An outstanding classmate in college used to say “whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.” Truly, she adhered to her motto and topped the class. At the time, and even later, Singapore and Korea were backwoods countries, and the Philippines looked like the next candidate for getting into the First World.
Today, our grade school students are ranking at the bottom among almost a hundred tested countries in reading, science, and mathematics. Our government’s performance against the COVID-19 pandemic is pathetic compared to those of erstwhile less developed countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, countries bordering China where the coronavirus originated. We have a police chief, the head of the law enforcement agency, violating pandemic protocols, being allowed to stay in office. A health secretary who has been exposed as having conflicts of interest as a government official doing business with the government while still in office. A Solicitor General maintaining million-peso retainers with government agencies which he is duty bound to monitor to ensure compliance with civil service ethics. And we have a president who openly behaves as a lackey of China, which should be considered our enemy, since they are brazenly taking over our internationally recognized territories. The work performance, moral, and ethical standards and compliance with the laws are rapidly going downhill.
How far down will they go? And are the trends reversible?
We cannot say it is genetic or racially determined because many Filipinos who migrate to more developed countries have demonstrated a capacity for excellence. The Biden government’s Administrator for USAID in the world is a Fil-American named Gloria Steele who graduated from Maryknoll College in Manila and Kansas State U. A successor to now Vice-President Kamala Harris and former California Governor Jerry Brown as the new attorney general for the state of California (which is bigger than the Philippines), Rob Bonta, is the son of Filipino immigrants to the United States who became farm worker activists with Cesar Chavez. One of the geniuses in the Silicon Valley IT industry, an inventor of microchips and other IT products, Dado Banatao, is the son of a farmer from La Union. If they had stayed here, not being from the landed, well-to-do Ilustrado or politically powerful classes, would they have achieved the remarkable success that they have attained?
When I was a child, to be a Japanese product meant “inferior quality.” Today, “made in Japan” means excellence. Akiro Morita of Sony, a physicist who set out to produce the best sound in the world, led by example. Today, even Korean products are catching up with their rival Japanese in producing superior cars and home appliances. South Korea was blessed to have had Park Chung Hee as a benevolent dictator who catapulted his country into a high performance economy. China will soon enough surpass these economies with their increasingly sophisticated industries, including those in the IT field. They were fortunate to have been led by “capitalist roader” Deng Xiaoping. Lee Kwan Yu’s Singapore has joined the first world. And formerly war-torn but victorious Vietnam, which defeated two of the most powerful countries in the world with their indomitable courage and determination to win, will soon overtake us economically. Their communist government, which is inspired by the leadership example of guerrilla leader and incorruptible President Ho Chi Minh, is host to many successful capitalist-oriented industries, including agribusinesses. Vietnam has overtaken us as the second biggest coffee producer next to Brazil in a very short time. They have been selling us rice for some time. We now import coffee from this country.
Why can’t we get our act together? When did this culture of “pwede na” and “okay lang” become the norm for what is acceptable? How did it happen? What can we do about it? Perhaps the attitude is that given the unfair and even hostile environment, “pwede na” has got to be good enough.
These issues must be raised as a challenge to our educators and leaders in politics, business, and civil society. What are we doing to our children? Are we challenging them enough? What are the standards we are setting for them, primarily by example? Our tribal people once made excellent fabrics, baskets, and trinkets. What happened to this culture of excellence? Are the performance standards fair and clear? Have we become too easy to please? Too tolerant of mediocrity?
We need to revitalize the idea of challenging our people to discover and value their true potential. The schools are one key environment for promoting a culture of excellence. The schools, from grade school all the way to graduate school, may have become too kind and tolerant or complacent these days.
It is not impossible. But we need to aim for it as a nation. Leadership does matter. We need to select leaders who will challenge us to be the best we can be. And who need to set an example. And who will ensure that the rules are clear and consistent. What we have today in all the branches of government — executive, legislative, judiciary and even the uniformed forces — are sad examples of mediocrity, even of shabby quality. Decisions and actions in these supposedly independent branches of government are based on second-guessing the thinking of the President who has a compulsive need to feel superior. And the national leadership, which seems to have seized more power than it is entitled to by law, has enabled crummy performance and unethical behavior to thrive, in return for blind loyalty.
The environment in our country, which tolerates too much mediocrity, does not enable excellence to thrive. So, no wonder the prevailing goal is to migrate to other countries where real effort and good performance is recognized and rewarded fairly. And one does not have to cater to the whims of undeserved power.
Even today, we can anticipate the legacy that the Duterte regime will leave behind. It is a culture of mediocrity. It will take fantastic will, determination, and inspired leadership by example and a miracle to reverse the trend.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.