Thursday, August 10, 2017

[Second Opinion] Japanese punctuality, Filipino time

The author with friends at the summit of Mt. Fuji
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOKYO — Whenever I’m in Japan, I cannot help but marvel at the people’s punctuality.

A recent experience was illustrative: My friends and I had just left Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture and were aboard the bus back to the train station, but just as it was about to depart, a passenger rose, talked to the driver, then faced the other passengers. In between apologetic bows, he asked if it was okay for us to wait for his friend who should be arriving in one or two minutes. He hadn’t even finished talking when his friend arrived, running. The friend was late for just over 30 seconds, but such a delay sufficed for him to make a public apology.

How did the Japanese acquire such an acute sense of time?

For a facile answer, one could cite a highly efficient and reliable transportation system — from extensive subway systems to the famed shinkansen — that makes it very easy for people to fulfill their commitments. Because it takes exactly 33 minutes from Asakusa to Shibuya via the Ginza Line, I know exactly which train to take if I’m meeting someone at Hachiko’s.

But even the Japanese who are in the Philippines are known to be punctual, which tells us that there’s more to their sense of time than the infrastructure that enables it.

Surprisingly, scholars aver that the Japanese sense of punctuality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historian Takehiko Hashimoto notes that Westerners in the mid-19th century actually complained that the Japanese were always late! It was only decades later, as part of the Meiji-era reforms, that punctuality was institutionalized. Children, for instance, were instructed to arrive 10 minutes before the start of class.

A second wave of time consciousness — one that pervaded the people’s everyday lives — came after the war, aided by the proliferation of wristwatches, heavy industrialization, and the inculcation of Western values. Surely, this sense of time, too, fostered the rise of a hyperefficient transport system, making Japanese punctuality a “coproduction” of culture and infrastructure.

As for the Philippines, while it is easy to blame our tardiness on the traffic and the unpredictable weather — or label it as an immutable “mentality” — one way to look at it is to consider how time has always been relative, and not just in Einstein’s sense of the word.

Anthropologists point out that “clock time”—i.e., seconds, minutes, hours — is in itself a modern invention: Until very recently, events dictated the pace of the day in most societies. A colorful example of this “event time” is “alas-puno” — or when the jeepney leaves, not at a certain time, but when it is full. Moreover, temporal categories were broader: umaga, hapon, gabi—allowing for more pakiramdaman (“feeling each other”).

Even in professional contexts in the Philippines today, there is more leeway: Arriving one minute late will likely not merit an apology, but one hour would. Then there’s a “politics of time,” too: Some can arrive “fashionably late” because of—or to assert—their importance. Indeed, people’s conceptions of time are shaped by others’ expectations, even as these expectations also change over time.

Sometimes, I think the Japanese can be punctual to a fault: On a hike up Mount Fuji last year, our guides wanted to schedule everything — including sleeping and waking times — removing the fun in climbing Japan’s highest peak. My Nagoya-based friend Jeion also feels that the overreliance on schedules can lead to a “domino effect” when things go wrong. “Filipino time,” with its flexibility and improvisation, may be suited for situations beyond our control, or when time itself need not be micromanaged — as when one is on vacation.

But the Japanese sense of time remains a valuable trait, not just for self-improvement but also for national growth: It is no coincidence that the 1950s-60s — when the Japanese began to adopt their modern conceptions of time — also marked the beginning of their “economic miracle.”
What we should strive for, then, is neither a full dismissal of Filipino time nor a full embrace of Japanese punctuality, but the ability to make use of both.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

[Second Opinion] In defense of the millennials

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It is human nature to find fault in the next generation. The Baby Boomers were critiqued by their elders for eschewing traditional values, but they in turn critiqued the Gen X-ers for being too carefree, unfocused, even cynical. Although it is fashionable to say “the kids these days,” accompanied with a sigh, the suggestion that the so-called “millennials” are exceptionally different from generations past has little factual basis.

The perceived frivolity of emojis, for instance, can be seen in the context of every generation deploying linguistic playfulness to set itself apart — and adapt to technology. Just as the youth of the ’40s and ’50s inverted words to the annoyance of their ermat and erpat, the youth of today are inventing acronyms and metaphors: I hope they don’t find this essay TL;DR — or worse, boring AF.

Much has also been said about how millennials are addicted to selfies. But self-photography has always been important for Filipinos. In the past, people went to great lengths just to have their self-portraits, even going to studios, and buying albums and photo frames to “display” their pictures — a function now taken over by Facebook and Instagram.

