Democracy vs. a better city

AS EASY AS ABC - The Philippine Star

A Singaporean client who spent two hours in a taxicab from Buendia in Makati City to a restaurant in Bonifacio Global City, where he was having a social dinner, tipped the taxi driver P100. He said he pitied the taxi driver for lost revenue, and who had to ask his permission to eat some bread during the trip as it was getting past dinner time.

We were also with an Australian colleague at that time who said he spent one and a half hours in a cab from the airport to Makati. Not being used to that kind of traffic trap, he felt like banging his head against the window (don’t worry, he didn’t). My Singaporean client turned to me and asked: “So is democracy working for you?” If you were ever placed in a situation where you didn’t quite know whether to smile or frown, that must be exactly how I looked, having no immediate answer. My Singaporean client was gone faster than I could retort: “Why do you have to pick on democracy?!”

He meant that we have the freedom to buy all the cars we like (which, by the way, has become more affordable), but are we happy about the traffic? Just to give you a flavor – in Singapore, before you can buy a car, you need a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which is limited in number, bid out and is valid for 10 years. One person, one COE. Registration fee is $1,000SGD for private use, and $5,000SGD for commercial use. You pay a very stiff road users’ tax. And there is electronic road pricing (ERP): vehicles that use the road during rush hours pay higher fees (monitored through an ERP scanner installed in registered vehicles).

If that is too burdensome, they have managed to build a world-class infrastructure system: more than sufficient public transport, great airport, and fast digital connections. In the ranking of most livable cities, Singapore gets the top third spot, next to Toronto and Vancouver (Building Better Cities, a 2015 report by PwC). It is known to be under a government of benign dictatorship. You can also call it a democracy under strict, implemented rules. Its citizens are happy to follow because they see the benefits and they enjoy their freedom that way.

In the Building Better Cities report, there is a very strong connection between efficient public transport systems and the city’s high quality of livability. It is one of the key reasons why Manila and Cebu, the two cities included in the report, did not fare well – although they are really at the bottom quadrant of the overall ranking in the report.

I was once flying from Manila, seated beside a Caucasian who seemed to be a writer by profession. (Okay, I confess that I spied on what he was writing about because I saw “Philippines” on his computer screen.) He was writing about his experience about trying to catch a rush hour ride at Guadalupe in Makati City. He wrote, “It was a scene of unadulterated chaos, and feeling of helplessness and utter despair...” He must have experienced trying to catch a jeepney or bus ride where the rule is the survival of the fastest. (If you are overtaken at the steps by the multitude behind you, that means you need to improve on your eye-feet coordination and box-out tactics.)

The public commute experience on the road is also duplicated in the railways. My nephew, a college student, related to me the experience of riding an MRT train during rush hours. He said the coach is not only full, it is compressed enough that you need not hold the handrail as there is zero space to be off-balance. There is even a person outside that pushes the automatic train door to help close it. Ladies, who are allocated a separate coach, sometimes mingle with the men to catch an urgent ride. They cannot complain about all the unintentional physical contacts that happen because that is the current nature of the beast, which is public transport. Having more cars is the obvious non-solution. While already 12 percent of the total population of the country is reportedly in Metro Manila, about 27 percent of all vehicles registered in the country are on the streets of the metro. Based on the PwC report, vehicles in Asia’s roads double roughly every seven years, and we have the ability to double the number of cars in the metro every five years.

So what slowed down the building of the much-needed infrastructure that will give us additional train systems, highways, and even subways? Due process in project evaluation, public bidding, resolutions of right-of-way issues, temporary restraining orders issued by friendly courts. Not blameless as well is too much autonomy of local governments which really couldn’t be mandated by the national government, except by political protocol.

One of my fellow panelists in the recent Urban Land Institute event reminded that China, a communist (or socialist) country, didn’t need to bother with issues that hamper the speed of our infrastructure developments. Indeed, China put up much of their infrastructure five years ago at blistering speed, helped them register an unprecedented double digit growth, and no private citizen registered a complaint – or that part was managed, suppressed, or largely unexpressed. Of course, it’s not a democracy.

Democracy is said to be ranked next to food, clothing, and shelter. It is not the culprit; it is our putting our own brand to it that gives it a bad name, such as unimplemented laws and perceived liberties of not following rules due to lack of consequences. It could be that the main hindrance to building a better city is culture, if we speak of a culture of lack of discipline, a culture of padrinos, a culture of politics or of public opinion. I am certain that, at the risk of sacrificing physical freedom like lack of mobility from traffic, Filipinos will choose spiritual freedom – its own psychology of happiness in being free.

One part of our culture can save it all. It is universal, but definitely Filipino: the ability and willingness to sacrifice for our children. Yes, it can be a democracy, but we can overcome and still build better cities. What is more aspirational to a parent than ensuring quality of life for their children, long after they’re gone? It’s worth the sacrifice to build a better, livable city for our children, for our children’s children.

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Alexander B. Cabrera is the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines. He also chairs the Educated Marginalized Entrepreneurs Resource Generation (EMERGE) program of the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP). Email your comments and questions to aseasyasABC@ph.pwc.com. This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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