Anyone who has purchased a shirt in a department store in the Philippines has probably observed how each cash register is often manned by anywhere from two to four sales personnel — one to scan the merchandise, another to ring up the purchase on the machine, another to make all sorts of notations on the machine print out, and yet another to bag the item. Considering that a vastly more complex piece of equipment like a modern tank can be manned by a crew of three, this is very inefficient indeed. In fact, entire department store floors in advanced societies can be effectively manned by a team of five sales personnel.
Labour is truly an abundant resource in the Philippines. There is no pressure to develop and implement labour saving technology, methods, and processes because there are ample takers for any job no matter how dehumanising. Even modern photocopiers — machines that engineers took great pains to design into intuitive useroperated marvels — are each manned full-time by staff in many Philippine offices. To be fair to these workers and to the managers who design labour-intensive systems, Filipinos are not known to be the self-service type. Filipinos do not have an ethic of reading signs and following written instructions. This is partly because there is also no consistent use of instructional or directional signage in Philippine society. Traffic lights have to be augmented by traffic cops at intersections and lane markings in Philippine roads do not mean anything to Filipino motorists. Fixers and “facilitators” are a necessity when transacting with government agencies because there is often no coherent and consistent system to follow and hardly any information provided to guide customers. Filipinos find no satisfaction in designing systems that run like clockwork. Chaos reigns in many Filipino undertakings and chaos is a labourintensive situation to manage.
Even Filipino politics is labour-intensive. Filipinos invest in a highly-disruptive and expensive process to select their leaders — elections. Yet when the going gets tough, they don’t really see the people they elect to office as their representatives in Government. How’s that for an irony?
Filipinos find no irony in participating in elections, and then, not seeing the people they elect to office as their representatives. In the same way they find no problem with working a system and not finding any tangible results or benefit for themselves after all their trouble. This kind of attitude is sometimes called going through the motions. Filipinos are good at going through the motions. We like to feel like a democratic society because we go through the motions of having elections or go through the motions of expressing our views in the “free” press. This is like how workers feel they are terrific employees because they go through the motions of putting in crazy hours. Worse, by virtue of having gone through the motions of suffering in poverty for most of their lives, Filipinos think they are entitled to some blessings sometime in their fuzzy futures — the old habang may pag-asa (“so long as there is hope”) approach to having a vision for the future. What those “blessings” are and what the timeframe of this fuzzy future is, nobody knows. How could we know? These hopes and visions are not hinged on any results-based action of any substance.
Which brings us to the kicker: being cheaper and hardworking is no longer the game anymore. Nick Joaquin in his essay A Heritage of Smallness wrote:
The Filipino who travels abroad gets to thinking that his is the hardest working country in the world. By six or seven in the morning we are already up on our way to work, shops and markets are open; the wheels of industry are already agrind. Abroad, especially in the West, if you go out at seven in the morning you’re in a dead-town. Everybody’s still in bed; everything’s still closed up. Activity doesn’t begin till nine or ten — and ceases promptly at five p.m. By six, the business sections are dead towns again. The entire cities go to sleep on weekends. They have a shorter working day, a shorter working week. Yet they pile up more mileage than we who work all day and all week.
I highlight the last sentence in boldface for emphasis.
Operational excellence was the first step that today’s East Asian Dragons took in their journey to national excellence. They became more productive and more efficient workers and producers. But that was then. Today China has already seized the market for cheap working and producing. This means that the Philippines, now an also-ran because it missed the operational efficiency boat back in the 60’s and 70’s needs to leapfrog China just to remain in the game. The Philippines can no longer compete with China in cheap working and producing. This means that our society is in a serious bind, because all we are good at is working hard and producing hardworking warm bodies. Our numbers have increased at an embarrassing rate relative to the value we add to humanity.
So now we have the size (i.e. population) but we do not have scale — the synergy and cohesiveness to turn size into power. Filipino undertaking consistently lacks scale and structure — both being key ingredients to world-class productivity. Large well-designed factories will always produce higher volume and quality than small mom-and-pop operations. The Japanese are well known for exhibiting extreme examples of prowess in the design of large-scale systems. Theirs go beyond the design scale of individual factories and into the design of entire production communities. Their just-in-time manufacturing systems are made possible only by tight collaboration among sellers and buyers of goods and services in these production communities. These wellcoordinated super-operations did not just happen. They were engineered on a large scale.
However, of Filipinos, Joaquin went further to write:
However far we go back in our history it’s the small we find–the nipa hut, the barangay, the petty kingship, the slight tillage, the tingi trade. All our artifacts are miniatures and so is our folk literature, which is mostly proverbs, or dogmas in miniature. About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past are the rice terraces–and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of ant hills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design. We could bring in here the nursery diota about the little drops of water that make the mighty ocean, or the peso that’s not a peso if it lacks a centavo; but creative labor, alas, has sterner standards, a stricter hierarchy of values. Many little efforts, however perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. A galleryful of even the most charming statuettes is bound to look scant beside a Pieta or Moses by Michelangelo; and you could stack up the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace.
Indeed, large scale frameworks need to encompass large scale things. The skeleton of an elephant is not made up of collections of skeletons of mice. The skeleton of an elephant is one encompassing grand design that befits the scale of the animal it supports. Just like the effort to cobble together some semblance of mass transport systems in Philippine cities using jeepneys is a dismal failure. A lack of any large scale frameworks and, at the very least, thinking in Philippine society has led to its continued languishing in the world of mediocrity and the nurturing of “national pride” that latches on to nothing more than the little individual achievements of a very tiny Elite or worse, heroes.[Excerpt from the book Get Real Philippines Book 1 which can be downloaded for free here]
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