Grassroots & Governance

It has become fashionable to wring our hands and acknowledge that the atrocious kind of leaders we have today is the fault of the Filipino voter. Assuming that the elections have been honest (though this is also under question), here is an attempt at understanding why we seem to elect so many undesirables.

I am not a psychologist. I may have taken only the basic three units in college; but I do remember being provoked by Maslow’s theory on the Hierarchy of Needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper for Psychology Today on the subject which he later expounded on in a book.

To put it simply, Maslow proposed that human beings are motivated in a pyramid-like sequence of needs, each of which has to be satisfied in order to graduate to the next higher level.

At the most basic (widest bottom of the pyramid) level, human motivations, Maslow said, are physiological. These are fundamental needs for air, water, food, and sleep. When these have been satisfied, motivations graduate into safety needs such as freedom from harm, physical health, security of jobs, shelter, and protection of personal property, etc.

Once these two basic needs are satisfied, motivations graduate into social needs such as the need for love and belongingness to family and friends.

Having satisfied basic and social needs, humans become largely motivated by the need for self-esteem: self-confidence, sense of achievement, level of respect.

In Maslow’s theory, the highest (the top and narrowest on the pyramid scale) level of motivation is the need for self-actualization. This includes a sense of morality, the need for creativity and for attainment of full potential. At this level, it seems to me, we rise to the need for altruism, the need to be a “man for others.”

Since the bottom and broadest part of the pyramid represent basic needs for survival and safety, if these are not satisfied, it is proposed, humans cannot prioritize the need for love and belongingness. Even less, the need for self-esteem, for self-respect.

ballot secrecy folder

We can therefore conclude on this basis that those in the minority whose basic and social needs have been satisfied tend to be more “other-oriented,” and are more likely to be concerned with noble needs such as for moral order, for social justice, for human rights.

All government statistics and surveys indicate that the great majority of Filipinos belong to the lowest rung in the Maslow pyramid: those whose need for survival and safety are a priority over other needs. Perhaps this is why recent elections have turned out in favor of demagogues who pander to these basic survival and safety needs. We have leaders who tend to pander, rather than inspire voters to value societal values because it is the easier thing to do; and because that is what gets votes. The need for survival is probably what causes voters to sell their votes.

It will take a great deal of development work and education to raise our people above these basic needs in order to enable them to vote according to what will benefit the nation, and what will advance our civilization, moral values, and culture.

This is the challenge for our future leaders. They must have the grit and perseverance to raise our people above their basic survival and safety needs in order to enable them to see more beneficial options for our society, and decide in a more enlightened and altruistic manner.

The minority who have attained the higher rungs in the Maslow pyramid have the obligation to help bring about a more equitable and enlightened society that knows how to select leaders who will raise our people over and beyond basic survival and safety needs. It is a tall order and will take much time and effort. It calls for broader access to education, health care and decent livelihoods and peaceful communities.

With great leaders, it can be done. Singapore and now Malaysia have practically lifted their people out of their survival and safety needs. They are more likely to choose leaders who do not make fools of themselves.

But first, how do we get our voters to opt for leaders who will make these things happen? How do we ensure that we do not select demagogues who will pander to basic and safety needs in order to obtain and maintain power for power’s sake?

Singapore and Malaysia do not hold direct elections for their Prime Ministers. Should we consider alternatives to our broad-based, American-style direct, democratic elections? Can we trust our current leaders to bring about a transition to a more enlightened system of selecting our national leaders? How do we ensure that leaders are chosen by voters who are not pre-occupied with basic needs of survival and safety but rather of the national interest? Of social justice, ethics, and morality? Should and can we move toward an electoral system where we choose leaders for their altruistic motivations?


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.