The roots of the more prevalent concepts of leadership in the Philippine milieu can be found in the history of one word: barangay. Today, barangay (obviously) refers to the smallest form of government in our country. Its original use denotes much the same thing:
“Barangay, or balangay, was one of the first native words the Spaniards learned in the Philippines. When Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s expeditionary ethnographer, went ashore to parley with the ruler of Limasawa, they sat together in a boat drawn up on shore which Pigafetta called a balangai.” - William Henry Scott
Scott references the memoirs of Friar Juan de Plasencia (1589) and his description of political structures in Tagalog society:
"These [datus] were chiefs of but few people, as many as a hundred houses and even less than thirty; and this they call in Tagalog, barangay. And what was inferred from this name is that their being called this was because, since they are known from their language to be Malayos, when they came to this land, the head of the barangay was taken for a datu, and even today is still ascertained that one whole barangay was originally one family of parents and children, slaves and relatives."
As Scott aptly points out, thus the roots of Philippine politics are found in highly localized structures ordered around family units and a single leader; in other words loyalty was to an individual. This is the root of any society, in fact. The curious nature of our political milieu is that while our political system has grown and expanded our primary interpersonal leadership ties have remained intact. In part, our colonial history (both foreign and domestic) has done nothing more than further embed this cultural peculiarity. Even more so, our sense of fatalism (exemplified by the phrase "Bahala Na") feeds into our cultural and social construct of headship forms of leadership.
"A Tagalog barangay was a group of people ruled over by one data. It was to him they owed allegiance, not to a municipal, provincial, tribal, or national government, through datus often joined their barangays in common communities, reckoning precedence and making alliances among themselves. This was true even in the Muslim sultanates in the South: the sultan ruled his dates but they in turn ruled their own communities. After Manila became the seat of colonial government, the word spread with its Tagalog meaning to other pats of the archipelago where it meant a boat in the local languages…
Recently the term has been revived by the Philippine government to replace the colonial term barrio, despite the irony of the native word’s original meaning - a political unit loyal to a local boss." - Scott, “Barangay”
All of this should sound very familiar. By and large, with a few exceptions such as the attempts by the Philippine Propaganda and Revolution to develop new ideas of citizenship, localized strong man leadership (where power and responsibility is ceded outward) has been both solidified and leveraged by historical processes (loosely delineated):
- The Spanish form of colonial government took advantage of this structure. While Manila was the colonial seat of power, provincial towns were organized around the Church. Thus, the Church, and by extension the priest, took on the role as final arbiter in a town.
- There are elements in the external nature of pre-Hispanic indigenous religions that Catholic missionaries leveraged during early engagements. Chief among them was the concept of intervention through prayers; in other words, beseeching a higher power to cure some fault or ill.
- Politically, the American regime further solidified this through their establishment of municipal and provincial governments that were controlled by influential families; a sort of attempt to break the hold of the Church in those areas.
- The Japanese Occupation did much the same through councils and collaborators.
- Ferdinand Marcos and Martial Law wholly leveraged the power and influence of local politicians to control the Philippines. Client-patron ties were utilized for corruption and the establishment of ‘modern’ political machinery. This gave rise to the provincial warlordism, a situation we still grapple with today. Additionally, his use of the bogus “Code of Kalantiaw” and his complete reworking of Philippine history (aided and abetted by some academics) was in part to substantiate his iron rule.
Post-Martial Law there have been attempts to root out local corruption and revamp governance. However, by and large, dynasties remain firmly in place, buoyed by crushing poverty in throughout the archipelago. Poverty in and of itself breeds a system of rigid client-patron ties. At the heart of rooting paternalism is the all-encompassing need to develop multi-faceted coordinated solutions to the poverty problem we face. The economic and cultural shifts required to do so are another conversation. However, it is intrinsically tied to governance and development; two long-term continuing failures that point to a need to completely revamp our approach.
