An Exhausted Citizenry

A four-day meeting in Bangkok seemed interminable at a time that the situation at home was tense and explosive.  The news and email messages I received indicated a dreadful scenario—the exposés and allegations related to the manipulation of the 2004 national elections and the jueteng bribes to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband, son and brother- in-law could anytime unmake her administration.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to be in Manila and to be in the thick of things? To be honest, I enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere in a quiet and leafy part of the Chulalongkorn University.  A few blocks away from the campus is the well-preserved Jim Thompson teakwood house, now a museum, which is a sanctuary for anyone who wants to escape Bangkok’s bustle.

Yet, I could not fully loosen up as colleagues from different parts of Asia kept badgering me with the same question: “What’s happening to the Philippines?”

It was then time to return to Manila. I could not help but think of how to go about our unfinished advocacy with regard to the fiscal crisis as a bigger political crisis grips the country.  Contrary to what government and some foreign analysts are saying, the fiscal problem is not about to ease.  Congress mangled the key legislative tax measures (i.e., the excise tax on sin products and the expansion of the coverage and increase in the rate of the value-added tax).

On the return trip, I was seated beside a Filipina balikbayan.  Her trip originated in Frankfurt, and she boarded the connecting flight to Manila in Bangkok.  She was refreshed, notwithstanding the long journey.  She has the morena complexion, the jet hair, the svelte figure, the rhythmic movement, and the politeness that make women like her attractive to Europeans. Indeed she is attached to a German, and happily married for two years.  She is in her late twenties, but she was childlike in her excitement to return to the Philippines.  This was to be her first visit to the Philippines since her marriage two years ago.

She was teary-eyed when the plane touched down at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.  But unlike the non-Filipino Asian intellectuals that I met in Bangkok who were all interested to know the burning issue in the Philippines, this woman—I did not even bother to ask her name—was the least concerned over the unfolding crisis.

She had already voted with her feet, and Europe is now her home.  So why should she care about the multifarious problems that beset the Philippines? The sole purpose of her visit was to see her younger sister, whom she financially supports by way of monthly transfer of hard-earned euros.  Her sister and her brother-in-law are both jobless.  They depend on the 200 euros that their elder sister and their mother—a nurse who also resides in Germany—remit.

Is this the typical case of the moral hazard that economists have warned of? An Asian Development Bank study, for example, says that the uninterrupted flow of remittances from overseas Filipinos to relatives at home has made dependents complacent in looking for work.
Without even suggesting this question to her, the Filipina balikbayan, perhaps reading my mind, told me that her brother-in-law, an engineer, is a very responsible person and that he has been pounding the pavements of Metro Manila to look for work.

I believe her. My wife and I also know of a mechanical engineer who cannot get any productive employment.  Labor statistics, however, would now include him as among the “employed” since he has become an irregular itinerant vendor of coconut virgin oil.

Yes, even the highly skilled are finding it difficult to get jobs that correspond to their training and education.  Over the years, since the first half of the 1990s, a trend has emerged where the category of young people, either college graduates (including those with post-graduate degrees) or with some college education, has the highest unemployment rate. This is one unique dimension of the phenomenon of jobless growth.

To say that an unemployment crisis exists is not debatable.  Sadly, though, it has not merited much public discussion and scrutiny, compared to, say, the fiscal crisis.

Still worse, addressing the unemployment crisis and the fiscal crisis has taken the backseat as Arroyo is now more concerned about her survival.  And how could she implement the measures when an increasing number of people, including her former supporters, consider her administration illegitimate?

For the Filipina balikbayan I met on the Bangkok-Manila flight, she would not let the different layers of crisis shaking the foundations of Philippine society dampen her visit.  Her attachment to the Philippines is confined to her family. She had made a political and economic decision, which was to leave the country.

Sadly, more and more Filipinos are taking this option of least resistance.

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