Monday, July 23, 2012

Missing Suitcases and Other Odd Phenomena: A Question of Management

So nice to be back home in safe, clean Singapore after a couple weeks in the Philippines. The two countries are both in Southeast Asia, and both are members of ASEAN, both are island nations -- though the Philippines has 7000+ islands and Singapore merely a handful -- but they couldn't be more different. I'm going to use my travel experience to illustrate.

On a recent international trip, I arrived by plane in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, to find that my suitcase had not arrived with me on the Tiger Airways day flight. The bag was left back at Changi; it was then forwarded to the Cebu - Mactan Airport on a subsequent Cebu Pacific night flight. That flight left Singapore at midnight and arrived in Cebu's airport at 4am. There my suitcase apparently sat unattended for six hours. I suspect that was when it was ransacked. When I opened the bag in the presence of a Tiger Airways staff member who brought it to my hotel at noon the same day (24 hours after I'd arrived), I discovered not only that everything in the bag was jumbled, but that the new Nokia Lumia 610 phone I was bringing to Cebu as a gift (still in its original packaging) was gone.

Later, when I reported this theft to the head of police back at the Cebu Mactan airport, I was told by the kind gentleman that he indeed suspected it had been stolen there at the airport. He also confided that he had items taken from his own suitcase on a recent flight from Singapore to Cebu. In fact he went on to tell me that a crime syndicate was operating at the airport among the Cebu Pacific luggage handlers. According to this same police chief, his office was recieving complaints nearly every day of thefts from luggage!

Naturally, I asked the chief why his office couldn't make an effort to stop the crime wave at the airport. His answer startled me: oversight of the luggage handling was the responsibility of Cebu Pacific, not his office. 

That is precisely what I see as the major difference between Singapore and the Philippines, this lack of a sense of responsbility. Of course, it would be naive for me to say that everyone in Singapore feels responsible. However, I think people in Singapore are encouraged to take action, to get involved, and to be responsible. Rigorous demands in the education system require such responsibility, certainly. I also see it in the place that the rule of law plays in Singapore society.

Let me explain this idea in terms of another example, something very basic: the way people interact with the physical environment, which is another area of stark contrast between Singapopre and the Philippines.

In Cebu, I have been startled by the grime, dust and dirt on sidewalks, roads, buildings and public spaces, how litter is openly strewn on streets, fruit peels tossed into gutters, and plastics dropped helter skelter. I've seen people spit and piss throughout public areas (including a taxi driver who stopped near my downtown hotel and was peeing along the street), kids blatantly drop icecream wrappers and other rubbish on the ground, and smokers flick their cigarette butts randomly onto the street.

It seems that few Cebuanos hesitate to trash their living environment. The result is one of the trashiest, smelliest places I have ever visited, bar none, in the world. When I asked my Filipina fiance about this, she reported that many people in Cebu have the attitude that things are messy, so what would be the difference if a bit more garbage is added.

Clearly, there is little sense of "I am responsible for my environment." (Very little attention apparently given to any sort of "green movement" in Cebu, and dare I say, in the Philippines in general.)

I contrast this to the endless campaigns I witnessed in my youth 40 years ago in America, both in school and through the mass media, by which the value for creating and maintaining a clean environment was instilled. The results today in America are obvious: beaches are pristine, wilderness areas are garbage free, roadsides are generally litter-less, and city streets and sidewalks exist without rubbish. (Sadly, America has a long way to go toward ensuring its citizens that their environment is also safe!)

As for cleanliness, Singapore is very similar to the U.S. in this regard (although I have witnessed a worsening in Singapore since the late 1980s). As I rode the bus this morning from my residence in Bukit Timah to my office in Kent Ridge, the fact that the roads and sidewalks were clean jumped out at me. (And nowhere in Singapore have I ever smelled pee in a public area!)  Someone somewhere has done something right when an environment filled with so many people -- and Singapore is one of the most densely populated islands in the world -- is so clean.

It's also clear to me when something is wrong. Yesterday, taking the taxi from central Cebu City to the airport on Mactan Island, I was struck yet again by the filth on the city streets, sidewalks and in public spaces. Who's in charge, I wondered.

For me, that is the real issue: Who is in charge? Where's the management? Where is the sense of responsibility of the chief executives, directors, section chiefs, police chiefs, mayors, council members and other government representatives?

What do the citizens of a place like Cebu think when they visit a place as clean and safe as Singapore, or Tokyo, London, Chicago, New York, or Paris?

It is the responsibility of ordinary citizens to have the concern, and then they must pressure those around them, including their leaders, to set goals and work hard to lead their constituency in a direction that pays more than lip service to the notion that the Earth is our home. Safety and cleanliness are basic human responsibilities, and rights, not luxuries.


Rohan Rajiv said...

Great post. Enjoyed reading it, Brad.

I wish you installed Disqus as your blog's commenting system though! :-)

Mark said...

"Safety and cleanliness are basic human responsibilities, and rights, not luxuries."

Great post too. Enjoyed reading it as well.

As much as I agree with you, dear Brad, on the above statement made, I also think that you and I might be aloof to think it is a right. Everybody has a bias, which is why we find that Cebuanos think they did absolutely nothing wrong pissing and griming the streets with their internal and external trash. They are under illusion by the air in Cebu, and the Fillipines in general, the same way you had breathed American air and I did Singapore.

It is so hard to come out of this illusion unless they had a chance to visit Singapore or the USA, and even then they might retain their attitudes and beliefs after that fact, precisely because the illusion is so strong! Come to think of what, Cebuanos would be walking the streets in Singapore like you did in Cebu and thinking aloof about why everything is so confusingly clean and ordered. I can’t imagine how correct that could be but the point is there are people in this world who can make that out!

It’s like what the heck, unless we have a one world government or one air, many people and their beliefs will always be different from many others, for a fact.


Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, guys, for your comments.

Rohan, I honestly thought I had installed Disqus. What am I doing wrong? ya wanna give your former sensei a helping hand?

mark, You're right when you write that we are perhaps under different "illusions." I'd just restate it by saying that the values and beliefs vary. Pissing on the street in Cebu (or in many other places) is obviously not considered as foul an act in there as it would be some places like in much of the US (where it's generally a criminal offence)or Singapore. But still, there are many cultural/biological universals: leaving filth in streets and on sidewalks helps breed insects and rodents, which can spread disease. Theft of property is not socially acceptable anywhere. And yet the way groups of people view those acts can certainly differ. Again, I would suggest that people have a right to cleanliness and safety, and that government, whether local or national, should do everything possible to ensure that such rights are taken seriously.

Brad Blackstone said...

" In a recent study by human resources consultancy ECA International, Singapore ranks as the world's most livable city for Asian expatriates. It tops the table due to its consistently good air quality, world-class health care, excellent infrastructure and low crime rate." from the article here:

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