Undeniable is the centrality of the family in Philippine society. In its name, Filipinos seek their fortunes abroad, where many of them work in dismal conditions just to send money home. Family drives otherwise upright individuals to steal or kill, or both; and it is the locus of political and economic power in the Philippines, as the existence of political dynasties attests.
Partly because of their high regard for family and limited opportunities for self-advancement, many Filipinos have never been attracted to any full-blown ideology of individualism and self-reliance a la Ralph Emerson in his work, On Self-Reliance (1841). Many Filipinos work diligently, but there is little chance for social mobility. Filipinos do work hard, but they do so not only or primarily for themselves, but for a family that they need to (help) support.
It is customary in the Philippines for the child(ren) to send money back home, to contribute to the upkeep of the household, to help pay for a younger sibling’s tuition, and the like. The image of the dutiful daughter encapsulates this phenomenon perfectly, as does the hardworking Overseas Filipino Worker. Indeed, Filipinos’ hard work is framed as a sacrifice for the good of the family. And OFWs are depicted as modern heroes partly and precisely for this reason.
But this does not mean that individualism and self-reliance are completely absent in Philippine society. Both exist in tension with the ideology, as it were, of the family. Indeed, this tension is the stuff of many a Filipino movie or TV show, where the dutiful son or daughter, after working so hard and sacrificing so much, eventually demands that his own needs, plans, and desires be met for a change. More often than not, this encounter comprises a typical confrontation scene, one with shouting, crying, and eventual compromise and reconciliation.
The TV shows and films may end on a happy note, but the conflict speaks of a wider fissure. The tension between choosing the welfare of the family and that of the individual reflects, I hypothesize, two competing ideologies that in turn mirrors two different modes of production; one is premodern; and the other modern; one is pre-capitalist and agricultural, the other capitalist and industrial. I theorize further that this tension occurs in the Philippines precisely because it is, in many ways, a premodern, agricultural, even feudal society that is trying and failing to make a transition to a modern, industrial, and full-blown capitalist society. Like many postcolonial societies, the Philippines is a mixture of the old and new, and this mixture presents a conflict of values, one of which is that between the family and the individual.
“Family-first” may have had its heyday in premodern societies, while individualism and self-reliance take centerstage in modern industrial nations. At any rate, the subordination of the individual to the interests of the family is understandable in an impoverished, agricultural country like the Philippines, whose economy and culture still betray many (semi?)feudal and communal aspects, despite modernization and globalization. Because life is hard, especially in the countryside, resources must be pooled for everyone’s benefit; otherwise, the family and its members suffer. An individual cannot survive on her own, for her salary is not enough for her to make it all by her lonesome. Rent may be too expensive, and so on. Furthermore, in a country with limited employment opportunities, not everyone has the capacity to earn, and so whoever makes it, so to speak, has to chip in and help everyone out.
In many ways, this is an admirable arrangement, but it is threatened by, and is incompatible with, the ideology of individualism and self-reliance that is part of a modern, capitalist economy, and of the ethos of Western media, especially that of the United States. Today, this latter economy is embodied in the growth of the Philippines’ service industry and consumption-driven spending, one of many manifestations and effects of globalization.
Imagine a Filipino, so devoted to the family and reared in a culture that still has a premodern attachment to its centrality, and working in a capitalist, globalized landscape and consuming content that advocates an individualist, entrepreneurial, self-reliant outlook. There is bound to be some level of cognitive dissonance here.
At any rate, the lack of a culture of self-reliance dovetails with the centrality of the family and gives rise to a climate of dependence; a family member gets accustomed to just receiving from, say, a sibling, and because the money and assistance keep coming, there is disincentive to strike for one’s own. Why look for a job when ate or kuya can simply give me money from abroad? This is especially poignant in the case of migrant families, where an OFW sustains her entire family, sometimes, even second-degree relatives, all by her lonesome. At its extreme, this is cause for resentment on the part of the former. There has been much conflict in this respect; anecdotes of OFWs not wanting to speak to their relations abound, because all the latter want to talk about is money. Pahingi, pahingi.
