The Filipino Cultural Trinity

We often hear the phrase “culture of impunity” attributed to Filipinos. Indeed, nothing could be more true. We so incline ourselves to latching on to improper habits that present no immediately unpleasant outcomes without really understanding long-term ramifications associated with said habits.

Impunity fits snugly within a more holistic framework that describes in a coherent structure the disastrous nature of Philippine society’s imprisonment in itsdysfunctional culture — The Filipino Cultural Trinity:


A convenient example of the application of this framework are the circumstances surrounding disastrous flooding of Philippine cities and Filipinos’ typical collective response to such disasters.

In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of backpatting accompanying all the feel-good stories surrounding the heroism and “bayanihan” supposedly exhibited in the aftermath of the destruction wreaked by tropical cyclone Ondoy on Metro Manila. To be fair, there is reason to congratulate ourselves. The motivation to “help out” and “contribute” to the relief effort transcended social class and political affiliation. However when we frame the issues against the Filipino Cultural Trinity, some disturbing aspects surrounding the mix of volunteers’ euphoria and victims’ grief that characterises disasters are highlighted.

For one thing, the “bayanihan” we see today is just a souped-up version of our normal mode of operations. Indeed, it is really more a matter of turning the volume up when it is time to dance.


Bahala na: As always, altruism when disaster strikes saves the day as the preferred alternative to the more onerous task of building sustainable ways of living by investing in measures to mitigate disaster. Why invest in progressively and contnuously strengthening the foundations of our standard of living when we can always rely on the resource-rich to help out when times are tough — as that characteristically Filipino way of thinking goes.

Pwede na yan: For now, most of Ondoy‘s flood victims are surving on a steady supply of relief goods organised by the resource-rich. When the collective guilt has been absolved, the call to return to business-as-usual starts to overshadow the call to temporary duty, and the images of people “helping out” on Facebook become commoditised, what is an unsustainable pipeline of supplies to begin with reduces to a mere trickle. Eventually everyone moves on — the rich withdraw back into their gated communities and the poor move back into the floodplains. Next disaster, plez.

Impunity: This third component of the Filipino Cultural Trinity is what set us up for this disaster in the first place. In the short-term, there were no unpleasant consequences associated with dumping garbage and raw sewage into our stormdrain systems.

In short, both the rescue efforts during and directly after the disaster and the lifeline of relief effort to victims sustained in its aftermath are driven largely by private sector initiative. They in no way represent our taxes at work properly channeled through public facilities and services. Rather, they are products of informal coping mechanisms — the altruism of the resource-rich and what Randy David calls “private solutions to collective problems”.

There is nothing wrong with informal private coping mechanisms; that is, until these become the preferred option that results in gross neglect of formal public mechanisms.

The perversion of volunteerism.

Volunteerism is a noble informal coping mechanism and it is heartening to see volunteerism alive and well in Philippine society in the face of crushing defeat in the hands of Mother Nature. Yet on closer examination, there are a few observations that beg to be highlighted in the way it is practiced in the Philippine setting.

We see it all over Facebook — people grandstanding about what and how they are contributing “selflessly”. Social networking has encroached on what was once the exclusive role of journalists and the media. The Media once held exclusive claim over the role of capturing images and stories of events and their publication. Not any more. People are now able to — and have taken it upon themselves — to capture events (which they themselves play the “hero” in) on film and self-publish these on the Web for their friends and peers to gawk at. Quiet achievement — with recognition as just a bonus — has been superceded by action with instant-recognition as a pre-requisite.

There is something amusing in seeing well-heeled folk packing relief bags in makeshift warehouses and loading them onto trucks (again I thank Facebook for that). Many of these are people who come from households where domestic servants may outnumber their employers almost two-to-one. Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to simply deploy their servants to those centers to do the manual work while they themselves focus their energies (and core skills) on tasks that deliver bigger, more far-reaching, and longer-term bang (such as getting on the phone to chew out the politicians they routinely fund and hobnob with for neglecting public infrastructure for so long).

Perhaps all that tacky self-promotion enabled by modern technology hides a more ancient underlying psyche — guilt. Just as feast all year fast for one week is the Filipino motto behind the Easter Holidays (“Holy Week” as Filipinos call it), “helping out” when disaster strikes is what absolves the resource-rich of a way of life characterised primarily by NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”).

I’ve fasted/self-flagellated this week.

I’ve contributed/done “my part” today.

What’s the difference between the two? Simple answer: Nothing. They are the same. They both relieve personal guilt over an inability to ingrain doing things properly into our routine way of life. And neither addresses the harder question:

What happens next?

The voices that call out that very important question are routinely drowned out by the deafening noise of mainstream “debate”. Indeed, the perversion of the psychology that underlies “doing good” and “helping out” seems to take its cue from the Philippine Media itself. Commentor “Joe America” expressed it quite well and succinctly in a comment on

The media seem to be a part of the general theme of “arrogance of self” over common good. ABS/CBN, for instance, lacks a proper ethical foundation when the company seeks to BE the news instead of report on it, and when they make sure the stars of their programs are front and center doling out aid. It is a rather sick, slick kind of help, corrupt, if you will, in that it perverts a good deed in the face of tragedy for commercial gain. It works at cross purposes to the REAL aid-givers who are blocked from proper coverage because of the self promotion

False hope.

