Are Filipinos too selfish?

The writer says hope lies in children and youth, in whom must be instilled the critical value of going beyond one’s self and becoming a person for others, seeking not just the good, but the greater good.

Cielito F. Habito

Cielito F. Habito

Philippine Daily Inquirer


March 7, 2023

MANILA – Are we Filipinos generally more self-centered and selfish than other Asians? Is this a cultural flaw of ours that has kept our country from progressing at the same pace that most of our neighbors have done over the past decades?

A friend who was in the business of manufacturing wooden butcher-block knife holders once told me of his experience when he received a large order from overseas that he couldn’t possibly service within the time frame specified by the foreign buyer. Knowing who his direct competitors were, he invited them to team up with him in order to meet the volume needed within the required time. Not one was willing. All seemed to prefer going about their business on their own terms, “kanya-kanya (to each his own)” style. That was a major export opportunity lost, which easily could have led to more subsequent orders, sustained business, and possibly even wider opportunities—if only those firms had agreed to band together as a team.

In the 1990s, as head of the National Economic and Development Authority, I was asked by President Fidel V. Ramos to receive a visiting delegation from Harvard Medical School (maybe because he knew I studied at Harvard). The group was here to scout for an institutional partner for a Harvard teaching hospital and must have recognized Filipino medical practitioners as among the best in the world. Thus, our country seemed a logical place in which to establish their brand in Asia. So I helped them with leads and introductions to possible local partners. Months later, I learned that we lost them to Singapore, which, I was told, rolled out the red carpet and even offered building space. Informally, I heard that they supposedly got turned off that among the first questions they consistently faced in their meetings here was “What’s in it for me/us?” I could only shake my head in dismay.

In our troubled agriculture sector, among the most crucial needs is to consolidate operations of our small and highly fragmented farms into cooperatives operating as commercial entities, to gain higher productivity with economies of scale. Our neighbors have had great success with farmers’ cooperatives, yet the track record in the Philippines has been spotty. Why do too many of our coops fail? The all-too-common story is that someone ran away with the money.

Last week, we heard of airport security personnel stealing money and valuables from a Thai and a Chinese tourist. Someone commented that with one act of thievery, these individuals managed to put to naught billions of pesos invested by our Department of Tourism to attract foreign visitors to the country. One can only wish that thieves like these among us would think more and know the much larger harm they are doing to fellow Filipinos, well beyond their direct victims. The same goes for the mastermind in the killing of Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo, or those behind trading cartels who inflict suffering on millions of consumers by manipulating commodity supplies to gain fabulous profits for themselves.

Unpatriotic acts don’t only come from criminals, but also from bureaucrats in the national and local governments who seem to delight in throwing as many hurdles as they can in the way of getting something from the government. My pet peeve is those offices with “development” in their name, but whose primary (and seemingly favorite) function is regulation, ticking boxes in long checklists of documentary requirements that are often redundant, superfluous, or unnecessary. One gets the feeling that their brains are programmed to think of more obstacles they could throw in your way, rather than help enable enterprises or initiatives that pursue the common good.

Will our seemingly ingrained selfishness and lack of regard for the common good ever change? Are we forever condemned to the “damaged culture” that James Fallows graphically described in his 1987 The Atlantic article? Our hope lies in our children and youth, in whom must be instilled the critical value of going beyond one’s self (as embodied in the Ateneo de Manila University’s vision and mission statement), and becoming a person for others, seeking not just the good, but the greater good.

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