“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


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