The recent hostage tragedy in Manila on the 23rd of August 2010 involving now deceased former Philippine National Police officer Rolando Mendoza and eight now dead Chinese tourists triggered an outpouring of mixed emotions that included sorrow and remorse both from the Filipino and Chinese community in the Philippines and in Hong Kong.
Unexpectedly, it also brought out a lot of anger coming from both the Chinese community and some members of the Filipino community. The Chinese for their part were indignant and rightly so, considering the inept way the crisis was handled by our PNP and our public officials, particularly President Noynoy Aquino. But in response, some members of the Filipino community displayed their deep-seated animosity towards the Chinese people in what one Australian writer called “angry defensiveness.”
It has been a not so well-kept secret that there are some in the Filipino community who harbor ill feelings towards wealthy Filipino-Chinese members of Philippine society. Although they only make up roughly 1.3% of the population of the Philippines, the Chinese in the Philippines are leading business owners and industrialists. Because of their entrepreneurial skills, they are better off than most native and indigenous Filipinos.
Filipino Chinese’s ownership of most of the small or medium enterprises makes them a significant force in the Philippine economy. A handful of these entrepreneurs run large companies and are prominent business tycoons in the Philippines. In a country where poverty is widespread, “foreigners” or foreign-looking residents whether Chinese or Indian who make more money than the “locals” are viewed with resentment despite the fact that they account for much needed local employment opportunities. Indeed, the Filipino people still wrongly define themselves first and foremost by race.
The Malaysian experiment
The situation in the Philippines is not so different from the situation in our regional neighbor, Malaysia. In 1969, Kuala Lumpur was struck by race riots, which resulted in 196 deaths. The race riot was traced to a deep-seated resentment by indigenous Malays towards the minority group, the Chinese and Indian immigrants, who have long dominated the nation’s business and trade. As a consequence of the race riots, Malaysian leaders decided that communal peace was impossible without economic balance, something that can only be resolved hard and fast through affirmative action.
In 1971, they introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the hope of raising the majority group’s or the Malay’s share of the economic pie. The policy was an effort to level the playing field across the entire population and help those who are poor and marginalized particularly members of the Malay community to catch up economically with the more entrepreneurial minority, the Chinese and Indian migrants. But critics argue that the pro-Malay program only benefits the connected few over its intended target.
TIME Magazine recently featured an article about Malaysia’s move to modernize and reform the NEP due to the country’s stalled economic progress. To quote an excerpt from the TIME article: the Malaysian “program is one of modern history’s greatest experiments in social engineering and possibly the world’s most extensive attempt at affirmative action.” But like everything that has to do with forced equality, the article adds that, “the policies have also bred resentment among minorities, distorted the economy and undermined the concept of a single Malaysian identity.” And another catch is that “the affirmative action has become so ingrained in the Malaysian psyche that it is akin to a national ideology.” Just to translate that in negative terms, the bumiputra have come to expect privilege and opportunity to be handed to them on a silver platter
without exerting too much effort.
Among other things, the policy gave Malays preferential access to public contracts and university scholarships. It also required companies who are listed on the stock market to sell 30% of its shares to the bumiputra (Malays and indigenous peoples of Malaysia). Malaysian leaders have even reinforced the preferential treatment of their ethnic identities for the past 40 years by doling out special privileges to one community, which is the majority of the Malays.
Although to some degree parts of the program have been “softened” or eliminated in the last two decades, many of the pro-Malay privileges are still intact. Resentment stems from the fact that like any affirmative action programs, there will always be a member of a group who has to bear the burden of being out of the loop – those who do not make the cut in the racial quota. Just an example of what can be considered “unfair” is the practice of awarding certain government contracts to bumiputra controlled firms. It’s been said that Malays even receive special discounts on home purchases.
More importantly, although Malaysia has enjoyed good economic performance since World War II and has a good record of improving human welfare, their economy has stalled. As mentioned in the TIME article: “the percentage of the population living in poverty has plummeted from 50% in 1950 to less than 4% today – Malaysia’s story is stuck on the same chapter.”
The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak has recognized the need for reform in its economic system if the country is to compete with more advance economies of the world. After 40 years of living under the comforts of the New Economic Policy (NEP), he has recently boldly introduced a new system in March called the New Economic Model (NEM).
His plan envisions reducing red tape “to encourage more private investment and internal competition, decreasing the state role in the economy and improving the education system to produce more skilled workers. One of the key issues that the new system will implement is to phase out remaining racial quotas and focus efforts on uplifting the poorest 40% of the population regardless of race. All this despite the fact that Malaysia’s gross income per capita of $7,230.00 in 2009 is among the highest in the region. One can tell that Malaysian leaders do not rest on their laurels.
In an interview with TIME Magazine, Najib stated that, “For us (Malaysians) to move up a few notches, we have to address the structural problems. We cannot be in denial. I don’t want anyone to feel that they’ve been left out or marginalized.”
Prime Minister Najib is correct in his assertion that Malaysia must do something to reform the existing economic model because the NEP is said to be dampening business sentiment, scaring off talent, curtailing investment and stifling domestic competition. It has not been able to level the playing field overall. Malaysia is also experiencing brain drain because there are less opportunities for minority groups so they go elsewhere to find it.
Is race the real issue?
Despite other people’s efforts to debunk the notion of race, it seems that humans are still predisposed to identifying themselves using race. Since the concept of ethnicity is new to the majority of the entire human population, it will be hard to reprogram the mentality of some not to distinguish themselves along the racial lines. Filipinos will be particularly harder to convince that we Filipinos are not really that different from the Malay group found in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Malaysian Prime Minister should be lauded for his efforts to stomp on human nature’s penchant for race discrimination. However, his efforts are not without its critics. There are some groups who claim that Malays in Malaysia still don’t have the necessary skills and resources to compete against Chinese businessmen in the country. This is their way of arguing that affirmative action, which favors Malays or the bumiputra, remain in place. But there are others in Malaysia who believe that the time has come for the Malay community to compete on their own merits without special privileges just like any member of society in any society around the globe. Some even say that the Malays have stayed in their comfort zone for too long.
