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The roots of Filipino indiscipline

By Alfredo N. Mendoza V

Illustration by Oteph Antipolo

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While the Philippines is known the world over for its warm, friendly people, thanks to social media, foreigners have recently caught up on how Filipinos really are among themselves, how they run their country, and how they live their lives without, ah, filters.

Only real Filipinos who’ve lived long enough, however, would agree that the Filipino is his own worst enemy. And this is especially true when we talk of discipline—something that Filipinos seem to lack or take for granted.  Ironically, discipline is often the card Filipinos play when they want things to go their way.

If you sit and pass the time in a public place in Manila and try to observe everything at face value, it’s very likely that you’ll see more than one thing that’s amiss—a broken or erratic stoplight, columns of cars not giving way to each other, waves of jaywalkers, deteriorated public utilities, illegally parked cars—and these are only just some of the manifestations of Filipino indiscipline.

But can we really blame ourselves for being ourselves?  Are we really innately ill-mannered and ill-disciplined as a people, or did historical circumstances turn us into what we’ve become today?

Social aspect

While it can be considered an individual matter, lack of discipline can also be traced to several social factors.  Crescencio Doma Jr., a sociologist from University of Santo Tomas (UST), explained that all attitudes and human behavior developed as a reaction to certain stimuli from the environment.

“Impatience is basically a reaction to a dysfunction in a given [social] system.  People become impatient only when their needs are not satisfied at a given time.  At the same time, it can be traced to the absence of clear policies and implementing rules that would ensure a positive response from people towards law,” said Doma.

An example would be the simple act of falling in line.  How often have we experienced being cut by someone else in front of the line? How many times have we done it ourselves? Doma explained that people have a passive and lax attitude toward laws because they don’t consider certain offenses as “serious.” Instead, they think of these infractions simply as “agreeable” offenses similar to “white lies.” That also explains why Filipinos abroad seem to be disciplined—because in other countries, offenses, whether small or large, are generally frowned upon and are no way “agreeable” or acceptable.

“Laziness, on the other hand, is a reaction to the inability of the [social] structure to provide the needed opportunities where one can fully exercise or make use of his or her capacities,” said Doma, a former chair of the Sociology Department of UST’s Faculty of Arts and Letters.

He added that laziness can be attributed to the bahala na and mañana attitudes, fatalistic and uniquely Filipino responses that are seriously unprofessional and counter-productive.  Laziness and impatience make for a bad mix when paired with other negative Filipino attitudes like “Filipino time,” ningas-cogon, and the one-day millionaire attitude, also known as ubos-ubos biyaya, bukas nakatunganga attitude.

“Philippine society lacks a strong sense of role modeling.  While we do not discredit the good examples shown by some people in the past as well as today, we cannot deny the fact that there are glaring incidents that would show people that ignoring laws or socially acceptable practices will do them no good,” said Doma, who’s currently based in the United Arab Emirates as an administrative assistant of a leading hospital in Abu Dhabi.

According to the Social Learning Theory, a treatise of Stanford University’s Albert Bandura, one of the pioneers of behavioral and social psychology, an individual learns through various direct methods, but primarily through observation of models.

“Most of the behaviors that people display are learned either deliberately or inadvertently through the influence of example.” pp. 5, Social Learning Theory, Bandura, 1971, Stanford University.

Bandura also explained in the said treatise that people are sometimes incentive-motivated individuals who perform acts based on what they know would be most beneficial to them—in the case of Filipino jaywalking, convenience, corruption, easy money without too much labor.

Indolence through Rizal’s eyes

Our national hero was undoubtedly patriotic, but what made him really intelligent wasn’t only his education and aptitude, but also his common sense. Filipinos’ lack of discipline isn’t a new dilemma.  In fact, Jose Rizal himself, a social scientist in his time, noted and agreed that Filipinos were indeed indolent, but emphasized that the reason behind such indolence was the Spanish colonizers themselves.

“We must confess that indolence does actually and positively exist there; only that, instead of holding it to be the cause of the backwardness and the trouble, we regard it as the effect of the trouble and the backwardness, by fostering the development of a lamentable predisposition,” Rizal wrote.

La Indolencia de los Filipinos (The Indolence of the Filipinos), a political essay Rizal wrote for the La Solidaridad in response to Dr. Gregorio Sanciano y Goson’s El Progreso de Filipinas, and which was one of the highlights of the Reformista Movement, explained that climate, colonialism, and endless war were the causes of Filipinos’ indolence.

“A hot climate requires of the individual quiet and rest, just as cold incites to labor and action. For this reason the Spaniard, is more indolent than the Frenchman; the Frenchman more so than the German. How do they [Europeans] live in tropical countries? Surrounded by a numerous train of servants, never going afoot but riding in a carriage, needing servants not only to take off their shoes for them but even to fan them!” Rizal wrote.

As a physician, Rizal particularly noted that the hot tropical climate was one of the many biological factors in fostering laziness.

“An hour’s work under that burning sun, in the midst of pernicious influences springing from nature in activity, is equal to a day’s work in a temperate climate; it is, then, just that the earth yield a hundred fold!” he said.

Colonialism and endless war, however, were the real cause of Filipino indolence, and may be considered as the root of all Filipino bad habits and lack of discipline.  Rizal explained that the comparatively primitive native tribes of the Philippines eventually grew tired after centuries of fighting the technologically advanced Spanish conquistadors and that they eventually capitulated and accepted assimilation—religiously and politically.

Rizal explained that it was much easier to be at peace with the Spanish than to wage a hopeless war against them—where resources and lives were wasted in vain.  For some reason, this mindset eventually transpired into modern-day laziness—the mañana habit.

The momentum, however, changed when Filipinos collectively took up arms and expelled the Spanish in the Philippine Revolution, only to be again assimilated afterward by the Americans in a manner which was similar to the Spanish before—with indolence.

Filipino time

Being late for work or for any occasion has become a habit among Filipinos that it eventually became agreeable to be late.  In fact, some offices or companies in the Philippines take or mandate grace periods or flexi-time seriously.

But what is the root cause of Filipino time?  According to Mitch Valcos, a marketing professional from Manila, Filipino time has become quite acceptable that it has become a constant excuse.

“Filipino time became an excuse to console people who became late often.  I think the only way to solve this is for us to value time more and realize what is at stake when we do not follow schedules and agreements or go to work early,” Valcos said.

But according to Kristelle Ann Batchelor, a Filipino writer currently based in California, the cause of Filipino time is circumstantial.

“Traffic is a daily problem in the Philippines, and I think it’s the most severe in the world.  I think that this, among other factors that test our patience every day, influences our mindset of how we respect time.  I think if we had things easy in our country we wouldn’t be reluctant to follow the law and embody good principles,” said Batchelor.

But until we start recognizing the rights of others, and go through toil, sacrifice, and hardship like what leading countries today went through before, we will never go far as a nation.

We can no longer play the victim-of-colonialism card.  We have won our freedom. We are not lacking in laws. Our aspirations are pretty clear. It’s now our prerogative to choose from being a disciplined or an undisciplined people.  Rizal further said in La Indolencia de los Filipinos that the only way for us to shed our indolence and indiscipline is to acquire a love for work, and to work for others, with others.