I was in a somber mood last night as I had a discussion with friends inspired by a very unsatisfactory dinner at Dencio’s Eastwood. The staff were pleasant enough, but obviously in a rush to go home and so tried to discourage prospective diners by telling them the last order would be at 7:30 (we arrived at around 6:30). After we were seated, other potential diners were turned away outright. While I can understand the reluctance of the wait staff to prolong their work on a holiday, considering other restaurants were deserted, I’d have thought they’d welcome business when they can get it. But the main takeoff point for discussion was the smallness of the portions and the noticeable deterioration of the taste and quality of the food. This is something I’ve been noticing in many restaurants lately (at least moderately-priced ones). The reason, obviously, is that restaurants have been hit hard by the increase in VAT, which raises their costs even as it discourages people to eat out. Something has to give and it’s the size of portions and the ingredients that are the first to suffer from cost-cutting.
A few months ago, Jollibee reported fewer people were eating out and even as the other under-reported (to my mind) creeping horror is the incidence of people who have to look for food in the garbage bins of restaurants, the reality may be that outright starvation still doesn’t haunt our land but hunger is affecting a growing proportion in a manner the statistics can’t cover up: that is, based on their own experiences more people say they go hungry if not always, then more often. And for those starving outright -2.9 million according to the survey- that’s only slightly less than the entire population of Bulacan Province. Imagine if nine out of every ten people you encountered in Bulacan -traveling from Malolos, to Baliuag, to Hagonoy, was starving, and only then can you come to grips with the scale of misery.
The misery for the portion of the public that has a voice -the middle and upper class- has not been so drastic, or so devoid of options, or so sudden, that it leaves no choice but to fight or flee (and fleeing for self-preservation is easier than ever). Therefore, those with the strongest representation in government are in the position of the frog put in a pot of water and slowly boiled to death. And for those in such miserable conditions that there is no hope of flight, and whom you’d expect to be the first to fight -they won’t, don’t, or can’t. After all, the armed forces and the government is careful not to shoot down Civil Society or politicians even when they protest, at least not in the metropolis. But it does not hesitate to mow down and abduct those in the periphery, the provinces or institutions cut off from the culture and aspirations of the middle class (so even if you have Ateneo or La Salle students protesting, too, it’s UP students abducted and who vanish). And when those from the upper and middle class raise their voices in indignation, they are check-mated by authority appealing to “the law,” that is, it’s letter, never mind its spirit. Indignation then becomes stuck in agonizing over the form, never mind the substance, of dissent.
Add to this other harsh realities, such as the nation-wide lack of toilet facilities, the (anecdotal, to be sure, simply because I haven’t found data on it, on the growing incidence of young people dropping out of school even as other parents abandon private education for public schooling, not because it’s better, but because they have no choice, financially), the refusal of government in general to address the cost of medicines, and outrage is the only thing to feel over officials being so consumed by going hell-for-leather for things like constitutional change that they would postpone meeting basic needs in order to devote their cash and political will to essentially cosmetic, and not substantive, improvements. Much as One Voice, for example, has been maligned by both the administration and some opposition groups, one of its basic points -which attracted me to the effort, in the first place- is precisely the need to do so much, now, which can be achieved within the existing constitutional parameters and other legislation. You do not need a new constitution to stop starvation and provide basic sanitation. Officials need to be questioned -and fought- if they insist otherwise.
Last week I attended a symposium sponsored by the UN at the Department of Foreign Affairs where I got to interact with people from groups as diverse as Anakbayan, the Land Bank, the DFA, business, etc. One person at a group discussion I was tasked with facilitating explained how a decades-long plan to build a circumferential railroad in Mindanao finally got off the ground. It had been stalled by opposition from Muslim rebel groups who’d refused to allow construction in areas they controlled. The official said he went to Muslim leaders and asked, “so even if you want independence, when could you possibly achieve it? A year, ten, fifty years? And if you do, would you rather achieve independence with a railroad, or have to start building one after you win your war?” The Muslim rebels withdrew their objection, and Mindanao, both Christian and Muslim areas, can start embarking on building a much-needed railroad.
The scorched-earth governance we have now is precisely one of the big problems and it’s what makes me impatient in the face of those who insist “the economy is improving!” (for some) and “the best is yet to come!” (for whom?) and “let’s move on.” No, and no. It is improving in some respects as even critics like Tony Abaya point out -and yes, everyone knows there are improvements. But the larger mission of government to focus on the basics -and meaningful ones for a citizenry that doesn’t have the middle and upper class options of tightening their belts- is being held hostage to the political survival of the administration. There is no incentive for anyone, on more than a patchwork, small-scale level, to improve anything.
Which brings us to my column for today, which is Four points for discussion. If neither administration nor opposition have the capacity to lead, much less inspire, then a slow rebuilding is all that’s left -but is that rebuilding, which has already begun, dooming itself to failure by refusing to even think of the big picture?