Overseas Filipinos and the Challenge of Political Engagement

It’s a crazy world we’re living in.

I’ve felt that to be true in the past 2 years or so since my family and I moved to the United States. I know that it is also true in the past, but I’ve felt it even more on social media, and even on personal interactions.

I’ve heard of friends needing to unfriend or unfollow their friends on Facebook because political discussions have turned downright ugly and toxic.

I have not been very active on social media. Or it may be accurate to say that I have not been as active as I used to be.

I’ve been thinking about the political engagement of OFWs. It comes easy for some while for others it is a challenge. I’ve been thinking of some of the mental barriers preventing OFWs to engage politically.

You’re out of the country, what do you know?

About 2 or 3 years ago, I came back to the Philippines from a quick trip to the USA. While standing in line waiting for my turn at the passport control counters, I overheard two Filipinos talking about everything that’s wrong in the country.

They started their tirades with the long lines at the passport control, the heat, the traffic, and one of them said “Hay naku, wala namang nagbabago, laging palpak sa Pilipinas…”

I was not an Overseas Filipino Worker then. And I did not take their comments kindly. Here are two balikbayans who were clearly in a better economic and financial position by virtue of living in a developed country. And when they come back to the Philippines, they just complain. A part of me wanted to tell them, you left the country and when you come back, the first thing you do is complain?

Now that I am an OFW, myself, I definitely long for home. I also understand that for Filipinos who never left, living there has a lot of comforts, and a lot of struggles. Isn’t that the same everywhere?

But as OFWs who are not living in the Philippines we should also be careful, lest we be accused of being ‘privileged Filipinos’ who do not really know what it’s like to live with the contradictions and challenges of Philippine society.

On the other hand, there are a lot of OFW bloggers who do not shy away from controversy and publish their political views on their blogs and on social media. Three particular bloggers come to mind: http://ReynaElena.com, Sass who uses Facebook and now different media channels, and benig0 of Get Real Philippines.

Manila airport, Philippines - Philippine Airlines terminal

You’re a foreigner here, what do you know?

True story, I have a Canadian friend who is working as a Mennonite missionary in the Philippines. He is pro-peace and strongly values life. He advocates peaceful resolution to war and conflict, as well as in the war against drugs started by Pres. Duterte.

Because he is also very vocal about his views on Facebook, he had been told several times ‘to pack up his bags and go back to Canada.’ That is a very harsh statement that dismisses his opinions solely on the basis of his nationality.

As a foreigner living in the United States, I also feel that challenge. I am not an American but I do have views about American politics and society. Should we dismiss people’s views and concerns only because they are not citizens in our country?

Armchair Revolutionaries and Celebrity Politics

Here’s another caveat. Our political engagement on Facebook and Social Media may not lead to meaningful change. Some social media users may also become armchair revolutionaries, airing their political and social rants on Facebook, but may not be engaged with grassroots political participation.

Increasingly, politicians, the government, and other non-state actors are treating social media as a channel for political communication and marketing. The audiences then consume these messages through the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

A lot of politicians around the world (Trump in the USA and Duterte in the Philippines) have incorporated Social Media in airing their personal views and opinions, or integrated it into their governmental roles to engage citizens more efficiently and effectively.

The problem, sometimes, is that government posts, issues, and concerns become even more entrenched in celebrity politics.

In my more cynical moments, right before I post a political rant on Facebook, I ask myself ‘does it matter if I post this?’ Too often, this question discourages me from posting political rants on Facebook.

But I digress…

Applicable Laws?

As OFWs, we need to be mindful of applicable laws regarding political participation in the countries where we are serving. We cannot vote in the elections in the countries where we are unless we are citizens and have registered to vote.

In the Philippines, the Bureau of Immigration have repeatedly warned foreigners not to join rallies and other political activities. In a news report from 2007, Immigration Commissioner Marcelino Libanan said: ”
“Foreigners have no business joining rallies here as it is tantamount to interfering in our country’s domestic political activities.” (source: Philippine Star)

Striking the Balance, Other Ways of Political Engagement.

Social Media is not (or at least it should not be) our main way to engage politically–whether at home or in our country of work and residence.

We are citizens of the Republic of the Philippines.

This alone gives us a right to participate in the political arena of our country. It doesn’t matter if we are within the Philippine territories or outside. We also expect our country to look after our welfare in the countries where we live and work.


OFWs are sending millions of remittances to the Philippines yearly.

OFWs have been called “Bagong Bayani” or “New Heroes” over the past decade or so. By virtue of our economic power, we are entitled to participate. In December 2016, OFWs around the world sent around $2.56 Billion. That is a huge amount of money.

The truth is, no matter who sits as President of the country, OFWs will send money back to their families. We can never engage in any form of economic boycott against any administration. Which makes it even sadder that the Philippine government isn’t more responsive to the needs of OFWs, particularly in countries where the rights of OFWs are not guaranteed.

As OFWs, we need to scrutinize the policies of the government towards us.

How is the government promoting our welfare? What services can we and our families avail of?

We need to monitor what happens in the country and what the government does in relation to the huge overseas Filipino population. There are over 11 million of us now, and still growing. I am not sure if there is an OFW partylist in the House of Representatives. But it would be helpful if we get connected with organizations and government agencies promoting the welfare of OFWs.

Social Media isn’t the only place where we can engage politically. That is just one of the arenas of political engagement. But if you’re not comfortable in engaging online, that’s fine. There are other ways to do so.

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