Monday, August 30, 2010

In deep

It is week four of the semester and I feel tired already. Why does it feel as though I've been here much longer than a month? A change in location perhaps, but essentially doing the same thing ... only the efforts are more serious and hopefully rigorous, and the terrain politically diverse. Politicking, politicking in academia can be such a bitter exercise. The American is bearing the brunt of it - because of who he is. Being from the Third World, and a woman to boot, every little thing that comes out of my mouth is brilliant! Novel! Miraculous! Ah, the comparative advantage of low expectations. Must make hay while I can.

As far institutions go I feel I have chosen well. The uni is heavily invested, it seems, in my research topic. Never mind my department. It can go hang. The other week i had a glimpse of how professionals behave in their natural habitat. Surprisingly there was very little ego. You had a sense that they took their vocation seriously, especially the ethical implications of their research.  I had no doubt it was cutting edge. I googled and nobody else was doing it. The whole exercise was, above all, a collegial effort. The proverbial blind men struggling to describe the elephant in the room. They came from all over the planet, the UK, Sweden, the US, Korea, India, drawn together by the need to understand and explain. This is what drives them, I think. This drive for cognition. And the politicking, well, its the baggage the comes with being a professional I suppose. Resources, after all, are finite.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The world in a bowl of laksa

Contrary to some people who insist that the Philippines is exceptional in all things despicable or idiotic, Singapore, like Australia, seems obsessed with being "world class." It seems its people know they have already achieved a level of development and excellence compared to its neighbors and contemporaries, but this doesn't mean it isn't aiming higher.

In a class last night, this was made evident to me when a Singapore national compared his country's "livability" vis-a-vis the ROW. Sure, in Asia, it is probably one of the best places to inhabit, but compared to the world? He shakes his head. Perhaps this obsessesion to be "world class" stems from the fact that such a small country seems to want to draw in as much of the world as it could.

Winnie Monsod explains how farmers at Hacienda Luisita are at the losing end

Some people can be quite paranoid about the issue of land reform or anything to do with land. You bring it up and people immediately accuse you of being on a particular end of the spectrum. Land is really quite a legitimate policy issue for many countries, not to mention one that has land laws dating back to Spanish times.

Well, nobody will accuse Winnie Monsod of being a leftist. Here she explains how Hacienda Luisita's farmers got the short end of the stick.

Monday, August 02, 2010

(Blogwatch) Noynoy's First SONA

How refreshing, a State of the Nation Address (SONA) that isn't self-congratulatory. I suppose this can be expected, given that this is President Noynoy Aquino's first. He doesn’t have a laundry list of accomplishments to trumpet. Instead he has a laundry list of things the previous administration did wrong. It is always good to juxtapose his administration from the last one. That is a gift that will keep on giving. He reminds us of the horrors of the Arroyo reign, and anything compared to that can only be good. Of course he makes special mention of Pampanga, just to remind us in case we’ve forgotten.

Read the rest at the Philippine Online Chronicles.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Ethnographic Notes, Week 1

Mid-morning was bright and shiny. My Philippine budget airline delivered me to the Singaporean budget terminal along with dozens of other souls who braved the 6h25 flight. At immigration bodies queued up to be inspected and deemed fit to enter Singapore’s sovereign space. Two pairs of women were singled out from the line and called to report to a room for questioning. I felt humiliated on their behalf. I pictured how many times a day such a thing happens. Did every flight bring women travelling alone who could potentially be trafficked? The Philippines has never come down from Tier 2 of the Trafficking in Persons Report. Our porous borders and poor security make it easy for human smugglers to get young women out of the country to service Bangladeshi construction workers in the northern part of this country.

Now I wonder what it was about their ‘profile’ that alerted the immigration authorities. Was it the way they were clothed? Was it how they carried themselves? Was it because unlike me, they didn’t wear a bored look on their faces? Ours was the only flight that arrived at the budget terminal so the immigration business was quick. The lady in front of me presented her papers and was subsequently whisked off to the questioning room. It was my turn and I gave the immigration lady my papers. She scanned my passport and had a look at my ICA letter. Stamp stamp welcome to Singapore with a smile. The discipline of borders and visas and passports is a cruel thing.

I had only been to SG once. On my flight home from Australia two years ago I flew on Singapore airlines and had a six-hour lay over in Changi airport so naturally I took advantage of the free city tour. My friend B says it’s like a never-ending Makati. It certainly looks that way, only cleaner and minus the pollution from vehicles.