I find the above information quite fascinating because if you stop to think about it, given the right opportunity and a life under the same environment, it seems that the Malay “race” or ethnic group are susceptible to falling into a comfort zone. What I am trying to say is that, it may indeed be part of some ethnic group’s genetic makeup or DNA to be less competitive than others. And being part of the Malay group, native or indigenous Filipinos tend to be less competitive than majority of the Filipino-Chinese residents in the Philippines. There seems to be a pattern in the behavior similar to that of the Malays in Malaysia.
Filipino’s Malay link
Many Filipinos actually refer to the term “Malay” as the indigenous population of the Philippines as well as that of its neighboring countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This belief started with the American anthropologist, H.Otley Beyer who said that Filipinos are Malays who migrated from Malaysia and Indonesia. However, other recent findings favor the theory that the ancestors of Malaysia and Indonesia actually migrated from the Philippines during the prehistoric period.
Whatever theory you believe, it does not really matter because it is quite probable that Malaysians, Indonesians and Filipinos originally came from the same place. The evidence is in how all-indigenous members in the said countries tend to resemble each other. In short, we all look alike. As German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach aptly describes the Malay variety (source: Wikipedia):
“Tawny-coloured; hair black, soft, curly, thick and plentiful; head moderately narrowed; forehead slightly swelling; nose full, rather wide, as it were diffuse, end thick; mouth large; upper jaw somewhat prominent with the parts of the face when seen in profile, sufficiently prominent and distinct from each other. This last variety includes the islanders of the Pacific Ocean, together with the inhabitants of the Marianne, the Philippine, the Molucca and the Sunda Islands, and of the Malayan peninsula. I wish to call it the Malay, because the majority of the men of this variety, especially those who inhabit the Indian islands close to the Malacca peninsula, as well as the Sandwich, the Society, and the Friendly Islanders, and also the Malambi of Madagascar down to the inhabitants of Easter Island, use the Malay idiom.”
The Malay syndrome
It is therefore evident that ethnic groups in the Philippines and in Malaysia (or possibly Indonesia), tend to have the same nature, which is entirely different from that of other ethnic groups like the Chinese, for example. Whereas the Chinese tend to be entrepreneurial and hard working, the average Malay needs a few more incentives to be able to work harder in order to advance his economic status.
Could it be that there are ethnic groups who are naturally more industrious than others? It would seem so with the Chinese people being one such industrious group who appear to thrive anywhere in the world no matter what kind of environment they live in. Given the same environment and the same privilege like in the case of the Malaysian program, there are some ethnic groups who just don’t thrive even if the opportunities and privilege are just short of being shoved down their throat.
This theory could in fact silence those groups in Philippine society who insist that it is the lack of opportunity and privilege that hold majority of the native and indigenous Filipinos from becoming self-sufficient and economically progressive. Of course access to better education and special aid make a big difference but there are members of society who are not really into improving their lot despite the assistance given to them. A classic example of this is Filipinos who have gone to perfectly good schools but do not perform well at school and who have lackluster professional careers.
With the make-up of the majority of present-day Filipinos now a product of the long process of evolution and movement of people, some of us have European and American blood running through our veins. There are Filipinos of non-Chinese blood who make it big as an entrepreneur but the fact remains that the Filipino-Chinese group still plays a big role in running the economy in the Philippines.
The role of the Philippine government
In the same TIME article about Malaysia, the Philippines not surprisingly was cited as one among other Asian countries who have lagged behind economically. It has been lumped together with Thailand whose progress has been stymied by upheaval and poor governance. To quote:
The promise of the Philippines remains unrealized as its feeble government (the Aquino government) has continually failed to enact tough reforms needed to turn around the underperforming economy.
The TIME writer is very accurate because President Noynoy Aquino has yet to come up with a genuine program that will initiate the much needed reforms to uplift the economy and help the poorest of the poor members of Philippine society rise from extreme poverty.
Instead of focusing on trivial matters like “wang-wangs” or his popularity, President Aquino could focus on the need to look into the possibility of adapting an economic model similar to that of the Malaysian model. Since the previous New Economic Policy adapted for 40 years seems to have worked for the most part for Malaysian society, P-Noy could consider studying which policies are applicable to the Philippines and which ones are not.
Obviously, the Malaysian Prime Minister himself has said that the initial economic program has its downside and definitely needs changes. We, as a member of the Malay group must try and understand how we can benefit from “one of modern history’s greatest experiments in social engineering and possibly the world’s most extensive attempt at affirmative action.”
The recent hostage tragedy involving the Filipino and Chinese community has made it obvious to the rest of the world that the Filipino community was indeed culpable. The incident has shown that all aspects of our society are in desperate need of reform if we hope to prevent the same tragedy from happening again.
While we are currently doing some soul searching, we need to recognize that we Filipinos need to rise to the occasion by ending our display of angry defensiveness towards the Chinese – anger, which likely originates from a deep-seated resentment of their higher economic status. We need to focus our energies instead on improving all aspects of our society.
It is too bad President Noynoy Aquino did not run for the presidency on a genuine platform of change, he only won the presidency through sheer popularity, which won’t bring about communal peace among Filipinos. Communal peace will be impossible without economic balance, something that can only be resolved hard and fast through some kind of action both from the government and each member of Philippine society – irrespective of race or ethnicity.