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Dimmer Lights: Are Filipinos Less Intelligent than Other Southeast Asians?

By David Haldane

March 30, 2023




It’s something to which I’ve long paid attention. Probably because my parents—especially Mom—were absolute fanatics about getting good grades and achieving full potential.

“Show me your homework!” she’d demand each day as I arrived home from school to find her waiting at the door. Then she’d stand over me for two hours making sure it got done.

Which affected me in two major ways. First, it made me an excellent student and high achiever. Second, it made me hopelessly neurotic for life. So much so that, until now, I stress over minor failures and the certainty of not doing enough. So much so that I find it impossible to impose the same discipline on my children that my parents imposed on me.

And yet I was disturbed by a recent piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer regarding Filipino intelligence. Compared to those of other Southeast Asian countries, the article asserts, this nation’s best and brightest are dumber and dimmer.

“The heartrending tragedy,” columnist Joel Ruiz Butuyan writes, “lies beyond measure in a country rendered desolate by wasted talents and squandered wits.”

As evidence, he cites statistics compiled by the World Population Review placing the Philippines—with a national average IQ of 86—dead last among its peers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Lately, he says, the country’s average IQ has dipped even further to 81.

Besides poverty and “social discord,” Butuyan concludes, “there are additional factors preventing our people from maximizing their innate gifts…” Among them: the demand for English fluency and, what the study calls “the quality of education and resources available…”

I can’t attest to the veracity of those numbers. During my time in the Philippines, I’ve met people clearly smarter than me and others clearly not. What I have come across way too often, though, is young Filipinos who think of learning as rote memorization rather than actual understanding.

For this, I blame the schools.

I also blame them—at least the one my 12-year-old son attends—for a lackadaisical attitude toward basic education. That became clear during the pandemic when Philippine students endured two-and-a-half years of what passed for “learning” online. “We hope the damage to our son will be minimal,” I lamented in 2021.

To help assure that it would, we made a painful pilgrimage back to the US waiting for the schools to reopen here. When they finally did, it was with the solemn pledge of continued face-to-face education.

To their credit, Philippine public schools have largely kept that promise. Our more-costly private school revised it almost immediately, announcing that online classes would continue once-a-week through November. Then they decided to continue them through the end of the year.

“How can you justify that?” I demanded during an impromptu meeting with an administrator.

“Well,” he said, smiling wanly, “it’s to ease the students’ transition. We surveyed parents and 98% said OK.”

To which I have several reactions: first, while online classes certainly may be easier for teachers and administrators, they are devastating for the average student; second, no one ever surveyed me; and, finally, it’s impossible to imagine even a slim majority of parents agreeing to less education.

And so we’ve hired a tutor; a public-school teacher who, after working full days, spends her evenings with us. The goal: to ensure that, in the next round of IQ tests, our son doesn’t follow the national trend.

I think my mother would be proud.





David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.


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