Horror traffic gridlock stories juxtaposed with VIP lanes through which APEC bigwigs zip by smoothly have been flooding social media timelines over the last couple of days. Accompanying the images, memes, and footage depicting this horror are ordinary Filipinos’ complaints. And they are pouring in by the bucket loads. The key argument used by people who defend the road closures, flight cancellations and other disruptions implemented to make way for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit hosted by the Philippines this year is that it is a sacrifice that every Filipinos should see as worthwhile for the greater good of the country.
Sacrifice. That word again. As if labelling an inconvenience a “sacrifice” suddenly makes the deliberate foisting of that inconvenience on hapless citizens a “worthwhile” endeavour.
The trouble with this thinking is that it is reflective of the deeper lack of respect that characterises Filipino culture. At the core of this lack of respect is the assumption that other people’s times are less important than yours or that of your immediate circle of friends’ and families’. Assuming that putting millions of people’s lives on hold for an entire week is a small matter given the bigger scheme of things that the APEC summit presumably embodies was a big one made by the government of Philippine President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III in both;
(1) deciding to hold the event in Manila itself; and,
(2) implementing a haphazard disruption of essential transport services in this vast megalopolis, specifically road availability and civil aviation services.
The question the government of BS Aquino should have asked is this: Is five days of Metro Manila time worth “sacrificing”?
The idea that ‘sacrificing’ a ‘few’ days of the time of the Philippines’ premiere metropolis is justifiable traces its roots to these three cherished cultural artefacts:
Many of us who’ve been a bit better bred than the average schmoe were raised to uphold the belief that being late for a meeting is a show of disrespect for the people you kept waiting. But Filipinos in general see no problem with being an hour late for an appointment. Indeed, being late for appointments is pretty much a given in the Philippines. One can therefore conclude that Filipinos do not respect other people’s time.
And this is the cultural trait underpinning the baffling manner with which the Philippine government arbitrarily decided to block roads and cancel hundreds of flights in and out of Manila. People’s times did not matter. That lack of respect is deeply-baked into the character of the Filipino.
Filipinos will bend way way backwards to accomodate guests and fete them lavishly. That fiesta ethic is exactly what is going on this week. Ordinary Filipinos were made to “sacrifice” their roads so that their foreign guests need not suffer Manila’s normal messed up traffic. Air services were summarily suspended so that President Barack Obama’s Air Force One and its V-22 Osprey escorts can land safely and securely.
Why all this “sacrifice”? Because Filipinos did not really have the facilities to accomodate guests as part of normal operations. We did not have the extra capacity to accomodate guests without disrupting our normal way of life. So we disrupted that already-stretched way of life even further to be “hospitable”.
In reality, the Philipines actually does have that extra guesthouse for times like these that could be made available without kicking the actual residents off their proverbial bedrooms and onto banigs in the sala. The last APEC hosted by the Philippines in 1996 was held in Subic Bay at the former US naval facility there.
Filipinos need to put up a good show — even if that means selling their kalabaw to fund it. Even if the show is but a thin shell of the true less-shiny reality that forms the bulk of our national substance, that show needs to go on. Perhaps this is the reason why skin whitening lotion sells like hotcakes in the Philippines and why Filipino celebrities all look like Korean models. We simply lose the plot building that showcase veneer and fail to understand that, at the end of the day, substance matters.
* * *
In short, if road closures, flight cancellations, and excessively special treatment for visiting delegates are required to host international events, the truth about the Philippines becomes all the more evident: that Filipinos really cannot afford events like these. The infrastructure to ensure the comfort and safety of important guests is simply not there as part of ordinary capacity.
Those of us who are afforded the luxury to pontificate about how five days of disruption in the country’s premiere metropolis is a “worthwhile sacrifice”, perhaps need to get a bit more perspective and understand why such an astounding assumption comes so easily. The reason is because being late for an appointment also comes easy to the average Filipino. We simply lack respect for other people’s times. That respect should begin even with small matters — which is why in truly great countries, meetings always start on time, trains and buses arrive and depart within minutes of their prescribed timetable, and changes to normal operations are planned way in advance and the affected people kept informed about these. It is because respect is a deeply-ingrained ethic in these societies that is totally absent in Philippine society.
[NB: The photo featured in this article is widely-distributed over social media.]
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