The following is a copy of the Foreword I wrote for my friend Ben Kritz’s new book Same Planet, Different World: An Outsider’s Inside View of the Philippines. You can download the book from Amazon here onto Kindle or any of a variety of apps also supported by Amazon.
We in our clique of the “politically passionate” love to derisively point out that our government is run by leaders driven by self-interest to the awful detriment of the vast majority. It is, in fact, true that Philippine politics has proven us to be the antithesis to the lofty notion that there is supposed to be no other motivation to seek political power beyond a personal desire to serve a people. Nonetheless, an aspiration to see ourselves constituting a government that truly serves – one that sees the greater good as the only end in all of what it undertakes – remains at the core of the national consciousness.
Yet we fail to see the irony in how we’ve all but delegated to the private sector much of the business of delivering essential public services. Indeed, we now cheer the takeover by private enterprise – enterprise driven by profit – of undertakings that government should be fully on top of, if not completely in control of, to ensure that access to these services (considered by polite society to be a “human right”) is based more on need than on an ability to purchase these.
Community building at large urban scales in the Philippines’ big cities, for example, is now largely driven — and constrained in many ways — by private interests. Government officials say they can no longer “cope” with the rising demand for public services normally provided by the state such as development of public facilities, law enforcement, and waste disposal. As a result, there is a markedly lessened sense of community in the Philippines, especially in its premier city Metro Manila where the public domain is being squeezed out by the rapidly-expanding domain of insular privately-held spaces and the elite communities these host.
We express indignation over the way our politicians apply more of a what’s-in-it-for-me ethic than a sense of civic duty to the common good when making crucial governance decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of people. Yet we gladly embrace the commercialisation of public and civic space by for-profit enterprise. Small surprise that business interests (read profits) are now at the centre of pretty much everything to do with community dynamics in the Philippines.
Accessible recreational space in the Philippines, to cite another example, is now increasingly falling within the control of big-time retailers. Malls rather than parks are now the default go-to for family frolics — because there is no other clean, safe, and affordable place to go. In this way, Philippine society has ceded awesome power to retailers to set the pace and tone of how Filipinos spend their leisure time, and their money. Instead of wholesome environments where family and friends can gather and socialise most Filipinos can only choose among places where every sight is shared by a colourful and noisy pitch to spend. Such is the strength of the consumerist mindset being ingrained in the Filipino that much of Metro Manila gets paralysed by monstrous traffic jams whenever the powers-that-be in the retail industry call the faithful to a pilgrimage to their temples of consumerism — whenever there are occasions and events deemed by the industry as reasons to spend and consume even more than the usual.
This short-sighted looking to the private sector to subsidise – worse, own and control – public service is by no means a recent malaise. Public transport had been taken up by rinky-dink “jeepneys” converted from surplus US Army jeeps after the end of World War II for the sake of plugging a gap in the government’s ability to provide a basic public need. But then this stopgap measure that draws on laissez faire enterprise to quickly fill a need was to remain largely unchanged over the next several decades until the present. So now the social cancer that is the jeepney remains a key pillar in what has become the monstrously chaotic kanya-kanya free enterprise morass that is the Philippines’ public land transport system.
More disturbing is the relatively recent manner with which that approach to looking to the private sector to step in in lieu of the state’s neglect of its duty to guide the evolution of society into a true community has been applied to developing urban land assets. Like the country’s public transport systems, many of the biggest Philippine cities are now limping along the same way under the weight of a cacophony of private subdivisions competing for space and rights to attract customers and keep them happy. Because, following the same retarded logic that went into addressing the public transport challenge, the thinking that prevailed is that (1) government lacks the resources and (2) private enterprise necessarily does things better. The two truisms have long been ingrained in the national consciousness as the state’s default excuse and the private sectors’ compelling pitch respectively to maintain this perverse status quo contract between government and business. So on-going administration of huge tracts of land developed by private enterprise have been ceded to the same private interests as well – including control of general access and maintenance of law and order to and within the area. In most cases, this works well for these gated communities’ customers. The private administration delivers because its customers could afford it. But the greater public suffers.
