I’m a sucker for a live international competition. Last year, I teared up while watching Miss Philippines Catriona Gray win Miss Universe, even though I could care less about beauty pageants. The countless “proud to be Filipino” comments on YouTube show that I’m not alone in this — most Filipinos celebrate every time someone with even the slightest connection to our country makes it to the world stage.
We love the idea of the entire nation in front of the TV, watching one big event (just look at all of Manny Pacquiao’s fights). I imagine this is the same emotion many hoped for in this year’s Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), which the Philippines is hosting for the first time since 2005. The Games could have been the great unifier Filipinos have desperately needed since the polarising 2016 Presidential elections, but instead, it seems to have made everything worse.
Things got off to a bad start. As early as last week there were reports of mismanaged funds and inefficient planning, as seen in the opening ceremony cauldron that cost the government around PHP50 million ($1 million). Many thought this was too expensive and alleged that there was corruption involved in the project. President Rodrigo Duterte’s initial justification did not help extinguish the fire.
"You know, there can never be corruption in that situation because you commissioned a national artist," Duterte said. Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee Chairman Alan Peter Cayetano also defended the expense and called it a “work of art.”
It got worse when international teams started arriving and complaining about the traffic, insufficient accommodation, and limited food options. Then there was the matter of competition venues still undergoing construction, and the late disbursement of funds to the Philippines’ national teams.
All this has led many to criticise the government and, with our trademark self-deprecating Filipino humour, call the event “Fyre Festival 2.0.” It’s an understandable reaction to obvious mistakes. But then, as if on cue, came the patriotic bashers. Now, these people who are trying to hold the government to account are being called “unnationalistic.”
The situation is deftly illustrated in a viral meme comparing a “normal Filipino’s” mental gymnastics to that of a blind Duterte supporter’s.
The line above reads: “I criticize the SEA Games organizers so they can get their acts together. Its (sic) our tax money that they are wasting anyway.” The “normal Filipino” in the meme says this while doing a simple cartwheel.
Below, we observe the logic of a DDS (Die-hard Duterte Supporter) who goes through one obstacle after another to defend the government. He goes from saying “50M cauldron? It’s expensive, which means they put a lot of effort” to “You’re all biased for the opposition.”
This is a good summary of the online discourse, but it’s of itself problematic. The term “normal Filipino” is pretty ambiguous, while cartoonishly portraying government supporters as stupid, shows that the name-calling comes from both sides. It’s a hilarious meme but, if not taken with a grain of salt, just further reinforces the divide between Filipinos.
This is just one out of countless other posts on social media about the SEA Games fiasco. But if I didn’t know any better, I would think that they’re comments leftover from our last two national elections, one held just earlier this year. It’s the same rhetoric over and over again, which goes to show that nothing has changed in our government and society.
Most affected by all this are the athletes, who have sadly been overlooked. Philippine athletes are notoriously underfunded, and yet, they still choose to represent the country proudly. They need our support. This means putting the government to task for their mismanagement but also volunteering to help in our own way, as some have already done. It also means still watching the SEA Games, even with its flaws.
I await Saturday’s opening ceremony and the games that follow in the next two weeks with bated breath. I hope they move me to tears, just like similar events in the past have. If not for a gold, then simply for the hope that we’re all still on the same team.