The ‘golden age’ I remember

The “golden age” that I remember happened before Ferdinand Marcos became president in 1965. Indeed, I’d say Marcos presided over its dying years. In 1972, nearing the end of his second term, he assumed dictatorial powers by exploiting a provision in the 1935 Constitution. Conjuring a vision of a “New Society,” he then replaced that same Constitution with a new one tailored to his needs.

In so doing, he upended the country’s slow but steady march to progress and forced a whole generation of bright young Filipinos to either go underground and fight the government or flee abroad.

The concept of a “golden age” is a relative one, and there is a tendency to idealize it. In the ’50s and the early ’60s, there were no malls, mobile phones, personal computers, internet, ATMs, fast-food outlets, online shopping, and MRT. There were only a few private cars in the streets, and they belonged to the very few who had money. Public mass transport came in the form of aging jeepneys, buses, and taxis. But, to me, this was a golden age.

I associate the notion of a golden age with how well ordinary citizens were able to meet their basic needs — food, shelter, education, health care, and personal safety. I saw what the situation was like in the provinces, where I grew up and finished basic education, and in Manila where I went for college.

Apart from the low prices of food and other necessities, there was much less hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, and helplessness in the face of illness. People felt secure in their persons and in their homes. They trusted the police and the justice system. They held teachers and civil servants in high regard.

Rich and poor families lived side by side, participating in the life of their communities and contributing what they could to the improvement of the common good. Gated housing communities or subdivisions were largely unheard of. There was poverty, to be sure, and much of this was a direct consequence of the dislocation and deprivation caused by the war. But social inequality was kept in check, and the ostentatious display of wealth and privilege was frowned upon.

Perhaps best of all, trust in the government was strong. Public officials generally lived by the dictum that public office was a public trust. Ordinary people turned to the government not only to protect them from the abusive and the corrupt, but also to furnish them with the means they needed to become productive citizens. As students, we were made profoundly aware that, being a young nation that had just survived a destructive war, Filipinos had to join hands to help rebuild the country from the ashes of war.

Education was key to the attainment of that aspiration. We prided ourselves in having one of the best educational systems in all of Asia. And our leaders were determined to build on that advantage by forming a highly trained citizenry that could serve as the backbone of the country’s future development.

Education for personal advancement was thus closely intertwined with the advancement of the Filipino nation. For those of us who were lucky to attend public institutions like the University of the Philippines in those years, there was never any question in our minds why we were there. It was to form ourselves into a cadre of highly educated Filipinos who could spearhead the continuous progress of our country and assure its independence in an increasingly complex world.

Some of us were offered the chance to go abroad for further studies and specialization, but the thought of staying abroad permanently did not appeal to us. We drew constant inspiration from our heroes like Jose Rizal, who, despite great adversity, insisted on coming back to serve his people and help them become a worthy part of the human community.

This was the essence of the nationalism that gripped the Filipino youth through the decades of the ’60s and ’70s. Their mission was to create a strong, self-reliant, and prosperous nation that was free to chart its own destiny.

The Marcos dictatorship thought it could hasten the development process by following the example of South Korea under Park Chung-hee. Instead, the repression that it unleashed drove away some of the country’s best minds. Worse, in 1974, the regime inaugurated a labor export program that encouraged millions of skilled Filipinos to migrate and sell their talents abroad. This created a mindset that effectively delinked the quest for personal advancement from the goal of national development.

While workers’ remittances solved the regime’s short-term need for cash, the chronic dependence on OFW earnings spawned a consumer-based economy that has concealed the sharp inequalities and injuries inflicted by a neoliberal economic order.

Ironically, the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 paved the way for the massive privatization of basic services that especially matter to the poor, and to the loosening of the state’s regulatory functions that hitherto protected the public from the excesses of monopolies. We have since been paying a high political cost for this undue withdrawal of the state from its role as active protector of the common good.

The cult of the redemptive strongman that lies at the root of the current populist surge may be seen as a reaction to what Eric Hobsbawm calls the “free market economic theology” — the belief that “the efficient conduct of a society’s affairs can only be by the search for personal advantage, i.e., by behaving like businessmen.”