Doing Political Science in the Philippines

A Keynote speech read at the annual conference of the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA) on 12 April 2012 at Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the organization. Published in Philippine Political Science Journal Vol. 33, No. 2, December 2012, 242 – 249, it was Prof. Wurfel’s last published paper.

It is a great honor to have been invited to address you today, a beautifully appropriate way to end my 64th year in the study of Philippine politics. Maraming salamat.

In fact, this honor would have been an impossible career goal to imagine for that skinny American who began as an undergraduate student of Philippine politics at UP Padre Faura in late 1947 (arriving in Manila with his family, since his father had been assigned by the US Army to the Philippine-Ryukyus Command). In the intervening years I have pursued research in all regions of the country, including Mindanao, produced some books and articles, and have failed to complete some worthy projects which grieves me deeply. In fact, I guess my main claim to fame is that I stuck with it. (Though even on that dimension some may have had their doubts, since I also maintained a secondary interest in Vietnam ever since my grad student days, which was renewed in the 1980s as research access to the country was eased.)

It is out of that longevity that I will tell stories today; I hope I do not disappoint you, I have no new theories or historical revelations to offer. (Academic chismis? Maybe.) Why study Philippine politics? I was often asked by American friends in the early days: for those unconcerned about the complexity of a full answer I would respond because it was so much fun. Rallies provided movie stars and pop music shows, lots of food; the electoral system included innovative political mechanisms, for example, guest candidates on Senate slates. And because most Filipinos found it fascinating, and liked to talk about it, I was infected with that fascination. (I should also admit that I was a political junkie from my childhood, having had the largest Landon for President button collection in the first grade in San Diego [1936].)

Over the decades interest in the Philippines abroad waxed and waned, reflecting events. In the 1950s came the Huk Rebellion with Americas Boy, Ramon Magsaysay at the time, in my naivety, he was my hero as well assisted by the CIA, to the rescue. There was no difficulty then in explaining the rationale for studying Filipino politics, especially to Americans. Or for opposite reasons in the Martial Law era, with Marcos as the destroyer of democracy, an understanding of this aberration was widely sought. A bit later People Power became widely known, and highly respected, around the world. Philippine specialists were in demand. But as Pres. Cory Aquino’s performance in office became more and more disappointing, as the military toyed with coups, and as civilian politicians reverted to the worst of pre-Martial Law habits, worldwide interest in the Philippine affairs again waned, the market for research and commentary shrunk.

In the meantime a limited number of scholars, journalists and officials both foreign and domestic became fascinated by a new puzzle: how did a country which was the first Southeast Asian colony to win independence, then the only democracy in the region, with the highest per capita income, slip so rapidly to nearly the bottom of the political/economic heap in such a dynamic region? In any case, the question remains a challenge for researchers with increasingly sophisticated tools, especially for those in this room. Foreign and Filipino scholars are united in the quest for this answer; especially needed are those unaffected by Wall Street deceptions about how power is acquired and used.

One thing to be learned from reviewing one’s own work at the end of a career as I have in preparing my website is how one’s view of political science and politics shifted over the years. I am appalled to discover how conservative I was as a young scholar. I accepted Communism as the enemy, endorsed unique American virtue (exceptionalism), and was uncritical of the dominant paradigms in policy analysis, etc. From the 1970s some of my Filipino friends on the Left were helpful in correcting my perspective, which was nevertheless still linked to my pacifism and my pragmatic tendencies, thus preventing a leap to orthodox Marxism. I was simply moved to the Left by events. I felt comfortable about reversing the old adage, in youth a revolutionary, in old age a reactionary. This ideological shift certainly did not move me closer to the power holders, but did bring me into association with those whose analyses had been most accurate some of them in this room, a very satisfying experience.

Of course, most political science students shift their views to some degree over time, as expressed in their publications, including the Philippine Political Science Journal (PPSJ). Before the PPSJ appeared, a bare bones institutionalism tended to dominate the Philippine scene. Philippine politics, it was thought, should be easy to understand for those with American, or American-style secondary education, since so much in the Philippine constitution was borrowed from the American. But, of course, constitutional structure is only one dimension of a political system. In any case, before the spread of approaches with a more sociological bent, the problem for Philippine political science was too much institutionalism.