Change has to begin at a local level. Local politics, culture, and development must be connected to a broader inclusive national consciousness, thus engendering a new perspective on what it means to be Filipino. This was part of what the Philippine Revolution was attempting to address. Jose Rizal, Emilio Jacinto, Andres Bonifacio, and other thinkers, attempted to utilized secret societies, such as La Liga and the Katipunan, to create new concepts of citizenship. These ideas were a reaction to our colonial history, as well as a reformulation of Enlightenment ideals. Arguably, the Philippines, as they conceptualized, would have been the first post-Enlightenment nation; with citizens intrinsically aware of both their moral, ethical, and political responsibilities as empowered citizens. When we consider the full-breadth of what they were trying to accomplish the daring of their vision becomes even more breath-taking.
That hyper-local, almost secularly holy mission was adroitly summed up by Nick Joaquin: "Nationalism begins as a local piety."
Describing Paternalism and the Father/Mother Figure
While that gives us a quick and dirty historical background to our current leadership quandary, a review of the modern definition of paternalism is needed. Luckily, the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government has created a ‘checklist’ of this model of leadership:
1. Need for order and compliance - Need for some form of established order that structures the relationship between the leader/head and others
2. Need for harmony - Need to agree or to comply. A dominant and pervasive value, even when there is inequality in relationships
If this is beginning to sound like the oft-mooted and longed form “strong man” form of leadership, that is correct. That is essentially the classic case of the headship model of leadership. In our case though, our desire for this form of leadership is so insidious that it is pervasive throughout our cultural and social milieu.
In essence, at the heart of ‘headship’ leadership is the subsuming of individual responsibility within a political (or even familial) structure to the will of one person; in other words, paternalism. Rigid structures of patrimony are intrinsic, as is the need for obedience and piety. Responsibility is passed to that individual for taking care of the political or family unit. In return for pledging piety and loyalty, the ‘leader’ takes care of his followers. Hallmarks such as holding the leader in high-esteem (untouchable, infallible, and unknowable) and almost complete reliance on this for decision-making and problem solving are easily apparent. There is a needed distance between the paternalistic leader and his followers, allowing the leader to retain an aura of power and prestige. Patronage is a natural requirement for this style. As a result, loyalties are not to the system or the nation, but to the leader.
Key to this form of leadership is the give and take between the leader and follower. In other words, part in parcel with shifting the locus of responsibility by the individual to the leader, is the understanding that the leader is looking out for and caring about the subordinate. In Tagalog terms, this is encompassed by ‘pakikipagkapwa-tao, pagkatao.’ Hallmarks such as centralization, secrecy, protection of dominance, reputation building (incapable of error), social distance (untouchable), non-specific intentions (motherhood statements), patronage and nepotism, and cliques who gain power through political manipulation are all keys to paternalistic forms of leadership. There is also a demand for the appearance of upright moral and ethical leadership.
If this reminds of the leadership styles of people like Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo it is no surprise; they utilized the paternalistic form of leadership to its fullest extent. In fact, Pinoy cultural and even political values are deeply rooted in elements paternalism; at times without our realizing it. Many family units in the country revolve around a similar social dynamic: No matter how large or diverse families are, there is usually a single figure around who the family dynamic revolves. That person bestows gifts, solves inter-family squabbles, and essentially guides the family during his or her lifetime. That family based dynamic is translated in varying degrees along our socio-political ladder.
Daddy Issues: Questioning Concepts of Citizenship Engagement in the Philippines
This is not about the dangers of this type of leadership, or even the use of prevalence of the model in the Philippines. Instead, it is about touching on how paternalistic forms of leadership are so embedded in our cultural consciousness (a by-product of centuries of historic processes geared towards leveraging it) that unwittingly, civil society engagement revolves around this model. In essence, modern expectations of Philippine leadership by Filipino citizens almost completely aligns with this model of leadership. Considering the relative immaturity, and underlying unstable footing, in the Philippine political sphere there are some disconcerting ramifications.
I would argue that this is seen on a national scale with civil society’s expectations and engagement with the Office of the President; most clearly during times of crisis. During the habagat last year and Maring last month one of the most vocal calls was for the president to be more “visible” in terms of disaster relief. In terms of year-on-year performance there have been improvements in government processes, far from perfect, but improvements nonetheless. However, even with government (LGU to national) operating far more efficiently than in the past, there was still a demand for the President, the ‘leader,’ to be visible; to reassure the people that he is looking after their interests. Unsurprisingly, judging by the development of our Malacañang centered political focus, LGUs were saved from most of the demands for visibility; even as senators and other elected officials took advantage of the grassroots affinity for paters through identity branded handouts. As an aside, it should be noted that the demand for the President to visit disasters in other parts of the country is never quite as loud or persistent as when disasters strike Metro Manila.
