Thailand and the Philippines have commonalities in both origin and culture that make them like two peas in a pod, says Prof Felipe De Leon, the chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in the Philippines.
"The people from both countries have a service-minded nature, deep faith in a spiritual being and take life as it comes," he said.
"We are a happy-go-lucky people who love to socialise. Also in both cultures, mountains are considered sacred, and we are a rather superstitious lot. As our historical roots are also intertwined, our physical features are also quite similar, and the list can go on and on.
"During my talk on the arts and cultures of both countries at Kasetsart University, many in the audience thought I was referring to Thai society when I mentioned such habits in the Philippines as opting to use connections in higher places to get things done rather than go through regular channels, and having a great sense of empathy for each other's well-being.
"So it just goes to show that apart from looking alike physically, we also have similar mannerisms and habits in conducting our lives. Filipinos love to connect, while Thais are probably not very different."
Prof De Leon, a man of many talents, is a composer who has undertaken numerous studies in Philippines musicology, and whose contributions to society include the development of of the arts for understanding people's culture. The softly-spoken professor of humanities, aesthetics, music theory, arts and culture at the University of the Philippines also serves as a distinguished lecturer on social transformation at the Asian Social Institute.
Always happy to share his experiences and knowledge, the Filipino described his work as understanding the purest expression of the values people hold dear. Once an individual knows how to analyse the arts, he said, they will know the people. Through research and personal encounters, he has realised that the very basis of sustainable culture is development, because "culture is about the skills of the people".
Two years into his role as NCCA chairman, Prof De Leon said one of his biggest challenges to date has been to offer a light at the end of the tunnel for his fellow countrymen who have had to contend with corrupt and self-serving politicians for most of their lives. Working together to promote Filipino culture and arts globally will bring about sustainable development for the Philippines, and hope for the hopeless.
"It is a big priority of mine to assist the Philippines' marginalised people, most of whom, I have to unfortunately admit, have been exploited by unscrupulous people in high positions. They [marginalised people] are our cultural identity, our national symbol, but I have to say that their survival is at stake if they are not financially supported. This is why we are attempting to make their arts a source of livelihood for them. We are trying to inculcate ways for them to have a steady monthly income, it is not enough to just promote culture identity without thinking about their source of income."
Besides promoting the identity of marginalised people in schools, Prof De Leon added that experts in music, arts and crafts are offered regular stipends to share their know-how with youngsters in their communities. By doing so they can preserve the wealth of knowledge which may otherwise be lost in the years to come.
As for the Asean Economic Community, which is due to start in 2015, Prof De Leon said finding commonalities and promoting diversity at local levels can help the countries enjoy a smooth transition.
Of equal importance is promoting the shared heritage at regional level, he added. Culture is a soft approach to diplomacy, because for one it is not threatening.
In the case of Thailand and the Philippines, he said it was important to organise cultural events to educate each other's people about common and different traditions, music, festivals and ways of life. A cultural agreement could pave the way for both countries to exchange know-how, De Leon suggested.
"In the Philippines the only thing we know about Thailand is the food," he said. "It would be great to have everything from Thai traditional dances to cultural festivals and exhibitions held in the Philippines.
"We in return can bring our traditional culture and arts over to Thailand. This will be great for everyone concerned, including the manpower that plans to come to work here and Thais going to the Philippines."
Prof De Leon said both Thais and Filipinos enjoy having fun, and networking comes easily to them. It is also in their culture to be service-minded.
He observed that because of their laid-back nature, neither nationality was particularly known for their punctuality. On the positive side, this made them a happier lot compared to other nations, he said, smiling.
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- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert