The challenge of nationhood in our time

One hundred and twenty years ago, our ancestors raised the Philippine flag from a balcony in Kawit, Cavite to signify the beginning of our journey as a free nation. Hijacked by the United States of America right at the start, and interrupted by Japan during World War II, the quest for an independent Filipino nation has been an arduous process. It tested our fortitude and persistence as a people. It brought out the best, but also the worst in us.

Our passage to freedom, as the first among Asia’s subjugated peoples to dare claim the right to govern themselves, had not gone unnoticed. Our struggle instantly became an inspiration to others. It sparked many revolutionary fires elsewhere, kept alive by young people who had been admirers of our own heroes.  Filipinos can rightly claim to be the pioneers of the anticolonial movement in Asia.

But, if the revolutionary struggle had been painful and costly, the aftermath was perhaps even more so. The moral and political choices that had to be made under conditions of formal self-rule were less clear. In the immediate postwar years, our leaders found it hard to resist the easy path offered by those who sought to control the nation’s future. Political opportunism grew in the fertile ground of the popular thought that the country had suffered enough and badly needed relief.

A sense of entitlement, nurtured by the belief that America owed us something for standing loyally by her during the war, kept us from tapping our own will and industry to build a self-reliant nation. We watched in resentment and envy as America appeared to show greater eagerness to rebuild Japan, its erstwhile enemy. We waited for compensation from those who had turned the country into their battleground during the war and ruined it beyond recognition.

In the process, perhaps without realizing it, we gave up the opportunity to rebuild our people’s inner strength, tap their skills and talents, and create the basic foundation for a strong nation. The examples of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam demonstrate the truism that the rebuilding of a country destroyed by war begins with the rekindling of the people’s energy and belief in themselves.

And so, for some perverse reason, we preserved the ruins like a memorial to past pains instead of restoring them to their former glory, or building upon them. Instead of harnessing our people’s collective energy for nation-building projects, we let them fend for themselves — to scavenge for survival among the relics of what was once a vibrant country. One look at the sorry state of public housing and the sordid picture of city slums would easily show that the life-enhancing hand of government has largely been absent from the lives of ordinary Filipinos.

The quality of leadership, both at the national and local levels, has undoubtedly been at the core of this national inability to rebound from misery and soar into greatness. Lacking in vision and selflessness, our leaders have done well for themselves, using political power to bolster their own selfish interests.

But they have left the rest of the nation behind. Mired in the vicious cycle of corruption and political patronage, they have failed to use the country’s abundant resources to continuously upgrade the people’s education and their capabilities, enhance their wellbeing, and support their quest for a better life. Instead of persevering to build a strong and self-propelling economy at home, successive administrations, since the mid-’70s, became content with sending out Filipinos for overseas employment and creating a consumer-based economy based on OFW remittances.

The bottom line of national independence is that, instead of an alien power holding the reins of government, we the people rule ourselves. In this regard, there is no question that we remain formally free as a people. Yet, there is every reason to ask whether we are in substantial control of our future — not just because of the limitations imposed by globalization, but because of our seeming inability to agree on a common vision and to pursue it over the long term.

As we look enviously at the rapid progress achieved by many of our neighbors, we search for clues that might explain and offer a cure for our chronic stagnation. This is a complex question for which there is no easy answer. Yet, out of despair and resentment, so many of us are prepared to put all their hopes in the strongman’s promise of redemption, forgetting all the lessons in responsible citizenship that 120 years of history should have impressed upon the national consciousness.

It was Apolinario Mabini, rare hero and intellectual, who grasped these lessons at the start of our journey to nationhood and formulated them with striking clarity as “The True Decalogue for Filipinos.” It is important to revisit them, at least on Independence Day. Here’s my summation of Mabini’s Decalogue:

Put God and honor at the center of your life. Listen to the voice of reason and the call of your inner self, your conscience. Cultivate your mind and your talents through education and use these in the service of the common good. Put your country above yourself. Strive to make it the fount of reason, righteousness and industry. Preserve its autonomy and find in its greatness your own source of pride. Recognize only the authority of those elected by the citizens. Establish a true republic, and reject the rule of a few families. Love and help your neighbor. And, so long as national frontiers persist, sustained by consciousness of race and family, take your fellow Filipino as your brother and friend, united in fate, aspiration, happiness and grief.