Penman No. 62: A Letter to the Philippines

Penman for Monday, Sept. 2, 2013

I RECEIVED a very interesting message in my mailbox last week from a good friend now based in Singapore, the American writer Robin Hemley, who serves as Director and Writer-in-Residence of the Yale-NUS Writing Program at the National University of Singapore. Robin and I have been to many conferences and workshops together, breaking bread and chugging beer not too long ago in Hong Kong, Michigan and Melbourne.

Just retired from Iowa, Hemley’s one of the world’s foremost experts on creative nonfiction, and a mean writer of fiction himself; I teach one of his stories, a very funny piece titled “Reply All,” in my class. He’s a frequent visitor to Manila—not surprisingly, since his wife Margie is Filipino. But Robin has been more intimately engaged with Philippine culture and society than his family ties would suggest. Fairly recently, he found himself stranded on a remote island in one of the Babuyan Islands while doing research for a novel. That’s my kind of writer—someone who immerses himself in his material to the point of self-endangerment.

Thus being no stranger to risk, Robin didn’t surprise me when he sent me a copy of a letter he had written in the wake of the pork barrel scandal, by which he had been deeply disturbed. It was addressed to no one in particular—he had titled it “A letter to the Philippines”—and Robin asked me what I thought of it, and if it would be worth sharing with others. I read the letter, and immediately wrote Robin to say that I thought it was worth publishing, and that I would be happy to do the honors in this column, with his approval—which came shortly after, with his thanks.

That creative writers and other artists respond to the day’s political issues is something we’ve learned to expect, if not encourage, although our responses more often take the form of our art itself, with its necessary mediations and interpretations. When we respond directly—like Beng and I did in joining the Million People March last Monday—it’s more as citizens than as artists. And that’s actually a relief and a reminder of sorts, that we can act as ordinary people, with ordinary people, away from the pressures of performance.

I decided to publish Robin’s letter to acknowledge his participation, if not his citizenship, in our society. Surely there are many others like him, though few perhaps as articulate, who feel deeply invested in our affairs but who, out of caution or a sense of propriety, have decided to keep quiet. Robin’s letter will also surely upset some Filipino readers who may feel that the pork barrel scam—or whatever wrongdoing takes place here—is none of a foreigner’s business. And that, I think, would be a sad thing, because if evil is universal and cuts across countries and cultures, so should the outrage that it deserves to be met with. Here’s Robin’s letter to us:

I want to preface my remarks by stating that although I am a foreigner, I have nothing but love and respect for the peoples of the Philippines. I’m married into the culture, have written extensively about it, and consider it my second home. If I could, I would become a citizen of the Philippines, but becoming a citizen of the RP is much more difficult than becoming a citizen of the U.S., which my wife did a few years back, not because she loves her country any less, but for logistical reasons, i.e. visa-free travel, as much as anything.

The most recent scandal in the Philippines, involving Janet Napoles and a number of prominent politicians, has prodded me to think more deeply about the privilege of citizenship. Unfortunately, politicians in almost all countries seem to think the number one qualification for any public position is the fearless ability to betray the public trust. Political scandals in the Philippines are nothing new. In fact, they seem to occur with such frequency that the Philippines’ famously free press ironically seems to exacerbate the ability of these officials to sink to ever lower depths of betrayal by giving the public a safety valve to impotently express their outrage. The hard-working public, the people who pay taxes, have become so inured to the corruption of their public officials or so resigned to it, that the frequent scandals in the papers become so much public theater, producing little in the way of results.The latest scandal seems so egregious that it has rightfully sparked enough outrage to bring people into the streets. If I were in the Philippines right now, I would join them, but I’m living in Singapore at the moment, a country that doesn’t have the same free press as the Philippines, but that has also a low tolerance for corruption of public officials.