And what of their supposed overdependence on the internet? This I take as a valid concern (more on this later), but take note that every new technology — from electricity to video games — is perceived thus by those who did not grow up with it. Haven’t parents been railing against TV for the past half-century?

Finally, student civic engagement is derided as naive, as if the “grownups” in 1972 viewed the students of their time any differently. Surely, the young ilustrados and the revolutionaries who came after them were likewise derided for their “juvenile” ideas, but today nobody questions the wisdom of Rizal, who incidentally saw the youth as the hope of the nation.

An entire generation defies generalization: There are many “millennials” who do not have access to the internet, let alone smartphones. On the other hand, I know old people who are more hooked to Facebook than their grandkids. However, there are significant social and technological changes today that affect most millennials the most.

Social media, for instance, has created a new way of “separate togetherness:” Folks can be together at one dinner table but worlds apart in their smartphones. It has also created a problematic form of validation—through “likes” and “shares.”

The near-universal availability of information from the internet, moreover, can lead to the complacent idea that everything can be found in Wikipedia, searched in Google, or, as a last resort, crowdsourced through Reddit.

The comforts and technologies of today can indeed engender a sense of entitlement and laziness. But at the same time, they can also create new forms of responsibility. In this age of screenshots and virality, one learns early on to be responsible for what one posts in social media. In an age where teachers can easily check for plagiarism through search engines, one learns that simply relying on a quick Google search for assignments won’t impress anybody. Not anymore. So it always works both ways.

Similarly, while the virtual world may have greatly expanded, the internet has also allowed for an easier exploration of the real one: Traveling and going outdoors have gotten much easier. And while it has given rise to trolls and cyberbullies, it has also given voice to fact-checkers, real-life communities and support groups.

The challenge, then, is to maximize the good and mitigate the bad, of the technologies and trends we are faced with today. And, instead of blaming millennials for modernity’s problems, to think of how education can be responsive in a time of information overload and a dearth of critical thinking.

Throughout this piece, I’ve tried to defend millennials from unfair critique, but critique itself is most welcome. As a millennial myself, I think we need to be challenged more, and so by all means keep challenging us.

Someday, we will also realize our mistakes.

By then, perhaps we would have earned the right to lament the “decline” of the next generation.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

A version of this article appeared in Thailand's The Nation:

Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Human rights are for crybabies"

Some people ridicule the whole idea of human rights, saying it’s only for crybabies. My response to them? That’s exactly why it’s so important.

I had never thought much of babies until recently when I became an uncle. Baby Tori, my sister’s daughter, was four months old when I first saw her, and she was truly precious, a joy to behold. When you hold a baby for the first time, you are filled with wonder at seeing a human being’s frail beginnings—and with an awesome responsibility for someone so innocent and powerless.

Baby Tori, to my sister’s relief, is no “crybaby.” But as with all babies, there can be no predicting her behavior, and sometimes she would cry when we’re in church or a restaurant, raising our anxiety. In medical school I learned that crying can mean many things: It can be a sign of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, fear, or desire for companionship—but as my brother-in-law says, “parents are usually more worried than others.”

Of course, the other churchgoers or diners do not seem to get annoyed at Tori for crying; most of them throw sympathetic glances our way. They understand a four-month-old’s capabilities, because most of them have also experienced caring for babies.

To be honest, I used to hate being seated next to a baby in a bus or an airplane. But when it happens to me nowadays, I find myself more understanding. I think of my niece and I am filled with happy memories. Surely, no one has the right to get in the way of her sense of wonder for a world that to her mind remains beautiful.

Crying babies can be a metaphor for the voiceless and the powerless of the world, who, like infants, can only cry for mercy and justice. Human rights, after all, are not for those who have the ability to exact freedom and comfort with their own means. Our due is responsibility, not remonstration, and life can go on without anyone intervening on our behalf.

But human rights are still important, because others do not necessarily share our experience of the world. Just as it is hard to understand why a baby cries, it can be difficult to comprehend others’ pleas. When people march on the streets to protest unfair wages or indiscriminate airstrikes, we can easily dismiss them as causing traffic, because we do not have hungry children waiting for us, or homes at risk of being collateral damage in a war. Without empathy, there can be no solidarity.
And guess what? We need others, too, if only because someday we may be the ones who are in need. Isn’t life a cycle, and the babies of today the ones who could take care of us tomorrow? When we lift them up and protect them, we are not just valuing them, we are valuing ourselves and the rest of humanity as well.