This was further seen with President Aquino’s decision to relocate to Zamboanga at the height of hostilities. For better or worse, he took on a micro-managerial role; one that both reassured the nation and should have raised serious questions about the role of the President in times of internecine warfare. Should the President be in a crisis zone? Should he be directly overseeing on the ground operations? Is that needed with a professional military? Eventually, we need to move past the need for the President to micro-manage and the attendant ‘false’ comfort and security it seems to provide. I would rather see line agencies and the military coping with these situations ably and professionally. And in fairness, the military was for more visible and responsive to the public than ever before. That, more than anything, should provide some hope and comfort for the future.
The Manager vs the Paternalistic Leader
Arguably, evaluations of the performance of managerial style leader are negatively colored by our bias towards strong-man leadership. The delegating, more modern, style is seen as ‘weak’ or ‘ineffectual.’ Which in turn filters into how we critically engage with different forms of leadership in the country, and their attendant performance. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo developed a following as a ‘serious’ leader by her frequent trips to disaster areas. Her administration played up her long hours of work as an example of a dedicated and caring leader; hence, slipping neatly in the pattern of paternalism. Richard Gordon has developed quite a following by frequently highlighting his “on the ground” coordination of Red Cross response and rescue operations. Gibo Teodoro thought he could ride his ‘performance’ as head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council to challenge for the presidency; that backfired when he pointed out he was so dedicated he went to the office, alone. That being said, many appreciated Teodoro for his professionalism and dedication to helping the ‘people.’
If anything, the difficulties of ‘managers’ to be effective leaders in our political context directly speaks towards our weak and relatively un-empowered institutions. At times, this results in disaster, such as in the case of the Manila Hostage Crisis, when competent and professional individuals are not in place down the organizational ladder. However, from a macro perspective the need for an Executive branch that diffuses its power and relies on functioning line agencies is needed for long-term institutionalization of best practices. For better or worse, this dissonance arises when we continue to evaluate leaders using paternalism leadership as a base. Taking that into consideration, our collective consistent calls for stronger leadership should give us pause. Much the same as the curious claims by many that Ferdinand Marcos was our best president. Looking beyond the lack of historical awareness, the claim usually centers around his strength. Which in turn should make us ask: Is that truly what we yearn for? Someone to solve our problems for us?
A disappointing artifact of our centuries long adherence to paternalistic modes of leadership, is civil society’s tendency to demand solutions from the top. With a few modern exceptions, such as EDSA I, the prevalence of protest culture in the Philippines is rooted in the demand for our ‘leader’ to fix our problems. While it may be slightly unfair to link the recent August 26 Luneta rally to this ‘propensity,’ there are elements of it at play. Initially the call was for the government and administration, in the form of President Aquino, to solve the problems of pork barrel in the Philippines. The idea of “let’s show them we’re angry” seemed to be the guiding principle, concurrent with a demand for action. The protest was loosely organized around these two calls. While they were relatively inchoate, there were elements of request for intervention from on high. And in many ways, that initial focus on spurring our leadership into action has merit. However, recently announced developments in protest movements, which now seem specifically designed to call on President Aquino to solve the problems for us or else, speak to a disconcerting lack of originality in elements of civil society. More importantly, it speaks to a troubling tendency for us to utilize protests ad nauseum. There is a twisted element of passivity to modern protest movements: They ignore the prior need for grassroots initiatives and mobilization (such as what the Katipunan undertook) and goes straight to sloganeering and grandstanding. A current form of protesting is not engagement, it is the exact opposite in fact. And it speaks to our continued adherence to paternalism; even as we supposed decry its entrenchment in Philippine society.
