By DLS Pineda
Year in and year out, the Independence Day Question remains a favorite: Are we truly free or not?
Time and time again, the answer remains a resounding “no,” and it’s kind of getting old (115 years old). But to further elaborate, no, we are not truly free because we continue to be captives of an economy that’s slave to larger and stronger powers; the culture of impunity prevails, especially in areas of dire poverty; and our borders are still a matter of money and politics, not of history or principle.
Quite a mouthful, but to put it simply, the best personification of our woes is the 10 million Filipinos working overseas. They are away from home, away from their families, under foreign masters, sometimes abused, all for the sake of earning a living. And it’s sad that we oversimplify and lionize the profession as a heroic one when it’s a highly nuanced sociological phenomenon that’s telling of our own shortcomings as a country.
Yes, to be a Filipino worker abroad is a truly difficult occupation that involves a lot of sacrifice. And yes, they should be honored for their overwhelming contribution to our gross domestic product (OFW remittances is the only thing that’s keeping our economy afloat and burgeoning) and more.
But at the core of every hero story, be it real or fictional, the conflict can always be summarized by answering the question: Why do the heroes need to save those whom they save? One can argue that OFWs save those whom they save out of the need to rescue themselves. In other words, OFWs are also victims of a cutthroat system, that’s why they are forced to sacrifice. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t need to go abroad to be heroes; because to be completely honest about it, there’s no need to fly out to become heroes.
Perhaps, it’s time we turned the tables around and ask, “Who needs to be saved?” Because, as heroic as the job may be, it’s not completely out of heroic compassion for the country or self-offering that OFWs choose to work abroad. For it is, first and foremost, need that brings them there. It is poverty that limits their choices. The lack of jobs that offer suitable wages for our technically skilled workers and the lack of jobs per se leaves our countrymen with little choice but to work somewhere else.
We, the post-martial law generation, are at an age wherein we are asked to make the choices that would define the rest of our lives. And it is in this context that we should ask — are we truly free?
Once in a while, I have some friends come over from abroad. They are, without a doubt, part of the most intelligent and skilful people I know. But they’ve made up their minds to migrate, citing that life is better for them outside our shores. And I can’t blame them for thinking that. It’s not out of their characters; it is a logical conclusion. But somehow, a pang pierces my chest, as if I’m wrong for hoping things will change here in the Philippines.
Another friend of mine, a driven mechanical engineer who’s worked for more than four years in a cement factory told me of his plans to finally accept the job offer that’s being offered him in the Middle East. It paid a lot higher than his current job here, and suffice it to say that he needed the money.
While I know our country could use more of engineers like him, I thought to myself, who am I to ask him to stay? What is camaraderie compared to financial stability? Have we failed so miserably in realizing a national identity that it’s become so easy to leave home?
It’s been said again and again, what we need is the nationalization of our industries — to make products by the Filipino for the Filipino; to utilize the Philippines for the Filipino. But while we invest so much in creating export-ready Filipinos through the hastily-enacted K+12; while we are so bent in creating BPOs to cater to our neighbours abroad; while only $1.4 billion of foreign investments are real investments, and are solely for the building of condominiums and not factories; and while our laws allow for foreign ownership of almost everything, then don’t expect any nationalization of industries to occur. We see that high economic growth does not necessarily translate to having a better life for everyone, especially for those in need.
To hope is something we do so well. That’s probably why we keep asking the same question every Independence Day. And in answering that, we can’t discount our economic situation. But perhaps, we also have to ask: Does staying here merit so much when society asks us to serve the 1%, our rich and foreign masters anyway?
Stay anyway. Hang on. Serve the people.