The boundaries of free speech as a foreigner

Photo from the internet

Photo from the internet

My thoughts on the Edz Ello controversy and the boundaries of free speech as a foreigner. I’ve changed the headline from what was originally posted on Rappler. I’m using OFWs as an example but I think it’s a common concern for anyone living abroad regardless of their nationality.


Filipinos are no strangers to making the headlines in Singapore.

Last June 2014 a Philippine Independence Day celebration in Singapore was the subject of xenophobic heckling and harassment online, causing the organizers to cancel the event.

(READ: Pinoy group in Singapore drops Independence Day event plan)

A few days ago the couple behind The Real Singapore, a popular alternative news site, was charged with sedition. The cause? They allegedly claimed that a Filipino family caused an incident during Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community.

Online forums are regularly flooded with comments referring to Filipinos as “foreign trash” or “cockroaches,” making Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) feel angry, ashamed or even apathetic. These derogatory comments are nothing new. The question is whether OFWs should feel obligated to defend theirkababayantooth and nail in a nationalistic effort to change the narrative about Filipinos abroad.

But the controversy sparked by Edz Ello, a Filipino nurse working in a government hospital in Singapore recently charged with sedition and lying to the police for posting hateful comments about Singaporeans online, paints a different picture.

Instead of defending a fellow Filipino, the OFW community too condemned his actions, to the extent of saying that he deserved the strict consequences that followed.

RACIST COMMENT? Filipino Nurse Edz Ello, an OFW in Singapore is fired from his job for allegedly making these racist comments on Facebook. Screenshot from Facebook

RACIST COMMENT? Filipino Nurse Edz Ello, an OFW in Singapore is fired from his job for allegedly making these racist comments on Facebook. Screenshot from Facebook

The unspoken rule: don’t bite the hand that feeds

Most OFWs believe that it’s a privilege to be working overseas, especially in Singapore, where the earning capacity tends to be much higher than back in the Philippines.

Regardless of your nationality or income, the bottom line is that every expatriate and migrant worker is a guest in a foreign country. It’s an implicit agreement – that locals expect respect and sensitivity from those who would share their home.

In the case of Edz Ello, both Singaporean and Filipino netizens alike felt that the hateful comments he posted reflected the exact opposite. They said, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds,” an unspoken rule about not offending your benefactor that OFWs are all too familiar with.

Boundaries of free speech

While OFWs are used to a culture of freedom of speech back home, once we venture beyond our borders the boundaries become gray. Living abroad makes us more self-aware of our actions, especially online, not merely out of fear of being deported or arrested, but also out of respect to our host country.

Singapore, on the other hand, is known for its strict laws about voicing opinions publicly.

The priority of the government is to preserve harmony in a multicultural society, where race is a major social identifier for locals. As mentioned by Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, “You have full freedom of speech [in Singapore] but it doesn’t extend to offending somebody else.”

So similar to how religion is a popular yet sensitive topic in the Philippines, such inflammatory comments along national and racial lines can elicit controversy in Singapore. This is increasingly relevant amidst growing concerns about the influx of foreigners in recent years, with an almost 40% foreign population.

Goodwill ambassadors

172,700 Filipinos work in Singapore, according to the latest publicly available Philippine government data. As part of the foreigner population in Singapore, the responsibility of OFWs is to become goodwill ambassadors for the Philippines.

We are guardians of the Filipino name for the world at large, whose only points of reference about the Philippines are sweeping generalizations and often negative stereotypes. That’s why the OFW community did not speak up on behalf of Edz Ello. They agree that his actions unfairly represented Filipinos. Even some locals echo the same sentiment – don’t let the actions of one Filipino paint the wrong picture of an entire race.

The Ello controversy reminds us that nationalism goes beyond our bloodline, heritage, language and the color of our skin. It’s about knowing that we can be better Filipinos, while holding our fellow kababayansaccountable to that very standard.

As an OFW, that means doing our utmost best in protecting our name abroad. Then perhaps, we’ll be making headlines for all the right reasons.


Waking up to being Filipino

When I was a junior in college I was a delegate of a leadership congress called the Ateneo Student Leaders Assembly. I was surrounded by people who were mostly taking up courses in business or health science. They wanted to put up social enterprises, teach the less fortunate, and reform the health system. Me? I felt like I was the odd one out. I was a communication major. How the heck am I supposed to help in nation building?

