Jose Rizal on ‘Filipino Time’

Despite being Filipino, I had never heard of Filipino Time until I read it in one of those You Know You’re Filipino When… books. I was eleven years old, and, until then, had always taken for granted that punctuality was a common understanding. Of course, I had no dates or meetings to keep track of at that point, so I was a bit suspicious of the claim. Is this a valid stereotype? I wondered.

What is ‘Filipino Time’?

For those who haven’t heard of it, Filipino Time is a term (perhaps unfairly derogatory, or perhaps self-aware) that indicates the Filipino tendency to be obscenely tardy in both social and professional realms. It’s usually ascribed to an individual. But anyone familiar with the glacial crawl of Philippine bureaucracy, traffic, and development can understand that institutions are open targets for the accusation as well.

Historical and cultural context

How did the term come about? Although the Americans coined the term during their military occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, the phenomenon goes as far back as Spanish Colonization (which lasted from 1521 to 1898).

According to one historian, it was somewhat of a “status symbol” among Spaniards to arrive fashionably late to an event — which was a custom that Filipinos were all too eager to adopt.

However, based on literary critic, Setsuho Ikehata’s paper “Jose Rizal: The Development of the National View of History and National Consciousness in the Philippines,” the notion of Filipino slothfulness came about in a more complex way.

Jose Rizal, courtesy of

Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, was a polymath. Although he was only thirty-five when he was executed for sedition, Rizal was already an established ophthalmologist and painter. But most notably, he was a novelist who wrote the books which incited the revolution against Spain. Among his other projects aimed at Filipino liberation, was the painstaking task of rediscovering the country’s pre-colonial history and culture, which were almost entirely eviscerated by the Spaniards. According to Ikehata, he found that “colonialists had identified the indolence of the Filipinos as the cause of the stagnancy and backwardness of Philippine society” (189).

This sentiment still exists today. A quick Google search will reveal too many genocidal blog posts by ex-pats/tourists who despise everything about the Philippines, including how time works. But even among the proudest of Filipinos, there is constant self-comparison to the notoriously punctual and efficient nations of Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. Locals and foreigners alike contribute to the belief that Filipinos are innately lazy.

Rizal believes otherwise.

What Jose Rizal has to say about Filipino Time

Having uncovered clear records from Spanish colonizers, Rizal learned that “pre-conquest inhabitants of the Philippines burned with a passion for work” (189). However, three centuries of colonial policies that systematically restrained freedoms and caused “deprivation of the Filipinos’ self-respect,” eventually created a culture lacking “moral stamina” (189).

Rizal was careful to add that this seeming laziness was “not something with which [Filipinos] were born but rather the result of…colonial rule which stifled their will to work” (189).

The Filipino predilection for tardiness was inherited through oppression.

“But that was 120 years ago!”

This is true. And rest assured, no one is playing the blame game here, hoping to ride the coattails of century-old victimhood all the way to the land of no-responsibility.

But the effects of oppression do not disappear after one generation.

And the reason wounds aren’t cured in a generation is because oppression doesn’t just disappear the morning after a revolution.

In fact, Ikehata writes, “Colonialist ideology not only survives in today’s Philippine society but [is] reborn in a new version” (177). In particular, Ikehata is referring to the unwritten caste system of the Philippines — and how it perpetuates the oppression of the poor.

But Ikehata wrote this paper in 1968, just before Martial Law and the beginning of the modern Philippine Diaspora. So I think he’s missing a big piece of the colonialist ideology that survives today-today: the outsourcing of Filipino labor.

Neocolonialism in the Philippine workplace

Around 1970, the Philippines started sending so many workers abroad — domestic helpers, seafarers, nurses, etc. — that those who remained in the country reported feeling the effects of brain drain. Families were (and still are) torn apart. Young people had (and still have) to leave home to make a living.

