Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries


René E. Mendoza

The Philippines is probably one of the most dramatic examples, if not the most dramatic example, of a modernizing Asian country seeking to rediscover its cultural identity. In asking basic questions as to what would be a better future for the nation, or whether such is even possible, the Philippine case appears to be an interesting study of how religion is used in imperialistic designs over less developed countries. (LDCs).

In the Philippine case, modernization could hardly be divorced from Westernization since its colonial history indeed propelled the very notion of nationhood and then of national independence from its colonial masters as a component or prerequisite of modernization. It is the common colonial exploitation and subservience that tied together the once disunited and unorganized clusters of semi-independent settlements that had then no particular consciousness of a common Philippine nationhood. The Philippines, in fact, acquired its name and its contemporary majority religion as a result of the actual occupation and colonization of the islands in the latter part of the 16th century.

The arrival in Philippine waters of Ferdinand Magellan on 17 March 1521 is traditionally dated as the beginning of the Spanish period. The Spanish intrusion in this part of Asia was a result of the rivalry between the Portuguese and the Spaniards in exploration of the non-European world. Between them, the world was divided by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 with the issuance of Inter caetera (a papal bull) drawing a demarcation line so that all lands lying one hundred leagues west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands were to belong to Spain, and those east, to Portugal. Since the Pope, Alejandro Borja, was a Spaniard and expected to favor the Spaniards, the papal bull was somehow suspect to the Portuguese. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the two powers thus moved the demarcation line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. In 1529 the Treaty of Zaragoza extended the demarcation line and defined it in the Pacific at 297 1/2 leagues east of the Moluccas, with Spain gaining the right of ownership and settlement over lands east of this line. Interestingly, the Philippines even lay unquestionably within the Portuguese side of the demarcation line. Moreover, its acquisition was facilitated by the proceeds of the sale of whatever right Spain may have had over the Moluccas, except that the Moluccas actually lay within the Portuguese sphere of influence.

This pattern of deceit and religious-political intrigue become the leitmotif of the Spanish occupation and its imperialistic exploitation of the Filipinos. Religious interventions in political matters were justified by the principle of union of church and state which previously laid the foundation or rationale of the Spanish conquista -- that of "civilizing and Christianizing" such pagan lands initially assigned by fiat of the Pope. This led to encroachments by the ambitious and avaricious friars of the Catholic Church on jurisdictions of the civil government. Due to the short tenure of civil officials and the clergy's relative advantage of actual presence and knowledge of the local languages and possession of the technology of colonization, the Spanish friars became virtually the most visible element of stability and continuity of Spanish sovereignty in the rest of the Philippines outside of Manila. The civil officials, moreover, tended to be concentrated in Manila alone.

The friars' systematic exploitation and interference in the political, economic, and social life of the people made their domination so pervasive and oppressive that Filipino propagandists and reformists demanded their explusion from the Philippines. The contrary principle of separation of church and state thus became one of the constitutional principles that survived the Malolos Congress which was convened on 15 September 1898 to draft a Constitution for the First Philippine Republic. Even the subsequent war with the United States, and the defeat of the First Republic, did not change that historic commitment. In the Philippine context, "secularization" meant merely "nationalizing" the Catholic Church by replacing the friars with native secular priests. This was a reaction to the Spanish friars who were perceived as obstacles to education, progress, and freedom. The Filipino rebels against the Spanish actually had to fight two battles -- one against the Spanish, and the other against the Americans, who had initially led them to believe they were allies against Spain.

The American colonial period, which followed after some three centuries of Spanish rule, is officially dated as starting on 1 May 1898 with one-sided naval battle resulting in the destruction of Admiral Patricio Montojo's fleet of Spanish ships in Manila Bay by then Commodore George Dewey. Dewey, who was maneuvered into position as the American Asiatic Squadron by then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., was even promoted to Rear Admiral for this naval victory.

The taking of Manila, however, involved more deceit and treachery. A mock battle was staged to save Castillian face or honor, while at the same time excluding the Filipino rebels from participating in the "liberation" of Manila. This colonial phrase of the Philippines was thus no better than the preceding one, in that design, deceit, and division were the same techniques used in dominating and exploiting the Philippine population in the name of their own brand of Christianity, in the case of the Americans, the various Protestant varieties.

That the American soldier used education as an enticement -- education having been virtually denied the Filipinos by the Spanish friars -- was a master stroke of colonial innovation. This had the consequence of having certain ideas and norms infused in the culture and values of the Filipinos even up to the present day. This is often the contemporary "demon" denounced and demanded to be "exorcised" by the present-day radicals in their analysis of what they call the "neo-colonial" aspect of Philippine culture, including the so-called "miseducation" of the Filipinos.

The apocryphal story of President William McKinley's having been told by God to "take the Philippines", and the assignment by General Arthur MacArthur of chaplains and non-commissioned officers to teach even before civil government was established, illustrate once more the role of religion in colonization. Emphasized here were the virtues enshrined in the Protestant ethic, so basic to the development of capitalism, while at the same time avoiding the establishment of a state church which is anathema to most Protestant sects. The establishment of a secularized public school system and the use of English as a medium of instruction and communication laid the foundations of a continuing Westernized direction to Philippine modernization, and an insidious acceptance of American values and models of development, notwithstanding gross differences in history, culture and resource bases.

