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Why Do Filipinos Seem To Lack Discipline?

It shouldn’t be this hard
by Chandra Pepino | Oct 8, 2017
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Apparently, it’s the goddamn Wild West out there these days. Let me tell you a story about the inspiration behind this article: I was shopping for a new pair of shoes at a large (one could say mega) mall. I stepped onto the escalator, keeping right as directed, and was happy to see an orderly queue of people in front of me keeping right as well. Unfortunately, the couple behind me was blithely unaware—or purposefully disobedient—of the sign written at the foot of the elevator, clear as a bell: “WALK ON THE LEFT. STAND ON THE RIGHT.” As a result, the people behind them who were in a rush to get upstairs had to wait until the couple had gotten off.

“Wild West” might be pushing it. Here’s where it actually gets wild: literally everywhere else in Metro Manila, the Philippines, and anywhere you can find Filipinos (i.e. on vacation). It’s unsurprising that we still have difficulty following the most menial rules, whether it’s lining up for the MRT, segregating trash, or crossing the road. Often, we chalk up these behaviors to living in a third-world country, as if we’re supposed to settle for civil mediocrity just because our government/economy/what-have-you is in the shitter.

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Perhaps it’s time we let go of the groupthink and started factoring in individual responsibility. But first, it’s crucial to frame this issue from a distinctly Filipino context.

Our lack of discipline goes way, way back—back to when the Spaniards, Americans, and the Japanese waltzed into our islands and decided they would take us for themselves. “The Filipino as a nation has a defeatist attitude. He is happy and feels lucky to be second best,” says Tomas Andres, Ateneo de Manila University professor and creator of the training system Management by Filipino Values. “Until the Filipino rids himself of slave mentality and starts believing in himself, he cannot rightfully say that he is free.” What does this have to do with discipline, you ask? Our difficulty with following rules is a subconscious response to the longstanding, deep-seated cultural and political disconnect we feel in our country. We were colonized several times, and now our government is a mess—nobody is going to mind that I take a leak in this street corner. They never cared about us, so why should I care about their rules.

“The Filipino's lack of discipline encompasses several related characteristics. We have a casual and relaxed attitude towards time and space which manifests itself in lack of precision and compulsiveness, in poor time management and in procrastination,” according to psychologist Patricia Licuanan, author of A Moral Recovery Program: Building a People, Building a Nation. Licuanan also mentions that Filipinos are extremely personal, which means we value private spaces more than public spaces. You would never litter in your own backyard, but doing so along a sidewalk during your commute home is fair game.

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Because of the country’s socio-political climate, Filipinos struggle with respect for government authority. As a result, the disrespect carries over to sheer neglect of even the simplest rules and regulations. In President Rodrigo Duterte’s first SONA, he declared, “Disciplined, the Filipino shall rise.” Subtext aside, he’s right in saying that discipline is what we sorely lack. The number of bribes the MMDA are getting on a daily basis, for instance, is mounting irresponsibly. “We have an aversion to following strictly a set of procedures, which results in lack of standardization and quality control. We are impatient and unable to delay gratification or reward, resulting in the use of short cuts, skirting the rules (the palusot syndrome) and in foolhardiness,” explains Licuanan. Why follow the rules in the first place, when I can find a way to get around them?


We often hear the following lines from Filipinos who have visited or lived in developed countries and seen the way they run things: “Sana ganoon din tayo sa Pilipinas.” “Bakit sa Singapore/Japan/Netherlands, kaya naman nila?” “Mga Pilipino nga naman. Kaya hindi tayo umuunlad, eh.”

Go, developed countries! Do your thing! Stick it to The Man! But it would be a mistake to think that what works for Osaka or Los Angeles is going to fly here, too. “The Filipino is said to be suffering from a value crisis. He is an Asian brought up in a Western context,” explains Andres. “[We look] up to anything that is foreign with awe and admiration and [look] down on anything local with scorn.” The way we address discipline must be localized and tailor-fit to our culture.

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Now, how exactly do we begin to chip away at this massive discipline problem? We need to recognize that the fault is not in our stars (sorry, John Green), but in ourselves. Our actions, while small and insignificant in the short run, contribute to a prevailing cultural attitude in the long run.

On the side of those in charge of developing regulations, Andres advises that the effects of following rules must be directly communicated. “Filipinos respond more positively if the disciplinary approach is positive, simultaneously pointing out that [goals] must be met. [The Filipino] should know what is expected from him and what happens when the rules are broken or performance is unsatisfactory. We usually follow the precedents of hiya and takot when practicing discipline, but this is short-lived [if not handled properly].”

The next time you feel the urge to bend a little rule here and there, remember that your individual actions spur large-scale behavioral effects. That candy wrapper is so small—it doesn’t hurt to keep it in your bag until you can dispose of it properly. Our trains are so small—it shouldn’t be too much effort to line up so that you don’t collide against alighting passengers. Our efforts are so small—but it couldn’t hurt to be consistent.

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