“The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State” by Philip Bowring

Silhouettes of People Holding the Flag of Philippines

If any journalist has a claim to be the doyen of the international press corps in East Asia, it would be Philip Bowring. In this timely book, he turns his gaze on the Philippines, just now in the throes of an election for a replacement to the controversial Rodrigo Duterte. Any election can be consequential, but Bowring says this time around, there is “no escaping the need of the country to overcome seven decades of under-performance in social and economic spheres compared with almost all its east and southeast Asian neighbours.”

The Philippines has long felt a place apart in East Asia, as if


cut off from its Asian region. This is partly the effect of a very parochial media, partly the lingering pull of America and partly the protection from foreign capital accorded to local business interests, even though these feed off an economy significantly driven by the remittances of the millions of Filipinos who have found work overseas.


It has been “a political identity with a singular name for nearly 500 years, much longer than many of its neighbours”, it is a place of churches rather than temples, the only place subject to Spanish and  American colonialism and a definite laggard in the race for Asian-tiger status.

After WW2, the Philippines seemed to have a lot going for it.

The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State, Philip Bowring (Bloomsbury, May 2022)
The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State, Philip Bowring (Bloomsbury, May 2022)

In The Making of the Modern Philippines, Bowring attempts to explain what to some extent feels unexplainable, for after WW2, the Philippines seemed to have a lot going for it:


Seventy years ago, the then recently independent Philippines boasted higher literacy levels than most of Asia and the highest income levels of populous Asian countries apart from Japan. It had an admired—at least from a distance—US-inspired legal and democratic system.


The outlook was considered bright:


The nation was seen as the most likely to prosper in the region because of its mix of education, access to the US and relatively stable political outlook. Indeed, from 1950, when its GDP per head was already higher than Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand, it had the region’s highest annual GDP growth rate of 6.5 per cent.


Yet today,


it is widely seen as having failed to match most of its neighbours in income growth and progress in education. It remains better known for natural disasters, flamboyant leaders, political violence and sporadic insurgencies, and for its major export—its own citizens finding work abroad which they could not find at home.

The subtitle “Pieces of a Jigsaw State” telegraphs Bowring’s analysis.

The book’s subtitle “Pieces of a Jigsaw State” telegraphs Bowring’s approach. The first half is a straightforward chronological history from pre-history to the present day. The second half, however, is made up of a dozen short thematic chapters on the various jigsaw pieces, from politics and economics to sociology and foreign relations.

Bowring’s diagnosis is, roughly, that the Philippines has been going in circles. Marcos is for Borwing, as most other observers, pivotal:


Marcos’ failure is best defined not by his democratic or elite critics but by comparison with his autocratic peers. In Indonesia, President Suharto gave a centralized administration to an even more far-flung archipelago and lifted its economy from the low to the lower-middle income ranks. The ruthless modernizing drive of President Park Chung-hee set South Korea well on the way to world top ranks. The Philippines, meanwhile, declined relative to almost all its neighbours. Both Suharto and Park transformed their societies so that politics afterwards was very different and more democratic. Philippine politics reverted to pre-1972 conditions, the same players, issues and problems of peace and order.


The country has a had a tortured history and a troubled present, which he covers steely-eyed yet sympathetically. But Bowring says that not its problems “cannot all be blamed on the debts of the Marcos years, let alone the former colonial rulers.”

Yet he remains hopeful:


this book is written in the hope and belief that it can become what it should be, a major island nation drawing strength from its geography, its Malay people, the positive legacies of Spanish and US rule and of its Chinese migrants


In a book with so many details—the book is full of dates, maps, people, events and statistics, as well as overview and interpretation—it is perhaps inevitable that a few go amiss. Andrés de Urdaneta sailed back across the Pacific from Manila to Acapulco for the first time in 1565 not 1558, and the Manila Galleon was, after the first few years, just one ship per year, not “two out, two in”. More disconcerting is the inclusion of the claim that in 1898 the Governor of Manila made arrangements with the Americans “to surrender to ‘white people not to niggers’ [sic]”. Bowring does not provide a citation, but he is not the first to use it (it is also quoted by Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States). The source is apparently an article in McClure’s Magazine of May 1899. To believe that the Spanish-speaking Fermín Jáudenes actually said this, one would need to accept that not only did he communicate in English but that he did so in a particularly American vernacular. The “quote” probably says more about the Americans, who were unfortunately prone to refer to Filipinos in that particularly derogatory way, than it does about the Spanish.

The Philippines merits both more attention and more understanding and The Making of the Modern Philippines is both a good place to start and a useful crib-sheet for those who had been following along but whose memory needs brushing up.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.