Inherent Problems in Filipino Culture – and why executing drug dealers won’t solve them

Before I get underway with this article, I’d like to make it clear that I love the Philippines, I make my life here and will probably never leave it.  This is not the rant of some embittered expatriate pensioner who is here solely for the reason that he can’t afford to be anywhere else.  To be blunt, I can’t stand those idiots.

It instead contains the considered words of a guy in his mid-thirties, who makes a very good living and could comfortably go just about anywhere he wanted.  I have been visiting the Philippines regularly since I was a child and have been living here now for a number of years because I love the place.

My motivation for writing this piece stems from a long held sense of frustration about the country and the way that the culture of the Filipino guides their hand in how to approach certain problems, like those of addiction and criminality.  So now that I’ve put in that little disclaimer I’ll carry on with the article.

If I could sum up the biggest problems with the culture in the Philippines in a paragraph it would read something like this:

A matriarchal culture with a lack of both self-control and family transparency in which both divorce and family planning are not state supported. A society where addicts of any type are more likely to be arrested and jailed for an addiction related crime than receive state-provided treatment and support.  A society where crime and poverty are seen as problematic and not what they are which is (in the vast majority of cases) symptomatic.  It is a society within which family shame is likely to trump the need for treatment of a person who finds themselves with an addiction, a place where people who make mistakes are swept under the proverbial carpet or ex-communicated rather than helped.

Great hope is on the horizon

The country is all a flutter this week thanks to the incoming President, Davao’s Duterte.  Champion of law and order who takes a hard line on drugs, crime and gambling while seeing prostitution as something that the country doesn’t have a problem with – this is in spite of it being on just about every watch list on the planet. The man who is, with one fell swoop, going to salve the wounds of the embattled citizenry and make drugs, crime and delinquency nothing but misty memories of a new, proud and strong Philippines – and the man who is going to do it all in six months.

How is he going to achieve this?  By approving the wholesale slaughter of anyone involved in the drug trade among other, more sensible, initiatives such as weeding out in the ranks of government, increasing salaries for law enforcement and (my personal favorite and one which I wholly support) ignoring the Catholic Church.

While much of what Rodrigo Duterte says makes good and firm sense, he has certainly identified that and crime are hurdles that the country needs to overcome before it can again be strong for example.  You aren’t going to remove the causes of the problems by killing off people who are simply symptoms of a horribly broken system.  What happens is that you just end up with an endless flow of more people becoming involved in crime stepping in to fill the voids left by those that you’ve removed. You end up with overcrowded prisons and lots of bodies to clean up.  Just ask the Americans about this.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Proponents of the incoming president would counter this by quoting meaningless statistics about the low crime rate in Davao City, a municipality which Duterte is widely credited with making one of the safest in the Philippines.  I would respond by saying that if you don’t prosecute murder, it makes sense that your murder rate is going to drop.  If you gag the press, it makes sense that what is reported on will be sympathetic to government and if you kill everyone who has ever come into contact with the illegal drug industry then you’re probably going to reign in the drug problem, at least temporarily.

The problem of delinquency in the Philippines is, in my and many others opinions, one which stems from poverty and the problem of poverty one which stems from a number of, extremely complicated, factors. Being combative and murderous is not the way to resolve the poverty problem, making an effort to understand it is.  The obvious solution to poverty is prosperity, however that relationship is about as complex as you can get.

You see the Philippines is actually quite a prosperous country.  Natural resources abound, it is the only significant English speaking country in the entire region and it certainly has no shortage of ability to provide sustenance for its population.  These facts should put it at the top of the pecking order amongst its neighbors in ASEAN.  Somewhat ironically the only wealthy “first world” country in South East Asia is in fact a small and unremarkable island off the southern coast of Malaysia which has none of these things going for it, it doesn’t even have enough water.  Pardon what appears to be a digression but I use the example of Singapore only to point out that irony and capitalism are old and familiar bedfellows.

A look at the numbers

As much as the last section of this article decried the abuse of statistics, I think it’s only fair that we look at a few numbers that really do matter when it comes to the poverty situation in the Philippines.   I’ll pick a few numbers that really do, to me, statistically demonstrate the points I’m making.  The first figure is 3.08 and the second $289.  3.08 is the average number of children born per woman in the Philippines and $289 is the median monthly salary.  That median is artificially high as in the provinces outside of the national capital region and in poorer parts of the country you could easily divide it by three.

Another one to add is 75.27% which is the completion rate of secondary school.  So you’ve got one in four kids who start school, dropping out before they complete it and even less than that being financially able to make it into a tertiary degree.  Added to that you’ve got people feeding big families with very little money yet still having more children – which only serves to exacerbate the issue.

Those numbers get even more frightening when you remove the middle class from the equation.  What the Philippines has is a huge number of very poor people, having a lot of babies and no focus on education.  The underlying reason for all of this, one could assume quite naturally, is a lack of family planning.  At the core of the family planning problem in this and every other socio-economically challenged theocracy is the church.

The education problem, as in other countries with a user-pays education system is one of economics and not of desire.  The way to correct this is to invest in more scholarships and to dig deeper when someone does leave the education system, if it becomes evident that the reason for their dropping out was related to economic hardship then some action needs to be taken.  That action needs to be high level, not left to barangay or local authorities and those responsible for it need to be held accountable.

Increasing wages for public servants

There is a joke in Malaysia.  The joke goes that Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatir were having a conversation one day.  Mahatir said to Lee “you have the highest paid politicians in the world.”  Lee quipped back “yes, but yours earn more money.”  One thing that the Singaporeans have been extremely good at is combatting corruption, the Malaysians, not quite so – if you want evidence of this just look at the billion dollars that turned up in the personal bank account of Najib Tun Razak.   It has long been said that one of the key factors in combatting in Singapore was to spend more money on making officials legitimately prosperous so they did not have the need to supplement their incomes.

This is one thing that I was reminded of when Duterte announced his intention to increase salaries for police officers.  It is a wise move, but it needs to be replicated throughout the government.  There is also the fact that the penalties for in Singapore are extremely harsh and there is an independent anti-corruption body which manages the prosecution of such cases.  The same is true of another island city to the north of Asia, although things in Hong Kong don’t appear to be going entirely in the right direction in recent years.

So why is killing drug dealers not the right approach?

It’s pretty simple, really. Crime is a byproduct of poverty, it’s an indicator.  This is especially true of substance abuse.  Criminality, except when you’re dealing with a psychopath, is generally a reaction to hopelessness, as is escapism which is at the core of substance addiction.  I have a lot of respect for the incoming president’s hard line approach and what seems to be a genuine desire to right the myriad wrongs in the country.  I have been a victim of crime since I got here, as have most of us.

The big problem with supply and demand though is that demand tends to predicate supply.  This means that by focusing on the suppliers and not the underlying reasons that the demand exists the only thing you are achieving is to open up new entrepreneurial opportunities for the enemies you don’t know.