Criselda Yabes is a journalist based in the Philippines. She is author of "The Battle of Marawi," her 10th book, which was published in September.
When the Philippines' Smart Communications chose South Korean actor Hyun Bin to endorse its products in May last year, the advertising matrix went through the roof.
Social media went into a frenzy. Despite being in the midst of the pandemic lockdown in the Philippines, which became one of the longest and harshest in the world, sales shot up.
The tag line for Smart Communications' campaign was that the heart-throb actor was "crashing" on one of the country's big telecoms, an allusion to the popular drama series Crash Landing on You, or CLOY, that seems to have been watched in nearly every Filipino household.
Up until then, ripples of South Korean entertainment had been felt in the Philippines. But CLOY set off a tempest in the psyche of the people, cutting across demographics right smack in the middle of a severe quarantine.
In a country that has seen too many of its own political dramas unfolding -- later this year, Smart Communications will release a new campaign featuring Korean pop sensation BTS -- the string of South Korean's culture brands had Filipinos discovering a newfound aspiration -- one that they would be willing to embrace for the lack of national embodiment at home.
Looking up to an Asian neighbor that had been far from their consciousness and geographically distant from its archipelagic shores, Filipinos came to a rude realization that they have been left behind in the region's rankings. They want to have the same tastes. They reach for swanky clothes and cars, and glamorous lovers. They marvel at the symbols of superstardom they could have had, if only.
If only they had seized the opportunity to hitch their wagon to a star in the postwar independence granted by the United States. America was the master colonizer that gave the Philippines "50 years in Hollywood." By that exposure to the West, Filipinos should have been the rightful heir to social and economic robustness in Asia. Decade by decade, that star sometimes had an alluring possibility for success, but it often faded.
Other countries in the neighborhood of Southeast Asia gradually came up to expectations, and the Philippines sighed; but the blast of hallyu, the Korean wave, from the north offered both the happy pill to salve the withering values of Filipinos and the slap of reality that they have downright slackened in their destiny. The Philippines shared some similarities with South Korea: both were invaded by Japan and suffered destruction. Later, in the 1970s, both fell under the oppression of martial law.
In the 1960s, when the Philippines was the envy of the lot, its GDP was slightly higher than South Korea's, almost standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Today there is no way the Philippines can compete with the magic of South Korea, where GDP has since risen to about five times more than the former's yearly average of about $350 billion. While South Korea was creating its miracle on the Han River, the Philippines was dumping sloth in its Pasig River and taking too much time to get its act together.
About 70% of the Philippine economy consists of consumer spending. Trade is a negative 9%. It does not earn enough from exports, which have been the big money-earner in South Korea's rise to prosperity. It has long sold electronics, automobiles and ships. Now it also sells music and movies. Filipinos labor on low wages for handicrafts and assembly of electronic parts for insignificant export dollars. Nothing would have stopped the Philippines from building shipyards, being a nation of thousands of islands, if it had tried. The Philippines later obtained much-needed fighter jets from South Korea, and one of those was used to bomb an Islamic city to end a siege by jihadis three years ago.
Filipinos' complacency seeped deep enough into their psyche that it limited the nation's field of vision, thus the dying twinkle of the star. Once, the Philippines had beaten South Korea by booting out a dictator in 1986, securing fame in the world of democracy. But South Korea also came around to kicking out authoritarian rule not long after. While struggling to learn how to govern themselves, Filipinos slowed down in terms of economic output. They became mere followers, not pioneers, on the economic leader board.
How did that happen? There is no push for a national strategy for competitiveness, despite the best minds and the wherewithal to expand beyond infrastructure already set in place from the colonial years. Instead, the export of human labor brought in dollars from abroad. Yearly overseas remittances contribute 12% to Philippine GDP, with Filipinos seeking brighter careers elsewhere because there is not much the government could offer in terms of employment and new workplaces. So you will likely find Filipino nurses in England, truck drivers in the tundra, and merchant mariners in the seven seas. And that is how they earn higher wages in places far from home.
At home, Filipinos nurture the dream that things might get better. The road to Hollywood has long past been overgrown with weeds. Hallyu is much closer, resonating to like-minded cultural values, but it is unreachable. "This creative economy synergizes mutual sustainability of the culture and business sectors, and eventually contributes to the stability of the nation," wrote Kyung Min Bae, research fellow at the University of the Philippines' Korea Research Center. "It is important to assure foreign countries that Korea went from being totally unknown to being globally acknowledged, and that is something Korea wishes to share with them."
The K-dramas are selling the love of a country and the world loves them in return. Perhaps this is where the Philippines could reboot itself by taking the most important ingredient in a plot to conquer all, and only then could it have the making of one of hallyu's most popular scripts: But will it have a happy ending or a sad ending?