Local Governance in the Philippine Islands: lessons yet to be learned

The history of the municipal and provincial governments is worthy of very careful consideration.

One of the commonest charges against these officers is “abuse of authority,” and one of the most difficult and endless tasks of the American administrative officers is to impress on the elective native official a sense of obligation toward his “inferiors,” that is, the plain people who elected him. He (native official) expects obsequiousness and even servility, and if they are lacking, endeavours to get square.

The following case, called to my attention by a reliable American woman, illustrates the fact that provincial governors are sometimes swayed by other than humanitarian motives:—

“In 1902 when I was living at Capiz, a very pretty little fellow, a child of 7 or 8, often came begging to my house. Finally he ceased to come and I saw nothing of him for several months. Then I met him one morning, stone blind, his eyes in frightful condition. I made inquiry and learned that the people with whom he lived (his parents were dead) not finding him a remunerative investment had decided that he must be made more pitiful looking to bring in good returns as a beggar. So they filled his eyes with lime and held his head in a tub of water. I took the child to the Governor (the late Hugo Vidal) to make complaint. The Governor listened to my story, and then exclaimed, ‘You are mistaken. I have known this child for years and he has been like this all the time.’ The local sanitary chief agreed with him, and I was forced to give up all hope of having the inhuman wretches that had tortured the child punished.”

The attitude of provincial and municipal officials toward very necessary sanitary measures has often been exceedingly unfortunate.

In 1910 the officials of the town of Bautista, Pangasinán, voted to have a fiesta, in spite of the fact that the health authorities had informed them that this could not be done safely, owing to the existence of cholera in the neighbouring towns. The town council preferred the merry-making to the protection of the lives of the people, and voted to disregard the warnings of the Bureau of Health, with the result that several of the neighbouring municipalities were infected with cholera, and many lives were needlessly lost. The governor of the province, himself a Filipino, was lax in attention to duty in this instance or the town council would have been suspended before, instead of after, this action on its part.

For a long time municipal policemen were commonly utilized as servants by the town officials, and were nearly useless for actual police work. To put firearms into their hands was little better than to present them outright to the ladrones. At present the constabulary exercise a considerable amount of control over municipal police, and there has resulted very material improvement in their appearance, discipline and effectiveness.

Municipal councils in the majority of cases voted all of the town money for salaries, leaving nothing for maintenance of public buildings, roads and public works, with the result that streets in the very centres of towns became impassable even for foot passengers. They were often indescribably filthy, cluttered with all sorts of waste material, and served as a meeting ground for all the horses, cattle, dogs, pigs, hens and goats of the neighbourhood.

In many instances, the first use made of their newly acquired powers by provincial governors and municipal presidents was to persecute in all sorts of petty ways those who had opposed their election, while the latter displayed marked disinclination to accept the will of the majority.

It is not to be expected that the Filipino should understand modern democratic government. Where could he have obtained knowledge of it? Under Spanish rule he saw officials habitually enriching themselves at the expense of the communities they were supposed to govern. He saw a government of privilege where the work of the many benefited the few. How could he have gained experience in modern and enlightened administration for the benefit of the people rather than for the benefit of the administrators? Not only must there be knowledge on the part of officials that this is the proper way to govern, but there must be a demand on the part of the people for such a government, and until the people know and understand that such a government is their right there will be no such demand. There is not yet a sufficient proportion of the Filipino people literate to make approval or disapproval felt.

Under the Spanish régime the penalty which followed a too liberal use of “free speech” was very likely to be a sudden and involuntary trip to the other world. There was no such thing as a free press. A very strict censorship was constantly exercised over all the newspapers. The things that are now said and written daily without attracting much attention would at that time have cost the liberty or the lives of those who voiced them.

It is hardly to be wondered at that an Oriental people which had never had a free press or liberty of speech should have mistaken liberty, when it finally came, for license…

Philippines Past and Present Volume 2, Dean C. Worcester, 1914.  Secretary of the Interior for the Philippine Islands, 1901-1913. Member of the Philippine Commission 1900-1913.

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