Future of Asia

Philippines: On Top of the World?

An uncertain nation, a happy-go-loose leader and a global beauty pageant.

Credit: cb_agulto www.flickr.com


  • The Philippines isn’t a country that has much to cheer about. No wonder the state of euphoria since Miss Philippines won the Miss Universe contest.
  • Duterte was quick to hop on the beauty bandwagon. Motions of praise for the Miss Universe winner were proposed in the Senate.
  • Duterte cares just about himself and preserving his own personal power, while playing fast and loose with his nation’s strategic needs.
  • Duterte is keen on appeasing China – he ignored China’s invasion of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone in return for promises of large investments.

The Philippines isn’t a country that has much to cheer about. It usually appears in the global headlines only when President Duterte, other than seeking to personify the rule of law in himself, engages in outrageous, sexist statements or in another kind of gaffe.

No wonder the nation has been in a state of euphoria ever since Catriona Gray, the 2018 Miss Philippines, won the annual Miss Universe contest in Bangkok this past December.

President Duterte, who always needs to be in the limelight at least nationally, was quick to hop on the beauty bandwagon. Motions of praise for the winner were also proposed in the Senate. It was as though the lady had been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

Foreign observers might be amused — and not a few Filipinos were highly embarrassed — by this focus on a dated and, for many, sexist event series previously owned by Donald Trump who, like Duterte, has an unfortunate penchant for making completely inappropriate sexist remarks.

But it also seems to raise questions about the sometimes seemingly tenuous nature of Philippine nationalism. That may seem strange. With the exception of the Muslim part of Mindanao, the Philippines has been a single political unit for 500 years — longer than several of its neighbors.

The Philippines also produced the first modern nationalist leader in the region – Jose Rizal, who pressed for the language of central Luzon, Tagalog, as its national language. Today, Tagalog and Filipino are effectively synonymous.

Yet, 130 years after Rizal raised the banner of Philippine nationalism and, pride in indigenous culture often appears weak, not least at the banal but popular level of beauty contests.

Miss Universe

This year’s Miss Universe, Catriona Gray, was born on January 6, 1994, in Cairns, Queensland in Australia and brought up there by her Australian father and Filipina mother.

Likewise, her predecessor as Miss Philippines was born in Bahrain to an English father and Filipina mother. 2015 saw another “mestiza” victory at Miss Universe with the crowning of Pia Wurtzbach who has a German father and was born there.

Though there have been plenty of exceptions, this apparent preference for mestizas might simply be pragmatic. They tend to be much taller than others and hence more likely to attract attention at western-run pageants where stand out by the simple fact that all contestants are far taller than average.

Catriona Gray is 5ft. 10 inches (178cm) tall, which compares to a Philippine average of 4ft. 11 inches (152 cm). But there is also a strong element of colonial era hangover in the preference for tall, fairer skinned national representatives.

This is reflected in local advertising, which almost invariably shows women with much lighter skin than the national average. Such attitudes are probably sustained by the attractiveness of the United States, Canada and Australia as destinations for migration. Relative to its population, migration from the Philippines is much higher than from elsewhere in Asia.

The same weakness of identity applies – despite Rizal’s best efforts – to the national language. The nation’s current foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr. is on recent record favoring use of English in debates.

Indeed, the widespread use of English has held back Tagalog’s national role and, by implication, encouraged local languages, such as Visayan and Ilocano, to tout their own importance.

The contrast with Indonesia is striking. There, Bahasa Indonesia’s national status is unquestioned – even though it is the first language of a smaller percentage (the Malays of Sumatra) of Indonesians than Tagalog is of Filipinos.

Duterte fumbles on policy

While Duterte constantly seeks the limelight, it is revealing how much he cares just about himself and preserving his own personal power, while playing fast and loose with his nation’s strategic needs.

On the one hand, thousands of Filipinos have died in Duterte’s “war on drugs” and hundreds more in Muslim and leftist insurgencies.

On the other hand, President Duterte, despite all his supposed determination and ruthlessness, is keen on appeasing China. He has chosen to ignore China’s invasion of Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and related reefs, in return for Chinese promises of large infrastructure investments.

Other nations in the region are amazed that Duterte has in effect thrown away the huge diplomatic victory the Philippines scored in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China on almost all complaints brought by the Philippines on the maritime issues.

The Vietnamese, for example, are quietly furious. While they themselves have always proved willing to stand up to Chinese force, the Philippine forces have yet to lose a single man in external defense.

As if to underline his own lack of commitment to a strong nation, Duterte has also been proposing a federal system. This would undermine an already weak central government which lacks a bureaucratic core and must cope with the nation’s challenging geography.

Duterte’s scheme would hand yet more power to local, mostly dynastic, provincial power holders – like the Duterte family which rules Davao, the largest city in Mindanao, or the family of later dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which dominates Ilocos Norte.

What interests Duterte the most in his federalism scheme is that it would enable him to remain at the helm for longer than the six years permitted by the current constitution.

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About Philip Bowring

Philip Bowring is an Asia-based journalist, formerly the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

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