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11:57 PM August 13th, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, August 13th, 2013 11:57 PM

We’ve had too many “only in the Philippines” articles, usually focusing on something negative. I thought maybe we should do “if only in the Philippines,” but using that perspective still comes out negative. For a change then, why don’t we look at other countries (besides Mother America) for striking and unique positive examples that we may want to emulate?

I thought of “only in Norway” after watching a report by Al-Jazeera about that country’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who decided to drive a taxi for a day so he could talk with his constituents about their needs. Al-Jazeera carried video footage showing passengers’ reactions, including some of them debating with each other if the driver was really the prime minister. One woman asked the “driver” if he had quit as prime minister.

The timing could not have been better because just last week, Dinna Dayao started a petition asking President Aquino to require all government officials to take public transport at least once a month. More on that in the second part of today’s column.

Against the tide

If the world is plagued by rogue states—countries that refuse to play fair in the global landscape—then we have countries like Norway that go against the tide. After news spread in July 2011 about a right-wing nationalist, Anders Breivik, massacring 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage, Norwegians poured out into the streets singing and carrying roses. Outside the main cathedral in Oslo, Norwegians produced a carpet of flowers with a message: “If one man can show so much hate, just imagine how much love we can all show together.”

Breivik was allowed to express his extremist views during his trial, speaking against Islam and Muslim immigrants. The rationale for allowing this was that democracy was the best defense against antidemocratic ideas, and indeed, his ranting and raving ended up discrediting people with extremist ideas like his.

In other countries, including the Philippines, there would have been an outcry to execute the murderer and to pass more draconian “antiterrorist” laws, including curtailment of some civil liberties. Prime Minister Stoltenberg  instead declared: “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.” Later, he apologized to the nation for lapses in the way the police handled the case, but did not call for more powers to the police.

Of course, Norway only has five million people, so one can argue that governance is so much easier. But generally, the Scandinavian countries have been models of governance and citizenship. They are not the richest countries in the world if we use indices like the Gross Domestic Product, but they’ve always been among the top 10 countries in terms of the Human Development Index, which combines GDP for economic wealth with life expectancy and years of schooling for a more accurate measure of the quality of life. And if the Scandinavian countries fare so well, Norway leads them all, having ranked first with the human development index from 2000 to 2004 and 2007 to 2012 (the latest year for which HDI rankings were made).

Stoltenberg’s leadership style isn’t confined to Norway or Scandinavia. All over Europe, and to some extent in Canada and Australia, we’re seeing a kind of postmodern state where government officials aren’t into pomp and privilege. My Dutch friends liked to boast that their officials, all the way up to the prime minister, would not hesitate to take public transport, or even occasionally bike to work, in a suit and briefcase.

Petition against hell

Let me get to the “if only in the Philippines” bit.

The contrasts in lifestyles cannot be more sharp. Our local officials, even petty ones, take trips with dozens of people (I’m thinking of minions in “Despicable Me”). And while the detested wang wang (police sirens) are gone, the politicos still have convoys of motorcycle cops who stop all traffic to let our royalty pass. (I forgot to say my Dutch friends say the members of their royal family are also known to bike in public.)

No wonder our politicians can’t understand why we complain so much about traffic, and public transport.

Now comes a petition initiated by Dinna Dayao calling on government officials to take public transport at least once a month. Dinna’s rationale is that these officials will never give priority to public transport because they don’t know what it’s like out there. Every time I write about the horrors of our LRT/MRT system I’m bombarded with e-mails, mostly from people just needing to vent their exasperation, if not rage.  Many e-mails use words like “suffer” and “oppressed” and wonder how the government can be so insensitive.

Really, if Dan Brown had taken our public transport, preferably the LRT/MRT during rush hour, he would not have described Manila as the gate to hell. Instead, he would have claimed to have discovered the Italian poet and writer Dante’s Inferno. Dante had cleverly described an Inferno for the lowest forms of human life, from popes to politicians, each condemned to specific parts of hell.

Since this is the Chinese ghost month, I might as well get more regional and describe the Chinese Hades, where these ghosts usually reside. There are theme parks in China designed to scare children to death with depictions of this Chinese Inferno, showing people being subjected to all kinds of physical brutalities.  My “favorites” are the ones where the ghosts of gluttons are condemned to be forever hungry because whatever they eat simply slides through a kind of bottomless gut extending from the mouth to the rear exit.

Easily, one can imagine a new section in such an Inferno where the most corrupt humans would be damned, the less corrupt ones condemned to take perpetual taxi rides (not with the Norwegian prime minister), followed by tricycles and jeepneys, and the most corrupt politicians saved for an underworld LRT/MRT, forever queuing and being shoved and crammed like sardines into tiny train coaches that neither start nor end, then discharging passengers to queue again. Like the real LRT/MRT there will be clocks everywhere in this hell, none of which tells the correct time, which is really what hell is all about—not knowing what’s going on, not knowing where you are, or when you’ll find relief.

Dinna’s petition does make another important point: Priority has been given to flyovers and to other infrastructure that benefit private vehicles—well, sort of—since what happens is we get more traffic congestion so people in private cars have their own hell—well, purgatory—compared to public transport.

Go to www.change.org and you’ll find the petition, “Require all public officials to take public transport,” on the home page. Sign it and let’s see what will come out of it.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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