Of Ilustrado and the elections

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Well, that was disappointing. Before the elections, one could be forgiven for suspecting that people here have an aversion to self-made wealth, success, ambition, sense of loyalty, restraint, and psychological stability. Now we know we actually hate those traits! I’m not going to pretend otherwise: even considering the fact that 60% of Filipino voters rejected the man who will assume the presidency, the election results are still deplorable, not least because we cavalierly disregarded achievements in business or intellect, or academic distinction for mere connections and sentiment. Try telling kids to study and work hard in this country from now on.

Two days before the elections the New York Times came out with an article about Miguel Syjuco, a young Filipino expatriate who won the Man Asian Literary Award for his remarkably clever book "Ilustrado." The interesting thing about this is that "Ilustrado" has been around for years, with the author even admitting difficulty in getting his book published in the Philippines. More interestingly is the fact that, of the several articles written locally about the book, most (if not all) dwelt on Syjuco’s efforts to write the book -- to the point of ignoring the book itself.

The reason may have to do with the book’s plot and theme: the body of Filipino author Crispin Salvador is found in the Hudson River. With his death goes missing the sole manuscript of his final work. That manuscript, it turns out, deals with the crimes and shenanigans of (guess what) the Philippine elite, that small number of Filipinos who rule (and, unfortunately, continue to rule) over this sad, degenerating, deteriorating country of ours. "Ilustrado" is, therefore, a detective story, with the book’s lead character investigating Salvador’s death by looking at the latter’s previous writings. Along the way, one gets glimpses of Filipino history through the characters’ experiences and perceptions.

As this column never tires pointing out, ours is one long history of never learning our lessons: first under the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese, and, now, under the elite. Of that long unchecked rule by those families who, despite siding with the Spanish against the Katipunan, intrigued against Apolinario Mabini, embezzled Katipunan funds, collaborated with the Americans, collaborated with the Japanese, war profiteering, corruption over the US Army surplus, parity rights, currency manipulation, import licensing schemes, exploitation of People Power and Edsa Dos, behest loans, government coddling of favored companies or "kamaganaks," energy problems, a weak economy, the Doña Paz sinking, the Mendiola massacre, bungled land reform, Roppongi, Big Bird, missing sequestered assets, missing agricultural funds, NBN-ZTE, the MILF-MOA and the (almost but still possible) dismemberment of our Republic’s territory, are still bafflingly in power with the support of a great number of our people.

As Syjuco himself says in the New York Times’s piece: "’My family, my friends, my colleagues -- we are the elites,’ he said. ’We are a wealthy, beautiful country, and we’ve screwed it up so badly. The majority of wealth is controlled by a minority. And we don’t know when enough is enough. The elite don’t want one mansion; they want three.’"

That is the story of "Ilustrado" that members of the ruling class, those who control the media, would want you to gloss over: of how the elite has screwed the country and continue to do so. Syjuco himself says that looking at the elite’s past crimes "may not necessarily be what’s needed." I respectfully disagree. We have to know. Because, as Fr. Horacio dela Costa once wrote: "Those who know their history are bound to surpass it."

Because, right now, we are merely continually repeating the history of a country who would not vote for a man who pulled himself up from poverty, despite having no rich family connections, by sheer grit, determination, and ability to take insults from the ruling class. This is the history of a people who would not vote for a Bar topnotcher, Harvard grad, and the country’s youngest Defense secretary. This is a country that would not vote for a senator, former mayor, and lawyer; of an agricultural country who would not vote for an agriculturalist; or a commerce graduate and pastor; or a governance advocate and professor. This is a country that will not vote for a Lincoln, a Mandela, or an Obama even if they landed right in the middle of EDSA simply because they’re self-made successful men.

Instead, this country will happily vote for some guy who, we know merely as the son of two politician parents and whom foreigners find agreeable.

So for the next few days (or six years), try to please remember why our country is screwed up. Why not knowing our history will make us bound to repeat it. Why, aside from reciting Rudyard Kipling’s "If," you should buy "Ilustrado" (available at Fully Booked). Read it and ask yourself of the last elections: "What have we done?"

And never forget who supported whom.