So even as we assure ourselves that the “prayerfulness” and “resilience” of our people will see us through, there is a palpable undercurrent of cynicism evident whenever the topic of the future is brought up. Perhaps this oblique nature that Philippine volunteerism has come to evolve into reflects so closely the utter phoniness or, worse, emptiness of our resolve to be a better people.

The “bayanihan” we imagine to have happened over the last week or two props up our “hope” that Filipinos will be “ok” in the future. Hope in what exactly? Yes, it’s that niggling question again that remains the elephant in the room.

How can there be hope when far bigger tragedies that occurred in the past due also to human neglect remain unaddressed today. What are we doing differently?


If the way our leaders and future leaders have responded to this disaster can be considered to be good indicators of what happens next, there is indeed little reason to be hopeful. That is where leadership and vision come into the picture, Mr. Filipino Politician. One would expect that our future leaders would have already anticipated much of the key challenges that grip our society even before they had joined any race to public office to begin with.

That’s just a bit too much to ask of Filipino politicians, I suppose; because rather than step up to the grade befitting true leaders, they merely choose to reflect the society they aspire to lead.


About benign0

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24 Responses to The Filipino Cultural Trinity

  1. Pro Pinoy says:

    Ah, but this time things will be different Mr. Benign0.

    With the help of Facebook, Twitter, and Starbucks, the Filipino people have reached the “Tipping Point” (by Malcolm Gladwell) of awareness. The Dragon (or should I say Carabao?) has awakened and there shall be no turning back now. The people have awakened. The Philippine Golden Age begins NOW!

    • benign0 says:

      It’s great that you are optimistic about the future, dude. In fact I am looking for really convincing counter-arguments to my thesis that Pinoys lack any real basis for hope.

      So here’s the thing:

      If you can come up with convincing bases to substantiate the claim that the “Philippine Golden Age” has begun, I’m all ears. 😉

    • Filo says:

      @Pro Pinoy:
      Click here to see a rather fitting reaction to your comment.

  2. The Real Deal says:


    You wrote: “With the help of Facebook, Twitter, and Starbucks, the Filipino people have reached the “Tipping Point” (by Malcolm Gladwell) of awareness. The Dragon (or should I say Carabao?) has awakened and there shall be no turning back now. The people have awakened. The Philippine Golden Age begins NOW!”

    The Philippine Golden Age will only begin, when Pinoys replace the dysfunctional traits that characterize Pinoy society with positive traits that are clearly observable in all societies that have rapidly developed or are currently in the midst of rapidly developing. The Philippines, sadly, continues to go back to mediocrity after flashes of so-called excellence all the time.

    What tipping point are you talking about anyway? That people helped out for Ondoy?

  3. Chino F says:

    I wonder if something can be added to this trinity to make it a quartet:

    Pogi/Maganda Ako – Amor Propio. Saving face even if there’s no face worth showing.

  4. Your observation is very good, but I want to clarify on your take on the word “bahala na. I’ve read a book written by Pastor Ed Lapiz called, “Pagbabagong-Loob”. He pointed the word “bahala na” not as an equivalent word for “come what may” nor an equivalent for fatalism as Westerners told us. Lapiz said that “bahala na” is all about giving to God what we cannot possibly do as a human being while we do the things that is possible to us to do to the best that we can.

    The origin of the word:
    “Bahala na” came from the word “Bathala” which is a old Tagalog term for “God” or “Diyos”. When you say “bahala na”, it means “Bathala na” or “Let God do the impossible” while we do the possible.

    Using it in a sentence:
    If you say to your housekeeper, “Ikaw ang bahala sa bahay namin(Take charge of this house).” it doesn’t mean that when a fire or a typhoon hit your house, you will do nothing about it. It means that you have to do your best to protect your house from any unpleasant situations like typhoon, fire, or even burglar.
    Another example, if your girlfriend said to you “Ikaw ang bahala sa akin”, it means that you have to do your best to protect her in any harm’s way.

    End Point:
    “Bahala Na” is really a part of our Filipino culture. It is really how Filipinos cope with difficult and impossible situations. Giving out to God what is impossible and we as humans do our part to the best that we could. This culture is the reason why suicide cases in the Philippines is less than our Asian neighbours and Western counterparts or even First World countries. But Westerners corrupted this concept and put the word “bahala na” as an equivalent for fatalism. Again, we need to clarify that “bahala na” is not an equivalent word for “fatalism” and I hope that you’ve cleared on this matter.

    • benign0 says:

      Thanks C.Perry.

