Ill-equipped, ill-trained, ill-prepared, and ill-thought-out. These are words that can easily describe anything to do with the Philippines across the board — from its politicians, to its law-enforcement officers, to its Media, and ultimately to the very people they serve (and are consequently reflections of). The propensity to fail consistently is ingrained into the very fibres that make up the very fabric of Philippine society. There is no stepping any further back from that simple reality.
A British security analyst with experience working in counter-terrorism spelt out no less than ten things that the Philippine police got wrong in the handling of the 23rd August 2010 bus siege that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
In the following, I quote the items verbatim from the report and snippets from what the analyst — Charles Shoebridge — had to say about the assault force.
1. Determination – “[the police] acted as 99% of the population would have, which was to turn round and get out. They didn’t seem to have the necessary determination and aggression to follow the attack through”
2. Lack of equipment – “They almost looked like a group of vandals”
3. Lost opportunity to disarm the gunman – “The negotiators were so close to [Mendoza], and he had his weapon hanging down by his side. He could have been disabled without having to kill him”
4. Lost opportunity to shoot the gunman – “there were occasions when the gunman was standing alone, during the course of the day, and could have been shot by a sharpshooter”
5. Satisfying the gunman’s demands – “[…] they could have just accepted his demands. He could be reinstated in the police – and then be immediately put in prison for life for hostage taking.”
6. Televised proceedings – “police should always consider putting a barrier or screen around the area, to shield the scene from the cameras and keep the hostage taker in the dark”
8. Safeguarding the public – “it was clear there was little command and control of the public on the ground”
9. Using the gunman’s brother to negotiate – “Relatives and close friends can be a double-edged sword”
10. Insufficient training – “The detachment involved in Monday’s incident clearly was not […] well trained in the necessary tactics”
Most of these ten things pointed out are quite self-evident. Indeed, the level of incompetence exhibited on that tragic day was such that, from what I’ve seen in the small cross-section of articles and blogs I’ve scanned over the last hour or two, even non-experts in armed assault tactics have been able to cite them.
The really astounding thing is how the sheer incompetence of the assault was so visibly played out in front of a TV — and YouTube — audience. We have to thank the “heroics” of the Philippine Media for that. In their pursuit for lucrative scoops under the banner of their self-appointed role of “guardians of truth and freedom”, the Media played a pivotal role not only in triggering the fatal descent into chaos of Mendoza’s hostage drama but also provided the world with a front-row look into the banal ineptness that has come to be associated (now even more indelibly) with the word “Filipino”.
Take a look at those ten items cited above by Shoebridge again and the snippets out of the report I quoted associated with each.
These ten things could just as easily describe everything that is wrong with Philippine society overall.
Below is a photo originally posted by a certain Dan å‘¨è‘£ on his Facebook profile. You can access the photo at its original location in this Facebook album. It shows what looks like a gang of college students giddily posing for photos in front of the wreckage of the bus that was the scene of the recent siege that claimed the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists.
It is illustrative of the sort of mentality that pervades in Filipino society — a society described by an admired Filipino economist, based in New York as possessing a “weird culture”. She further observes how we often exhibit…
[…] our jocular regard for our national problems, great crimes, villainous scams and calamities. Note that Filipinos are notorious for making fun, creating a joke of their misfortunes. The cellulars are full of them now. In other countries inhabited by serious and sensitive people, they mount crusades, indignation rallies or nationwide relief campaigns to meet such crises. They would weep or stomp their feet, or explode in anger, or demand punishment for the criminals or misfits. Here we tend to laugh at scams, crimes and natural calamities, as if they are part of the usual TV noon comedy shows, the Pinoy’s daily diet.
It’s very hard to be intellectual if you aren’t serious. And so far the clear evidence is that we are not a serious people. Worse, we don’t like to think.
Perhaps this inability to hunker down, be serious, and think is what predisposes Filipinos to the banal incompetence that so often showcases itself for all the world to see.
And yet Filipinos have always prided themselves in being a “resilient” people. So resilient, in fact, that even the worst disasters and tragedies couldn’t wipe our silly smiles off our faces. Smiling is so ingrained in our character as a people that I dare say President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III couldn’t really be blamed for the reflexive smile plastered on his face as he delivered his official statement on the 23rd August hostage crisis. He is Filipino after all. And that is what Filipinos do — smile.
Botched SWAT operations are nothing new in a country where mediocrity is more the rule than the exception. As Benjamin Pimentel mentioned in his kwento kwnto, back in the late 70’s and early 80’s the Philippine police’s SWAT team was even then already known as the “Special Weapons ‘Alang Tactics” team (‘alang being a Tagalog contraction of the word “no”). Pimentel refers to a bank robbery siege in Cubao back then that he — surprise, surprise — described as a “bizarre police operation”…
The cops didn’t seem to know what to do.
They made sure to take their pa-pogi (look-good) combat poses in front of the TV cameras, holding their M-16 rifles a la Steve Forrest — even bystanders could be seen smiling, waiting for them to make their move and for the confrontation to escalate.
What is really noteworthy in the above account of a similar incident 30 years ago (aside from the already well-established incompetence of the Philippine police) are two disturbingly familiar observations — (1) cops striking a pose and (2) smiling bloodthirsty bystanders.
Fast forward to today in the Year 2010, the words of eminent Inquirer.net columnist Conrado de Quiros may as well have been uttered back in that 1970’s Cubao bank robbery siege…
“What the hell kind of people are we?“;
…as he described the mob at the scene of the present-day tourist bus tragedy…
That was the one that surged toward the door of the bus as bodies were being lifted out, that minded being pushed aside by the cops while they gaped, gawked and took pictures with their cellphones. That was the one that rushed there, surged there, and stood there unmindful of the rain, unmindful of the emergency, unmindful of the dead, staring at the blood and gore without compassion or commiseration, staring at the blood and gore only with curiosity.