PPSA was born as the non-constitutional dimensions began to be recognized, even gain ascendency. The older Philippine Society of Public Administration (PSPA), closely linked from founding to the UP Institute of Public Administration, helped to sustain the institutional approach, while incorporating other dimensions, as well. The reinvigoration of the PSPA in the 1980s was strengthened by the elevation of Dr Jose Abueva, one of its founders, to the UP presidency.

Nor could the American Political Science Association meet the needs of Philippine scholars: it paid little attention to Asia, and had in the meantime priced itself out of the market for most scholars from Asia. Meanwhile the PPSA had become an affordable organization with a wide perspective that met the intellectual needs of a growing body of Filipinos studying and teaching political science. Both international and comparative fields were included.

While the recent return to institutionalism is a welcome development (See for example Prof. Gene Pilapil in PPSJ 2006) for someone who has long held that lack of institutionalization is a key problem for the Philippines, it is not entirely accurate to speak of the institutional approach as a recent phenomenon. But the nature of the new institutionalism is, of course, quite different from the constitutionalism of an earlier era. We should also be reminded of the political and cultural context beyond academia at the time of PPSAs formation: an ideological rift among Philippine intellectuals, especially Communist Party (CP) versus non-CP; a nationalist consciousness that asserted the primary legitimacy of the Filipino voice, plus controversies within the discipline imported from abroad. The remarkable thing was that the PPSA survived and even grew in this conflictual atmosphere.

Nationalism among Philippine political scientists seems to have been more subtle, and less strident than in some other sectors of the intelligentsia, for example, historians. Yet the number of scholars stressing the importance of the right of self-determination seems to have grown in recent years judging from PPSJ content. They have recognized in particular the devastating effect of the Mindanao struggle on the Philippines, because this right was not effectively defended by the Philippine government. This reveals, it seems to me, the desire of many Filipino political scientists to provide the nation with moral leadership as well as factual analysis, in other words, to walk in the footsteps of Rizal. I am particularly sympathetic since the right of self-determination of peoples was an important theme of my own research and writing, from the Okinawan reversion movement of the 1960s to Taiwanese nationalism (the backing of which put me on the Kuomintang black list for years), to East Timor and until now the continuing struggle for a Palestinian state. Only East Timor achieved independence. My efforts were obviously insufficient.

Fact-based political science analysis is the essential starting point of any pro- democracy activism, in which I suspect most of you have been involved in one way or another. In fact, political scientists are better prepared than other social scientists to provide the analysis which precedes action because we have a realistic approach to assessing the power of various groups in the system and we have widely accepted theories about how the power of particular groups, external or internal, will affect outcomes. In the mid-1950s, when I began my PhD thesis research, agrarian reform, anchored in land redistribution, had a high priority among government bureaucrats, among Filipino scholars and international specialists in development, and among the then limited number of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) devoted to the agrarian cause, as well as among the peasants themselves. Over time the experience of extreme difficulty faced by those acting against the perceived self-interests of the landed elite has disheartened many of those previously pushing agrarian reform through legislation, though a valiant effort to revive the cause was made during the Aquino administration in the 1980s. Meanwhile, peasants remain under crushing interest rates, exorbitant land rentals, and land prices so high that the cultivator could not hope to buy land on the open market.

Since the 1980s many international specialists in agricultural policy have essentially abandoned land reform, some even attempting, with World Bank backing, to promote the bogus concept of market reform, as if the same market forces which aided the emergence of great inequality of land ownership in the last century were now able, without strong government intervention, to reverse that process. And without international backing for land redistribution by government the cause weakened, both inside and outside the halls of power. If signs of revival in the agrarian reform movement in recent years have eluded me (because research time on the Philippines has been displaced by my attention to the Middle East), I would be delighted to be introduced to new and future comrades in the struggle for reform. Land redistribution is an essential basis for the future maturing of Philippine democracy. (Sadly, espousal of land reform by the armed Left rarely makes a positive contribution to reform through law.)

