Dreams of democracy

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - September 29, 2015 - 10:00am

My flight home was delayed by the usual air traffic congestion at NAIA. At Changi’s Terminal 2, I was told the incoming flight of Cebu Pacific came late, like our flight coming into Singapore last Thursday. Both were delayed because of DOTC’s failure to address congestion, which Mar Roxas promised to fix in 2012.

As we neared Manila, our flight was asked to go on a holding pattern for close to an hour over Lubang Island some 90 miles from NAIA. Such a waste of fuel and a terrible imposition on tired passengers who just want to get home as it was already close to midnight.

It was a good thing our CebuPac pilot was constantly keeping us informed on what was happening and that alleviated our worries. I am glad CebuPac followed through with my suggestion to communicate developments to passengers because we simply have a right to know.

I was ready to rant about what I thought was my bad experience with NAIA air traffic congestion until I read the Facebook post of Celina Cristobal, the daughter of my friend, the late Adrian Cristobal. She had it worse and she was just flying in from Davao at about the same time. Here is her story:

“At 11pm, 54 planes were waiting for permission to land at the NAIA. My plane (from Davao) was the 54th. The pilot announced we didn’t have any fuel to wait that long, so our only option was to fly to Clark and refuel. We were there for almost four hours, waiting in line behind other airplanes, then waited again for permission from Manila to take-off. I finally got home at 3am… there was no food on the plane. Diabetic me was crying.”

Looking at the efficiency and even opulence of Changi, I can only sigh. Flying out, NAIA Terminal 3 didn’t have a properly functioning air conditioning system in the crowded waiting area where close to 400 passengers were waiting to fly to Singapore on an Airbus 330.

I don’t understand what is so difficult with having a functioning air conditioning system since all the major malls seem to have no problems having it. This is why I think P-Noy’s failure to demand excellent performance from his managers is his ultimate failure.

History may remember him as the president who couldn’t make the trains run properly, gridlocked the metro area with vehicular traffic and insulted the memory of his father Ninoy with a NAIA, reputed to be among the world’s worst.

I spent the time I had waiting on the ground and in the air to think why our democracy has failed to serve our people the way the guided democracy of Singapore has. I was telling some Singaporeans during my son’s wedding reception that maybe the British colonial system was better than the Spanish and the American because they left a well functioning civil service.

They told me that could be partly true, but India was also a British colony and its civil service is pretty messy. Look at Malaysia, another former British colony… it is corrupt.

So we go back to Lee Kuan Yew and his paternalistic approach to governance. The puritanical LKY was seen as having no other interest than to make Singapore a great country that is managed well. He is honest and his quality of leadership produced positive results.

If that is so, then the real longevity test of LKY’s legacy is happening now after he is gone. His son, the current prime minister is a good transition. He is a mini LKY and can be expected to build on the legacy of his father. But what happens after he, too, is gone?

Will the Singaporean civil service with its carefully chosen and nurtured officials be able to stand up to the challenges of a new generation of Singaporeans who no longer appreciate being in what some of them call a “nanny state”?

LKY was able to work wonders because he is seen by his people as totally honest. The people do not need to ask him for an accounting of public funds because he is a living epitome of honest public service. His frugal lifestyle says it all.

Future Singaporean leaders must still prove themselves to win the people’s hearts. The massive victory of LKY’s People Action Party in the last election was still a carryover of LKY’s positive aura. A new generation of Singaporeans will likely want to live in a way that puts democratic principles at work and they will not be as passive as LKY’s generation.

It is starting to happen. The opposition was the noisiest on record during the last election. While their concerns were more mundane such as housing and the MRT, future leaders could be asked about more serious matters like the handling of Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds. Right now, there seems to be a high degree of trust unheard of in any other country.

For now, a highly disciplined population is Singapore’s greatest advantage over its neighbors. A functioning government that can assure personal safety is a dream for us in the Philippines. My son was telling me that when they went to City Hall to get their marriage documents in order, they experienced fuss free service.

Do the Singaporeans have more democracy than we do? We have the trappings of democracy, but beyond the façade what we have is a distortion of the democratic concept. Our ruling elite, the same ones who betrayed the Filipino people during the revolution and the Philippine American war, continue to betray us today.

That’s why we have been left behind. The oligarchy enjoys the good life while the masses suffer the inconvenience and indignity of creaking and inadequate infrastructure, and little access to services that could help them break out of the circle of poverty.

Kishore Mahbubani, one of Singapore’s foremost intellectuals, tried to explain how democracy as a concept interacts with poverty and underdevelopment in the Third World. Democracy, he said, could work in our world, but he has his caveats.

“Theoretically, it is possible to have both. In some cases, it may even work. But a calm and dispassionate look at Third World conditions suggests that a period of strong and firm government, one that is committed to radical reform, may be necessary to break out of the vicious circle of poverty sustained by social structures that contain vested interests opposed to any real changes

“Japan was able to go into high growth after World War II in part because of the wide-ranging socio-economic reforms that General MacArthur imposed. No democratically elected Japanese government could have done what he did.

“By contrast, the failure of the United States to carry out similar socio-economic reforms in the Philippines is one reason why the economy of that country has not developed well in the post-war years.

Of course the Filipino case demonstrates that authoritarian governments can be antithetical to development. However, it is equally true that some authoritarian governments have been good for development, as shown by the dramatic economic growth of South Korea and Taiwan…

“The point here is simple: the crucial variable in determining whether a Third World society will progress is not whether its government is democratic but whether, to put it simply, it has ‘good government’.”

Mahbubani went on to describe “good government”. It is not  “least government” as some Westerners claim. In our Third World context, these are his “good government” attributes: a) Political stability; b) sound bureaucracies based on meritocracy; c) economic growth with equity; d) fiscal prudence and e) relative lack of corruption.

It looks like on all counts, we have a long way to go. I hope the people who are presenting themselves for election to public office, specially to the Presidency, will have enough commitment to pursue all those goals that will give meaning to our so called democracy.

There are annoying traffic jams too in Singapore despite the measures they have implemented, measures we will consider drastic in the Philippines. But amazingly, drivers are disciplined. I did see just one driver who did a counterflow and I am guessing that driver is probably Chinese from mainland China.

Marcos could have done a Singapore when he declared martial law. But Marcos did not have the honesty and love of country Lee Kuan Yew had. He made his family and cronies prosper at the expense of the Filipino people. Marcos officials tried to use magic on Central Bank figures to cover up financial malfeasance but failed.

True, his successors after EDSA 1 were no better. We need our own Lee Kuan Yew. But I doubt if we can get such a person to run for office with our current flawed electoral system. It is the sad story of our lives.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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