By way of penance | Inquirer Opinion
There’s the Rub

By way of penance

Online Portal has a very interesting proposal. That is for the highest officials of government to take public transport at least once a month. It’s not enough for them to just take out their wang-wang, they should go on to commute by bus, jeep and train.

“The only way government officials will understand the plight of commuters is if they themselves take public transit regularly,” says leader Dinna Dayao. Most Metro Manila commuters, she says, “suffer from long lines, are squeezed into jampacked trains and rickety buses and jeeps, and endure long travel times.” What government should be doing is improving public transport, not just roads and bridges.


Several other petitioners of join the chorus. “How can they put together sensible transport policies and translate them into programs and projects if they are clueless about what it’s like to be a commuter in Metro Manila?” says Mark Norman Maca. Once a month, says Marlon Co, is not enough to get them to see “what the public is suffering.”

Seemingly a minor point, it is in fact a brilliant one, and deserves to be taken seriously. Of course the public officials are likely to complain that they are far too busy to be delayed in this way, they have work to do, or decisions to make, that impact on the wellbeing of the society. But that was the same excuse the congressmen toting wang-wang during Gloria Arroyo’s time made—I recall Raul Gonzalez justifying them by saying his time was more valuable than that of others—and the wang-wang’s disappearance did nothing to sink the nation. In fact their disappearance did much to lift it.


I myself propose that compelling public officials to take public transport not be confined to the executive, it should be extended to the legislative and judiciary. It should help to see the senators and congressmen and judges in buses and jeepneys, if only so we can give them a feedback, to put it politely, or an earful, to put it less so, for their misdeeds. I propose moreover that they do so not just once a month but once a week.

At the very least that is so because it should truly give them whole new insights into the plight of the commuter. I myself rarely drive to Makati. Living as I do in Quezon City, I take the MRT on the occasions that I cannot avoid going there. The trips used to be pleasant, particularly on the off-hours, but that is no longer so today. There’s barely an off-hour anymore, the trains fill up at all hours.

On rush hour, of course, it’s absolute bedlam. You’ll have to wait out two or three trains before you get to clamber aboard and squeeze into a crowd so thick and dense your chest pushes into the back of the person in front of you when you breathe. It does give an insight into commuter woes, if not into what it feels to be inside a can of sardines.

But even more than this, I endorse the idea for reasons that go beyond giving public officials to see the hell of public transport. It’s also so that they would see the hell of poverty itself. Being assaulted by the sights and sounds and smells and sensations of the “outside world” should do that to them.

Cars, particularly ones cooled by great air-conditioning and fine music emanating from fine sound systems, insulate you. You could be driving through the tangle of Edsa or the snarl of Taft Avenue, but you might as well not be in it. You might as well be in a bubble that, except for the inconvenience of traffic, is unreachable by the world right outside of you. You need to be in that world for it to sink into you. You need to be in that world for it to become real to you. You need to be thrust into that world for poverty to assail you.

Pope Francis’ concern for the poor is not just programmatic, it is instinctive. It is not just mental, it is emotional. It is not just posited, it is lived. You cannot have that if you do not ride the bus on a regular basis, as the Pope does, never insisting that his job of proselytizing is too important to be delayed that way, believing instead that how you get to where you are going is just as important as getting there at all. You cannot get that sense of caring if you do not see and hear and smell and feel the rough and tumble, the destruction and creation, the struggle and despair of the slums of Buenos Aires, and recently of Rio.

I don’t know that we can ever compel our public officials to visit slums, let alone regularly. I do think someone, or some group, should propose it. Never mind China and its policy of sending intellectuals to the hinterlands for “remolding” and what it has done for the country. Just mind the “immersion” our own activists underwent not too long ago, which seared in many of their souls—there are always exceptions to the rule—the spirit of “serve the people.” Indeed, never mind even that, mind only programs like the Jesuit volunteer service of Ateneo that has wrought transformations of Paul-on-the-way-to-Damascus scale among smug youth. I personally know someone like that, turning from spoiled  burgis  to resolutely propoor after a couple of years in Zamboanga. But that’s another story.


To understand the poor, you first have to see the poor. And it is one of the sublime paradoxes of our place and time that surrounded as we are by the poor, cornered as we are by the poor, assailed as we are by the poor, we do not see the poor. Not really. They are there but might as well not be there. We can always comfort ourselves by getting angry that an outsider should have the gall to call our favorite and overcrowded megalopolis the gates of hell.

Who knows? Maybe requiring public officials to ride in public vehicles might help. It should certainly give the rest of us some satisfaction.

If only to see that they are doing penance.

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