THE ETHICS OF “TINGI”

Posted: September 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

(an article published in The Daily Tribune on June 26, 2005)

“Tingi”, for most Filipinos, is the most basic unit of buying small scale—piece by piece and pinch by pinch. It is the measurement for the miniscule, for the mini-quantity trade. National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin said, “And commerce for the Filipino is the very smallest degree of retail: the tingi…To foreigners used to buying things by the carton of the dozen or the pound, and in large economy sizes, the exquisite transactions of Philippine tingi cannot but seem Lilliputian. So much effort by so many for so little!” It is the manifestation of our heritage of smallness, argues the national Artist. But is it really a mentality, a structure of thought of the un-enterprising and economically lethargic Filipino, as Nick Joaquin suggested?

“Tingi” is an ethics.

“Tingi” as word appears only in Tagalog dictionaries. As idea, however, we cannot be sure that it is exclusively Tagalog. But the word plus the idea reflects an aspect of the Tagalog society.

In the 1613 Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala of Franciscan Pedro de San Buenaventura, “tingi”, is defined as moderado (moderate). It means El acto de comprar y vender (the act of buying and selling) in the dictionary of Francisco de San Antonio. Jesuits Pedro de San Lucar and Juan de Noceda, who improved on the San Buenaventura vocabulario define it as comprar con moderacion (the act of buying in moderation). From these lexical evidences, we can almost be sure that both the word and the concept exist in the Tagalog mentality. Its absence in other Philippine language dictionaries does not suggest, however, that the concept is non-existent in other Philippine societies.

We usually think of “tingi” as measurement—measurement for the miniscule. Hence, even my favorite Nick Joaquin equated it with sticks of cigarettes, with the mini-quantity commerce, with the “Lilliputian.”

In reality, the common theme among the Tagalog lexicons about “tingi” is moderation—the buying or selling in moderation. Definition of “tingi” in relation to moderation reverberates the most fundamental principle of the ethical life—from the Buddha’s doctrine of the Middle Path, Aristotle and the Golden Mean, Confucius and his Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) to Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—doctrines that emphasize moderation. So, too, does the Tagalog “tingi”.

What we all thought as an ordinary business cultural practice, in fact, means more than what we realize. It is an invitation to experience the ethical, an exhortation to respect merchandise by appropriating only what is enough for oneself, by ensuring stability of resources and supply, negating greed because of concern for fellow consumer. Miniscule, therefore, in the context of the ethics of “tingi” means neither small nor a heritage of smallness, but moderation.

“Tingi” in relation to money or to profit is a new invention. Perhaps, in this milieu of the monetary, Nick Joaquin composed his thoughts. Smallness, as he conceived of it, has acquired not a small degree of transformation and redefinition. In the modern world, where money and not abundance of undefiled natural resources is the source of immediate power, “tingi” acquired a new definition even for the “market philosopher.”

In Divisoria (the agora of all Philippine agoras and the heartland of the “tingi”) stall owners and buyers were unanimous on the obvious observation that “ito lang ang kaya kasi ng Pinoy” when asked why Filipinos prefer to buy in small quantities. Small scale buying and vending in industrialist societies have a direct relationship with material capital. The ethics of the “tingi” would be more pronounced in pre-modern, simple societies or even with pastoralist societies. Afterwards, quantitative value was attached to resources. Sacred personal relationship between consumer and the resources around him was, after the birth of the idea of commodity, mediated by money. Power did not reside anymore with the capacity to respect resources nor with the resource “as itself in its sacred status” but with money. “Tingi”, from then on, lost its ethical dimension such that with the domination of the money economy, it came to signify powerlessness.

Buying in “tingi” tells of one’s financial status. We buy not anymore in moderation, not because of concern for the “other” (fellow consumers), or because of respect for resources “as itself in its sacred status”; but because we are short of money. We buy small not because we think small, but because, with our total dependence on money as the medium of acquisition, “ito lang kasi and kaya ng Pinoy.” Buying small is not reflective of a general trait, or habit, or a structure of thought, but reflective of monetary constraints. Junking the idea of “smallness” is easier said than done. It actually means going back to moderation, back to respect for resources. Establishing, once again, a direct personal relationship with resources. (RANDOLPH JOSEPH H. DE JESUS)

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