Five Filipino maritime illusions dispelled

“It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” wrote the English writer Virginia Woolf. Quite true, but the maritime illusions which many Filipinos harbour need to be killed. Such phantoms are not only a source of false national pride. They bedazzle the mind and blind Filipinos to reality, making it more difficult for them to change things for the better.

Below are five statements we continue to hear from Filipinos engaged in ship manning or maritime education and training and from local journalists who seem to not know any better. Some are false or only half-true, whilst others are plainly delusional.

1. “We are a maritime country.”

This clichéd remark is always said with pride — as if being “maritime” (that is, bordering the sea and being dependent on it for major economic activities) were ipso facto a badge of honour. Our stock reply to Filipinos who make such banal declaration: So is Fiji in the South Pacific.

2. “Filipinos have a strong connection with the sea.”

If Filipinos really have a close affinity with the sea, how come they have no maritime art like the Japanese and no maritime literature like the Americans or the Spanish?

3. “The Philippines is a leading shipbuilding nation.”

According to London-based Clarkson Research Services, the Philippines placed fourth worldwide in 2014 in terms of newbuilding deliveries with a reported 1.0 million Compensated Gross Tonnage (CGT). South Korea boasted 12.1 million CGT, followed by China (11.52 million CGT) and Japan (6.6 million CGT). Before Filipinos gloat over the statistics, they should keep in mind that the rankings are based on newbuildings by domicile (the country where the ships are built). The reality is that the local shipbuilding sector is controlled by foreign shipyards (Hanjin, Keppel and Tsuneishi). Philippine shipbuilding is a mirage. What the country has is a shipyard employment industry.

4. “We are already on the IMO White List. As a sovereign nation, we should not be subjected to inspections by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).”

For anyone to object to the EMSA inspections is to show ignorance of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) as amended in 2010, in particular Regulation I/10, Article 1.1. It is also to forget that the Philippines is a mere provider of maritime labour. Filipinos do not, and will never, enjoy any kind of maritime power simply by virtue of being No. 1 in crewing. Never mind the IMO White List. It is STCW compliance on paper.

5. “Ship manning is a strategic industry.”

We heard this glib statement from the CEO of one of the country’s largest crewing firms. For sure, ship manning is a crucial economic activity with Filipino seamen remitting billions of dollars annually. But it is not strategic if by the term is understood an industry that can move the country from point A to point Z or, more modestly, to point C.

The stark truth is that decades of manning other nations’ fleets have not resulted in the Philippines becoming a genuinely maritime nation. They have failed to even lift the country from ship manning to ship management. On the contrary, the national obsession with crewing has hastened the decline of the Filipino-owned oceangoing fleet and the demise of Filipino shipbuilding and marine manufacturing. But how many Filipinos give a damn anyway? Foreign employers will keep coming and coming. ~Barista Uno


6 Replies to “Five Filipino maritime illusions dispelled”

  1. rob pearcey

    100% correct

    My new biggest fear is the Belize certification, Belize are handing out certification without back up national certificate being provided. We have no way to stop this and no way we can judge the person competency, as these seafarers seem to have discovered a way round STCW. IMO is not focussing on what Marine professional are uncovering.

    • Barista Uno

      Many thanks for your comment, Rob. Seamen caught with bogus or invalid certificates by Port State Control officials should be slapped with fines. Such cases persist because seamen connive with fixers or with syndicates that produce fake documents.

  2. Reid Sprague

    Dear BU,

    When I read this post it reminded of some of the embarrassing, and very effective, lists of ways the United States is “NOT #1”. To wit:

    The run-of-the-mill jingoist American politician has a standard rhetorical device: “our X is the envy of the world” or “we lead the world in Y” – we’re even told that the terrorists hate us only because we’re so free, or that “America is the greatest country on Earth” etc. – assertions most Americans have heard so often that many don’t even question them.

    So lists of the United States’ actual ranking in internationally recognized metrics, like standard of living or social mobility or health care availability or percentage of citizens incarcerated – just to name a few – are sobering, and provide a strong corrective to that kind of vote-for-me political rhetoric. When used most effectively, a list like that can motivate people to do better, although there is also always a large group of folks who don’t like to hear what the critic has to say.

    Maybe you could use your cogent list in this post as a springboard for a series of articles about how to address some of these “maritime illusions”. Not that the answers are simple. But could a clear examination of each help start a national conversation? Especially as elections grow closer; elections are very noisy, but sometimes a resonant idea gains power from their energy.

    Anyway, I can think of no one better fitted to state the case persuasively, BU., and you seem to have supporters within the maritime establishment. Do you think it would be worth a try?

    God bless you!

  3. Barista Uno

    Splendid suggestion, Reid. Thanks very much.

    To be frank, I sometimes feel like I’m talking to a wall. What I have just written is a reiteration of what I’ve already said before. One can repeat oneself just so many times without boring one’s audience.

    On the other hand, I believe that a nation’s self-dialogue helps define its character and shape its destiny. Changing it may be very difficult if not nearly impossible, especially in the case of the Filipinos, who have a DAMAGED maritime culture. That is no reason for not trying, of course. And so I shall give your proposal some serious thought. Perchance the subject could be better dealt with in a book rather than a series of blog articles.

    I am buckling down to finish editing before the year’s end the book with the introduction I had requested you to write. I had placed the project on the back burner because I was overcome by self-doubt and a sense of futility. That sounds a bit foolish now.

    Thanks once again for your confidence.

  4. Jun Amomonpon

    Dear BU,

    I agree with the suggestion of Reid Sprague. When you do make your study I suggest you go beyond what you see here in Metro Manila, where most who may have expressed your points may have been to see only when they had they joined as cadet as they are not really residing close to the sea.

    Try to ask why most of the traditional Filipino ahip owners are from the Visayas or Mindanao. Try to research the William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Sweet Lines era, to name a few of the big owners then. In my opinon it was politics which destroyed that era and our chance to be a real maritime nation.

    The Filipinos has Strong Connection to the Sea. It is traditional taught by our seafaring ancestors that we look at the sea as:

    1) traditional a source of cure. I recall when I was young the first bath after a long illness would always be sea water on the belief the sea would ensure that the illness would not come back. You might know already what we belief as the most effective cure for sea-sickness until now.

    2) a place of enchantment and respect. It is told by the old guys that the sea has a spirit which has to be respected and sometimes talked to for help if you want to survive. Try to research on some incident of grounding and other incidents within Philippine waters and asked what were the crew doing besides what was technically done to survive or get out of the situation.

    3) A source of energy and peace of mind.
    Though not many of it are expressed in written form but it is handed down as stories from the old to the kids.
    Leave it up to you to research the rest.

    • Barista Uno

      Thanks very much for weighing in, Jun.

      I do not limit my sight to Metro Manila, as you seem to suggest. My ancestral roots happen to be in Mindanao, and I still travel occasionally to the Visayas region. Besides, I was a ports and shipping journalist long enough (too long, in fact) to know that an open mind and an observant eye are indispensable for good journalism.

      You talk of William Lines, Sweet Lines etc — the “golden age,” as I call it, of the country’s interisland shipping. But that era is long gone. As for tales of the sea told by old men and native cures from the ocean, I seriously doubt if those things are part of the national soul, of what the contemporary Filipino is. I raise the question again: if Filipinos truly have a close affinity with the sea, why don’t they have maritime art and maritime literature?

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