Command and control
We shrug off trucks with bullhorns at election time as part of the noise pollution of campaigns. Then they disappear once the polls have taken place. What you do not expect is for the bullhorns to be prowling around after Election Day.
On the night of May 10, as I was on my way home, a truck-mounted bullhorn was bellowing along Aurora Boulevard, basically saying, “In the name of the next president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, thank you! Let us prepare to follow his lead in obeying the law! Let us unite behind Mayor Rodrigo Duterte! God bless the Philippines!”
For some reason, the incident struck me as important. This was something new, I thought; or to be more precise, here was something old, rearing its head, marking the advent of something new in our public life. As it turned out, when I recounted my experience to officemates the next day, someone else had noticed the same thing—in Pasig. I encountered the same truck, or a similar one, at least, a couple of days later, along F. Martinez Street in Mandaluyong. Here was an effort to prime the people, I told myself; a method of command and control being rolled out with highly-organized swiftness.
Over the next few months, I made a habit of asking people if they had encountered “loudspeaker trucks.” I found it surprising that most reporters I asked about it hadn’t had a similar experience. Quite a few (middle class, mind you) people did but, always, on the periphery of their consciousness; they would recount hearing—but never seeing—the “bullhorns,” but this time, the roving announcements were along the lines of telling people a curfew was in place, and young people in particular should get off the streets.
What was noteworthy about this was that, anecdotally, at least, what the sightings—or rather, hearings—had in common was that they were only noticed by people living on the periphery of informal settler communities, which suggested to me that they were instituted not for the public at large, but for a specific sub-section of it: the urban poor.
To be sure bullhorn announcements are part of life, in places, like Marikina, when flood warnings need to be given. But the older reader, at least, will recall that bullhorns, as a means of directing the behavior of the public, is a throwback to a different era altogether: the sirens announcing the curfew during martial law; or, perhaps, even the zonas during the Japanese occupation.
Eventually, I gave up inquiring about whether people had encountered these bullhorns, but I cannot forget the reaction of one person who told me about hearing the bullhorns in Cubao: That person sighed contentedly and said, “It used to be tough to go to sleep at night with all the wandering noisy teenagers. Now there are none, and we have peace and quiet.”
It may be that in Metro Manila the bullhorns went silent when attempts to institute curfews faced challenges in courts. Or it simply could be that since the bullhorns aren’t aimed at the middle and upper classes, they continue to be used. But such is the way of things that its implications don’t register with those who comment online or report the news.
What remains, however, is the ingenuity that marked their debut the day after the results of the 2016 elections were known. Someone, somewhere, has put thought into the question of how to communicate with the masses while bypassing the normal means of public communications. Old school as it may seem, to my mind it’s effective, not least because it is, by its nature, intimidating.
In a conference in Jakarta in 2009, one participant pointed out that the dilemma of Southeast Asia is that we have a population in which a minority live in the 21st century while the majority is still in the 19th.
When it comes to those aspiring to command and control our people, we are obsessing over its manifestations in the second decade of the 21st century online, while ignoring that the methods pioneered in the first two decades of the 20th are being used to influence a greater number of people.
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