Paternalism and Modern One-Off Protest Movements
The recent calls for civil society to become more engaged in solution-making and governance are a step in the right direction. Transparency and accountability demand that parts of civil society become a part of governance. That being said, there are still elements of civil society (sadly not necessarily the fringes) that are agitating for sweeping reforms from on high; with the corollary that if they do not come there will be one change enacted from below. Ignored in the “need to change government” rhetoric is the middle portion: the Legislative branch. Of the three branches, the Legislative is rarely considered in need of massive reform and over-haul, yet it needs them just as much, if not more. The current scandal, and the inutile nature of the Senate and House’s reaction to it, aptly demonstrates this. Reforms are crouched either in anti-dynasty laws or further empowering the Legislative branch by shifting to a parliamentary system. However, closer inspection of previous regime changes shows a chilling trend: The name at the top changes, but the names in Congress do not. This has been clearly evident in our recent attempts at regime change. Yes, the presidency changed hands, but the Legislature remained the same. Outside of seizing the opportunity presented by the pork barrel scam, the worry is that this trend will continue for the forceable future.
Which raises a much more appropriate question: If our focus was on our backyards, our barangays and districts, would we be mired in the same problems we are now? One of the most disturbing developments in the last month or so is the prevalence of legislators arguing that they are not responsible for theft within their own offices; or for that matter, even making sure that projects they have initiated were properly vetting and managed. That right there is a failure in command responsibility. Yet, by and large, the reaction of civil society is to ignore the very people who should be held accountable, in favor of focusing on the Executive branch. This is not to say that we should not be scrutinizing the Executive branch and its actions, but that the Legislative branch, and especially those who are jumping on the anti-corruption bandwagon, should be scrutinized even more.
This reductive approach to government-citizen engagement is antithetical to the development of a functioning and active political space. The ideas of discursive and responsive engagement between government and citizens is founded on breaking the strictures of paternalistic leadership views. Let me put it this way, when our first and second response to a situation is to demand a solution from the highest office in the land, instead of considering how we can aid in solution-making on a grassroots and local level, we are falling into the trap of paternalism. The current form of protests falls precisely into this trap. I note current form since the protest movement is not an extension of a broad and deep movement throughout the country. Instead, the protests are the movement in and of themselves. Prior historical examples, such as the US Civil Rights Movement, the Katipunan, the US Revolution, and so on, aptly demonstrate the need to link overt protests to an underlying strategy. That is what separates a movement from a one-off protest.
The counter-argument is that we elected leaders to solve our problems. And while that does have merit, we also need to realize that we elect officials to act as advocates on our behalf. This means that engagement with our elected leaders does not begin and end with voting. Nor does it mean that our focus needs to be on national leadership. Nationalism begins as a local piety, thus we need to continually engage with our districts and representatives; not continue to look towards Malacañang as the arbiter of our fate. This demands a reworking of our understanding of post-Enlightenment citizenship. It requires our engagement on affecting change at a grassroots level; something for which a few reformers have called. This means educating the ‘masa’; changing their perception of governance and leadership in the Philippines, as well as their role in public sphere. Too frequently we substitute protesting on a national stage, much like August 26 and its smaller progeny (such as EDSA Tayo) for reaching out on a local level to develop inclusive strategies for deep-rooted grassroots changed founded on radical shifts founded on culture change. That was the call of Philippine revolutionaries in the 19th century. One that remains relatively unheeded and unanswered.
Our tendency towards paternalistic leadership has a habit of showing up during discussions on government reform. Whether conscious or not, solutions such as ‘strengthening’ divisions between government branches, entrusting development processes to the Executive, and removing the power of the purse of Congress, infuses, and expands, the power and influence of the Executive. The solution is not to fix grassroots government engagement, but further empower the ‘leader.’ Other solutions, such as a shift to a parliamentary system, also have elements of influence from paternalism. A parliamentary system basically combines the Executive and Legislative branches of the government, imbuing those in parliament with vast powers over the future of the country. This cedes the locus of responsibility from the individual to the ‘leader.’ And that is precisely the trap we need to move away from. Solution-making and true change cannot be handed down from on high; it does not trickle down. It must begin at the bottom. The only way this can occur is by radically changing our understanding of the relationship between citizens and our representatives.
Finally addressing that shift in culture on a grassroots level is, and has been for centuries, one of our most pressing needs. As a result, it remains one of the untouched paths towards sustained national change for the better.