The Republic of Korea or South Korea or simply Korea has been on Filipinos’s minds lately. From the trivial to the more serious, Filipinos have somehow taken offense from what both a Korean citizen and the Korean government have done to some Filipinos. Unfortunately, most Filipinos in general think that Korea owe us some kind of apology for being offended by something that ordinary Koreans most likely perceive to be merely a joke and, in the case of the South Korean government, an exercise of their sovereign right.
The initial uproar started when a video clip of Korean actress Lee Da Hae surfaced on YouTube and not surprisingly, came to the attention of Filipino crybabies. According to sources from the Net, the clip was from the now defunct KBS2TV variety show, “Sweet Night” and it showed in less than 5 minutes actress Hae being asked to mimic how other nationalities talk in English. Her demonstration of the way Filipinos spoke didn’t go down well with Filipinos who thought she was being “insulting”.
It’s a bit sad that we Filipinos don’t even know how to take things in stride anymore. For a Christian nation, we take offense at the slightest remark in reference to us as if we were the Kings of the world — as if anyone who makes fun of us deserve to have his or her head cut off. For a people who claim to be “happy” despite their hardship, we lack an ability to laugh at ourselves.
Where did our sense of humor go? Did we even have one? Or do we see it as only “we” having the right to poke fun at others? I’d say that’s a fair call judging from all the Filipino skits that make fun of other nationalities. It seems that we cannot take any kind of criticism even in jest whether it’s coming from a Desperate Housewives script, the quips of celebrities like Alec Baldwin, or the gags of modern-day philosophers like Adam Carolla. I know this subject has been discussed ad nauseum but it is still important that we keep pointing these things out because most Filipinos simply just don’t get it.
I don’t recall Kazakhstan asking for an apology from Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) when he dedicated an entire film to depicting a caricature of its people. Suffice to say Cohen’s depiction of Kazakhstan’s citizens wasn’t very flattering. I can’t seem to reconcile the outrage over something trivial done during a comedy skit on one hand while on the other lies the fact of a Presidential aide, insulting the Vietnamese people during an official state function — something the Vietnamese in turn, did not demand an apology for.
There is definitely something wrong with our society, in particular, how we prefer that the world see us. We are somehow desperate to be always seen in a positive light; unfortunately, we just come across as prideful and worse, pathetic losers when we make much ado about nothing. We should be willing to look inwards and engage in self-reflection from time to time. Other nationalities are not always out to get us. We should think about the possibility that there might be some truth to what they are saying.
The other more serious issue that had made it to the headlines is the deportation of six Filipinos after being barred from entering South Korea because they are on the blacklist of the government.
As expected, they and some of their supporters were very disappointed about being deported considering that, supposedly, “the six were supposed to participate in planned demonstrations and attend a ‘people’s summit’ organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions as a parallel meeting of NGOs and civil society organizations coinciding with the G-20 summit“; that is, according to the statement of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in which one of the six Filipinos is a member of.
The six deportees were hoping that President Noynoy Aquino (P-Noy) would somehow intervene on their behalf. They were also demanding that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) file a formal diplomatic protest against the Republic of Korea because they were given “shabby treatment” and allegedly dragged back on board a flight back to Manila. It is easy enough to conclude that, if they had to be dragged, it could only mean that they refused to cooperate in the first place. Why should the Philippine Government intervene in something they were not even a part of? It’s not like they were sent there on an official affair of state.
While the six Filipinos were claiming to have been planning on holding a demonstration on behalf of the exploited and oppressed during the G-20 summit, one cannot blame the South Korean government for giving them the boot because if you go by the history of the G-20 summit, “peaceful demonstrations” always exhibited a potential to get really nasty. One just has to remember what happened in Canada the last time the summit was held there when according to some reports “several police cars were burnt and several establishments were vandalized, leading to the arrest of over 1,000 protesters.”
The thing that most Filipinos who were outraged by the deportation don’t realize is that, if you plan on demonstrating against something on someone else’s soil, you should not expect the red carpet treatment. Just count yourself lucky if they even allow you in. If not, just move along. These six Filipino professional demonstrators deported from South Korea just need to accept that sometimes you win some, other times you lose some.
All this recent fuss about South Korea — or Korea to some — gives me the impression that the presence of now over 100,000 Koreans living in the Philippines is breeding resentment among Filipinos. The existence of Koreans could only be a positive thing if Filipinos are not totally averse to learning from outsiders.
The Republic of Korea: A story with a happy ending
South Koreans have not always been frequent travelers. When they were still under authoritarianism, ordinary Koreans were not allowed to leave their country. And because of the nuclear threat from the North and having gone through the brutal occupation of the Japanese during World War II, they became very suspicious of foreigners. There was even an incident in the past when locals beat up a US military officer while he was on the train because they mistook him for someone who was harassing a Korean woman. It turned out the woman was his wife. Until now, they still cannot come to terms with the way they were treated by the Japanese while they occupied their country, so the resentment against Japan is still strong. It’s been said that the dislike for anything Japanese is like an unofficial state religion. Koreans even blame the bad weather on Japan on any ordinary day.
The Philippines’ political history has a lot in common with Korea’s. For one, both countries have a Presidential system; two, similar to Korea, the Philippines was under a dictatorship for decades. From 1972 the Philippines was under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s regime until he was toppled and exiled in 1986 while Korea was under Military dictatorship since the 1950s until they switched to more democratic governance in the 1980s. Third, Korea’s political system even after switching to democracy always got bad international press as late as the 1990s because it was riddled with corruption and nepotism which is something that the Philippines is unfortunately still experiencing until now.