Oh wait. I can write.

My skills lay in generating awareness and putting together the message that people need to hear.

While I have friends who are doing volunteer work in the government, my writing is my form of public service.  The power of the pen. Or in this case, the power of the internet and this blog. There are so many people doing great things in different industries but they lack the exposure they deserve to empower others of their story. National building isn’t just limited to government work.

Everything begins with self-awareness. Be awake to who you are. Only then will you know how to speak up, in whatever way that you can.

Wake up, Philippines, so you can speak up. My article on Interaksyon answering the question ‘What’s a Filipino?’

The Philippine struggle for national identity reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the ugly duckling.

Compared to the other ducks, our protagonist has a longer neck and a bigger body, which is why it was judged to be ugly. But one day, while swimming in the river, this bird saw his reflection in the water and was shocked to discover that the duck was actually a swan.

What’s the moral of the story?

The bird was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, and as a result, felt confused and insecure about who it was in the process.

In our case, the Filipino is not a duck, but a swan.

It symbolizes the need for self-awareness,  that we are neither completely Asian nor American; brown nor white.

As a pure blooded Filipina, born in Indonesia and raised in an international high school, I used to feel that my “coño” accent and ineptitude at speaking Tagalog fluently inhibited me from feeling and not just beingFilipino.

The difference is that the former requires an active commitment while the latter doesn’t.

But one day I had a reckless realization about the Philippines’s 7,107 plus islands; our rich history of colonization under the Americans and Spaniards; and thousands of Filipinos working overseas.

The archipelago is just too big, the past too complex and the world too globalized to be encompassed by a singular definition on the perennial issue of “What is a Filipino.”

Debunking misconceptions

It’s not uncommon to hear that foreigners are better at sparking discourse about our country than Filipinos, which was evident in the recent Jimmy Sieczka video controversy.

I remember how during my senior year in college there was a blog entry that was written by my friend, a French foreign exchange student, which went viral among my peers.

Essentially she was debunking the preconceived misconception that there is no Philippine culture in our westernized country, when in fact, she is able to point out so many allusions to Philippine history in our city that Filipinos are typically unobservant to.

For example, Katipunan, the street Ateneans use to walk to school everyday is the name of an anti-Spanish revolutionary society. The Sunday markets in Salcedo and Legazpi village refer to two Spanish governors. Fort Bonifacio refers to Andres Bonifacio, the founder of the Katipunan.

In my case, I’ve been commuting via train for almost four years and it only hit me recently that one of the LRT stations was named after Betty Go Belmonte, the deceased former President of the Philippine Star.

After more than ten years of living here, I wonder what other allusions I failed to notice.

The Pinoy flavor 

However, the same observations and criticisms about the Philippines can be made by Filipinos who’ve travelled abroad and have come back to live in the city.

So, the underlying issue is not about foreigners pointing out what Filipinos can’t see. Rather, it’s how much we’ve been exposed to a world outside our own bubble and the commitment we make to be awake.

Regardless of whether you live in a poor or rich area, province or in the city, abroad or in the Philippines, it’s easy to take Filipino nuances for granted if you’ve never changed your scenery or talked to someone different.

In my response to my friend, I wrote that maybe the root problem of Filipino struggle is not of apathy but of blind complacency.

As the texting and social media capital of the world, the trouble is not in sparking sentiment but being perpetually stuck in it.

Maybe the Philippines has a hard time moving forward because this blindness is endemic—to what and how the Philippine’s can offer the world; to what countless of foreigners see that Filipinos don’t.

In fact, it was my friend’s blog entry that served as my rude awakening.

Little did I know at the time that by speaking up and writing my reaction down, I was sparking a flame of Pinoy pride that I never thought I would have. I was feeling Filipino and not just being one.

In the more than ten years that I’ve been living here, it’s only now that I see how Filipinos always love adding their own flavor to anything—from dousing rice with toyo, suka, or Maggie Savor to creating Lip Gloss, a local rendition of Gossip Girl and other foreign shows.

I see how we have a penchant for People Power, not only in mobilizing revolutionary movements, but online through social media, support for Jessica Sanchez on American Idol, or defending our kin in adversity.

The wake-up call

 I’ve written before about how being a Filipino isn’t a birth right.

Neither does it run through the blood in our veins.

