A Point of View
Inferiority Complex: A Filipino Malady?
by Barth Suretsky
The unedited article below was written below by an American friend,
Barth Suretsky. This will still be edited but you will get the gist.
I find his observations interesting. I hope this will make an impact
on the Filipinos who read this article as I greatly lament the
worsening situation of our country. - Frank Woolf
My decision to move to Manila was not a precipitous one. I used to
work in New York as an outside agent for PAL, and have been coming to
the Philippines since August, 1982. I was so impressed with the
country, and with the interesting people I met, some of which have
become very close friends to this day, that I asked for and was
granted a year's sabbatical from my teaching job in order to live in
the Philippines. I arrived here on August 21, 1983, several hours
after Ninoy Aquino was shot, and remained here until June of 1984.
During that year I visited many parts of the country, from as far
north as Laoag to as far south as Zamboanga, and including Palawan. I
became deeply immersed in the history and culture of the archipelago,
and an avid collector of tribal antiquities from both northern Luzon,
In subsequent years I visited the Philippines in 1985, 1987, and
1991, before deciding to move here permanently in 1998. I love this
country, but not uncritically, and that is the purpose of this article.
First, however, I will say that I would not consider living anywhere
else in Asia, no matter how attractive certain aspects of other
neighboring countries may be. To begin with, and this is most
important, with all its faults, the Philippines is still a democracy,
more so than any other nation in Southeast Asia. Despite gross
corruption, the legal system generally works, and if ever confronted
with having to employ it, I would feel much more safe trusting the
courts here than in any other place in the surrounding area. The
press here is unquestionably the most unfettered and freewheeling in
Asia, and I do not believe that is hyperbole in any way! And if any
one thing can be used as a yardstick to measure the extent of the
democratic process in any given country in the world, it is the
extent to which the press is free.
But the Philippines is a flawed democracy nevertheless, and the flaws
are deeply rooted in the Philippine psyche. I will elaborate.
The basic problem seems to me, after many years of observation, to be
a national inferiority complex, a disturbing lack of pride in being
Filipino. Toward the end of April I spent eight days in Vietnam,
visiting Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City. I am certainly no expert
on Vietnam, but what I saw could not be denied: I saw a country
ravaged as no other country has been in this century by thirty years
of continuous and incredibly barbaric warfare. When the Vietnam War
ended in April, 1975, the country was totally devastated. Yet in the
past twenty-five years the nation has healed and rebuilt itself
almost miraculously! The countryside has been replanted and
reforested. Hanoi and HCMC have been beautifully restored. The opera
house in Hanoi is a splended restoration of the original, modeled
after the Opera in Paris, and the gorgeous Second Empire theater, on
the main square of HCMC is as it was when built by the French a
century ago. The streets are tree-lined, clean, and conducive for
strolling. Cafes in the French style proliferate on the wide
boulevards of HCMC. I am not praising the government of Vietnam,
which still has a long way to travel on the road to democracy, but I
do praise, and praise unstintingly, the pride of the Vietnamese
people. It is due to this pride in being Vietnamese that has enabled
its citizenry to undertake the miracle of restoration that I have
When I returned to Manila I became so depressed that I was actually
physically ill for days thereafter. Why? Well, let's go back to a
period when the Philippines resembled the Vietnam of 1975. It was
1945, the end of World War II, and Manila, as well as many other
cities, lay in ruins. (As a matter of fact, it may not be generally
known, but Manila was the second most destroyed city in the entire
war; only Warsaw was more demolished!)
But to compare Manila in 1970, twenty-five years after the end of the
war, with HCMC, twenty-five years after the end of its war, is a sad
exercise indeed. Far from restoring the city to its former glory, by
1970 Manila was well on its way to being the most tawdry city in
Southeast Asia. And since that time the situation has deteriorated
alarmingly. We have a city full of street people, beggars, and
squatters. We have a city that floods sections whenever there is a
rainstorm, and that loses electricity with every clap of thunder.
We have a city full of potholes, and on these unrepaired roads we
have a traffic situation second to none in the world for sheer
unmanageability. We have rude drivers, taxis that routinely refuse to
take passengers because of "many trappic!" The roads are also cursed
with pollution-spewing buses in disreputable states of repair, and
that ultimate anachronism, the jeepney! We have an educational system
that allows children to attend schools without desks or books to
accommodate them. Teachers, even college professors, are paid
salaries so disgracefully low that it's a wonder that anyone would
want to go into the teaching profession in the first place. We have a
war in Mindanao that nobody seems to have a clue how to settle. The
only policy to deal with the war seems to be to react to what happens
daily, with no long range plan whatever. I could go on and on, but it
is an endeavor so filled with futility that it hurts me to go on. It
hurts me because, in spite of everything, I love the Philippines.
Maybe it will sound simplistic, but to go back to what I said above,
it is my unshakable belief that the fundamental thing wrong with this
country is a lack of pride in being Filipino. A friend once remarked
to me, laconically: "All Filipinos want to be something else. The
poor ones want to be American, and the rich ones all want to be
Spaniards. Nobody wants to be Filipino." That statement would appear
to be a rather simplistic one, and perhaps it is. However, I know one
Filipino who refuses to enter a theater until the national anthem has
stopped being played because he doesn't want to honor his own
country, and I know another one who thinks that history stopped dead
in 1898 when the Spaniards departed! While it is certainly true that
these represent extreme examples of national denial, the truth is not
a pretty picture.