Though the political mood in the country today does not bode well for another try at land reform in the near future, this certainly does not mean that the need or the opportunity for reforms in other areas of society has passed. In fact the need is greater than ever. The rape of the environment and destruction of human communities make the rapid growth of resource extraction the most dangerous development of our era. Today, those who would protect the environment and indigenous communities are faced not only by rapacious Filipino elites, but by their even more powerful foreign partners. Malacañang has been besieged by international mining executives, and in recent years the Canadian government has even offered financial assistance to Canadian companies to aid them in brushing up their images by co-opting NGOs. The obligation for Canadian political scientists to assist Filipino researchers in uncovering how this relationship really works is greater than ever. It is not good news for those Filipinos living on top of the valuable ore. And the refrain heard in Makati and elsewhere that mining investments are good for Filipino jobs is simply fraudulent.

The shift in emphasis by political scientists from land reform to resisting the depredations of corporate mining was due primarily to changed conditions in the Philippines. But for me it was reinforced by a momentous, unplanned decision in my life in the spring of 1968, moving to Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen. The move was the consequence of my having taken the lead at the University of Missouri in mobilizing opposition to the Vietnam War, followed by the effort of the Chancellor to blackball me at two universities where the decision to offer me an appointment had passed the first hurdle.

I knew little about Canadian universities, but felt lucky to be able to go to Windsor, where I accepted a tenured position. I was happy to be close to Ann Arbor, since I had been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan two years earlier, and remained an associate of the UM Center for South and SE Asian Studies. In Windsor I also felt fortunate to have a university president who saw Asian studies as a high priority. Furthermore, academic freedom in Canada was at that time better protected than in the US. In any case, being in Canada, like the Philippines a neo-colonial enterprise, gave me a new standpoint on world affairs, though I remained involved with American scholars by way of conferences and joint research. I thought my position would allow a dual perspective, that is, both as a citizen of a superpower and of a small power. But it didn’t work out that way; my sympathies were always with the latter. And I also discovered that Canadian corporations overseas, especially those in mining, often behaved as if they were American. In the Philippines the atmosphere for research by foreign political scientists had long been affected more by US than by Philippine government policy, which, until the imposition of Martial Law, welcomed foreign scholars in all areas. By 1961 the CIA was spreading its tentacles among American academics, journalists, and other professionals working abroad, a fact later documented in Congressional investigation (after the Vietnam War, by the church committee). When I arrived with a research grant in January 1961 at the Institute of Public Administration on Padre Faura, I was appointed a research associate. I soon discovered that I had been preceded by someone widely identified in local academic chismis as CIA, because he seemed to have generous funding from a relatively unknown source, no convincing research design, and spent a lot of time on Pres. Garcias yacht. His cover was that he was a researcher from the Institute of Public Administration in New York.

My choice of research topics did not help to differentiate me from the spook category: I was looking at the changing make-up of the political/economic elite, beginning with a panel of raters to identify those elites. (See Elites of Wealth, Elites of Power SE Asian Affairs [Singapore] 1979.) Nor was my pristine academic independence enhanced by citing a grant from the Social Science Research Council of New York, which was also relatively unknown then in the Philippines.

I was not fully aware of the problem I faced until the day when I was given after several requests an interview with Speaker Eugenio Perez. He had a reputation for being somewhat crusty, but I was not prepared for his first question to me, Are you CIA? Needless to say that put me on the defensive. I am not sure whether my defense was convincing; he was not helpful to my research, unlike several of his Congressional colleagues: some spent hours sharing with me their thinking behind their choice of candidates for political and economic elites.

Shortly thereafter I wrote a long letter to the US Ambassador complaining about the practice of the CIA using academic covers for their agents. The letter must not have been too persuasive it was never answered, and the CIA did not change its ways. But the incident did heighten my awareness of CIA infiltration of all aspects of American, as well as Philippine, society. In the 1970s, along with a growing body of scholars, I continued the fight against the CIA using academic cover when I became a member of the Board of the Association of Asian Studies.

Though many progressive Filipinos were shocked and angered by CIA actions, for some it seemed to be a hilarious guessing game, who is in, who is out, often played over an afternoon beer. The situation was essentially ridiculous, so the typical Filipino reaction, to laugh, was well justified. But for many American academics it was no laughing matter.

