Filipino families continue to relocate to the “land of promise,” so reported the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb. 6). The first choice for most seems to be the USA but Canada appears to be easier of entry. The motive is invariably a better tomorrow for the children. So, what’s new?

For one, this exodus is no longer about dirt-poor Ilocano farmers relocating their sacada-ship to Hawaii or California — the denizens of Carlos Bulusan’s cherished must-read biographical novel, America is in the Heart. No longer the struggling newly minted nurses and engineers of the 1960s, those the Philippine upper classes used to look down as “can’t make it here” types. I recall an acquaintance whose graduating electrical engineering class at the University of Santo Tomas was heavily recruited by local agents for the Boeing Aircraft Seattle plant in the 1960s, but he opted to stay. When queried why, he confidently remarked, “Why should I? I can make it here.”   

It was indeed still common for Filipinos to view the Philippines of the 1960s as a diamond in the rough needing only a little more work to become a jackpot.

Randy David’s “The Golden Age I Remember” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Feb. 6) is a charming poignant paean to the 1960s era for its many now lost genteel adornments. People and government seemed still on the same page and purpose. We had many problems and we disagreed, but it was more to improve our collective lot than to spite our enemies. This contrasted sharply with the claimed “Golden Age” of the Marcos era which nurtured the “cargo cult” financed by an orgy of foreign borrowing. There were, of course, other things on our plate then besides benign politics: students from all over Asia populated our universities and ran experiments in our laboratories; our bright boys were setting up their capital markets and helping prepare their field studies. The seeds of the vaunted green revolution were sourced from Los Baños, Philippines. We were basking in the sun and the Philippine passport was flying high. 

We were then aspirational to our neighbors. Fifty years later, the tables have completely turned. Our Asian neighbors now encounter the Philippines through their house help rather than through their mentors. We have become a cautionary tale on what not to do; our democracy has become a horror story with which to bludgeon democratic aspirations elsewhere. The galloping foreign debt that the Marcos dictatorship behind a phalanx western-educated technocrats inveigled from foreign banks and frittered away made the dollar cheap and that ravaged our manufacturing sector. With manufacturing on the run, the engineers who stayed behind found fewer and fewer engineering jobs. They finally found solace as OFWs. 

Our ship could not leave port for lack of fuel, but much more for lack of courage to ditch the old fear of foreign domination. Investment in infrastructure had to wait for leftovers from debt service and terrible legacies such as the OPSF. “An hour late and a dollar short” went the popular epithet about the Philippines in the 1980s. And when foreign investment in manufacturing became a global tsunami in the wake of the 1987 Plaza Accord, our restive and coup-happy military, the restrictive backward-looking 1987 Constitution, and the heroic but foolish jawboning exercise using the JOBO bills by the central bank to cheapen the dollar, all conspired to ensure that none of the tsunami reached our shores. At the beginning of the 1990s, the diamond in the rough had been turned into muck. And the Philippine passport had crashed.

And now our children are paying the price. They now have to start a few paces back in the global race for jobs or for slots in universities thanks to the passport they hold. Which is why many parents are deciding to trade their low-power passport for high-power ones. You cannot change the color of your skin, but you can change the color of your passport to the vast improvement in your children’s prospects.

A low-power passport always triggers officiousness among immigration and customs officials in the countries you visit and that could mean unpleasant hustle. You can be singled out for a special interview — a courtesy never accorded a Scandinavian or a Japanese passport. Why? The Philippine passport ranks 77th out of 111 country passports in 2022 Henley Passport Power Index which grades passports by the number of countries where the passport holder can travel without a visa or with a visa readily granted at the airport. In the 2022 Arton Capital Index, the Philippine passport is ranked at par with those of sub-Saharan countries Rwanda, Uganda, and Sierra Leone. The top countries in the list, among them the USA and Canada, are of course the most favored destination for economic migrants from lower ranked countries. 

The latter day diasporites that have already made it here deserves a closer look. It is not easy for a diasporite to start over again at age fortyish. But as a first generation Filipino migrant, your benchmarks are the millions back in the Philippines who yearn to be in your place rather than your neighbor in Anaheim who may look down on you. Besides, “making it” in the Philippines now seems tainted by a virtual asterisk (*) besides the collapsed passport. Material success in a garbage dump can suggest, mostly falsely, that you are low life feeding on maggots! While not unique to the Philippines, the new diaspora contrasts sharply with the modern reverse diaspora in East Asian miracle economies.

Even among those of us who came back from abroad with the purest of motives — to create a land of milk and honey for our children — many have managed to hedge their bets. Among our educated friends and acquaintances, it is rare when there is not an offspring or two residing and earning money abroad, spared from the morass, but also serving as insurance against the fickleness of home. That makes exit from home easier. Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom of the “anti-tragedy of the commons” fame taught us that collective failure is less galling and more likely when people can easily walk away from the smash-up. 

This reversal of fortune gnawed at the gut of the generation who lived the 1960s — among them National Artist F. Sionil Jose and revered business guru David Sycip, both recently dead — who wore their discomfiture on their sleeves. For many of my generation, among them friends Rene Santiago and Bob Herrera-Lim who worked the Asian consultancy circuit, the memory of that season in the sun is tinged with sadness — sadness for the loss which my generation failed to stem.


Raul V. Fabella is a retired professor of the UP School of Economics, a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology, and an honorary professor of the Asian Institute of Management. He gets his dopamine fix from bicycling and tending flowers with wife Teena.