Why we Filipinos are a nation of pessimists

YOU might call it the paradox of modern-day Philippines. Or mystery. Perhaps even a riddle.

By Malou Mangahas

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Published: Wed 2 Feb 2005, 9:03 AM

Last updated: Wed 23 Nov 2022, 12:44 PM

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo reported this week that the economy grew by 6.1 per cent - its fastest expansion in nine years - but Filipinos are simply not jumping with joy.

A 6.1 per cent growth in the gross national product is one positive story. Sadly, it drew few takers, even fewer believers. It’s either the message is lost on most Filipinos, or the supposed progress in the national household has not trickled down to the slums and hovels. It amounts to something like growth reported only in the newspapers but not quite felt at home, yet.

Instead of optimism, in fact, pessimism about what the future holds for their families and the country is growing, and remains "the dominant sentiment" among a big majority of Filipinos, according to a recent national survey of 1,200 Filipinos by the credible Manila-based Pulse Asia polling agency.

Pulse Asia’s survey says 56 to 80 per cent of the 80 million Filipinos believe that "the country will be worse off next year (2005)." The survey reported that six in every 10 Filipinos are saying they are worse off now — money-wise — than last year. An even bigger proportion, 78 per cent or nearly 8 in every 10, says their quality of life has deteriorated in the last 12 months. This is a case of the national public truth belied by the truth at home — Filipinos think and feel they are worse off today than when Arroyo came to power four years ago.

The national issues that preoccupy them largely relate to livelihood and family welfare. To 50 per cent of Filipinos, the rising prices of foodstuff and oil products remain the top "urgent national concern." Another issue that ranks high on their list of concerns is graft and corruption. In February 2004, only 23 per cent of Filipinos thought graft was a big issue.

Down the line, the other priority issues of Filipinos follow: peace in the country (34 per cent of respondents), reducing poverty (31 per cent), low wages (30 per cent), national economic recovery (23 per cent), and abolishing contracts with power suppliers that pull up electricity cost (22 per cent).

The issues which rank low on the Filipinos’ personal agenda include what the Arroyo government insists to be important. Only 7 per cent of Filipinos listed "preparing to face any kind of terrorism" as an urgent issue.

Communication theorists should find in the Philippine case an instructive twist to the SMCR (Source-Message-Channel-Receiver) model of Wilbur Schramm. Here is a case of a good message (Philippine economy charts record growth in 16 years!) not quite received as good (by Filipinos, of whom 30 per cent endure dire poverty).

Where lies the dissonance? Is it because the source (Philippine government) suffers from lack of credibility? Or is the message lost in the channel of time and space (it takes a while for households to feel the impact of economic growth)? At the very least, the dissonance is a bad portent for Arroyo.

President since January 2001, she hit the pits of her popularity three months ago. Between June and October 2004, Pulse Asia says Arroyo’s approval ratings dropped "across all geographic areas and social-demographic groupings." Her biggest loss (negative 21 percentage points) was recorded among college graduates.

By absolute figures, the scores read even worse. Her approval rating is only 41 percentage points, her disapproval rating 34 percentage points, and those "undecided" about her government, a significant 25 percentage points. That comes up to a net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) of only 7 percentage points, her lowest in the last months.

Still, this week the President stood tall, citing the 2004 GNP growth as "our highest since1996, shows the resiliency and capacity of our people to overcome crisis, work hard and keep on track to a better future." The services sector (trade, transportation, communications and storage, and private services) remained the top driver of growth, followed by industry, and then agriculture, fishery and forestry. The growth in agriculture was "the big surprise," noting that destructive typhoons hit the country in a series in the last six months. Pulse Asia’s scan of optimists and pessimists among Filipinos is worrisome. Asked if they expected a change in the national quality of life in 2005, the survey determined that only 10 per cent of Filipinos are optimistic it would be better; 22 per cent says it would be "same as now;" and 65 per cent says it would be "worse than now." That adds up to net optimism rating of negative 55 per cent. Put differently, despite the record growth in the Philippines’ GNP last year, pessimism afflicts 55 per cent of all Filipinos.

Malou Mangahas is a Manila based commentator

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