Autocratic pragmatism — one final act

Autocratic pragmatism — one final act Featured

DEMOCRACY failed us! The crux of this six-part series. For a century, we wasted what initially was a good thing, foisted upon us "little brown brothers" as a patronizing experiment. America's first-ever foray into the Far East was essential to a learning curve on geopolitical dynamics leading toward eventual hegemony. But this brand of democracy was different from the one that has evolved and tested in the crucible of America's unique history for over 120 years. It was not transplantable to our equally unique culture and history.

On the other hand, the alternative, authoritarianism, practiced in communist China is not congruent to the culture of the Filipinos, who, during the 300 years of Spain's tutelage, had Catholicism implanted in them. Spanish colonial practices and religion piggy-backed on the Filipinos' native animist beliefs and rituals are the bastion against which totalitarian seeds will wilt on Philippine soil — however, cultivated over the decades of authoritarian ideals. Witness the failure of the Huks and the communist movements and its adjuncts, the NPA and the reactionary Alsa Masa — all failed, not to mention the martial law years. We were led to believe that democracy, to flourish and be sustainable, needed the spasms of sporadic blood drenching, a romantic fallacy perpetuated by America's history of belligerence. What a waste!

We examined three other Asian countries whose system of governance — a calculated mix of democratic and authoritarian practices that propelled their countries into the ranks of the world's developed economies. The common elements extracted from these successful countries — Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea — could be worth emulating.

Combining autocracy and pragmatic decision-making

In 2015, I came across an article (The Guardian, Carlton Tan) singing the praises of Lee Kwan Yew's (LKY) success as Singapore's founder/leader and his methods aptly termed "autocratic pragmatism." And a Harvard classmate, Dr. Primo Arambulo, reminded me of its importance in governance. It simply refers to a leadership style that combines elements of autocracy, where power is concentrated in the hands of one individual or a small group, with pragmatic decision-making, where decisions are based on practicality and effectiveness rather than ideology or principle. These are also the qualities of Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Park Chung-hee of South Korea — leaders of Asian countries with different historicity but eventually were successful by many metrics.

These three leaders had charisma, benevolence, passionate patriotism and drive. They were in power for many years, courtesy of their democratically elected political parties, and therefore were in a position to implement long-term policies stamping a certain sense of permanency; LKY for three decades as prime minister; Mahathir, also prime minister for a combined 24 years, the former a parliamentary government and the latter parliamentary-federal. Park Chung-hee was president for 18 years in a presidential-unitary government.

The three held a firm grip on centralized power over their governments. Their dominance of the political system was almost total, effectively allowing them to implement pragmatic policies across the board. They opened markets and attracted foreign direct investments, allowing the modernization of their industries; they invested significantly in infrastructure, providing more jobs and spurring economic growth, making these countries globally competitive.

On the other hand, some autocratic approaches were used, prioritizing stability and rapid economic growth over democratic principles and individual freedoms, suppressing dissent and curtailing press freedoms. These are the trade-offs between economic development and political liberties — one the Philippines may employ to extricate ourselves from democracy's morass. This will be discussed momentarily.

To keep the peace with their diverse racial mix, both Singapore and Malaysia had to implement policies aimed at maintaining social stability, emphasizing national unity, and managing racial harmony. In Singapore, with its Chinese majority (75 percent) and Malay (15 percent) and Indian (7 percent) minorities, LKY emphasized meritocracy, providing equal opportunities for all citizens regardless of race and introducing public housing quotas to promote integration. A unique policy was that of bilingualism, with English as the main language of instruction, creating, in effect, a common language among the various ethnic groups.

Malaysia, with the Malays and the indigenous Bumiputra (50 percent), Chinese (23 percent), Indians (7 percent), and the rest of the various ethnicities (3 percent), introduced the "Bangsa Malaysia" concept promoting a sense of a shared national identity implementing affirmative action policies to lift the majority Bumiputra population.

PH classic solution

At the end of the Marcos regime, a new constitution was introduced by President Cory's handpicked coterie, reinstalling the old, discredited structures of democracy. This mongrelized version of a constitution was a compendium of basic laws created as counterpoints to the martial law regime — an inward-looking document that constrained the economic and open market protocols that propelled our Asian neighbors to prosperity. What is worse is that it enshrined the old structures propagating the evils of patronage politics, allowing the emergence of political family dynasties and party lists that perverted the political system in favor of the country's elite. It is unfortunate that this sincere housewife who was born captive of her class, who confessed to knowing nothing about politics, reflected her values exclusive to the greater majority of the Filipinos through this constitution.

Successive Philippine presidents, from Cory's chosen successor Fidel Ramos to Erap Estrada to Gloria Arroyo, excepting Cory's son PNoy, sought to abrogate this constitution, restructure the political and electoral systems and form of government that could make the constitution more responsive to the aspirations of the Filipino; and outward-looking, open global markets, enticing foreign direct investments, propelling the country among the developed nations. All these initiatives to revise the Cory constitution simply fell flat. The constitutional revision processes filtered through the very people whose vested interest had precedence — the congressmen and senators. They had the last say in any alterations. There was not to be any.

Paradox in PH democracy

Thus, our premise for this six-part series on democracy is a synthesis:

This is the paradox of Philippine democracy — that democratic methods, originally imposed by American colonists and nurtured by our own flawed leadership, can't bring about democracy. It requires undemocratic measures to bring about democracy.

Forget about systemic structural changes. Forget parliamentary government and federalism. Forget the creation of real ideologically differentiated political parties. And above all, forget Cha-cha (Charter change). If revisions are allowed, these will only be cosmetic redounding to the benefit of the vested interests, the political family dynasties, and their allies in the oligarchy.

Ferdinand Marcos understood this, and in 1972, he acted. But his decades-long reign was determined not by his ideals of a "New Society" but by greed. And the autocratic methods employed did not result in the greater good, unlike South Korea and, to some extent, Singapore and Malaysia.

President Duterte recognized this too, and he advocated drastic systemic changes. He went through the motions of creating the Constitutional Committee (ConCom) preparatory to shift government from a unitary system to federalism — his election campaign advocacy. But he dropped the ball midterm.

To salvage whatever credibility he has as a populist maverick, he espoused a revolutionary government! But it was all talk. He never did have the political will to follow through.

Thus, we are condemned to our democratic failures unless and until we, not our political leadership, do the final act. And resolve this paradox.


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