Appropriate language study for political scientists trained in the US for overseas research has always been encouraged, but policies shifted over time, as did linguistic reality. When I arrived in the Philippines in 1947 Spanish was still the language used in many governmental institutions some court decisions at all levels, some debates in the Senate (less often in the House), and in more than one daily newspaper. Furthermore, electoral campaigns for national office, most bureaucratic records, most debates in Congress, and most daily newspapers were available in English. Given this reality, and the fact that Tagalog was not taught at Cornell in 1951 when I first enrolled, it was not surprising that the Department of Government there allowed me to submit Spanish, and French, as my two languages for the PhD. (French was quite useful in Saigon in 1956 during my first research visit.) But with the impetus of a president, Ramon Magsaysay, who felt more comfortable in Tagalog than in English, the language scene began to change rather rapidly. Training in the National Language (later Pilipino) was taken more seriously in the schools, more and more magazines appeared in Tagalog, and Tagalog movies swept the country. Yet, even so, when I began in 1961 to study Tagalog (at Philippine Women’s University), my daily practice in Manila was often frustrated by friends or taxi drivers who felt sorry for me after I tried haltingly to communicate in Tagalog, so they then switched to English. In the short term our exchange of information was probably more accurate, but in the longer run my Tagalog study suffered. I was disadvantaged throughout my career for having failed to master Filipino. Though the record of political events was easily available in English, the vast sea of informal political and social life remains unrecorded. I must have missed many expressions of attitude and feeling important to understanding political behavior. This made my reliance on the writings of Filipino social scientists all the more crucial.

Comparative politics is at the heart of our discipline, I believe. Every evaluation we make is either explicitly or implicitly comparative in nature. As we have noted, contributors to the PPSJ have increasingly turned their attention toward comparisons of the Philippines with SE Asian neighbors. One of the most ambitious of such comparisons was made by Ben Kerkvliet with what may seem an unlikely pair, the Philippines and Vietnam. The comparative technique can produce unexpected results, sometimes forcing redefinition of terms and new thinking. But we cannot reject the technique, only ask for its improvement.

What would be the consequence of focusing on countries which have the greatest cultural and historical similarities with the Philippines? They would be found not in Asia, but in Latin America. And the greatest similarities of all would be found in Cuba, regardless of the minimal relations with the Philippines in recent decades. On a trip to Cuba last year I was overwhelmed by the unexploited opportunities for comparative analysis that could help explain some so far inadequately understood dimensions of each political system. It is a challenge which could be particularly fruitful for Filipino political scientists with experience in bi-national comparisons.

Both countries had more than 300 years of Spanish rule; both were purchased by the US after the Spanish-American War. After that both experienced corrupt neo-colonial regimes which were formally democratic. Only in 1959 did the two countries sharply diverge, with Cuba driven into the Soviet bloc by American threats while the Philippines was being wooed by US blandishments. At several stages in their development international factors were more important than domestic ones.

But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was clear that the Spanish, then American, impact on Cuban culture and society had been greater than the foreign impact in the Philippines. For instance, in Cuba a high percentage of the population were brought as slaves from Africa. Furthermore Spanish had displaced other languages by the late eighteenth century. And the nationalist movement in Cuba was much stronger, earlier; the first War of Independence was launched in 1868, lasting until 1878, with a total of 800,000 Cuban and 80,000 Spanish dead in a country much smaller than the Philippines. Foreign penetration of Cuba continued in the twentieth century under the Americans, who owned two thirds of agricultural land by 1920. In doing field or documentary research one might want to introduce other variables, but what has been described so far should provide sufficient challenge. Greater Filipino attention to Cuba has already been promoted by the Philippine ambassador to Havana and by Dr Francisco Nemenzo when he was president of UP. But commitment to such a comparison by individual scholars is the essential first step.

The question to be asked by comparativists is why this divergence between Cuba and the Philippines emerged and whether there is any future prospect of convergence of policy and politics. Clearly a major difference between Cuba and the Philippines is that Cuba experienced a thorough social revolution; it is now more than 50 years since the revolutionaries seized power. While the Philippines has suffered for decades the agony of nationwide revolutionary struggle, massive American support for ruthless repression by the ruling elite, the lack of any significant foreign supplies for the revolutionaries, the failure of revolutionary strategists to exploit their most opportune moment in the 1980s, and the constant challenge of geography, among others, combined to prevent the success of that struggle. Central power based on the patron-client system was threatened, but never dislodged. Filipinos paid the formidable human costs of revolution without gaining its benefits. Thus most Filipinos, while eager for a society fundamentally transformed, are not willing to take the risks of another revolutionary attempt. Yet at the same time it seems impossible to remove the most intractable barrier to Philippine democratic development a system of elite exploitation of the peasantry, without some sort of revolutionary action.

