An undeniable fact about Filipinos is that throughout their history, they have always risen up and ultimately claimed victory when the odds are stacked against them.
That notion is intricately entwined in their modern psyche; that is, they are always striving for a better nation.
Having been colonised by the Spanish for hundreds of years and, more recently, by America; then suffering under the Marcos dictatorship’s Marshall Law; a decades-long conflict in Mindanao that has no sign of being resolved in the near future; a territorial dispute with China which has the potential to escalate into armed conflict; and of course current economic and political grievances as a ‘middle-income country’, it would be easy to guess that the national mood would be pessimistic.
However such an assumption would leave the assumer with a pleasant surprise.
A perfect example of the nation’s fighting spirit is Dr. Nymia Simbulan, the director of human rights organisation PhilRights. In her central Quezon City office, she tells me of the incredible violence and corruption that occurs daily across her country.
Democracy is one Philippines characteristic of which its citizens are especially proud. However, due to the actions of a few, this is not the peaceful, fair exercise that takes place in vibrant democracies such as Australia. She associates three words with the electoral process – “Gold, Guns and Goods, or the three Gs” – a damning critique of the system. I’ll allow her to explain further:
“Another feature of our elections is that they are violent. I cannot remember an election where there were no people killed, either prior to the campaign period, during the actual casting of votes and post-election. So it has always been marred by violence, and you know that the cases of murder are very clearly election related… if politicians feel that their chances of winning are nil, they will resort to killing their opponent… we have a lot of private armies, and these armies are attached to political dynasties’.
The issue is highlighted in no uncertain terms by Dr. Simbulan. The concept of democracy is that the people are the rulers. Indeed, the Greek words ‘demos’ means ‘people’ and ‘kratos’ means ‘power’. As such, it is reasonable to conclude that a successful democracy can be measured by the operation of the political system. Although no two democracies are alike, the principle of free and fair elections is the cornerstone of each.
With the words of Dr. Simbulan still fresh in our minds, it is important to consider the broader social and economic development of the Philippines.
After a bus ride of over five hours and a trek of about an hour through picturesque rice fields, we arrived at a quaint little elementary school where a reading program was taking place. This is an initiative run by Silid Aralan Inc, which translates as ‘class room’. This organisation is run by my compadre Arcie Mallari, an exceptionally inspiring individual who walks the walk. After completing his studies, he went to live on a dumpsite community for three years in order to gain an appreciation of their struggle and assist in empowering them.
Silid Aralan was born out of his dream to provide a better future for the Philippines’ disadvantaged children by giving them an education. If the children are given the ability to dream big and work for a better future for themselves, their family and their community, then the possibilities are endless.
Arcie told me about how many young people grow up wishing to work in hospitality jobs such as cleaning just so they can have a taste of a luxurious life. To me, this seemed like a vicious reality for these youth. Society excels best when its young people are given the chance to learn and achieve great things.
When any young person’s opportunities are limited simply by virtue of the circumstances in which they were born, then not just their family, but also the entire community is brought down as a potential doctor, teacher, police officer, or nurse – some of the professions that form the bedrock of society – are lost. This is the status quo which Silid Aralan seeks to challenge and ultimately dispose of, and the signs are positive.
Jullo, a quietly-spoken thirteen-year old boy with spiky hair is a real example of the incredible impact that education can have on a child. From extremely underprivileged surroundings, he is an example of a young person that refused to fall into the trap of violence and crime because of despair, as unfortunately many of his peers do.
Rather, under Arcie’s guidance, he shattered the glass ceiling over him and has become an alternate role model for youth in his community. Jullo now runs a small sustainable company that uses recycled material to make notebook covers, with all the proceeds going straight back into initiatives focused on education.
This is beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, it provides an activity for young children to learn new skills and project their natural artistic creativity. Secondly, it creates an entrepreneurial spirit which will be a critical skill as they proceed through life. Thirdly, it raises much needed funds for important local projects.
The ongoing challenge for Silid Aralan and the Philippines is that despite the good work being done, children such as Jullo are the exception rather than the rule. This will take years to change, however with commitment, courage and optimism, the sky is the limit. Filipinos have proven that they have a fighting spirit which will serve them well as they seek to build a prosperous, peaceful and fair nation.
YouTube link of Silid Aralan and Jullo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DI6ZRUJRbo4
Photo credit: diverus / cc