What kind of a people are we? We are the bunch of people who live in a place where asia wears a smile as the old Philippine tourism slogan goes.
President Noynoy Aquino — and his smile — merely reflect the people he, just a few months ago, giddily put his hand up to lead.
To highlight the profound nature of the change we need to consider, it may be worth revisiting the impressive turnaround of South Korea’s flag carrier Korean Airlines. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Korean Airlines (KAL) had become a case study of deadly dysfunction. Many innocent passengers had died in air disasters involving KAL aircraft as a result of appalling cases of human error — deadly lapses in judgement, failures in communication among cabin crew personnel, and a lack of commitment to international standards.
In my December 2009 article Lots of action underpinned by very little thinking, I cited an insightful account of the plight of KAL written by Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent book Outliers which I summarised as follows…
Another case study explored extensively in Outliers involves the appalling safety record of Korean Airlines (KAL) in the 1980’s and 90’s. Among a number of other incidents, there was one KAL flight that was accidentally shot down by Soviet fighters planes after unintentionally straying into hostile airspace and another one that crashed as it attempted to land in Guam.
The approach taken to rectify the deep problems that beset KAL and the solutions identified are eye-openers, specifically because they could just as easily be potentially applicable to the systemic issues in Philippine Government, the police, and the Media; all of which revealed themselves to the world in living colour during the Mendoza hostage crisis…
An extensive study to analyse safety and operational practices was mounted and the solutions implemented based on these have since yielded promising results. One of the key findings involved how KAL’s aircraft crew members communicated with one another in the cockpit. The study revealed that a particular cultural trait of Koreans — extreme deference to authority — made it a monumental challenge for co-pilots and flight engineers to speak out assertively whenever they identified potential problems or disagreed with the captain’s decisions. It did not help the Koreans too that English happens to be the lingua franca of the global aviation community and air traffic controllers in airports all over the world spoke a particularly assertive flavour of it. Recognising all this, KAL designed its new training programs around ingraining new behaviours that mitigated the effects of Korean cultural traits on cockpit crews’ behaviours. English language training was also significantly stepped up to boost crew members’ proficiency and make them more competent communicators in-step with the larger aviation community.
The main underpinning feature in the approach taken by the Koreans to investigating the issue, identifying problems, and developing solutions was a willingness to examine the very fundamental traits of their own cultural character.
It is important that Philippine investigators see the Mendoza hostage incident as the outcome of a system of dysfunctional elements that profoundly infect Philippine society over a macro scale like a malignant cancer.
Perhaps it is, as far as the internal perceptions of most islanders go, the sad reality that Filipinos will simply retreat from the challenge to step up to the opportunity for deep change that presents itself to us today — retreat back within the comfy walls of delusion that we built around our character as a people. Indeed, as we find ourselves painted by this hostage tragedy into an ever-shrinking corner in the scheme of global stature, we find ourselves succumbing yet again to the opium of the comfy notions of (1) our hallowed place on the planet as the sole “Catholic” country in the region, (2) our entitlement to concessions as victims of the historical “evils” of imperialism and despotism, and (3) the notion that a prosperous and dignified future lies out there, mandated by one deity or another on the basis of our self-described prayerfulness to them.
Quite obvious to most but nonetheless counterintuitive to the addicted: like most narcotics, these warm and fuzzy notions — these self-delusions — succeed mightily at soothing our internality by locking out the more objective externality of what is real.
Emma-Kate Symons in an article published on The Australian used a very familiar and elegant metaphor (my boldface for emphasis) in response to the flurry of quaint justifications of our collective failure as a society coming from Mainstream Media and Establishment Bloggers:
Such hogwash, redolent of familiar fatalistic, dolourist distortions of Catholic notions of sin and personal responsibility, is once again allowing a societal head-in-the-sand mentality to prevail in a nation that thinks saying sorry many times should be enough.
The more we bury our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, the more our asses stick out high in the air.
More importantly, such an observation coming from a foreign newspaper as The Australian represents the forces of our externality banging at our gates as we cower behind the internality we created within those primitivist walls we built around our national character.
The guardians of these gates are influential. And they are all singing from the same hymn book. Symons points out a few of them in her Australian piece:
William Esposo who, in a PhilStar blurb batted the ball of shame back onto the Chinese court…
China should be the last to posture as if they hold a candle to us when it comes to preventing tragedies”, and recalling the 2005 murder of Philippines businessman Emmanuel Madrigal and his daughter by an axe-wielding madman in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“Did a Chinese official apologise to the Madrigal family, The Philippines government or the Filipino people for their failure to protect Filipino tourists in one of the most visited sites in their capital? Where, then, do they get the gall and the temerity to disrespect us and our President due to a similar incident?
…which, by the way, is a spectacular specimen of moronic thinking that I clarified here.
The words of The Editor of that venerable Aquinoist newsletter, the Inquirer.net, was not spared from Symons’s eviscerating critique on the nature of Filipino-style thinking. She highlighted the following revealing excerpt from that 1st of September 2010 piece…
We are in solidarity with the women and men who offer prayers . . . but we see no point in prostrating ourselves further, or in insulting The Philippines government as though in a continuing kowtow. We will not be forced into a sackcloth-and-ashes pose.
… I might add that, last I heard, the right thing to do is to remain prostrated in humble posture and work quietly towards achieving results instead of grandstanding about intentions.
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