impulse that is revolutionizing our way of life beyond our imagination. I cannot think of any other phenomenon that has shaken the deep formative contexts of our social life than the massive deployment of Filipino workers abroad. Its overall impact I believe, is, for example, pulling our political system toward greater democracy, greater transparency and governance, and more accountability in public life. Our politicians, rooted in the old ways of patronage and corruption, are finding it increasingly difficult to win popular support in this emerging society. Our people are changing but their leaders have remained the same.
I think of the current political crisis in a different way – I think it is telling us that at least the old is dying, and something new is being born. Undoubtedly, this transition has been stretched too long, and is far from smooth. Yet, I find in the growing disaffection with traditional politicians new values and new expectations at work. Traditional politicians find that now have to spend more money during election to get elected.
This development has, of course, made large scale cheating during elections a desperate last resort. We saw this in the 2004 presidential election. From a politics based on patronage, the country is moving towards a politics based on mass media charisma. This, of course, is not exactly how we imagined democracy. But I believe this is a temporary phenomenon, akin to the merger of religious fundamentalism and politics in those societies taking the first steps to democracy at the moment of the collapse of dictatorships.
I think of Filipinos who have had extensive overseas experience as the fulcrum in our societies’ transition to modernity. As in Rizal’s time, mass education and the spread of literacy among our people are changing the conduct of governance and the rules of political competition. The change may not be visible yet at the level of national politics. But it is being felt at the local level, where new politicians who have won as mayors and as governors are uprooting the old ways of patronage and introducing innovative managerial practices. They are reinventing local governance and reestablishing democratic practice at a more substantive level. That is the good news.
There is, however, a side to the side of the OFW phenomenon that is disturbing. At present, an estimated 8 million Filipinos leave and work in about 192 countries. Less than half of them are immigrants or permanent residents abroad; the rest are temporary contract workers. We are the third largest labor exporter in the world after Mexico and India – but our workers are dispersed in more countries in the world and are found in more varied occupations and professions.
I do not know of any other people that have made the word their own as extensively as our people have. The biggest numbers are construction workers, seafarers, domestic helpers, hotel staffs, casino workers, entertainers, nurses, doctors, and other health personnel, engineers, accountants, teachers, etc. Although, they send back to their countries an estimated ten billion dollars every year, the largest remittances still originate from North America, where an estimated 2.5 million Filipinos live as US citizens or permanent residents, or as overstaying aliens.
The OFW is to the Philippines as oil is to Indonesia. But there is a big difference between selling people and selling oil. On the positive side, Saudi Arabia, or Brunei, or Indonesia, may run out of oil in the next 25 years depending on the rate at which they pump it out of the earth. We will never run out of people, since we keep producing them at a rate faster than most other countries. The downside of this is that oil extraction, unlike the export of people, leaves negligible side-effects on the institutions and culture of a people.
A society that exports people rather than commodities on a scale that the Philippines does, undercuts its own way of life. At the rate that we are exporting our medical staff, the country’s hospitals will run out of health professionals in just a few years. 200 hospitals have already closed because they have run out of nurses. Another 600 are severely understaffed. Today, it’s the hospitals; tomorrow, it will be the airlines. It is not to say that societies do not adjust to the increased demand. Indeed they do. But at what cost?
The phenomenal demand for nursing personnel abroad, as we all have seen, has led to the overnight establishments of hundreds of nursing schools unsupported by training facilities. The shift to nursing is the most dramatic change in our countries education system since the introduction of computer science courses. It has spawned far more new schools in the last four years than any other tertiary level course. It has colonized the academic programs of traditional liberal arts colleges. Many medical schools are closing down because they cannot get enough students; their faculties and facilities are being swallowed up by nursing programs. We talk of local companies and industries losing their specialized work force. But we seldom talk of communities losing their artisans, of children losing their parents, of aging parents losing their children, of spouses losing one another, of a nation losing entire generations.
Sending out people almost always means wrenching them away from their loved ones. The effects of such separations on the psyche of children and on the consciousness of the nation are hard to assess.
We are a resilient nation because we have strong families. We have parents who literally give up their own personal happiness so that their children may live with hope. What is tragic, however, is that we are giving up the very resource that makes us strong when we offer entire families and communities in sacrifice so that the nation may live. There is something wrong and perverse in that, I think. It is interesting that, instead of viewing this massive exodus with alarm, the Philippine government seems to rejoice in it.
In 2005, we finally hit the 1 million mark for annual deployment. What is distressing is that we have not increased our institutional mechanism for overseeing the needs of our compatriots abroad and defending their rights as guest workers. At the most basic level, such institutional adjustment should have been manifested in the major reconfiguration of our consulates and embassies abroad. More than defense, and commercial attachés, today, we need more labor attachés, more counselors, social workers, psychologists, and legal experts with extensive knowledge of the laws of host countries.
But the best protection of all is afforded by a bilateral agreement with the receiving countries that would at the minimum secure for our workers those rights that are provided by the UN Charter on Migrant Workers. On the whole, we have not been successful in securing such bilateral agreements. That is why our workers are in the main left on their own to defend themselves from these abuses. I would think that it is the height of irresponsibility for any government to deploy its people for work abroad if it cannot assure them the basic protection of their human rights. In general, our people thrive well abroad. They work hard, are loyal and dependable. They value their jobs and are much appreciated. The companies and institutions they serve abroad sometimes wonder how any country can cavalierly dispense the services of such a gifted people. But that’s precisely what makes us a unique nation – a hardworking people run by unworthy leaders. There’s nothing wrong with our people; everything is wrong with our government, with our politicians, and with the leadership of our key institutions.