This culture of dependence, lack of self-reliance, and the consumption-driven nature of the economy may also help explain why despite remittance flows, there is said to be a comparative lack of investments. Hence, the Commission for Filipinos Overseas started a program (Diaspora to Development) that seeks to promote an investment climate among OFW families. At any rate, the lack of investments is understandable, since basic needs have to be met at once; the money has to be spent, leaving little for investments that could, say, be used to start small businesses or other enterprises. Along with poor financial literacy, this also helps explain and reflect the consumption-driven nature of the Philippine economy (It would be interesting to note the effects of consumerism on Filipino values). Furthermore, this culture of dependence may also help explain why clientelistic politics is so pervasive. Lacking the idea of and opportunity for self-reliance, many Filipinos resort to hingi.
It seems that one way to cure such politics may be to instill among Filipinos the ideology of self-reliance. But can we simply insist that Filipinos be more self-reliant? Perhaps. But can this be done without a corresponding change in the economic base? Can we simply ask the sons and daughters of an impoverished rural family to read Emerson and strike out on their own when there are little opportunities for advancement? Can we demand self-reliance where there aren’t many jobs around for everyone? When there is little chance for social mobility? But then again, how can we improve the economy and the political system if people are not empowered in the first place? And can Filipinos, who so value family, unconditionally accept self-reliance and individualism?
Probably not. The successful, self-reliant individual does not dominate the cultural landscape of the Philippines. There is no Horatio Alger here, except perhaps Manny Pacquiao. It is true that we have had many rags-to-riches stories in TV shows and films, but the wealth usually comes because, among other mechanisms, one marries into wealthy family or one turns out to have been the long-lost daughter of a business tycoon. The case of Maya in Be Careful with My Heart is a case in point. Although she dreams of being a flight stewardess (pursuing her own goal), she later nevertheless has to sacrifice her own dreams in order to take care of her family. Maya is the ever dutiful daughter, and while she works hard and deserves to be well-off, her main salvation, as it were, now lies in falling in love and being married to the wealthy Sir Chief. Maya may be self-reliant and individualist, but that has become beside the point because the story focuses now on when Sir Chief will fall in love with Maya.
Filipinos do look up to successful people; for instance, Filipinos who have made it internationally are extolled, as are those even with the tiniest drop of Filipino blood. This kind of discourse on Filipinos appears to focus not on the hard work their success entailed but on the fact that they (have been identified and constructed) as Filipino, never mind their self-identification and citizenship, and even if they have not been to the Philippines. The general idea propounded here is that Filipinos can succeed; perhas our National Self-Esteem (NSE) is so low that we need this kind of pat on the back; but it sails perilously close to a racist notion of success, where being Filipino, not hard work, is a recipe for and can be equivalent to success. The idea comforts us that Filipinos can succeed, but it doesn’t tell us exactly how we can do so. Again, there is no notion of self-reliance and good old hard work.
My reading of English Only, Please at least suggests that Filipinos are not (yet) ready for such a foreign ideology. The culture of dependence is evident in the film, English Only, Please, where the dutiful daughter Tere, sends money back to the province to help her mother and her two brothers who have a family. The two boys slack off and do not work, and the money Tere sends is not invested to refurbish their home. One wouldn’t blame Tere for bailing out on her no-good family and running off with Derek Ramsay to New York where she can experience a much better life. But this does not happen, and she doesn’t confront her family about it, let alone assert her individualism, self-reliance, and freedom. The movie has to conjure up a Derek Ramsay’s character in order to reward her, as though the movie has to speak up on her behalf. But at any rate, the movie ends on a happy-ever-after, kilig note, but it leaves the question and conflict unresolved: Does Tere just run off with Derek Ramsay? Would her marriage and migration to New York mean that she still has to send money back home?