A grief observed
I think that all of us have moments in our lives when we look back on a particularly memorable decision, and realize that it was one of the best decisions we ever made. Difficult, yes. But definitely one of the best.
I had the great privilege to study in an Ivy League University at the dawn of the Millennium. Having become enamored with life in the academe and the serenity of Cambridge, I put in an application for a resident visa. It took a few years, but I eventually received a response from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), informing me that my application had been approved—all that remained was for me to take the requisite medical examinations, submit a few more documents, and I could pack my bags for Boston and live as an educator.
The thing is, the intervening eight years between the time I sent my application and the day I received the letter from the DHS taught me quite a few life lessons, and I ultimately declined the resident visa.
The jovial former US Ambassador Harry Thomas, who I met at a party in one of the country’s big law firms, told me that while I was among the “one in a million” who turned down such an opportunity, he was glad I had chosen to remain in my homeland. There were, he said, far too many capable and talented Filipinos who were leaving for foreign shores, and he knew that the “brain drain” would eventually take its toll on the economy and on society.
Looking back on that decision, I can say that it was one of the best decisions I had ever made. It may have been difficult for me to pass upon the chance to become a Harvard professor, but it also gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my family—and most importantly, with my mother, Josefina. It also gave—and continues to give—me the chance to contribute whatever talents I may have to the service of the country. It is a choice I have never regretted making—although I must say that I have the greatest sympathy and respect for those who chose differently. Theirs was perhaps the more difficult choice—because behind it lies a long-standing grief, a sorrow that to this day clearly haunts them still.
The wonderful C.S. Lewis wrote a book entitled “A Grief Observed”—he will not mind, I hope, if I borrow his title for this particular column, because in a way, I would like to take a look, however brief, at the sorrows of our fellow Filipinos who have chosen to live away from these shores. I have been pondering their choice in the past few days, another school year having recently commenced, when another generation of young people will take that next important step on the road that is their formal education. Barely three months ago, as a matter of fact, an entire graduating class took their first steps into the world of the “rat race”—or at least, I hope most of them did, because I’m sure that quite a few of them are deep in the concrete jungle searching for gainful employment.
Truth be told, I’ve been thinking about the Pinoy diaspora for quite some time, as more and more professionals wrestle with the difficult choice to leave family, friends and their culture behind, to seek better employment opportunities in distant lands. With every succeeding generation of young Filipino professionals, the government has tried to appeal to these talented young men and women to remain in the country and work here. Given the Pinoy’s famous attachment to home, family and country, the question now arises, why are so many Filipino professionals still leaving for faraway shores, in the face of such an appeal?
The answer, perhaps, is this: Have we given them a reason to stay?
Year after year, the great colleges and universities of the country send out a new graduating class into the professional world. Energetic and idealistic, these young people have big plans, and even bigger dreams, and all of them carry the hopes of their families for a better future. Quite a few of them, alas, are in for a rude awakening as they look for work and that first big break that will set them on the road to a fruitful career. A few will be lucky, and find jobs with reputable companies. For the greater majority, though, it will be a life of long hours and meager salaries, with very little hope for career advancement in an economy that still can’t accommodate a wider range of professions and disciplines.
The situation of the Filipino “man-on-the-street” isn’t made any easier by the ever-present spectre of corruption that haunts almost every nook and cranny of the country. From the “kotong” cop at the street corner to the pork barrel—skimming politico, there always seems to be someone, somewhere, who’s out to either extort something or siphon off taxpayers’ money. Not surprisingly, virtually every working Filipino is now wondering if the taxes he pays for go to the wrong hands.
For the past couple of decades, this has been the lot of the Filipino working man— small wonder, therefore, that more and more Pinoys are looking to foreign shores for opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their families. Alas, appeals to the Filipino professional to stay and help the country on the road to progress, all in the name of patriotism, sound pathetically hollow when every year brings the same political problems, the same social ills, the same corrupt practices. When you have children to feed and educate, parents to care for, or siblings to help send to school, it is immensely difficult to stay and endure a situation while you wait for an increasingly nebulous future when— hopefully—the economy will improve significantly and every peso of taxpayers’ funds is actually going to be spent on efficient public services. A man might be asked to stake his personal future on a principle—but it isn’t fair, nor is it reasonable, to ask him to stake the futures of the people he loves for an “ideal” that has been touted for so long but still remains unattainable because of the lack of political will that has given rise to a general cynicism that now pervades all levels of society.
The bottom line is this: The Pinoy diaspora will continue unabated until the Filipinos see some kind of improvement in the way this country is governed and the economy is managed. Ten years ago, when the Class of 2013 was in elementary school, we were already telling their parents and relatives—or even their older siblings, in some cases—to stay and build their careers in the country. Today, we are telling the Class of 2013 the same thing—and alas, they themselves can see that not much has changed since their own parents left the country. The logical conclusion is that they themselves will seek the same kind of greener pastures their parents sought, because the greener pastures that helped to feed, clothe, shelter and educate them will inevitably help them to feed, clothe, shelter and educate their own children.
Beneath all this, however, is the sadness of separation, and the quiet sorrow of the families kept apart by the need to survive. Some years ago, when I was still teaching, I remember observing how one of my students would spend hours after class playing tennis in the campus courts. When I asked why he stayed so long after school, he replied that it was lonely at home, because both his parents were working abroad and his siblings were also at school. I thanked God that this boy, instead of doing the rounds of bars and other nightspots, chose to assuage his loneliness through sports—how easily he could have been led astray. Other young people are not so fortunate, and so I say that theirs is indeed “a grief observed” by all of us. It is a grief whose impact on society is not to be underestimated, and although it is a sorrow far more subtle than the woes of the economy, its effect on the psyche of our people—and on the general character of our youth—is not to be taken lightly.
So, the question now is, do we go on simply observing their grief? Or do we roll up our sleeves and do something about it? Perhaps it’s time we all realized that if we want our young people to stay and build their futures here, we have to show them that there is a future here in the first place. Because we can tell them to stay until we’re “blue in the face”, but for as long as the “kotong” cop stands at the street corner, the cunning politico is winning the next election, and the taxes we pay end up lining someone else’s pocket, they will continue to leave for foreign lands and the future we can’t seem to be able to assure them of.
And that, indeed, is the greatest sorrow of all.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a Senior Partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates and member of the MAP National Issues Committee and MAP Tax Committee Taxation. Feedback at <map@map. org.ph> and <anthony_aguilar@ post.harvard.edu>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)