Filipinos tend to worship, almost slavishly, everything foreign. If
it comes from Italy or France it has to be better than anything made
here. If the idea is American or German it has to be superior to
anything that Filipinos can think up for themselves. Foreigners are
looked up to and idolized. Foreigners can go anywhere without
question. In my own personal experience I remember attending recently
an affair at a major museum here. I had forgotten to bring my
invitation. But while Filipinos entering the museum were checked for
invitations, I was simply waived through. This sort of thing happens
so often here that it just accepted routine.
All of these things, the illogical respect given to foreigners simply
because they are not Filipinos, the distrust and even disrespect
shown to any homegrown merchandise, the neglect of anything
Philippine, the rudeness of taxi drivers, the ill-manners shown by
many Filipinos are all symptomatic of a lack of self-love, of respect
for and love of the country in which they were born, and worst of
all, a static mind-set in regard to finding ways to improve the
situation. Most Filipinos, when confronted with evidence of
governmental corruption, political chicanery, or gross exploitation
on the part of the business community, simply shrug their shoulders,
mutter "bahala na," and let it go at that.
It is an oversimplification to say this, but it is not without a
grain of truth to say that Filipinos feel downtrodden because they
allow themselves to feel downtrodden. No pride.
One of the most egregious examples of this lack of pride, this
uncaring attitude to their own past or past culture, is the wretched
state of surviving architectural landmarks in Manila and elsewhere.
During the American period many beautiful and imposing buildings were
built, in what we now call the "art deco" style (although,
incidentally, that was not a contemporary term; it was coined only in
the 1960s). These were beautiful edifices, mostly erected during, or
just before, the Commonwealth period. Three, which are still
standing, are the Jai Alai Building, the Metropolitan Theater, and
the Rizal Stadium. Fortunately, due to the truly noble efforts of my
friend John Silva, the Jai Alai Building will now be saved. But
unless something is done to the most beautiful and original of these
three masterpieces of pre-war Philippine architecture, the
Metropolitan Theater, it will disintegrate. The Rizal Stadium is in
equally wretched shape. When the wreckers' ball destroyed Frank Lloyd
Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and New York City's most
magnificent building, Pennsylvania Station, both in 1963, Ada Louise
Huxtable, then the architectural critic of The New York Times, wrote:
"A disposable culture loses the right to call itself a civilization
at all!" How right she was! (Fortunately, the destruction of
Pennsylvania Station proved to be the sacrificial catalyst that
resulted in the creation of New York's Landmark Commission. Would
that such a commission be created for Manila...)
Are there historical reasons for this lack of national pride? We can
say that until the arrival of the Spaniards there was no sense of a
unified archipelago constituted as one country. True. We can also say
that the high cultures of other nations in the region seemed,
unfortunately, to have bypassed the Philippines; there are no
Angkors, no Ayuttayas, no Borobudurs.True. Centuries of contact with
the "high cultures" of the Khmers and the Chinese had, except for the
proliferation of Song dynasty pottery found throughout the
archipelago, no noticeable effect.
True. But all that aside, what was here?
To begin with, the ancient rice terraces, now threatened with
disintegration, incidentally, was an incredible feat of engineering
for so-called "primitive" people. As a matter of fact, when I first
saw them in 1984, I was almost as awe-stricken as I was when I first
laid eyes on the astonishing Inca city of Machu Picchu, high in the
Peruvian Andes. The degree of artistry exhibited by the various
tribes of the cordillera of Luzon is testimony to a remarkable
culture, second to none in the Southeast Asian region. As for
Mindanao, at the other end of the archipelago, an equally high degree
of artistry has been manifest for centuries in woodcarving, weaving
However, the most shocking aspect of this lack of national pride,
even identity, endemic in the average Filipino, is the appalling
ignorance of the history of the archipelago since unified by Spain
and named Filipinas. The remarkable stories concerning the Galleon de
Manila, the courageous repulsion of Dutch and British invaders from
the 16th through the 18th centuries, even the origins of the
independence movement of the late 19th century, are hardly known by
the average Filipino in any meaningful way. And thanks to fifty years
of American brainwashing, it is few and far between the number of
Filipinos who really know - or even care - about the duplicity
employed by the Americans and Spaniards to sell out and make
meaningless the very independent state that Aguinaldo declared on
June 12, 1898. A people without a sense of history is a people doomed
to be unaware of their own identity. It is sad to say, but true, that
the vast majority of Filipinos fall into this lamentable category.
Without a sense of who you are how can you possibly take any pride in
who you are?
These are not oversimplifications. On the contrary, these are the
root problems of the Philippine inferiority complex referred to
above. Until the Filipino takes pride in being Filipino these ills of
the soul will never be cured. If what I have written here can help,
even in the smallest way, to make the Filipino aware of just who he
is, who he was, and who he can be, I will be one happy expat indeed!
Barth's got an interesting read right there.
I know who I am, and I like who I am.
I know a fair bit of my country's history, back to 900 A.D.
I'm deeply fortunate to have been born Filipino.
I don't really know what an 'inferiority complex' is.
I do know, as a Catholic, that humility is a virtue
...as is the ability to drink any foreign devil under the table.