Rather than be compartmentalized on trivialities like skin color, language or class, it’s characterized by the attempt to understand, to defend our country tooth and nail and the strive to improve it.

However, similar to Andersen’s tale when the duck needs to look into the river to see the swan in its reflection, Filipinos first need to become self-aware of how they are Filipino—in their own way and no one else’s-before making that attempt.

Every person needs a stand point to view the world, or in this case the Philippines from.

As a third culture kid in my own country, my personal advocacy seeks to understand and spread awareness about the multicultural aspect of Philippine national identity. My background enables me to help bridge the local and the international world.

But for you, as an immigrant from China, Phil-Am, provinciano, an activist, or an artist, to be Filipino will mean something entirely different. We see life through different Filipino lenses. Your struggle is a Filipino’s struggle.

So, regardless of whatever your wake-up call is, for me to be Filipino begins with being self-aware enough to answer it.

View original article here.

Never Never Land

From afar the Quezon City Memorial Monument was a stranger, distant and unassuming, even for a structure towering with so much pride. Here, the remains of our second President of the Philippines reside.

But up close it’s a place we all yearn for; painted with childhood charm and sentimental whims of simpler days of awe and carefree laughter. An old friend from Never Neverland. The days we told ourselves that we’ll always stay young.

One day, I said, one day I’ll visit Quezon City Memorial Park. Little did I know that it would be a familiar hello.

How often do we visit the places that dance at the back of our mind? Always in our periphery, but never in focus.

Gab was my partner in crime that day. Before heading to QC memorial circle I accompanied him back to Binondo to buy his office lights. He reminds me that relationships, even between friends, should have an exchange of give and take. Hence, our agreement that day.

Since we couldn’t rely entirely on Google maps,  by chance we stumbled upon this old school BPI near Recto. The facade was adorned with Romanesque features, of pillars, a big round clock and those little statues that remind me of those days wishing I was Meg in Hercules.

Can you imagine if we had preserved the rest of the city properly? Ganda. 

After we ran our errands, we arrived in QC Memorial Circle in the late afternoon. I loved how beautiful it looked afar, and up close.

I’m not a photographer but I still squealed in delight. “Gab, the liiiiight! It’s sooooooo  nice!!!!” Everything was illuminated by an aura of…

… dreams,

… perspective,

but most of all, nationalism. Look at what a little light can do.

After World War II, this memorial was erected by President Sergio Osmena to commemorate his predecessor, President Manuel Quezon. Those three vertical pylons represent Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, the three regions of our country, like the three golden stars of the Philippine flag.

Around the base of the monument is a timeline of marble paintings that depict significant historical moments. Sayang, I should have come here to study for my history exam, I thought.

“No entry” doesn’t mean you can’t break in with a picture.

See what I did there?

It’s a great place to people watch. A playground for the inner child to get lost in.

Cuddle with a lover. (Note to future boyfriend ;-) )

And watch the day and everything about it go by.

Initially I went here to take pictures, but I didn’t know that you could rent bikes for P70 an hour!

The last time I rode a bike was…. that day. And it was awesome. We weren’t supposed to bike outside the premise, but Gab and I are two big kids who know how to break the rules.

Being on that bike transported me back in time to 2008 when our THIMUN delegation went biking around the Hague, Netherlands. While the Philippines is miles away from Europe, on that quiet afternoon in QC, the wind felt lovingly the same.

The joy of experiencing similar moments, in different tenses, in different lights.

In different emotions: Loneliness or solitude?

On our way out Gab said that days like this makes living in the Philippines feel okay. It was a public park, but on that day it was clean and at ease. We also discovered other things — like these funny exercise machines and cozy little nooks to grab a bite to eat. We hardly spent that day. P200 for a whole afternoon instead of 2-3 hours of just watching a movie.

Parks like this are places worth preserving and developing. It’s a quiet place boasting of leisure and history.

I’ve been wanting to go to the QC Memorial Circle for the longest time, especially whenever I would shuffle between Katipunan and Common Wealth.  I was excited to finally visit, but I was ecstatic to uncover the depth along my periphery.

On being a Foreign Filipino

Born to be a citizen of the world!

Note: These are my own personal observations. There are many exceptional Filipinos who are exactly that –an exception. They inspire me.