The situation with the Koreans in the 1990s was so similar to what is happening to Filipinos now that if you read the following excerpt from the book Asian Values, Western Dreams by Greg Sheridan, you will not be able to ignore the striking resemblance of the Korean political setting to our current political setting, to wit:
“In an earlier conversation in 1996 Kim Dae Jung had gone so far as to call into question South Korea’s basic democratic credentials. “I don’t believe Korea is a democracy,” he said at that time. “President Kim Young-Sam has failed to implement democracy. During the election in 1995 the ruling party committed every type of election fraud, spending money everywhere and exploiting the activities of North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone. Television is totally under the control of the State.”
To be sure, Philippine elections in the past and even the recent one in May 2010 were mired by allegations of fraud in the form of vote buying and rigging of election results, the latter not prevented even by new electronic voting systems. Likewise, mainstream media in the Philippines which includes a major television network and a leading newspaper is owned by oligarchs who are also friends and relatives of the incumbent President, Noynoy Aquino. In short, the powerful elite who exert a strong influence on the electorate controls the media.
There is something else that I recently realized that we have in common with the Koreans. Because our countries were both under the influence of mind control for decades under an authoritarian regime, Filipinos tend to treat their political leaders like they are Kings, which was how the Koreans even years after they have switched to democracy also treated theirs.
In other words, it took a while for them to shake off the idea of full submission to a single authority figure. This might explain why Filipinos still think that their duty as a citizen ends after voting during the election. The likely drawback in having this mentality is that voters get too emotionally attached to the individual (and their next of kin) and elect them because they are popular but not necessarily because they are competent enough for public office.
Korea, however, has the advantage of possessing a Confucian culture. In Confucianism, the leader or ruler should embody those virtues the society holds dear. While they put their leader on a pedestal, there is also a “Confucian and Buddhist notion that the ruler should govern in the interests of the people, and the Buddhist emphasis on the worth of every human being” which was why every leader who became embroiled in corruption in Korea always paid for their crime.
This was evident in how every single Korean President since Korea became a democracy retired in disgrace. “They either went into exile; were assassinated or went to jail.” Now that is something we as a society should truly admire and emulate. Sadly, impunity still prevails in Philippine society even after the late dictator Marcos was deposed, which is also why our leaders could get away with practically anything for years and still get reelected. This can be attributed to the fact that there was a power vacuum after Marcos left because the one who replaced him, the late former President Cory Aquino, though widely beloved was also considered a weak leader who did not introduce any economic reforms. Her 1987 constitution is even blamed by its critics for stifling the economy.
It wasn’t until former Korean President and pro-democracy advocate Kim Young-Sam was elected in 1993 that the Korean political system started cleaning-up. Although he was also indirectly embroiled in controversy towards the end of his term (due to his close association with the jailed former President and his brother being jailed), he was instrumental in shaping the political system of the country. The next President Kim Dae-jung elected in 1998 who was also a Harvard classmate of the late Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino, continued the effort to build a prosperous Korea.
Despite the turmoil in the political scene, strong institutions backed by an ancient Confucian culture provided a check and balance that eventually resulted in a stable Korean economy. The sense of nationalism in Korea is unmatched even by the Japanese. Part of this strong sense of nationalism has a lot to do with the draconian laws and decrees introduced during the period when they were still under dictatorship. To quote an excerpt from an article written by the late Teddy Benigno:
In the 1950s former General Park Chung-hee set-up a dictatorship which first decreed land reform. He then got the leading capitalists, entrepreneurs, economists; policy planners together win to something like a ruling national council. He drove them to excel, meet or exceed targets. Or else. The story goes that a prominent businessman complained, said he couldn’t meet his target. Park Chung-hee simply replied he would be executed at dawn. The businessman relented and met his target.
That was iron discipline. But it was that discipline that forged the new South Korea and today it is the 12th biggest economy in the world.
It is obvious that authoritarian rule has done more good than harm for the Korean people overall. It instilled discipline and a strong sense of nationalism in its people.
Korea has certainly come a long way. And their coming of age was remarkably fast. Three decades ago, Korea was even poorer than Malaysia and Mexico. Now, its “GDP per capita has surged by a factor of 10 to $17,000.00 more than double the levels in those countries. GDP growth was 0.2% in much of the rest of the world was contracting, and is estimated to be 6% this year” according to figures obtained from TIME magazine.
What was Korea’s secret then? The average Korean is ambitious and works furiously hard and long hours. There is even a saying that “Korea is the one society in the world in which the Chinese go broke and the Japanese look lazy”. They instill this discipline to the younger generation. The average Korean child goes to a coaching school three times a week and it is standard for them to learn English because they recognize the importance of being proficient in the English language.
The hardworking mentality is obviously another legacy of being ruled under an iron fist for several decades. Second to being hardworking, after decades of fearing their neighbor, Koreans worked on their national psyche and embraced globalization. They recognized that they needed to adjust their attitude towards race, the concept of citizenship based on blood, the underlying fear and intolerance of outsiders because “it was the greatest single weakness in their culture” according to Greg Sheridan.
In recent years, it is not unusual for children to go overseas to acquire a Western education and apply what they have learned to their homeland. You could say that Koreans are not averse to learning from outsiders. This also promoted innovation in their society. Whereas in the past, there were only a handful of companies that people could work for, nowadays there are more and more foreign investors playing a much larger role in the domestic economy, which increases competition. The influx of foreign money, ideas and people make a vibrant Korea.
The Asian financial crisis during the late 1990s and having to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), served as a catalyst for change and accepting that the old ways didn’t work. From being a hermit kingdom to embracing globalization in the 1960s, they mobilized their cheap labor to competitively export cheap and low-tech goods to consumers in the west, which jump-started their income growth. There is no turning back for Korea.
Korea is now a force to be reckoned with. South Korea is the first Asian country to host the G-20 summit this November. From being insular to a major player in the world market, Korea is a country that the Philippines could have been.