Buencamino writes political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in Business Mirror December 26, 2007 edition, p. A10.

Last week, an article by Manuel L Quezon III, “How Fallows’ Essay Gutted Morale of the Filipinos,” got me to Google the essay that “has had Filipinos reeling from the impact ever since.”

“A Damaged Culture” was the title of the 7000-word essay written by James Fallows 20 years ago.  His work was based on two visits to the country.  Consequently, some Filipinos thought that allowed them to dismiss his work as “parachute journalism.”

But Fallows’ essay deserved better treatment. The snide reaction to his short but penetrating analysis evaded the issues he raised in the same way that the Arroyo regime dodged the findings of Philip Alston by characterizing him as a parachute human rights rapporteur. “He was here for only 11 days” was the familiar refrain coming from Palace mouthpieces.

Fallows blamed culture for the country’s dismal state:

“The countries that surround the Philippines have become the world’s most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore–all are short on natural resources, but all (as their officials never stop telling you) have clawed their way up through hard study and hard work. Unfortunately for its people, the Philippines illustrates the contrary: that culture can make a naturally rich country poor. There may be more miserable places to live in East Asia– Vietnam, Cambodia–but there are few others where the culture itself, rather than a communist political system, is the main barrier to development.”

He saw little hope for progress unless some sort of cultural transformation took place:

“It seems to me that the prospects for the Philippines are about as dismal as those for, say, South Korea are bright. In each case the basic explanation seems to be culture: in the one case a culture that brings out the productive best in the Koreans (or the Japanese, or now even the Thais), and in the other a culture that pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructive, self-defeating worst.”

Fallows made it clear he is not a racist:

“If the problem in the Philippines does not lie in the people themselves or, it would seem, in their choice between capitalism and socialism, what is the problem? I think it is cultural, and that it should be thought of as a failure of nationalism.”

He went on to compare the Philippines to Japan:

“Nationalism is valuable when it gives people a reason not to live in the world of Hobbes–when it allows them to look beyond themselves rather than pursuing their own interests to the ruination of everyone else… Japan is strong in large part because its nationalist-racial ethic teaches each Japanese that all other Japanese deserve decent treatment. Non-Japanese fall into a different category. Individual Filipinos are at least as brave, kind, and noble-spirited as individual Japanese, but their culture draws the boundaries of decent treatment much more narrowly.”

From Japan, Fallows leaped to the Mafia:

“[W]hen observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside.”

Well, nationalism is just a bigger version of Cosa Nostraism isn’t it? Anyway….

Although Fallows made a lot of valid points, I think he cut the legs out of his damaged culture theory when he wrote, “[O]utside this culture they thrive. Filipino immigrants to the United States are more successful than immigrants from many other countries.”

Any sociologist will tell you that culture is not something one can shed as easily as one’s clothes. The effect of culture on one’s being is so profound a cigarette company felt secure enough to use it as a commercial slogan, “You can take Salem out of the country but you can’t take the country out of Salem.”

So, if it’s not genes or the choice of economic systems or a damaged culture, then what is the cause of the Filipino problem?  What is the negative common denominator for all Filipinos living in the islands?

It’s the water. Once a Filipino goes abroad and starts drinking water from another country, he becomes successful, as Fallows pointed out.

So this Christmas, I am giving all my relatives and friends bottled water from successful countries.

It’s my contribution to the transformation of my tribe, my nation, my Cosa Nostra. It’s my way of telling everyone dear to me, “It’s not you; it’s the water you drink. Consider my Christmas present as a well-thought-out gift instead of something cheap that I bought at the last minute in a halfway decent corner store.”

Let’s all drink to a Merry Christmas and a successful New Year!