Before I begin this entry I would like to make a disclosure. I’m a full Filipina who was born in Jakarta, Indonesia where I lived for almost seven years. My family moved back to the Philippines in 1996 where I was raised in an international school environment on a scholarship. Upon hearing about my high school background I often get asked this question: Why didn’t you study abroad?

While I got accepted to colleges I wanted in the United States with partial scholarships, I usually give two reasons for my decision to study here. Firstly, the admission was still too expensive and secondly, I wanted to get to know my Filipino roots. Given that I had lived in my home country for almost 10 years then, I know that the second sentiment might appear off. That’s why I often jokingly refer to myself as a ‘foreign Filipina,’ a pseudo existential identity crisis I apply to most third-culture kids who were raised exposed to cultures different from their own. Perhaps back then it was an empty excuse I easily gave whenever I preferred not to explain in detail why I didn’t fulfill that dream of going abroad. But even if it has taken me almost four years to, it’s finally becoming a commitment, which is why I’ve decided to speak out about my story now.

The quality of education, among other things, is always perceived to be greener beyond the Philippine archipelago. After all we are a poor developing country weathered by many man-made disasters. Agreed, that’s our present predicament, but we’re always using that as an excuse, one that ultimately blinds and prevents people from seeing opportunity and changing reality into a better one.

Why not study in the Philippines? Since college began I realized that no has ever asked me that question.

College has definitely ‘socialized’ me more into Filipino culture from appreciating our mababaw sense of humor, finding my way round Manila with our crazy commuting system, eating at street karenderias to travelling to different places around Visayas and Mindanao. Now I’m imbibed with a sense of nationalism I honestly never thought I would acquire.

With the new Department of Tourism ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’ campaign, I was originally inspired to write a list of reasons why it is for a blog entry. But after reading two insightful entries written by Marion Waller and Scott Allford, which have been circling online about the negative perception of the Philippines, I feel called to write about the deeper issue propelling the campaign. The most striking sentiment shared among Filipinos online is this: How come the foreigners, who don’t have the geographical or national inclination to, see and appreciate the Philippines in a way that Filipinos didn’t.

Maybe most of us are ‘foreign Filipinos.’

“He understood only too well the compulsive attraction of totalitarianism among the intellectuals. Because he was an intellectual himself, he resisted that compulsion courageously and consistently.”

That’s an excerpt from F. Sionil Jose foreword in Max Soliven’s biography ‘The Man and the Journalist.’ I noted that quote down because it reminds me of the privilege and responsibility of being educated among the intellectuals. Indeed knowledge is power, but we shouldn’t let it get to our heads and prevent us from not only using our minds to think but of our hands and feet.

I remember that during our outreach programs in high school it was always the foreigners who readily got down on all fours to clean the dirty floors of the dinky bathrooms of public high schools, while the upper-middle class Filipinos usually hesitated. Even in immersion programs in Ateneo it’s the same problem of getting Filipino students to not only care but to act afterwards. While any college in the Philippines is probably more Filipino than my international high school it’s the same nonchalance across social class.

At first glance the excellent and exciting #ItsMoreFunInThePhilippines campaign is meant to address the lack of nationalism among Filipinos. Since the overwhelming response of the campaign is obviously filled with a sense of pride, how can people criticize us for not having any? But I realized that maybe the root problem is not of apathy but of blind complacency. As the texting and social media capital of the world, the trouble is not in sparking sentiment but being perpetually stuck in it.  Maybe the Philippines has a hard time moving forward because this blindness is endemic – to what and how the Philippine’s can offer the world; to what countless of foreigners see that we Filipinos don’t. It’s striking how Filpino students eagerly want to spend a semester abroad when they need the cultural awakening in their own country.

I’ve accepted that I’m a foreign Filipina. I cannot disregard my background the way that the Philippines cannot ignore our history of colonization under the Americans and Spaniards. Indeed we are a mixed culture, but remember it’s both of ‘foreign’ and ‘Filipino’ origin.

I remember what Jim Paredes once told our class. “To be international, you have to be local.” As a country that prides itself for its English speaking capabilities, that can be our competitive edge in an age of globalization. It only means we have more access to the rest of the world to speak about who we are.

So, why not study in the Philippines? If I had never chosen to stay, then I would have nothing to say and  I’ve only just begun to open my eyes and learn. My education would go to waste if I didn’t.