Step back far enough and take overall stock of the manner with which essential public services – in this specific case mobility, environment, and security – are delivered across social classes under the current setup and we will find an unacceptably high variance in quality, with the best of services availed of by those who can afford the best that private enterprise can deliver and the worst of service availed of by those who can only rely on government. For the poor and lower-middle-class, there is not much choice. Life in gated communities is simply beyond their reach. Interestingly as well, for the rich and middle class, there is not much option either. Availing of private service is a must, because government will not assure security and safety to the quality they require.
Many critics of “big government” hail the privatisation of the Philippines as an all-good thing, pointing out that the private sector with its focus on competitive advantage is necessarily in a better position to deliver quality and value to its customers. The government and its public service delivery agencies, as the same thinking goes, are monopolistic and therefore inefficient, not focused on quality, and not in tune with “customer” needs.
But are recipients and beneficiaries of essential services, the access to which are deemed by many so-called thought leaders as a basic “human right” really “customers”? The idea that citizens who avail of essential services like public transport, law enforcement, waste disposal, and public facilities and infrastructure are “customers” needs to be re-examined. A setup where individual businesses engage in a competitive bid to provide essential services to people to be regarded as their “customers” rather than as beneficiaries of essential public services remains the core of public transport dysfunction in the Philippines. And now so too, in the same way, does this condition afflict overall large-scale community development. Gated communities today are to the challenge of coherent community development as jeepneys are to the development of a coherent mass transportation system. Both the gated community and the jeepney are short-term fixes that went on to become deeply-ingrained stains in the fabric of the society and are now hindrances to achieving much-needed leaps in development.
How, after all, can an elected official living in a gated community and enjoying the vastly superior security and community services it affords claim to truly understand – no, personally feel for – the plight of the majority of their constituents? For that matter, why would a voter even choose a person whose very lifestyle is hinged upon an ability to isolate herself from their voters’ ways of life? It seems many Filipinos fail to see that politicians living in gated communities can never have enough skin in the game played by most ordinary Filipinos. Indeed, they will never have the same sense of urgency to, say, improve police services – because they can afford to pay for their gated communities’ private security forces and afford to ignore what goes on beyond their personal fortresses. Beyond the issues of dynasties and the scourge of “traditional” politicians, the very notion of voting for a person who as a matter of routine deliberately excludes himself or herself from the banal challenges of their constituents’ way of life points to the fundamental flaw in how Filipinos wield the so-called “power” democracy has vested in them.
Perhaps one day, Filipino voters will be cluey enough to know enough to vote for someone who personally can relate to their ordinary challenges. And when that happens, political leadership then becomes one where the resulting sufficient skin in the game compels leaders to spur change with greater senses of urgency. But until then, the manner with which government with our current crop of politicians at the helm, the sorts of voters who elect them, and private enterprise controlled by a centuries-old oligarchy divvy up the country together provide ingredients for interesting stories to be told.
It is this corner where political agendas, business interests, and Filipino thinking intersect that Ben, equipped with his astute nose for business insight, carefully-tuned political radar, and personal skin in the game of life in the Philippines as a foreigner, has cut his niche. The Philippines is a country that aspires to steer itself towards social justice bliss but whose sails are filled by winds of self-interest and private enterprise. In his excellent work in punditry and in mainstream media, Ben adeptly navigates the Philippines’ exciting landscape of conflicting interests and warring classes while picking up the relevant dots and connecting them, identifying the patterns nobody else sees, and asking the sorts of questions nobody dares ask along the way.
That we now have this volume of Ben’s brilliant work in one place to grasp and sink our teeth into is cause to celebrate – celebrate the start of what will likely be an even longer journey we must take to find our country’s own unique path to real sustained progress given our unique challenges. For many, the ideas Ben lays out in this book will remain debatable for years to come, because much of what he proposes goes against the grain of Filipinos’ conventional thinking. But in that lies the source of my confidence that his work has gone a long way towards pointing us in the right direction – because to achieve different results, we cannot continue to keep thinking in the same way (with apologies to Albert Einstein).
[Same Planet, Different World: An Outsider’s Inside View of the Philippines is a collection of insights on public life in the Philippines, from the point of view of long-time American resident and Manila Times columnist Ben Kritz. It can be downloaded from Amazon here. Photo courtesy Action International Ministries.]
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