COMMENTARY: On Filipino Identity

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews / 18 Nov) – Filipinos always reflect on national identity in November because on the 30th of this month we commemorate the birthday of the quintessential nationalist, Andres Bonifacio.

For Filipinos residing outside of the Philippines, this annual introspection is especially relevant because many of us constantly struggle with our sense of identity and feelings of unresolved patriotism.

Indeed, we often find ourselves asking – is being Filipino simply about citizenship? Or should our conception of national identity be rooted on qualities much deeper than, as many Filipino-Australians would tell me, a mere piece of paper?

Personally, I would be very wary with our national identity being defined by law for two reasons. First, doing this would automatically create an “others” category within the polity. I reckon a Malaysian of Chinese descent would readily testify that such a scenario makes it doubly difficult to establish cohesion and harmony within the nation-state.

Indeed, the role of the state is only to regulate citizenship. In our case, the details of this mandate is provided for in Article IV of the Constitution. Pertinently, this section in our country’s supreme law says absolutely nothing about what the character of a Filipino should be.

Second, the determination of national identity is ultimately the responsibility of the citizens of the state. Hence, cementing this notion in legislation is both unrealistic and self-defeating.

A few years ago, the Fiji national rugby union team criticized the composition of the Philippine Volcanoes playing in a highly prestigious competition, Twitting—“The only thing Philippines about the Philippine team playing in the Hong Kong 7s is the name of the team.” Then team captain, Jake Letts, responded graciously by saying, “We have no control of it. In most cases we are half-Filipino, half-Australian; the only control we have is who we choose to play for. And we choose the Philippines.

This sentiment is exactly those aired by basketball heroes such the famous Fil-Australian Mick Pennisi, Fil-Tongan Asi Taulava, Fil-Americans Eric Menk and the Siegle brothers, and a slew of other Fil-Foreigners now playing in the PBA.

Some of our countrymen however will not consider these sports heroes Filipinos at all. Take Florante for instance. The popular pro-Marcos entertainer wrote in his pop hit, Ako’y Isang Pinoy – Pinoy sa puso’t diwa, Pinoy na isinilang sa ating bansa. Hindi sanay sa wikang mga banyaga.” Now, I doubt if any of these sports figures know how to speak any Philippine dialect at all.

Another controversial Pinoy in sports is Andray Blatche, a true blue American naturalized to be a Filipino and most recently touted as the savior of Philippine basketball in international competition. For sports fans, particularly basketball aficionados, it is enough to treat this man, who has absolutely no connection to the Philippines, as a Filipino simply because he has been officially qualified to wear the Gilas team jersey.

But for revered folk singer, Heber Bartolome, such a paradigm is utterly unacceptable in light of his nationalist anthem, Tayo’y Mga Pinoy, wherein he sings, “Tayo’y mga Pinoy, tayo’y hindi Kano, ‘Wag kang mahihiya kung ang ilong mo ay pango.”

Nonetheless, we know in our hearts that being Filipino is not just about citizenship. As Mr. Letts so poignantly explained, Filipino identity fundamentally involves a choice. Necessarily therefore, it also entails reflection and discernment.

We thus conceive of our civic character with due consideration of the past as well as the future. We adhere to traditional values but we also aim to thrive in the modern world. Bamboo was absolutely spot on in their song, Noypi, about what is at the core of the Filipino’s heart— “Ang dami mong problema. Nakuha mo pang ngumiti. Noypi ka nga, astig!

Indeed, our heritage has always been about unparalleled courage, battle-tested resiliency, and unbridled optimism on what life has to offer. More importantly, Filipino culture is never about putting down others. We do not claim any superiority for our beliefs and traditions. We only demand respect because we give respect.

I am Filipino because I believe in the bayanihan spirit, that indigenous belief system that puts a premium on family and community. I am a Filipino because I live by the principle espoused by both Christianity and Islam, that I shall love God above all else and my neighbor as myself. I am a Filipino because I want to work hard and support my family. I am a Filipino because I find fulfillment in helping people in need. I am Filipino because I see humor in all aspects of life, including death.

This list can go on and on. Quite literally a hundred million testaments of who the Filipino is. All of which will be true and unimpeachable.

Indeed, it is important to note that centuries of colonization, globalization and the internet all have failed to homogenize Filipino identity. Amidst the diversity though, we do have one thing in common. We all choose to be Filipinos. What exactly that means, well, Andres Bonifacio is just one voice. Others have to be heard as well.

Therefore, in determining Filipino identity, I would be more concerned in maintaining that socio-political space that allows a robust and collegial dialogue amongst citizens to carry on unhindered.

Specifically, I would like to see more effort from both the government and the community in reinforcing our secular tradition in governance. I would also like our country’s human rights regime strengthened even further.

The reality is only when these state institutions are firmly in place can a candid and respectful discussion on contentious and controversial issues take place. In fact, without them, the fragmentation of the polity, indeed even the disintegration of the state, becomes a distinct possibility.

Finally, I would urge our policy-makers to revitalize the incorporation of the bayanihan mindset in our classrooms. As we have seen from recent events, the marginalization of particular sectors in the polity can lead to cataclysmic results. Therefore, institutionalizing measures that counteract such an eventuality is imperative.

[Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a freelance legislative and policy consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.]