By Raul V. Fabella

WHEN Hong Kong denied entry to two valid Filipino passport holders, there seems no more to it than the rightful prerogative of a government to bar who it considers persona non grata. When the Philippine territorial waters and exclusive zones are being impunitively violated, there seems no more to it than conflicting territorial claims. Or wasn’t there? In the 1840s and 1850s Western colonial powers bombarded the coastal cities of Imperial China and even occupied Beijing to force China to open its borders to the lucrative opium trade. Defeated China was forced to swallow the “Treaty of Nanjing” dictated by the occupiers. The mindset behind these two actions set two centuries apart seems to be the same: “You are a lightweight, you don’t matter.”

There is a view we owe to, among others, Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) that says “When you don’t matter, you are free.” Gravity does not tether “no-matters” to the ground. Gautama Buddha believed as much. Our own Dr. Jose Rizal put it well: “Morir es descansar” (To die is to rest). Death unburdens us; it dissolves all debts that in life weighed us down. Which is why in many East Asian cultures untouched by Christianity, suicide is the preferred honorable exit; it spares your kin of the shame you caused. Suicide, mind you, is very cost efficient: it spares family and society the burden of your demoralized self. So when you finally end it, you attain a lightness of being not unlike freedom. Pareto efficiency in another guise!

Kundera’s quarrel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” rather than his bearably prosaic storyline of love and infidelity was what gave him the gravitas to take the literary world by storm, even to earn a nomination for the Nobel. “Lightness” in Kundera means your “sin” and its dire consequences end with you. Contra Nietzsche, they will not be a curse on future generations. You can thus indulge without the guilt of collateral damage. Fair enough. But unbearable? It resonates differently with different people. Let me share how it resonates with me.

My generation, really the “boys of the ’50s and ’60s,” spanning the second half of the 20th century, saw the Philippines fumble its way from grudging envy to veiled contempt in the Asian region. The post WWII era was when the Philippine passport was cherished; aliens faked or bribed their way to its possession. In droves, students from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia graced even our second-rate campuses. A Philippine PhD and MBA commanded high premia in the global marketplace. Young accounting wizards of Sycip, Gores and Velayo logged countless air miles to other Asian capitals and back to teach the natives the rudiments of double entry accounting and equity markets. The burden of leadership towards the promised land of development lay squarely on our laps. The epithet “Pearl of the Orient Sea” was consonant. Did anyone ever think that 40 years later the same epithet would seem dissonant?

The once coveted passport had become a ticket to exit the misery of the homeland. Customs authorities elsewhere now treat the Philippine passport holder with suspicion. The burden of leadership in the region slipped from our laps as the global league tables told year-in and year-out of our deadweighting the region’s index averages. It came to a head in 2019 when two prominent Philippine passport-holding visitors to Hong Kong were denied entry.

The venerable Washington “Wash” Sycip whose birth date, June 30, I am commemorating with this reflection, was more distressed than any Filipino by this reversal of fortune. “Wash” worried that endless quibbling over who gets what of the prospective harvest leaves the field unsown; that the ceaseless quarrel over who sits where on the deck of the sinking Titanic gets us closer to hunger and disaster. Can a democracy gone bad, one that privileged the individual over the group before its time, heal itself? May it not be the case that the healing of a democracy gone sour lies in its opposite, an autocracy? Many people disagreed with Wash on this but his was a valid scientific point. It remains at the dead center of our present national political discourse.

Our state authorities obsessed endlessly over the best modality to build the dam projects to supply bulk water for Metro Manila instead of building them. And when the inevitable water crisis finally came, the state authorities responsible for the missing dams found convenient scapegoats in the water concessionaires whose pipes could not deliver the missing water from unbuilt dams! Among East Asians, suicide or at least resignation among accountable state officials would be expected, but East Asia has long departed our DNA.

Through decades of unbuilt and half-built arterial infrastructure, through generations of unresolved ambiguity between the market and populism, investment sagged and economic dynamism relocated elsewhere in East Asia. The last 40 years came under the spell of “development progeria” when policies that strangled Tradables (Manufacturing, Agriculture) dragged the low income economy down to the sewers of low investment, low growth, and high poverty incidence. With investment on a long eclipse, the Philippines became a fast fading spectacle in East Asia’s rear view mirror. Observers joked that we forfeited our East Asian identity and relocated elsewhere. Only recurrent horrendous natural and man-made calamities (Typhoon Yolanda, the Maguindanao Massacre, Marawi) and occasional pugilistic feats, neither of which is of the East Asian genre, reminds the world that we still exist.

For better or for worse and despite the heroic effort of some of our generation to right the ship*, this I fear will go down as my generation’s legacy to its progeny and what Wash Sycip found so unbearable — the lightness of inconsequence.

This painful journey to inconsequence had a hopeful pause that started from Aquino’s watch and into the first year of Duterte’s. We saw a spell of the new normal (see e.g., Fabella, 2017, “Manufacturing, Quality of Growth, and Poverty Reduction,” BusinessWorld, Jan. 16, 2017, when the quantity but more importantly the quality of growth parted ways with the old. But this pause is itself having a hiccup as we enter the last three years of Duterte. Growth quantity and quality is reverting towards the old norm. Investment is being threatened by assertive populism. Temporary hiccup, we hope and pray! Otherwise, future generations of Filipinos will be condemned to Wash Sycip’s worst fear: the “unbearable lightness of inconsequence.”

*In early September, some of those boys — Romeo “Romy” Bernardo, Calixto “Toti Chikiamco, Emmanuel “Noel” de Dios and I, with the late Cayetano “Dondon” Paderanga — will launch a book called Momentum: Economic Reforms for Sustaining Growth that contains recommendations for staying in the new normal. Hope springs eternal.


Raul V. Fabella is a retired professor of the UP School of Economics, a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology and now an Honorary Professor at Asian Institute of Management. Weaving ideas in coffee shops is an integral part of his day. He gets his dopamine fix from hitting tennis balls with wife Teena and bicycling.