Secularization, taken in its broadest sense, means the increase in the worldly, the temporal, or non-church functions or activities. Thus, it is only an added "political" dimension stressing greater participation where the original "religious" dimension was confounded with an authoritarian, exclusivistic, and special interest group characteristic. Figure 1 is a schematic representation of the combination of these "political" and "religious" dimensions, resulting in a single "circular continuum," where secularization is merely an alternative to the church-state relation: (1) union, typical of less modern nations (at least, as defined by the West); and (2) separation of church and state, said to be typical of modern and modernizing states (at least, insofar as Christianity is concerned).

In the non-Christian part of the Philippines, and in the rest of Asia, religion is not of the exclusivist and intolerant variety. It occurs in many forms -- there are the essentially metaphysical or "other-worldly" religions; there are the religions that so pervade the very life of the people, or which provide the inner discipline of the individual to provide him with a strong moral foundation; or even the pantheistic or the animist varieties; or any combination of these. It is not uncommon to see these religious strains mixed, not only with one another, but even with social and political doctrines, with the resulting combinations confusing to Westerners. Ironically, Christianity, although Asian in origin, became so Westernized that it had difficulty being diffused in Asia as its other great religions. Its penetration of the Asian world appears limited at the rim, the Philippines being on the eastern side, from which Catholic and Protestant missions were often launched into the heartland of Asia.

Although safeguarding the principle of separation of church and state in the Philippines and preserving the secular outlook of education, the American colonial administration virtually obliterated native ideas, customs and traditions, and even the national cultural identity of the Filipinos. "Modernization" hence continued to mean "Westernization", just as "civilization" under the Spaniards meant "Christianization." The contemporary search, therefore, for a national cultural identity of the Filipino has often been therefore branded as "anti-clerical" or "anti-Spanish," "anti-American" or "anti-colonial," depending on what political or historical "demon" the ideologist or ideologue may wish to "exorcise" from the system. Even secularization is no defense against the monastic influence that still pervades the social and cultural life of the people.

Even though officially Christian, even Catholic Filipinos actually continue to practice paganistic rituals not only in rural but in urban areas as well. Paganization of Catholic devotions has even been commercialized as tourist attractions, so that the evolution of a "folk Christianity," often proscribed from the pulpit, generally persists despite incessant evangelization efforts of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Of course, as long as the West defines modernization in its own image, such syncretic combinations will be regarded as "pre-modern," and their excoriation demanded as a "price" for modernization.

Conceptually, religion can mean not only the organized doctrine, ritual and practice in or by a collective, but also the unorganized set of values, beliefs, and norms that are accepted on faith by an individual. It may include or involve a faith in, and/or worship of, a deity or deities, and it could mean a devotedness or dedication to a holy life, no matter how defined. In this case, the issue of religions and secularity in Asia is hard put to be resolved on the issue of modernization. Religion and the religious influence are so pervasive in Asia that secularization often means not a rejection, but a repudiation of a decadent clergy who have become exploitative, rigidly formalist, and standing in the way of genuine spiritual development. This was the experience of the Philippines, both in the failure of some nationalist native clergy to form a Philippine national church and in the conversion of only a small percentage of Filipinos to Protestantism by the American missionaries. It was materialism, which perhaps reflects the American colonial heritage much more, and the acceptance of the Western models of modernization that make it difficult for the contemporary Filipino who is interested in rediscovering his national cultural identity.

The "essence" of modernization should not be confused with its "accidents," one of which is its Western location or identification by Western culture-bound writers. But if "modernization" is defined as "a dynamic form of social and technological innovation resulting from the knowledge explosion in recent times," or as " the process by which historically-evolved institutions adapt to the rapidly changing environments, taking on new and growing functions that are consequences of unprecedented increases in man's knowledge, permitting control in turn, over these same environments," one can avoid the mistake of equating it with "Westernization." "Westernization" could be one form, but not the only form of modernization.

The complexity and interrelatedness of all aspects of the modernization process is perhaps better appreciated in a holistic and syncretic manner, rather than in the mutually exclusivistic perspective of the West and its religions. The line between religions and secularization is not quite that clearly drawn in Asian societies. For in the experience of some Asian nations, both have been instruments for "modernization," although under colonial ventures both have been eschewed as unacceptable. Thus, the search for rediscovering one's national cultural identity has to involve an analysis of the impact of religion and sacred values on modernization as well as the reactions of religion to the challenges of modernization. It is this holistic syncretic and eclectic approach, which is typical of Asia, that can satisfy the Kukugaku-type scholars in their search for national self-determination in pursuit of modernization. In the Philippines, we at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines have taken on the task of establishing stronger linkages with our Asian neighbors, relating to our own rediscovery of our cultural identity from a perspective of international cooperation.