      If you don’t mind, I might quote Chino’s comment on in response to your comment above as he put it quite well:

      I believe the “bahala na” you guys wish to exonerate is the type when you try something. That’s risk taking when you try to do something. This “bahala na” is more like “leave it to God.” But action was done.

      What Benign0 condemns is the “bahala na” of inaction. Instead of looking for work, guy says “bahala na” and spends a whole night drinking at the kanto. Mabuti nalang kung mamamatay yung ganun. Another wrong type is the “bahala na” when a person knows something he’ll do is wrong, but even if warned against it, he’ll go on and risk getting caught. “Bahala na” daw kung mahuli. Like that Filipino in Saudi who recently got caught bootlegging liquor. That’s a shame

      I think he captured the essence of what I mean when I cite the bahala na syndrome in my article.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        May we are enlightened in clarifying this “bahala na” issue because it fuels the Filipinos’ deep connection with the Almighty and to cope with the impossible.

        You are right in saying “bahala na” without action or initiative is useless. Even the Bible says faith without works is dead.

        Am I right on this sirs ?

      • citizen perry,

        yes you are correct. it really seems like the prevalent understanding here is that faith is enough and that god will provide. you might want to check out the anti-pinoy logo. it’s a person just waiting for the fruit of the tree to fall into his mouth. perhaps, that person’s waiting for god to do something to make the fruit conveniently drop into his gaping mouth.

    • @citizenperry

      i think the prevailing context for bahala na is no longer “bathala na” but really “bahala na” as in “bahala na si batman.” how it got that way, i don’t know. anyway, this brings to mind a proverb often brought up during times of calamity: “nasa diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.” i have a problem with this proverb and i think it should not be taught to very young children unless if it is rephrased as “nasa tao ang gawa, nasa diyos ang awa.” even then there is always the possibility that some people (if not most) will only absorb the part about god’s mercy.

    • benign0 says:

      Yeah, I think initiative and accountability should always be emphasized FIRST among virtues/values that we want to impart upon the next generation of Pinoys.

  5. 1. Great job on diagnosing the problem. How about solutions?

    2. On [perversion of volunteerism] I do believe that some are motivated by wrong motives, but I prefer not to judge. What people call “self promotion on Facebook” keeps the fire burning a little bit longer.. long enough to keep people interested in blogs like this, when otherwise they’d be busy playing with their quizzes and whatnot.

    As long as we keep on pinning motives onto people’s actions, we’ll be seeing less action.

    Love the blog post, and the blog. Especially the diagram.

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  7. Great blog post. I’d like to focus on the point behind “hope in what, exactly?”. Hope needs a clear plan of action and actual action to produce tangible results. Unfortunately, many people just stop at having hope. Hope in of itself, without the requisite action and planning, leads nowhere. It is like a can of gasoline. It has the potential to create movement but if it isn’t poured into a properly configured engine and without the willpower to turn on the ignition switch, it remains mere potential.

    HOPE, in this proper context, still produces personal advancement in the Philippines:

  8. benign0 says:

    Thanks guys.

    @ Stefan Suarez:
    Perhaps not seeing “less action” but seeing more of the “right action”; i.e., action that anticipates rather than simply reacts. If, for example, much of the energy was directed towards putting in and maintaining routine measures that helped mitigate the risk of such disasters to begin with, we’d be seeing a bit less destruction and waste today.

    @ Filipino culture
    That’s right. “Hope” should be substantiated. A hope of one day becoming a lawyer needs to be substantiated by a plan to study Law in a university. In the same way it is a ludicrous proposition to be encouraging people to have “hope” without any evidence of a clear roadmap to achieving whatever it is one hopes for will happen in the future.

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  10. Renato Pacifico says:

    Culture of impunity is practiced by idiot peryodistas.

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  13. Aya says:

    I think that you are being judgmental rather than reflective of facts.
    I don’t think that the problems you presented here are the real problems
    which shoul be tackled because Filipinos, admit it or not, are strong people.
    Mas bibilib pa siguro ako sayo kung tinira mo si Gloria at ang administrasyon
    ngayon kung bakit walang malakihang paghahanda sa mga disasters na sinasabi mo.

  14. Lo says:

    I see… That one above there is an example of a person who just can’t accept the truth.

    This is exactly reason why anti- pinoy is here. To enlighten the people of what WE pinoys have become.

    Blaming and pointing a finger on someone will not work, because the truth is, it was ALSO OUR FAULT!

    We contributed on that certain phenomena. Like uhmn… I don’t know… TRASH?! NEGLECT?! STUPIDITY?!

    If you think nothing is happening then work on something and do it yourself.

    Its appalling, because after that certain tragedy… WE are all back again on the same track… Manila is still dirty and other parts of the country as well.

    And to realize that WE used that just so WE can boast to other countries what we can do in times of tragedy? Can we not keep it to ourselves? What’s happening now? Are we still that helpful? Charitable?

    Its also the people who’s the problem here! MAJOR actually. WE need to be able to grow. WE need to REALLY LEARN OUR LESSONS.

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