Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Why A Heritage Of Smallness Isn't Necessarily A Heritage Of Backwardness

By Aldrin F.T. (me) and Jonathan S.

In "A Heritage of Smallness", Filipino writer and journalist Nick Joaquin makes a brave, outspoken commentary on Filipino society, past and present. It's feisty; it stings and, most of all, it's true. But do his words, however true, speak in absolute terms? All throughout the article, Joaquin elaborates on how the Filipino's inability to think [and do] big denies him entrance into a world that thrives on progress. And as if that wasn't enough, that inability happens to be part of his heritage, he says.

According to Joaquin, this heritage of "smallness" can be found in every aspect of society: retail not wholesale buying, little chieftains not kings, small nipa huts not long houses, jeep(ney)s not cars, clay not marble or bronze pottery, small artefacts not towering temples, and so on. This is undeniably true. We don't have the big things: no Eiffel Tower or Parthenon. But is that something necessarily lesser?

  •   In the first few paragraphs, Joaquin makes it seem as if buying in tingi (cf. retail) was a bad thing while buying in wholesale (as exemplified by most Westerners) was a better thing to do. Buying only what one needs is not a bad thing compared to buying more than what one even wants. And since when has consumerism been a champion of progress? It's not how much we buy but how. Perhaps Joaquin forgot to remember how much food the Americans throw everyday because they buy more than what they can handle. Many Filipinos buy tingi because they can't afford beyond that. Many Filipinos are not poor because they buy small; they buy small because they're poor. Poverty is certainly a problem to deal with, but so is wastefulness.
  •   Industry is not the champion of progress but culture. An industry unguided by ethics will rape the world, murder it, and leave us all for dead; a mindless machine bent on making more money and less art. Joaquin should have properly worded his article to clarify that, more than industrialisation, it is culture that we need most to progress.
  •   So what if our ancestors never wrote any lengthy mythology (though they certainly could've if not for the anti-pagan Spaniards)? So what if we like short stories and short proverbs? Better that, than to create a book that gets published in almost all known languages, becomes the most widely read book in the world and yet inspire the worst of atrocities (witch-hunts, the Inquisition, oppression of women, etc). Yes, I'm talking about the bible. Aren't you proud the story of Malakas and Maganda doesn't inspire intolerance of any sort?
  •   The santero's (maker of religious images) fixation on wood can certainly be about the demands of his target market and not necessarily because he doesn't want to think big and use marble or bronze. This still limits the evolution of his craft but who says wood can't be as pretty as marble or bronze?
  •   The first revolutionaries had to fight in small groups or else they would have been easily discovered and wiped out in a matter of months. Quality over quantity: a big army doesn't always accomplish big things.
  •   Somewhere in the middle, Joaquin commits an error in mentioning that: "[the Malayan] migrations were thus self-limited, never moved far from their point of origin, and clung to the heart of a small known world; the islands clustered round the Malay Peninsula." From what we know from contemporary archaeology, this is not true. The proto-Malays came from Formosa and migrated southwards to the Philippines first before moving into what we know today as Malaysia and Indonesia. Secondly, to say that the Filipino's heritage of thinking small derives from these proto-Malays is a rash and misinformed assumption. For one, the proto-Malays or, more appropriately, the Austronesians are one of the most widely travelled ethnic groups and one of the most diverse - stretching from Taiwan to the Malay archipelago to Madagascar to New Zealand to the Easter Islands. If that's not thinking big, I don't know what it is.
  •   More than thinking small, I think it's showing off that is the Filipino's biggest problem. There's nothing wrong or right with either clay pottery or porcelain pottery. It's why we make them. Do we make them so we can taste the food better or do we make them just so we can show off to the world that we can?
  •   What is progress? How do we define advancements? Would we really want to work our arses off 24/7 just so we can turn a forest or meadow into a fastfood chain, a mall, or a subdivision? If that's the progress Joaquin wants then I don't want any part of it.

Nick Joaquin's words must not be forgot. But we shouldn't hold on to his truths as if they were applicable at all times. Before we even dream of conquering the world, let us first ask ourselves who we are and why do we even need to prove our worth to any other nation but our own?

Image location here.


  1. I didn't get the idea that buying tingi was bad from his article. He didn't suggest we buy a week supply of pandesal instead of daily. But I'm quite sure people can save a lot more with buying wholesale (especially with products with longer shelf life). I guess what is wasted in buying tingi is the effort in buying multiple of times when you can just buy once. If you think wasting is bad then maybe in a way buying tingi can be bad. (When I say bad, I don't mean it's not good in some way.)

    What I find funny is that while he seems post-colonial, he is embracing a Western idea of bigness.

  2. Your points are valid. But we must also remember that whilst it COULD be a good and less wasteful thing to buy wholesale, many of our countrymen just can't afford that.

    Nick Joaquin is no doubt a brilliant man. But his points of view (as with others' and ours) are not to be taken as absolutes.