If you want to know what young Filipinos are thinking these days, look up World Chess champion, Wesley So. He’s not difficult to find these days.
He’s been dominating the world of chess, defeating the best, including his idol and current world no. 1 ranked, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, not once but several times. Just a week ago, he became US Champion once more. And, expectably, news back home screams out again: he’s a full-blooded Filipino.
Wesley’s latest triumph has us back into a frenzy of self-congratulations, as has become our wont every time a Filipino wins anything of global note. Even if they are not, or no longer, Filipinos.
Born a Chinese-Filipino and raised to adulthood in the Philippines, Wesley So is not a Filipino. At least, not anymore.
Frustrated by the politics in Philippine sports, he changed his sporting nationality in the game of chess in 2013 to join the American Chess Federation. In March this year, he became an American citizen. That means he took the oath to abjure all loyalties to any other flag or King. His treachery is complete.
And ours, too! And that is because if he didn’t jump ship, his great talent would have been wasted in our politics that has laid to rot most everything else in our country.
Let’s hear it from Wesley himself, looking back from where he is now, on why he turned apostate. “That does not mean I don't love the Philippines. I have good memories from there. But I did not have the connections needed to succeed in that culture.”
“I did not have the connections needed to succeed in that culture.”
That bears repeating because that might as well apply to all of us in our own country, except for a privileged few. In our labor laws, that is tantamount to constructive dismissal, when the conditions of employment has become such that it is already difficult to perform one's job.
Citizenship entails a mutual obligation of government and the governed to foster and promote each other’s welfare. Without such mutuality of benefit and obligations, it's morally untenable.
For a young man with enormous talent, and little or no connections, read opportunities, what Wesley did was an act of self-liberation. He is probably too kind to put it this way, but he turned his back on the old country, ours, as a personal declaration of independence.
He is not alone.
It is variously estimated that there are about 10 million overseas Filipinos today and, at any given time, at least two million of them contract workers. And more are leaving as these words go to print.
Our overseas employment program, now approaching the half-a-century mark, is the result of our continuing failure to provide jobs at home. Ironically, it is also the only government anti-poverty program that worked, and we have become so dependent on it for economic and political stability.
Our people have been leaving en masse for as long as most of us can remember we have become inured to this reality. Salving our guilty consciences, we gave empty blandishments, like calling them “modern-day heroes.”
I can find no more glaring proof of our lack of concern for our people than the continued massive flow of our people for better opportunities overseas. For many of them, it is the only opportunity that has made a difference in their lives.
Forget the world champs. Think ordinary Filipinos with little or no skills, seeking bottom-feeder jobs overseas. Imagine this for a moment. They have to leave our shores to work for others in order to live a decent life, in some cases, to live at all. That’s been on for generations now and is a scandal.
Our people don’t go overseas to be called heroes. But they have learned to play along with this charade it now cuts both ways. They go overseas to find jobs, but they stay overseas because they have come to prefer their lives there. You wouldn’t hear them say that very loudly. After all, their sacrifices leaving home are real, and there are a few harmless perks to the title of hero, however mostly meaningless it is to them.
Let’s listen to Wesley.
“From the moment I landed here (in the US), I was encouraged and enabled to become better than I was.”
Note the choice of word “enabled.” Filipinos who go overseas do not want to be a charge on any country. They want the dignity of being able to fend for themselves. And they stay overseas because there, they felt enabled and not disabled, like back home.
When able to land jobs in Europe and North America, many immediately set themselves up on the path to immigration. In countries less open to immigration, like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they stay as long as they can. Despite the many highly publicized cases of abuse in these countries, for generations now, Filipinos continue to go there, in huge numbers. They have brought their families, too, and made them home.
And they refuse to leave, even in instances where they are offered free flights back home. They prefer to stay and keep their jobs, and their lives in the places where they can make a decent living. This was the case during invasion of Iraq in 2003, and again in US-Iran crisis in early 2020, where we even, rather inanely, sent two war ships to pick them up.
Our OFWs faced serious problems in many countries but, obviously, not as serious as the prospects of our people back home because the keep on leaving and, for as long as they can, stay left.
Our unemployment rate soared to 18.9 percent in April 2020 when nearly all economic activity was halted at the onset of coronavirus pandemic. This has significantly improved by May 2021, when our unemployment rate stood 7.7%. Still, this is small comfort. Youth jobless rate remains at 14.5%. This means there were 1.12 million young Filipinos without jobs in May.
Our numbers of the unemployed continue to swell as many more are returning to the country from pandemic-related job losses overseas. The impact of the hard quarantine measures that were reintroduced last August and only recently eased has yet to be weighed in as well.
The literature on migration, and even the assumptions of our own laws, are dominated by the idea that our overseas workers are helpless victims. In fact, they are the most entrepreneurial members of our society. They are the unbroken spirit that refuses to remain victims of the circumstances of their birth.
It takes unusual courage to decide to risk it abroad. It is definitely not for the faint of heart but for those with strongest desire to gain control of their destiny. For many of our people, it is nothing short of liberation in its most meaningful sense to their lives.
They simply want a better chance, like Wesley’s now. They will try to get it at home, like Wesley did before and, if frustrated, they might be forced to leave, again, like Wesley. And they will, given half the chance that Wesley had, and with way much less his talent.
In the grand chessboard of life, we are all like Wesley, making our moves in a game where even a pawn, always the first to be sacrificed, can aspire to rise above its lowly station to become Queen, Bishop, Knight or Rook, if it reaches the other end.
(Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez, is an expert on Philippine overseas labor issues and global migration. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He served as a UP Regent from November 2017 to July 2021.)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.