By: Philip Bowring

Much of the world has been suffering from a surfeit of nationalism. But that is the least of the problems of the Philippines.

The weakness of national sentiment, especially among the elite, is striking. It seems at odds with the fact that the country, excluding the Muslim parts of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, have been more or less under the same Manila-based (albeit mostly foreign controlled) central government for 500 years.

It is also at odds with the pioneering role of martyred nationalist Jose Rizal, who was executed by the Spanish Colonial government in 1896 for advocating independence, in inspiring opposition to colonialism in the region, and his promotion of Tagalog as a literary as well as unifying language.

Fast forward 150 years, and although Tagalog/Filipino may be understood by almost all Filipinos and is the main language of the media and of locally published books, the elites often look down on it and fail to see that culture and language are key parts of the identity of the nation.

That regional languages are widely spoken is beside the point. Indonesia has a linguistic identity even though Javanese, Sundanese and many others remain the native tongues of the majority. Emphasis on Filipino as the core cultural language does not mean that regional languages and literature can’t continue to flourish side by side.

Rizal would be turning in his grave to hear that study of the national language and literature is ceasing to be a compulsory subject in tertiary education as the subjects should be adequately covered in high school. The decision was originally made in 2013 but had been challenged in the courts. Now the Supreme Court has ruled to support that decision. Apparently it is believed that more attention needs to be paid to “practical” subjects, including English.

The nation also now has a Foreign Secretary, Teodoro (Teddy Boy) Locsin Jr who, has such a low opinion of his national language that he has spoken against its use in debates, insisting on English. Meanwhile President Duterte often resorts to use of Visayan rather than Filipino. Perhaps it is thus no surprise then that the president and his foreign minister, apparently lacking loyalty to a higher national identity, have been in practice writing off Philippine sea claims which have been backed by the highest-level international body, the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Maintaining the geographical integrity of the nation has become subsidiary to tapping into Chinese money. Thus the government is negotiating a deal for China to take part in oil development in seas which China claims but which are internationally acknowledged to belong to the Philippines.

Thus on Tuesday this week Duterte and Xi Jinping engaged in extravagant mutual rhetoric as Xi began the first state visit of a Chinese president to the Philippines. The visit made it plain to the Chinese that for some people in Manila they are welcome to invade any time they like so long as bring enough money with them.

Duterte has admitted as one of his close advisors and a Chinese national businessman directly connected to the ruling party in Beijing and who owns shopping malls in Davao City, where successive Dutertes have been mayor for decades. The president’s influence is also seen at work in a bid for a telecoms license involving China Telecom and a Davao businessman supported of Duterte.

The president is far from alone in ingratiating himself with China in pursuit of riches at the expense of national interests. Previous elite figures have a long history of putting profits before patriotism when faced with the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese occupiers (in the case of the Aquinos). But few have been so blatant.

There is a direct link between the quasi-feudal power structure and disdain for national over personal and local dynasties. With his self-interested espousal of federalism, Duterte is particularly crude but the phenomenon shows up too in the case of the Marcos family. Despite the mountains of evidence of theft and plunder on a grand scale, 32 years after the EDSA revolution, Mrs Marcos has finally been convicted of an offense. But few believe she will face more than token jail time if that.

Meanwhile from its base in Ilocos the family continues to aspire to rule the nation which it has once helped impoverish. Meanwhile too, millions of poor Filipinos are forced to work overseas for lack of employment at home. But while their remittances flow in, elite money continues to move out to buy houses in California and condos in New York.

One day perhaps, the nation will have the real revolution that its 100 million people, so many of whom have given Filipinos a good name overseas for skills, hard work and good nature, deserve. And the nation might acquire a name which does not celebrate the Spanish king who invaded it.