Upholding ‘rule of law’ in the Philippines is a complicated, labour-intensive exercise. Take the tony enclave of Rockwell in Makati City. It’s got expensive zebra-striped pedestrian lanes painted across most of where its nicely-paved streets intersect. These markings give the impression to someone who does not know of the way things are in the Philippines that she can cross the street assured that approaching motorists will stop to make way for her. But then, as most island Filipinos know, that is not the way things are in the Philippines. Lane markings on Manila’s streets are really all just decorations. They give a nice “modern” look to Rockwell, for example, something desperately needed to justify the stratospheric property prices there.
A foreigner from Sweden, for example, who finds herself in Manila (on business, presumably) with her kids will appreciate the importance of briefing them carefully to ensure they are fully-aware of the way things are in the Philippines; specifically that pedestrian lanes are of no consequence to the average Filipino motorist. Commanders of the private security army of the principality of Rockwell are fully aware of this. You can see their troopers posted on most intersections there to ensure none of the many foreigners who inhabit the enclave naïvely step onto a zebra-striped lane thinking that these markings are normally honoured in the former US colony.
Having to tell your kids not to trust zebra striped lane markings in the Philippines after they had been raised in places where things generally make sense can be a bit complicated. As kids do, they will ask Why? And in the course of such a hypothetical dialogue on pedestrian lanes with a particularly cluey nine-year-old, the question will eventually come to this: Why paint them to begin with if they aren’t followed?
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City ordinances on the use of road markings are among the simplest of guidelines. But in the Philippines, even the simplest guidelines are not followed. In this light, it is easy to see why the Philippines simply cannot progress.
There is very little evidence that Filipinos are capable of living by the “rule of law”. The society is quite extraordinary in the sense that simple rules and regulations whether on the road or in the work place are for the most part ignored. This is because each individual has this baseless sense of being more important than everybody else. It is why you see people cutting you off on highway lanes on the road or pushing their way in lines ahead of the rest in a queue. In other words, Filipinos in general tend to put their own interest first before other people.
One would think that ingraining the concept of the rule of law has to begin in each Filipino household. But as the Rockwell anecdote shows, even foreigners need to adopt a mindset of not trusting Filipino laws if they are to survive their tours of duty in the Philippines.
Indeed, not following the law in the Philippines is a matter of survival.
It is a matter of survival when crossing the street for a Swedish businessperson in the same way that it is a matter of survival for an enormous sector of Filipino humanity — squatters. In this sense, Fililipino squatters and Swedish businesspersons living in Rockwell are really not that different. For both, taking Philippine law with a grain of salt is a conscious life-and-death decision.
So, yeah, flouting the law is an act of desperation for both foreign and Filipino residents of the Philippines. A desperation to get on with meaningful life is something Philippine law and the way it is (or is not) enforced is simply not in strategic alignment with. Following traffic laws on Manila’s streets, for example, will certainly not get you home in time for dinner. Trusting a zebra-striped lane in Rockwell might not get you across the street in once piece. Observing property laws, many have been assured, will not make life for them a fair proposition.
Desperation, indeed, is a good excuse for Filipinos to violate the law.
Got nothing to eat for dinner tonight? Just prove how desperate you were when you stuck an icepick through your pal’s liver for a share of his day’s pay, and you might just be awarded a nice Get-Out-of-Jail pass if you make your appeal within earshot of the right politician. That’s Da Pinoy way. Righteousness-by-desperation is a national philosophy. Indeed, playing the desperation card is favourite campaign fodder for Filipino politicians. It gets them the votes. It makes them look concerned about their constituents’, well, desperate plight.
To understand, then, the innocent elegance of a child’s question on pedestrian lanes, — why paint them to begin with? — is to understand the unique nature of Filipinos’ apathy to their own laws. Indeed, the Philippines’ is a society of modern laws applied to primitive people. It’s sort of like toilet training a dog — an exercise of trying to change one species’ way of life to suit the way of life of its masters’ species. It can be done. But you need to be creative and understand how dogs think.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.