Monday, October 17, 2011

Wake up call

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

I was deeply immersed in preparations for a national conference in the last two weeks and I didn’t have time to think about anything else. I still have tons of emails to wade through, but there is one thing that I needed to get out of the way. So to the many friends and readers who cared to send me emails and the links to Geoffrey James Quartermaine Bastin’s scathing blog on Manila, yes, I got your ardent pleas for me to weigh in with my own two cents’ worth.

For those happily unaware of this latest tempest to hit the blogosphere, Bastin is a British economist who “has been traveling to the Philippines since 1991.” He recently wrote a scathing piece on Manila in a recent post in a blog (the original link of which, for some strange reason, has been inaccessible since Saturday night). The post went viral and seemed to have hit a raw nerve among many fellow Filipinos who felt that Bastin committed the most grievous of mistakes, which was to diss his hosts. I think most of the indignation directed at Bastin is borne out of the fact that we truly are onion-skinned about criticism made by “guests,” sometimes forgetting that the businessmen and tourists that come to this country don’t really owe us any favors for coming here. Because we are ingratiating to a fault, we tend to take it personally when foreigners say bad things about us, and our country. Yes, we love Inang Bayan to bits, but it’s really time for us to see the grime and the smell the decay.

Bastin prefaced his post with what seemed like an attempt to justify his negative review. He said he hated writing negative posts and that one “cannot and should not generalize about such a large country spread over thousands of islands.” And then he went on to rant about Manila being “a dump.” Ouch, indeed.

He said Manila “has got to be the disgrace of South-east Asia, all the more so because twenty years ago when I used to come through here en route to Papua New Guinea it was THE place in the region to come to for shopping and R&R. How the mighty are fallen!”

In Bastin’s opinion, “Ninoy Aquino International is exactly the same as it was all that time ago; the same awful green lino when you arrive, the same over-crowded Departure Hall, nowhere to sit if your check-in desk isn’t open. Once through security you find the same down-market shops, toilets that don’t work or are “under repair” and very few F&B places… The coffee in this over-priced lounge is awful…. Over-boiled and they don’t have a modern machines (which these days can be purchased even for home use) to produce fresh coffee from beans. NO ONE uses this old filter method anymore, at least no one that likes good coffee.”

And then he dissed the hotel he was staying in, the Discovery Suites in Ortigas Center: “It used to be very good and remains convenient for my business meetings. But the owners have invested nothing in upkeep and I stay in a room that has the same furniture, same carpet as it has always had; it smells musty. The TV is years old. The water heating system provides limited hot water for my bath. My room is not cleaned until I have to go and ask. The Internet (OK, free wifi in the room) is dreadfully slow and the room service food lukewarm.”

Bastin did say nice things about Filipinos: “The Filipino people are nice, and indeed they are polite—we Brits might say “smarmy”—obsequious or ingratiating are maybe less pleasant words. But they do try. That does take the edge off the sheer misery of a crumbling, filthy, depressing city and an economy that exists only on the remittances of the smart ones who have left.” Again, ouch!

And then he offered some armchair analysis, saying the Philippines “has the WORST growth history of any of the ASEAN countries—Cambodia which was torn apart by civil war up until 1997 has a first-class airport (fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on foccacia, freshly brewed cappuccino , clean lounges) and some great restaurant food and hotels. But the Manila, where the intelligentsia sneer at their Asian brothers and sisters for their lack of English, is beaten hands down even by little Phnom Penh and left standing by every other mega-city in the region.”

There’s more. “There seems to be a theme here: the Philippines has many natural advantages and in fact a talented people who provide services everywhere in the world. But there has been no re-investment in the country, neither by the public sector (hence the terrible airport facilities), nor by private industry. People might build a hotel, but they run it into the ground rather than trying to build a long-term institution. Philippines can be described as an extractive or exploitive economy, not one where people want to build sustainably long term. As I say, the smart one’s all want to leave.”

Bastin concluded with a suggestion: “If you want to see the Philippines: get through Manila as quickly as you can, it has nothing to recommend it. Go out to the islands, Cebu, Mindanao, up to the cool of Baguio and see the people in the countryside and some of the spectacular scenery. That’s probably worth the trip. Otherwise pick almost anywhere else in Asia and you’ll get a better deal. “ This hurt because I would pick Manila anytime over, say, Timor Leste.

Once I got through my own anger at the harsh words Bastin used, my rational mind kicked in and I realized that the guy didn’t say anything I haven’t said in the past in this space or elsewhere, although I would like to think, with a little less venom.

If we sift through the tons of indignant verbiage heaped on Bastin and his post, three things stand out. First, people felt Bastin failed to balance his views with a more constructive context, in short, he compared apples and oranges. Second, many thought Bastin should not blame Filipinos for the lapse of judgment in choosing a hotel (which people thought triggered the rant) that many Filipinos agreed is not exactly world class; many suggested other “better” hotels in the area. And finally, many thought he was being a “racist” for spewing insulting comments and making unfair and hurtful generalizations on the basis of one experience.

I, too, was hurt by Bastin’s rant. It’s always painful to hear bad things being said about us. I was particularly offended by the very grim prognosis he offered at the end of his piece when he wrote: “For the Philippines the question is surely will it ever emerge from the mire into which it has sunk? Very frankly based on my very long experience of the place I really doubt it, in fact it is a “disappearing” country if there is such a thing.” He didn’t have to be snippy. He could have toned down the anger. He could have resisted the urge to put us down as hopeless.

So yes, I think we cannot be faulted for reacting with equal indignation at the tone he used. But at the same time, let us not bury our heads in the sand and dismiss the observations made just because it was done in bad taste. The mature response is not to shoot the messenger but to show Bastin that we are, in fact, more “gentlemanly.” Let’s resist the urge to give him the dirty finger and instead use the message as a wake up call.

I remain hopeful that we can make still make things work in this country regardless of how many Bastins tell me otherwise.

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