"We have Filipino workers" is a sign you’ll see in some shops and trucks in Saudi Arabia. The advertisement derives from the fact that Filipinos are highly skilled, hardworking and get along well with people.

Filipino genius by Conrado de Quiros, Philippine Daily Inquirer

I GOT the same e-mail Rina Jimenez-David put out the other week, the one written by one Mustafa Idrees in Arab News, a Jeddah-based newspaper, which carries a Filipino Page to cater to the huge Filipino community there.

"We have Filipino workers" is a sign you’ll see in some shops and trucks in Saudi Arabia. The advertisement derives from the fact that Filipinos are highly skilled, hardworking and get along well with people. A contrast apparently with Arab workers, who do not possess the same virtues. The sign guarantees that a job will be done well, or indeed done at all.

Who knows?—ask Idrees. One day, they might even see the sign on toilets. That might be the only way they could guarantee those toilets would be clean.

It warms the heart, as does another e-mail I got listing Filipino inventions and accomplishments. The list is long, and I can only give a sampling:

Diosdado Banatao helped develop GUI (graphical user interface), without which computer screens would now be able to register only text. Abelardo Aguilar, a doctor from Iloilo, co-discovered Erythromycin. Maria Carlita Rex-Doran produced a concoction from ampalaya that treats diabetes and HIV infection, which won for her the World Intellectual Property gold medal in 1989. Ramon Barba discovered that spraying mango trees with potassium nitrate induced flowering all-year round, making the Philippines a leading exporter of mangoes and mango products. Rodolfo Aquino helped develop the IR8, the rice strain that sparked the Green Revolution.

On a lighter note, Filipinos invented the commercial fluorescent lamp, the karaoke (yes, despite the Japanese’s claim to it) and Filipino-Americans are the most wired ethnic group in the United States—64 percent of Asian-Americans are "netizens" while 85 percent of Filipino-Americans are.

Filipinos are also the preferred OFWs in many countries.

What does all this mean? Well, two things.

First, the Filipino obviously does not lack talent. There is no truth to the rumor that our capacity to make a mess of this country comes from genes. The Filipino is monumentally inventive, which should be obvious from the way he has transformed the jeep into the jeepney. That transformation shows that the Filipino cannot just do things well but that he can do things in style. The jeepney adds not only whole new dimensions to the utility of the jeep—it seats more, at the very least—it also adds whole new dimensions to its aesthetics. Or at least, it improves on its dullness, as some people may be aesthetically assailed by the gaudiness of the jeepney’s designs (and lighting, especially at night) and loudness of its boom boxes.

Folk art, it’s been called, and it’s a pretty apt description of it. Of course, the jeepney also belches not very colorful soot and causes traffic snarls that are colorful only in the language everyone gets to use, but that is another story.

The Filipino’s capacity for improvisation, or playing things by ear, is legend. The "playing things by ear" is quite literal, Filipino musicians being one of the country’s premium exports to Asia. The sign, "We Have Filipino Workers," in Saudi Arabia has a counterpart in many Asian countries, which is, "Filipino band playing tonight." That is a guarantee of satisfaction, a Filipino band not merely being able to play (Western) music exceptionally well but being able to field almost any request. Just hum the tune to the band, as they say in Bangkok and Jakarta, and they’ll be able to play it.

Unfortunately, the Filipino does not always use his capacity for inventiveness and improvisation for useful ends. He uses it as well to lie, cheat and steal. Or more commonly, he uses it to get around corners. Sometimes to an astonishing degree: He will go to contortions to get around the law when following the law is in fact easier. He will, for example, go to great lengths to find a "contact" in the LTC when lining up to get a license or to register a car is so much faster. The concept that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is often alien to us.

Which brings me to the second point. The Filipino does not lack for inventiveness and improvisation, the Filipino is able to accomplish great things, the Filipino has gotten very far ahead while working abroad. So why isn’t he able to do so in his own country? Why does he succeed only in making a mess of his own country?

Clearly, it has to do with the system. You put the Filipino in a system where talent and hard work, and not connections, are valued; you put the Filipino in a system where accomplishment and good work, and not social status, are rewarded; you put the Filipino in a system where obeying the law, and not finding a way to skirt it, is considered wa-is or even cool; the Filipino will put his inventiveness and improvisational abilities to good use. He will get far ahead in life—as he has in other countries. He will be an asset to the community—as he has been in other countries.

The most wasteful thing in life is talent wasted. It is a person lavished with gifts throwing away those gifts in a life of dissolution and drunkenness. Which is what makes what we’ve done to ourselves doubly tragic. It is not just that we have made a mess of things, it is that we have done so when we are perfectly capable of carving out a magnificent edifice fit for the gods.

It is a friend of mine who pointed out to me that before the War, we had amahs, or Chinese maids while today the Chinese (in Hong Kong and elsewhere) have Filipino maids.

We are capable of being masters, but we insist on being servants.

But I do not despair that things can be better. The same inventiveness and capacity for improvisation that we are now putting to the most execrable uses we can still harness to better ends. That is not just a job for our leaders, that is a job for ourselves. Of course, we can always use our own inventiveness and capacity for improvisation to find excuses not to do it, or to wait till others do it. Or we can start doing it ourselves.

The choice is ours.

___ [Articles featured in HFC website are original texts as originally published in their respective sources. No word has been edited in any way.]