Notes from the Field

The Philippines through the Lens of Academia

March 21, 2012

This past week I (and, truth be told, most of the faculty in the Southeast Asia Studies Program at SAIS) went to Toronto for the Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting. This was a distinct change in atmosphere from the policy-oriented D.C. environment to the more abstract and less time-bound world of academe. With some 3,000 delegates from North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia attending to hear more than 1,500 papers presented in almost 400 panels over three days, it was impossible to do more than sample the views on offer. I mostly focused on panels having to do with Southeast Asian history and politics, leaving aside more cultural aspects (let alone all the interesting work being done in South or East Asia).

Unlike last year’s AAS meeting in Honolulu, there were no panels devoted entirely to the Philippines – though the Philippine Studies Group had a business meeting partly to move forward on the International Conference on Philippine Studies in late October this year (which is more convenient for the Philippine academic calendar). Having no specialized panels did have the virtue of situating discussions of the Philippines in comparative contexts, taking into account insights from other countries.

For instance, Prajak Kongkirati from Australian National University participated in a roundtable discussion of “The Unretractability of State Violence in Thailand:  Past, Present, and Future.” He questioned if “state violence” was the correct focus since many killings were allegedly at the behest of local politicos, businessmen, or criminals, and pointed out that many security operations in the south were “outsourced” to paramilitary groups. He speculated that these varieties of violence were making Thailand more similar to the Philippines than, say, Indonesia, though he did note that the “40 or 50″ people killed in the last elections in Thailand were less than the 100+ in the last Philippine elections (which, by Philippine standards, were “relatively peaceful“).

Two deliberately comparative research projects presented at the conference included the Philippines. Nathan Quimpo’s “Limits on Reforms after Plunder in the Philippines’ Oligarchic Democracy” is part of a 12-nation inquiry into “Democracy in Eastern Asia” (which includes Japan, Taiwan, through Singapore, etc.). Quimpo looks at the patterns that I touched on in an earlier blog post and generalizes that the Philippines as a patronage system veers from a clientelistic phase (where networks linking patrons and supporters are built up from the local to the national level) to a predatory phase (as in Martial Law under President Marcos) where the rulers plunder politics and the economy. Given all the scandals that took place when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was president, Quimpo says that Arroyo brought the predatory regime to full fruition and he wonders about the fate of positive reforms under her successor, President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino, including his appointment of technocratic cabinet ministers, ending impunity by prosecution of erring officials, and the institution of bureaucratic reforms such as zero-based budgeting, increased transparency in public finance, and the increased involvement of civil society in affairs of government. While acknowledging the importance of these reforms, Quimpo warned that core problems of the “Philippines oligarchic democracy” were not addressed through such measures as campaign finance laws, political party reforms, or the outlawing of political dynasties. He pointed out that politicians who have survived this far through the patronage system are unlikely to pass laws disrupting that system.

A somewhat different comparative research project is “Vote-Buying, Money Politics, and Clientelism in Southeast Asia.”  In their preliminary theorizing thus far, the researchers have come to doubt whether “Money Politics” is a good category to use in academic research since so many different patterns of behavior might fall into that category. But, it’s obviously still a catchy title, as witnessed by the standing-room only crowd in the seminar room. Ed Aspinall shared anecdotes about vote-buying in Indonesia, with some doubt about how effective those tactics might be for the politicians concerned – most amusingly summed up when one village headman, remarking on the competition among candidates to slaughter larger animals for feasting, said, “The candidate doesn’t realize that he could slaughter an elephant and the people here would not vote for him.”  Meanwhile, the researchers suggested systematic data such as surveys or close observation of election campaigns to get beyond the merely anecdotal. Allen Hicken presented research that estimated storm damage over a 10-year period in the Philippines using meteorological information and correlated that with Congressional “pork barrel” spending for relief and rehabilitation to determine if amounts were determined by political considerations or the extent of damage. The findings are preliminary and complicated:  for instance, if the proposed project can be clearly identified with a particular area (rather than more generally spread around a district) there is a relation between storm damage and relief funds. And, when there are political considerations, family ties are much more important than political parties – not surprising given the very weak state of Philippine political parties.

Paul Hutchcroft outlined some of the conceptual background to the proposed research – distinguishing patronage (which is mostly about resources) from clientelism (personalistic ties that exist almost everywhere), and talking about different networks through which patronage could flow:  certainly clientelistic networks but also social or religious organizations and political parties. This allows a comparative approach to patronage, where political parties may be gaining strength in Thailand, mass religious organizations in Indonesia are very important in politics, and in the Philippines clans seem to be the continuing focus of resource flows.

A great thing about going to paper presentations rather than just reading them is that one gets to hear comments from the audience. My co-teacher at SAIS, Karl Jackson, used the example of Boston (as he has in our class) transitioning away from the patronage clientelism of Mayor Curley (as fictionalized in the The Last Hurrah) to explore what explanations Quimpo might offer as to why his description of the Philippines continues to be true decade after decade. More abstractly, Stanford’s Don Emmerson characterized some of the analysis of Thailand as “essentialist, dare I say ‘Orientalist‘” (it takes a finely honed academic sensibility to feel the full force of this). His point seemed to be that presenters were taking descriptions of reality as representing the essential nature of the societies being examined (without, again, being able to offer explanations of why they were there). This challenge represents the essential nature of the academic enterprise – that results often provoke more questions. I certainly felt that, after listening to so many diverse analyses in such a short time, an intellectual agenda was being built for me to tackle.

This is the ninth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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