Many national societies have avoided revolution, undergoing change through peaceful reform. Elsewhere change takes the form of backward looking decay, a breakdown of the previously effective institutions, a process well known in the Philippines and even rampant in some parts of the US today.

Both reform and revolution, each associated with a different form of democracy, may be encompassed in the term development. This term has lost popularity in recent years, partly because its advocates initially claimed too much for its explanatory power, and because it was often used to justify American aid policy. But with clarification of meaning and caution in its application, the term may still be useful. It does not imply that all change is progress, or that progressive change is inevitable. But certainly we cannot ignore in our comparisons the element of change over time.

Being born in the midst of the Cold War, it is not surprising that in its infancy the PPSA was reluctant to touch the hot potato of US-Philippine relations. Filipinos then were expected by both governments to accept without question the American analysis of the world scene. And most did. Those who did not were often labeled communists. Thus when I discussed, nay debated, US Vietnam policy with then teaching assistant Joma Sison at UP in 1966, he was formally introduced as a nationalist, but in the corridors of UP or in the national press he was often described in more colorful, and more precise terms. Naively I had intended only to explain US policy to him, not defend it. But the distinction was not clear to Sison, or the UP audience, for good reason I could not persuade them that there was a significant difference between explanation of a policy and its defense. And in that year, having just spent a few months in Vietnam for research, my own stance on US policy there was at a tipping point.

Since then the world power structure has changed, and more and more young Filipinos have had the opportunity to study abroad and not only in the US. Thus viewpoints as well as realities have changed. Nevertheless, younger Filipino intellectuals have still tended to be more gentle in their critique of American policy, more likely to give weight to good intentions, than other Asian youth. Given the history of US-Philippine relations and the structure of the educational system in both countries, this is not surprising. And it may already be shifting to a more critical approach.

To be sure, it is refreshing to see Filipino scholars, as in the PPSJ, embark on analyses of international affairs, both regional and global, without feeling the need to either justify US policy or condemn its illegitimacy, unless the topic requires. For example, the article by Asst. Prof. Dennis Quilala of UP carefully assesses the pluses and minuses of US policy in Mindanao in an academic framework, yet he is clear in pointing out that US actions were part of the problem, not the solution.

Nor does the comparison with America, whether explicit or implicit, any longer have to be front and foremost when comparisons are framed. Comparisons are now being made more frequently, as in the journal, with SE Asian neighbors. And when comparisons with the US do appear, they are based on sophisticated analytical frameworks, as with the article by Prof. Alejandro Ciencia of UP Baguio on judicial behavior in the Philippine Supreme Court. The only problem with reliance on frameworks developed elsewhere is that they may not give adequate weight to some factors which are important in the Philippines, such as corruption.

Though I have not had the pleasure of participating in previous PPSA conferences, my own efforts in helping to found and then reorganize the Canadian Council for Southeast Asian Studies (CCSEAS) in the 1970s allow me to appreciate the burden on a few people that is often created in the formation of an academic society.

In any case, though there may have been challenges in the past, the size and quality of this meeting is most impressive, allowing one to hope that this association in the near future will be recognized more widely as a leader, both intellectually and ethically, among Asian social scientists. Congratulations!

It is especially heartwarming for an old soldier in the political science trenches to learn that the critical, analytical approach to the study of politics is alive and well in the PPSA. Given the power and ambition of dominant groups in the Philippine economy, and their political allies, democratic forces will need to sharpen their research techniques even further, augment their numbers, and build their confidence in order to prevent the collapse of the Philippines democratic experiment. Even in the US today such a collapse is not outside the realm of possibility.

David Wurfel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Windsor. His major publications include: Filipino Politics: Development and Decay ; and The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia (co-editor) (Macmillan, 1990).

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