Looking back at the debate over the monstrous squatting plague that is ravaging the Philippines’ major cities that has raged across social media like a wildfire, it is difficult not to be a nostalgic of a time when squatters where a relatively small problem. Perhaps back in a time when squatter colonies were more an unsightly blight that dotted the metropolis than the vast swaths of festering infestation that has brought Manila to its knees today, it was a lot easier to be sympathetic of these “informal settlers.”
[Image courtesy Hecho Ayer.]
So, many more people back then could find it in their hearts to be a bit more tolerant of squatters. The sorts of sentiments that ring hollow today — the calls that draw upon Filipinos’ ingrained distrust of the landed gentry and that play the victim card in favour of society’s “oppressed” — resonated more powerfully back when the charms of Manila’s esteros were still visible treats to Mañilenos; back when a lazy leisurely stroll was still possible in the Philippine capital.
Was it difficult, if not impossible, to foresee back then what an enormous social problem squatters would go on to become? Perhaps. The Philippines back in the 1950s — when the memory of the euphoria of Independence from the United States was still fresh in the minds of Filipinos — was different. The country actually had a promising future ahead of it. And where there was a promising future, there was hope that was shared across what was then a small community of about 20-odd million in a way that transcended social class and tribal lines.
See, the thing with small problems is that they creep up on their unsuspecting victims slowly. Indeed, the manner with which squatters came to take over Metro Manila was neither something that happened in one big attack wave nor one that was contrived. It happened progressively much the same way one comes around to sporting a comb-over as I have written some time ago…
I believe that comb-over regimes happen progressively. They start as a small bald patch that can be hidden with a very minor change in the way we comb our hair. In my case, for example, a scar just above my hairline at the left side of my face predisposes me to grow a bit of an extra fringe there (and comb it down a bit) to even things out — achieve that symmetry that is so prized in the animal kingdom, so to speak.
For those of us who are unfortunate enough to possess the male pattern baldness gene, the baldness can advance in a slow enough pace as to elude awareness of the small incremental changes in the way we comb and have our hair trimmed as the shinier spots on our head advance in scope. The majority probably get it at some point and make a decisive correction in their grooming patterns.
Unfortunately, some don’t — at least not until they are way past the point-of-no-return in their emotional and social investment in their chosen hair grooming regime.
There are consequences to the decisions we make that are not readily-apparent. The squatter problem in the Philippines is so mind-boggling in its enormity that it can be considered to be an intractable problem — one that will require humanly-unacceptable decisions to be made in order to fully reverse the immense damage done and shunt the freight train that is Philippine society onto a line that will set it on a course to a better outcome. Admittedly, the show-stopper for the camp that advocates a hardline implementation of a zero-tolerance rules-based approach to dealing with squatters is what to do with the hundreds of thousands of families who will be subject to such a regime. Where do you put them? There are simply too many of them.
Those who are of the view that giving them “hope” by sparing them from absolute subjection to the law will hopefully turn them into productive citizens someday. There is a big assumption inherent in this position — the assumption that opening doors to most people will result in their walking through said door.
The Philippine squatter problem, as such, can be likened to the ever-widening budget deficit of the United States. Dealing with the US deficit comes down to the question of whether to continue spending and hoping that the hoped-for economic returns of that expenditure will eventually overtake the rate at which the deficit widens, or to stop or drastically reduce spending on the back of some kind of hope that the economy will continue chugging along despite being half-starved of the stimulus government spending provides it. It is a similarly intractable problem. The consequences have, within the domain of acceptable thinking, become permanent.
In both cases, all roads lead to the question of why we allowed things to get to this point to begin with. When such a question has become pretty much the only intellectual artifact we can reflect upon, the reality that a kind of thinking needs to be applied that is fundamentally different to the sort of thinking that created the problem to begin with becomes starkly evident.
With apologies to Albert Einstein.
[Photo of Estero de Paco courtesy Dennis Villegas.]
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