I wonder if I would be welcome to join the protests in the Philippines. I know my friends would welcome my presence, but Filipinos by and large are sensitive to foreigners criticizing them, and for many good reasons which I respect. But I’ve also been to Cuba several times in the last few years, and I was impressed by the willingness of the Cuban people, almost from the beginnings of their fight against the Spanish, to enlist the support of sympathetic foreigners. Che Guevara, probably the most revered figure of the Cuban revolution, was Argentinian. And there have been many others, though I hasten to add that I’m not making any comparisons here other than this observation. I’m not communist and I don’t look good in a beret or a moustache.

Still, I think of the young Dutchman, himself apparently a communist sympathizer who famously made a policeman cry and then was deported from the Philippines for being obnoxious. This seems to me a serious blunder of the Philippine government, displaying a lack of maturity at best. While the Dutchman was undoubtedly immature himself, I’m not sure that his act warranted deportation. In principle, I should say I’m not opposed to making policemen cry. Not that I’m against the police of the Philippines. My late father-in-law was an honest policeman in Mindanao, and lived relatively modestly his entire life, but led a life of dignity because he refused to take a bribe, a temptation many of his fellow police couldn’t resist. He taught his children to be honest, too, a couple of them who have become lawyers and who refuse to enter politics because they don’t want to be corrupted. One, who works for the government, also refuses to take bribes, though they are routinely offered. And this of course makes me proud of the family into which I’ve married.

These are the people who should be in politics, but they’re too wise to do so. To me, they are the real patriots, the people who will never grab headlines, but who choose to live a life of quiet dignity serving the people and their homeland in the small ways available to them.

Instead of deporting critics of the Philippines, no matter how annoying they might be, no matter whom they make shed tears, perhaps the real villains of the Philippines should finally be called to account for their multiple betrayals. To set up fake NGOs, and contribute millions to their coffers in the name of the public good while cynically using this money for their own gain, seems to me to be a new nadir of betrayal. If found guilty, perhaps these politicians should lose what they should have valued most from the start: their citizenship.

4 thoughts on “Penman No. 62: A Letter to the Philippines

  1. Hi, sir. Your friend seems to have missed that the Dutch activist was deported for “overstaying,” not for participating in protest actions… although many netizens, including myself, did publicly condemn his participation.

    While people are of course free to have opinions and criticize other governments, there are always many factors to consider before a foreigner’s input is welcome. Foremost among them, I think, is how popular the current government is. If most of the citizens have faith in the government and are in support of its measures to clean itself up, militant action is often considered more debilitating than helpful, and the motives of foreigners participating in militant action are especially suspect. It might help for your friend to look into the perceived political ties of that young Dutch activist with the local left.

    That said, it’s not bad to CARE. But it would be great for every foreigner to think that as they were not part of the cultural and historical shaping of the country whose government they are criticizing, they come with a handicap, and they should keep this handicap in mind, no matter how well-traveled or world-wise they consider themselves. This isn’t just for expats: the same goes for Pinoys who criticize US internal policies, or indeed the policies of every other nation.

    Of course we don’t discourage foreigners from expressing their opinions. In fact, we love opinions! I believe Rappler has a “suki” commenter calling himself Joe America and claims to be an expat; he’s been around for a while and hasn’t been banned yet 🙂 I’m not sure about the legal aspect of people holding foreign passports participating physically in peaceful local protest actions, but I believe that people like your friend, who are passionate, considerate AND rational, are and should be welcome to participate.

  2. Eloquent, yet it isn’t quite the exact sentiment as would have been felt and said by a native of this God-provoking archipelago. It takes a native rooted in his soil to know how the soil blesses or curses him. For one, the Flipino shamefacedness is generally beyond reach of millions going to the streets in protest of any public trust betrayal of any form. GMA, Corona, Napoles and their family tree ilk could just be having the time of their life with their evil tongues in cheek, while the rest of the EDSA and Neo-Edsa vanguards howl in righteous indignation. For another, your honest policeman father-in-law, Sir, is a rare specie in this country, more the exception than the rule. Nevertheless, I acknowledge your concern. It is just that you live in a hemisphere where things like corruption and its nemesis are viewed differently than we do here in our part of the globe.

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