Some say that human rights are being used as a tool to discredit governments. But isn’t this the very discourse that reduces human rights to mere talking points? Surely the political ramifications are secondary to the very real consequences for people on the ground.

Then there are those who concede that human rights per se are important, but the problem is that the human rights of “criminals” are being prioritized over those of the “victims.” But how can we label people as “criminals” when their right to due process is not respected in the first place? Besides, the issue of human rights is not a zero sum game, in which valuing one comes at the expense of devaluing the other. A strong and credible justice system—and not politicians — should decide whether people are hiding behind human rights as a shield.

If, like Kafka’s Joseph K, you find yourself wrongfully accused, labeled a criminal, a terrorist, or a drug user, will you not protest? And when, under pain of death, your pleas of innocence are dismissed, will you not cry?

And so when it comes to human rights, don’t think of the issue in political terms, or as an abstract and naive concept. Instead, think of the babies and children closest to your heart. For them and for those like them in spirit, we must keep fighting for human rights: the last and only resort for the weak and the defenseless.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

[Second Opinion] The delusion of quick fixes

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

By 1980, it is predicted that Manila may have expanded so much that it may include Infanta, Quezon province. This will be a city, therefore, two sides of which are harbors. One on the Pacific Ocean and one on Manila Bay or the China Sea side.” We will never be able to tell if Ferdinand Marcos, who delivered those words in his 1976 State of the Nation Address, was genuinely convinced that his New Society would usher in a transformation of Asimovian proportions.

Regardless, he is not alone in imagining — or claiming — that dramatic changes take place in our country in a short period of time. “Three [MRTs] will be completed in 2004, one in 2005, and another one in 2006,” declared Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her own Sona in 2001. “Before I step down, all the land covered by CARP will have been distributed,” Noynoy Aquino pledged on the same occasion in 2012. Two years later, he would trumpet the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike, assuring that bidding would take place very soon amid hearty applause.

Perhaps one can fault our former presidents for making empty promises. But one can also ask why such promises were seen as plausible at that time. And why the same plausibility is accorded the current president’s pronouncements: Kill me if I don’t resolve crimes in 6 months. “Just give me a little extension of maybe another six months,” he would say later, only to eventually concede that the promise was a ‘miscalculation’ and that his term is not enough.

The political expediency of quick fixes taps into people’s impatience in a broken system that they feel has not worked for them. They also draw from our people’s penchant for blind faith — i.e., an uncritical acceptance of what our politicians say. We ask presidential candidates what they plan to do for our country, without interrogating how exactly they plan to do it.

The problem with most quick fixes, however, is that they break the continuity that’s necessary for most programs to succeed. In DOT, for instance, the changing of slogans — from “Wow Philippines” to “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” to “Experience Philippines” — is undertaken by every new administration, as if it would miraculously allow us to finally beat the tourist arrivals of Thailand and Malaysia (both of whom, by the way, have maintained their respective slogans for the past decade).

Another is they lead to desperate and drastic measures that are ultimately detrimental to our nation. Instead of building a comprehensive approach to our drug problem, the government embarks on a ‘war on drugs’ without addressing why people use drugs in the first place. Death, whether in the form of suspected drug users getting shot or criminals getting executed, is valorized, despite the overwhelming historical and scientific evidence that it is not just inhumane, but ineffective.

And then there’s martial law, which is being touted today as a magical solution for Mindanao’s problems — even though, as my colleague Oscar Franklin Tan pointed out, it does not actually add to the already awesome powers of the presidency. Completely untethered from any sense of history, some even wish for martial law to be declared over the entire country, thinking  that it would return us into an imagined utopia. Alas, many of our leaders tolerate these untruths, betraying a complicity that is just as expedient for them as the myths they enable.

“Federalism,” too, is trumpeted as a panacea for our republic’s maladies, as if it would overhaul our broken political system and rid us of the pernicious culture of patronage. While federalism is a legitimate long-term aspiration for the country, the way it is presented by today’s political actors, as yet another silver bullet, misses the mark, even as it once again hits people’s longing for change.

Quick fixes can take the form not just of programs or platforms, but individuals, as when they too are touted, and uncritically accepted, as the answer to our problems. And here is where the gravest danger lies. Over 40 years after a Philippine president presented himself as our nation’s savior, the last thing we need is another fake messiah.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: