The optimism of the Filipino: Something to be upbeat about?

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Greg B. Macabenta

Posted on July 08, 2015

President Noynoy Aquino is reportedly very pleased with a report in TIME Asia concerning the high level of optimism among Filipinos with respect to their job prospects. According to a Gallup poll, cited by the publication, some 66% of Filipinos feel good about landing a job -- a figure higher than the 51% in the United States, 34% in India, 22% in Venezuela, 18% in Sudan and a measly 3% in Italy.

I have visited Manila more often these past several months and I can confirm the optimism of our people, based on conversations with the squatters -- oops, sorry, I mean informal settlers -- across the creek from our house in Parañaque, as well as with my former driver who plies the subdivision with his own tricycle, and our own live-in help.

Compared to Pinoys in America, they are most assuredly optimistic about their lives. In fact, you can see it from the crowds that pack Divisoria and the Greenhills shopping center, the shop-and-cook eating places near the Mall of Asia, the wet market near our house, and the SM and Robinsons malls that have sprouted all over the Metropolis.

Not surprisingly, the presidential spokesmen have attributed this optimism to the “successful” efforts of the Aquino administration in uplifting the living conditions of the masses.

Without meaning to dampen the upbeat assessment of Malacañang, I have learned from my conversations with ordinary folk that their optimism is due to their acceptance of their fate as the will of God, as well as a survival system that one would normally associate with cockroaches. They have adjusted to their environment and are making do with available resources instead of bewailing their misfortune.

To say that Filipinos are a hardy lot is to make a gross understatement. You have be hardy to survive the daily ordeal with the MRT, not to mention the floods and the traffic.

And that isn’t all. Hardiness has also induced creativity. The pagpag may be the poster dish that confirms this creativity. It is food recovered from restaurant garbage bins, dusted off and cleared of unpalatable elements, re-cooked and then consumed and even sold.

In a demonstration of his humble roots, former Vice-President Noli de Castro ate some pagpag while doing a special TV report on it. What I really would like to see is Andrew Zimmern, host of the TV show Bizarre Foods, dining on pagpag. After all, he has eaten beetles, snakes, worms and even field rodents in his search for the world’s delicacies.

Our people’s survival system is what has helped them maintain their optimism even in the face of such horrific calamities as super typhoon Yolanda. This is the part of the lives of their constituents that officials like Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas -- to the manor born -- should familiarize themselves with. Perhaps then, they will not take too much credit for the report on the Filipinos’ optimism.

And then, of course, there is the underground economy. On a recent trip to Manila, while walking up Sucat Road, I noted how many talipapa (temporary markets) had sprouted along the main thoroughfare, as well as in front of the parish church, the shopping centers, the commercial buildings, and the vicinity of city hall. Vendors were hawking fish, vegetables, barbecue, toys, clothing, even electronic gadgets. Some had set up impromptu dining stalls with benches for customers to sit on.

In Makati, I also noted the kiosks occupying part of the sidewalks and the streets where office buildings are, selling snacks, soda and assorted items. What set the Makati food stalls apart were the fact that they appeared to be regulated by the city and operated out of relatively well-built structures. In Parañaque, as everywhere else in Metro Manila, it is every vendor to his own devices.

A couple of years ago, I had to wait on the steps of the Social Security office in Baclaran before dawn to be first in line to file some pension papers. On the steps and in the corners of the building were several individuals, male and female, blissfully asleep on strips of cardboard. When the sun rose, they tucked away their cardboard beds, stripped makeshift stalls of their cloth coverings, and revealed merchandise to be hawked to an ever gathering stream of pedestrians.

Did these folk appear “optimistic” about their lives? Of course! They were optimistic about selling a few items that day and earning enough for food to tide them over till the next day. Some of them struck me as exceedingly optimistic. They were breaking into song.

I’m sure that if the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia were to conduct a survey among the Baclaran vendors, they would take note of that and declare that Filipinos are so happy and optimistic about their economic prospects, they even sing about it.

Multiply this scenario several hundred times across Metro Manila and the provincial cities and major towns and you can see why Filipinos are optimistic about their economic prospects.

You can guess, of course, that none of these “businesses” pays any taxes. At least, not to the legitimate municipal or city government and, most certainly, not to the national government.

What the street vendors do is pay tribute to the cops assigned to the area who, in turn, have to meet a “boundary” or quota set by their chiefs who, in turn, have to guarantee the daily take of the mayor. The collections add up to the hundreds of thousands.

Do the cops need wage increases? What for? They’re already cops! Oh, yes, the cops are also optimistic about their economic and financial conditions.

As in the past, in private and government offices, clerks and supervisors conduct a parallel business operation within the official premises, from selling snacks and chocolates to peddling clothes, makeup kits, insurance policies, real estate, and even ponzi schemes.

No taxes are paid, either.

Do they need wage increases? Of course, they do. But, in the meantime, they manage to add to the family coffers with their tax-free entrepreneurial efforts.

Yes, indeed, the underground economy in the Philippines is alive and well! And that is one of the reasons our people are optimistic.

Isn’t the government missing a lot of money from not collecting these taxes? Well, what are taxes for, anyway, but to pay for government services rendered to the citizenry? Since the government, especially at the local level, does not provide enough of these services, everything evens out. No expenses for services, no budget deficit to worry about.

There’s another reason our people are optimistic. They have gotten so used to deprivation, most of them no longer know what they’re missing, except for being enticed by the lifestyle print ads and commercials on television.

Come to think of it, maybe those lifestyle commercials and print ads should be banned. They may be creating too much upward striving that can never be fulfilled. And that could make our people pessimistic.

No wonder, back in the days of Suharto in Indonesia, he banned TV advertising because “it created unnecessary needs in people.”

Like eating three meals a day.

If people are already used to having two meals a day, why entice them with visions of a third meal?

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.