Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Written for Manila Today

There are multiple social evils that stalk us everyday but the most familiar to all sectors and classes is the insane traffic in Metro Manila. In the past, Edsa was the only notorious symbol of road gridlock. Not anymore. Traffic has spread everywhere like the epal banners of politicians. Even secondary streets are plagued by non-moving vehicles especially during rush hour. No wonder everybody is an expert witness on the causes and manifestations of the daily torture which we call public commuting. And everybody has a plausible theory on how to solve the problem. If everybody is a victim, then who are the villains? The usual suspects are the inept politicians, reckless drivers, absentee traffic enforcers, kotong cops, colorum operators, sidewalk vendors, and jaywalkers. But debating about traffic is always futile because our energies are drained fighting this inconvenient, nasty demon instead of slaying other more ferocious beasts that torment our people. Since we are forced to talk about traffic everyday, it could mislead many people to think that it is our country’s principal problem. Furthermore, some discuss traffic solutions as if they are the ultimate game changer in Philippine society.

Recognizing that we can’t avoid mentioning traffic (and weather) in public conversations, perhaps it can be an opportunity to dig deeper into the issue and relate it to other social concerns. If our normal routine involves riding buses which do not follow traffic rules, then our initial demand may be to ask regulators to run after these lawbreakers. Of course it is right but it reflects a narrow perspective at the same time because it does not substantially address the issue of an inadequate and inefficient public transport system. Discipline will not decongest the city. MRT passenger-warriors are known for being patient despite their miserable situation yet their valor cannot magically install new trains. Thus, the need for a more holistic analysis as to why the traffic situation is seemingly a hopeless case in the country’s premier urban center. To be more specific, the daily traffic jams must be explained in relation to what activists refer to as the three basic ills of society: imperialist control, feudal oppression, and bureaucratic corruption.

Let us start with corruption since it is commonly reported. Mulcting cops and traffic enforcers are abusive officials but they are petty criminals compared to the professional hustlers in high office. CCTV can record kotong operations in the streets but big time swindling happens in the privacy of government offices and luxurious dining rooms. If we despise the traffic ticket issued by a cop desperate to reach a quota, then we have more reasons to fume over the transport contracts and licenses issued by bureaucrats. These may be legal documents but many are scandalously anomalous such as the profit guarantees and fare increases given to the private investors of MRT, LRT, and tollways. Registration permits for new vehicles – cars, buses, taxis, trucks – are given as long as the price is right. Public transport projects are undermined by pork politics and corporate lobbying. Pork is the reason why many roads, sidewalks, bridges, road signs, and lamp posts are substandard or defective. Construction is supposed to stimulate the economy but in the Philippines it is artificially induced a year before election campaigning to raise funds for trapo dynasties. The result is surreal chaos in the streets: a five-minute ride becomes half an hour because of non-stop road and drainage repairs. These politicians only have contempt for the poor and they couldn’t care less if commuters are inconvenienced by bureaucratic decisions or indecisions as long as they receive their proper kickbacks. Meanwhile, tycoon campaign donors are using their influence to redirect public projects in favor of their businesses. Tax revenues are used to build flyovers and train stations that happen to be accessible to malls and casino centers. Ever wonder why there are two Cubao train stations?

But corruption cannot fully explain the congestion in Metro Manila. There are more than 7,000 islands in 80 provinces but why did 12 million people choose to live in a region where a fault line is ripe for movement? This question is often raised to blame the rural poor for migrating in the city. Hence, we have programs like ‘Balik Probinsiya’ which bribes the poor to go back to the provinces where the air is supposed to be clean and land is still cheap but fertile. This is a false solution because it does not acknowledge that urban migration is caused by rural deprivation. Yes, there’s no traffic in the barrio but human trafficking is a specter that lures the poor. Farmers and fisherfolk continue to be the poorest sectors of society. The country’s land reform law has been effective in preserving landlord power in the countryside. Oppressed by landlessness, hunger, and a backward agrarian economy, can we blame the rural poor for wanting to escape this medieval inferno and seek better opportunities in the city? Please remember that world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao left Sarangani to find a job in Manila. Therefore, the long-term solution to unclog Metro Manila is to develop the rural economy. Unfortunately, government resources are concentrated in the urban as policymakers favor a development paradigm that consigns the rural as mere supplier of raw materials in a service-oriented economy. To be more blunt about it, landlords and politicians accumulate wealth in the rural before these are hoarded to the cities or even foreign capitals. Linking the rural and urban is only an afterthought and this is mostly a consequence of haphazard urbanization. We neglected rural production as we quickly acceded to unfair free trade agreements to the detriment of domestic producers. It restricted economic activities which exacerbated the unequal distribution of the country’s wealth. Ever wonder why Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors were evacuated to Manila instead of sending them to nearby cities in the Visayas?

The semi-feudal economy is tied to imperialist control and foreign plunder of our resources. Our politicians were schooled and bribed to equate national interest with the prosperity of imperialist powers. Instead of supporting industrial production, the government focused on producing raw materials and cheap labor to serve the industrial and manpower needs of other countries. Foreign investments in the rural are mainly related to unsustainable extractive activities which have little impact on wealth creation. Rich countries provide conditional loans that redound to their benefit. They submit feasibility proposals and give huge loans to build infrastructure projects as long as we hire their consultants, contractors, and financiers. With regard to developing our national transport system, they provided us with money to build expressways but not railways. Why? Because if we install a rail network connecting Manila to the provinces, it would affect the number of cars we buy from multinational companies which are remitting taxes and other revenues to imperialist countries. Their goal is not to build a strong Philippine economy but to prevent us from developing our own industries which can compete with the goods they are producing.

In other words, traffic is not simply the fault of rich private car owners or erring jeepney drivers. If we want to be more accurate, we have to discuss the link between the daily traffic gridlock and the corruption in the bureaucracy, feudal economy, and the dictates of imperialist powers. Next time that we are hostaged by the nefarious Edsa traffic, let us think not of the MMDA enforcer but his superiors and other non-performing racketeers in the government, the hacienda owner who refuses to distribute lands to tenants, and foreign agents who are here on a mission to extract more profit from our lands and labor.

Since traffic is linked to the political economy, it means the solution is also a question of politics. Authorities are always reminding us to follow traffic rules. Nothing wrong with this prescription but it evades the fundamental issues we raised in this article. More than a traffic czar, we need a clean government committed to reversing the historic inequities caused by feudal despotism and imperialist meddling.

Traffic is not a social problem which can be easily eradicated through simple solutions, (E-jeepneys, modern ticketing system), technological innovations (Uber), fancy proposals (green city), and electing ‘dirty harry’ type of leaders. We can’t embrace the idea of urban renewal while neglecting to push for land reform. The alternative must be comprehensive. Traffic is another reason why we must jumpstart the national democratic struggle whose objective is to liberate us from the bondage of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Information-savvy politicians only offer token reforms while the situation demands an overhaul of the political and economic system.

As for the general commuters, drivers, pedestrians, riders, bikers, and passengers, our urgent task is to transform road rage into public outrage against the daily traffic, and more importantly, the rotten social system. Let us unite for we have nothing to lose but our beep cards.

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