Sunday, May 18, 2014

Too much democracy?

This is my column today, May 18, 2014.


We wanted to take the train from the airport to the city, but we didn’t find the counter that sold the three-day public transportation pass for tourists so we opted to take a taxi instead.  We braced ourselves for the worst, forgetting that not all airports are like the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where taxi drivers fleece tourists and new arrivals for a living.  We stepped out of Changi Airport to find a row of taxis all available to take anyone to any point in Singapore.  The driver of the taxi at the head of the line even got out to open the trunk and assist us with our luggage.  My son told him the hotel we were going to and very casually asked how much he would be charging us.  The driver smiled and politely told my son that he would be charging us based on what will be on the meter.  And then the inevitable side comment:  “We don’t do here in Singapore what taxi drivers do in the Philippines.”  And he went on to explain how his license would be revoked if he was found guilty of overcharging passengers.  How taxi drivers treat passengers is just one of the many ways in which our country suffers by comparison against this small country.
It turns out the driver was a retired executive of a global financial firm; a former HR Director, no less.  He said he was very familiar with the Philippines as he had the chance to visit the country a number of times in the seventies and eighties to do massive recruitment.  “We had special preference for Filipinos,” he said. 
Apparently, driving a taxi was more of a pastime for him, something he did to pass time in his retirement years (Singapore strictly adheres to equal employment opportunity guidelines so one can actually spot many senior citizens working even in fastfood restaurants and even in the streets).  He said driving a taxi in Singapore was a relatively easy job.  As we cruised through Singapore’s wide, clean, picturesque thoroughfares, I couldn’t help but agree with him.  There was less aggravation as there was hardly any traffic.  People obeyed traffic rules and everyone seemed courteous.  If the same conditions were present in Manila, I, too, would not mind driving a taxi when I retire as I happen to like driving and talking to people. 
The last time I was in Singapore prior to this trip was in 2012 but it seemed ages ago given the many new developments that have sprouted all around.  There is a construction site practically everywhere; it seems they don’t let up at all.  For instance, they were building yet again a new loop in their subway system.  I expected traffic congestion around the construction areas but found none.  The driver explained that teamwork is something that is inherent among Singaporeans.  Instead of complaining and contributing to the aggravation, they end up helping everyone ease up the inconvenience.   He illustrated his point by explaining that the hotel we were staying in was directly in front of a major construction site (the Bencoolen Terminal of the new metro train loop); thus the hotel had to use a side alley as entrance which means all the other business establishments were also inconvenienced.  We in the Philippines would have reacted to a similar situation in a completely different way.  First, there would have been a lot of objections; people would demand that the plan be revised so that they could be spared the inconvenience.  People would flail away and demand that other alternatives be pursued instead and get senators or congressmen who are relatives or friends or who owe them a favour to do public hearings or put stumbling blocks.  Someone might even go to court to get a temporary restraining order.  And if, by chance, the project would get started despite all the screeching and recriminations, everyone else would add to the aggravation by insisting on doing things the old way and putting personal comfort and interest above everything else. 
“Filipinos are good people, but you have too much democracy,” the driver told me as his parting shot.  This wasn’t the first time I heard a Singaporean make that comment about us, Filipinos.  In fact, I think the comment was first made by Lee Kuan Yew.  In the past, though, I tended to scoff at the comment.  I used to think that people who didn’t understand the cultural context around our preoccupation with democracy have no business talking down on us. 
But then again, one cannot help but notice the way our neighbours have galloped ahead of us with single-minded aggressiveness. And then if we think about how all those implicated in the Napolist scandal have used democracy and freedom of expression to muddle the issue further or to extricate themselves from the whole stinking mess, one cannot help but wonder if the Singaporeans were right about us, after all.



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