The advantage of travelling in rich countries is that there is a discernible logic in their public spaces. The transport system can be confusing at first, but you’ll soon have the hang of it. Theirs isn’t as precisely timed as the buses on the Gold Coast, but then this is a city-state of five million. In an interview some months back I was asked what I missed most about Australia, I said the public transport system. But these days owning a car in Manila doesn’t lend the same privilege as, say, five years ago. This was why I rarely ventured out of Quezon City. Think about it. Traffic used to be bad only during rush hours. Now even at high noon all major roads are choked. To and from Ortigas. To and from Makati. EDSA. I think of all the time and productivity lost in traffic. Somebody did the math for it once. How many billions?

I have said before I felt caged in Manila, held hostage by the elements (i.e. rains + floods) and gridlock. I couldn’t go where I wanted without shortening my lifespan through stress. Before I left for Oz in 2006 we had to have water delivered by truck for months because Maynilad was having some crisis. And earlier this month before leaving for here we had no water for weeks, another water crisis. The same reason we weren’t too adversely affected by typhoon Ondoy made it difficult for water to course through our pipes. They have floods here too, I’m told. Orchard Road was under water for 20 minutes and everyone was in panic. I’m also told complaining was a national pastime. I suppose it would be if you’re used to have everything working. There are advantages growing up in Manila. We’re made of stern stuff. Nerves of steel.

The wealth is plainly obvious. Due to lack of space, rich people’s houses aren’t all that ostentatious. They aren’t situated in gated villages. I’ve seen over a dozen luxury cars just zipping by on the road. Two Porsche Carreras passed by when I was waiting for the bus yesterday. There is another Porsche and a Ferrari parked alongside the road near my student hostel. Just sitting there on the side of the road with people and other vehicles passing by! This area near Bukit Timah road, I’m told, is an upscale neighborhood. I’ve come across dozens of Filipina nannies and domestic helpers on the streets. I wonder how much they get paid. I suppose only the truly wealthy can afford such a luxury.

The ordinary people live in HDBs, that is, public housing built by government. Imagine rows upon rows of buildings. The spaces are quite cramped. I know because I’ve been viewing rooms to rent near my uni. But while the living quarters are small, the external spaces are generous. The MRT during rush hour isn’t as bad as in Manila. There are parks for people to congregate. Rush hour traffic isn’t traffic at all by Manila standards.

The poor people are older people. I’ve seen a couple of “beggars” in the underground passages near MRT stations and malls. There was an older gentleman playing the violin the other day. And an old lady with sores on her legs selling tissue. The beggars don’t just have their hands extended for alms. I suppose they have to offer some kind of service. I’ve yet to see a young beggar though.

I told B last night I think Singapore could be a demographic sample of the world’s population, except the South Asians should number about as much as the East Asians. There is a smattering of Africans and Caucasians. Is this what all cities would look like in a hundred years? And many of the signs are in English, Chinese, Hindi and Bahasa.

Are Singaporeans truly embracing multiculturalism? It’s a big word in Australia in the prosperous years of the Howard government. Now that Australia is coming out of the tail end of the global financial crisis, it wants to restrict immigration. But apparently Singapore is enjoying an economic boom these days. And migrant workers are welcome, if susceptible to abuse the lower they reside in the hierarchy of this slice of the global labor force. My friend B says his coworkers from other Southeast Asian countries are not getting their salaries regularly. His other Filipino co-worker didn’t get paid for months at his former employers. I thought this kind of thing only happened in places like China where labor laws are poorly implemented. But it happens here too. Slavery in the 21st century in high-tech, cosmopolitan Singapore.

The other day as I was opening a bank account with DBS (which took all of 15 minutes including the card), I saw a bus driven by a woman wearing a hijab. It struck me as odd as I feel Singapore is, in some ways, conservative. But there she was, a female bus driver. In all my life in Manila, I have never seen one. There is no outward sexism that I’ve seen so far. But then I’ve yet to see local TV.

While people aren’t necessarily warm and friendly, they seem helpful. Well, at least helpful of lost newbies asking for directions. In my apartment hunt I must’ve asked over a dozen people for directions the other day. People were eager to help, even those who don’t speak English very well. Singlish is a challenge. I’ve had to ask people to repeat themselves countless times. And on my part I’ve learned to slow down my speech.

Perhaps SG has eased up on its authoritarian ways because I have yet to see police presence. Perhaps surveillance is done by subtle means. Technology makes this possible. For example information about you as a visitor is centralized. Immigration, school, bank. They all seem to share the same data about you. There are also a lot of cameras in the commercial areas, although I’ve yet to see one here in the residential areas.