However, in the early 2000s, a different option came about. The Filipinos who would have otherwise gone abroad for work, began to have ample employment opportunities in the call center industry. Today, you can ring for technical support anywhere in the western world, and it’s likely you’ll be re-routed to a Philippine-based service desk. This is because transnational corporations have decided to set up shop in the Philippines, where many people can speak English, where there are generous tax breaks for businesses in that sector, and where they can pay employees a fraction of their western counterparts, because the standard of living is relatively low.

Even more “prestigious” jobs in advertising, banking, or insurance are run by these large companies. So it isn’t much of a stretch to liken these new economic masters to the former masters of colonial times. After all, both bring in foreign leaders to dictate locals, both use local resources for economic benefit abroad, and — I’ll say it — both want to keep locals at a largely subservient level so that they’ll have an eager pool of laborers to pick from, for practically-free.

A consequence of neocolonialism

There are countless consequences for something as massive and demeaning as neocolonialism — ranging from deeply personal to very public. But I just want to focus on one, for now: the value of time.

It occurred to me while I was sitting in EDSA’s infamous traffic. Metro Manila’s main artery is predictably clogged at the beginning and end of each day, so steeling oneself against the rage-inducing gridlock is second nature. To locals. But on this particular evening, I was traveling with someone from Finland.

Although Finland has roughly the same landmass as the Philippines, their population is 5.5 million. Metro Manila’s population alone is at least three times that.

Needless to say, my companion, who is accustomed to three-car traffic jams, was not faring well. I, on the other hand, looked at the clock, figured we would be late to our appointment, and got comfortable in my seat.

At first thought, I figured that my apathy was a result of being one of EDSA’s seasoned veterans. But as time and traffic crawled, my mind raced. I not only wondered why the delay wasn’t bothering me, I was also trying to recall when the shift happened. A decade earlier, I worked in a skyscraper in Newark, New Jersey, just across the river from Lower Manhattan. Back then, I often used the phrase, “If you’re not ten minutes early, you’re already late.” What had changed?

It was the way I valued time.

Money matters

When I worked in Newark, even at an entry-level position right out of undergrad, I was paid $20/hour. As I’m sure many people do, I would calculate my expenditures based on that salary. So: a $4 cup of coffee? That’s 12 minutes of work; affordable. A $1600 laptop? That’s two weeks of work before taxes — better get the cheaper model.

But once I moved to the Philippines, things changed. Regardless of my education, experience, and work ethic, it was my citizenship that dictated my salary.

I’ve worked in entertainment, government, education, development, and the private sector. And every job I’ve ever had, regardless of whether it was locally- or internationally-run, regardless of whether I was in a management or entry-level position, has paid $1 to $4/hour. And that’s above minimum wage.

But coffee and laptops (and many other things) still cost the same. Except now, a soy latte is equivalent to almost half a day of work. A new laptop? Impossible. A retirement fund? Just burden your kids.

It is wealthy transnational corporations who are dictating what Filipino time is worth. If they paid a living wage, that could afford a hard-working adult socioeconomic and geographic mobility, then local employers would be forced to be competitive.

Ideally, local employers would pave the way for fair wages. But it is big transnationals who have the deep pockets. Ultimately, they have been welcomed to the Philippines because of how they have benefitted the middle class — the driving force of the local economy. For better or worse, their choices affect the nation as a whole.

And still, what their dollars say about Filipino days, hours, and minutes, is that they are — on a global scale — practically-worthless.

The antidote for ‘Filipino Time’

Rizal had already called-out, in the 1800s, the colonizers’ “treatment of Filipinos in a manner demeaning to their intelligence” (189). It is not a new phenomenon. It’s just wearing new clothes.

It’s no wonder Filipinos still suffer from the same seeming indolence that those under Spanish rule did. Their masters “stifled their will to work” with a “decrease in the rewards of labor” (189) — just like present day masters decrease our rewards and stifle our will in doing so.

While every individual needs to take ownership of her own time (don’t be a jerk; be punctual), and while we can all start bettering ourselves without anyone’s permission — this low economic valuation of Filipino time needs to change. Filipino days, hours, and minutes are as valuable as anyone else’s.