Feeling first, but are we even second world?


Two comments made by friends over the course of the last months brought home certain truths about our “state of the nation,” and where we stand in the global arena. And if we don’t live in denial, accepting the truth in the statements may actually help us assess what needs to be done, and lead us on insisting on the changes that have to be made.

Before I continue, let me just say that I’m fully aware of how onion-skinned and defensive we are, so understand that all this is coming from wanting us to improve and gain ground, and it’s not an exercise in belittling or putting down the leadership and political will we’ve been living under over the last decades.
The first one came from an expatriate now working in a major bank here in the Philippines. What was interesting was his perspective of having been assigned to our country, early in his career, close to two decades ago. To paraphrase, he said that while he recognizes the progress and great strides made since his last time stationed here, he noticed how the public transport system within the metropolis, and the airport system, haven’t really changed over two decades. And he compared this to what has been happening in other ASEAN cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.

One of our NAIA terminals. For me, also part of an outdated system.

I fully got where he was coming from, as it can’t just be about building more roads and Skyways. Those do help ease the traffic situation, but they don’t alleviate what’s at the root of the problem. When we travel to Japan, to Singapore, Hong Kong, or Bangkok, we’re all ready to use their public transport systems, their underground trains and subways - and more often than not, this holds true no matter what socio-economic background we come from. And why is this the case? Because they’re efficient, clean, and dependable, working like clockwork.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for our systems. The moment a Filipino can afford his or her own private vehicle, they’re so thankful to “graduate” from having to commute via public transport. The difference with the countries I mentioned is how their middle class and up, may own cars, but utilize them on the weekends for out of town and recreational trips - and avail of public transport to forego traffic and parking issues, when commuting to work on the weekdays.

Our Manila Light Rail Transit System (LRT), began operation in 1984, 39 years ago, with it’s Line 1. Line 2 of the LRT opened in April 2003. While the Metro Rail Transit and the MRT Line 3 was founded in 1995, and began operation in December 1999. Which brings me to the comment made by another friend, reenforcing what I’m driving at. He said that true progress for inner city travel is achieved not by the increase of vehicles on the road, of the less fortunate now being able to afford cars; but by how many of the upwardly mobile and well-to-do trust and use the public transport system available - as how we see in global cities like New York and London.

Our LRT mass transit system.

Let’s now talk about our Manila airports, and I’m not even going to mention the navigation system breakdown of January 1st. NAIA, run by the Manila International Airport Authority, opened in 1948. The international runway dates to the mid-1950’s. Today’s Terminal 1 opened in 1982. While our current Terminal 2 opened in 1999 as the Centennial Terminal. Terminal 3 partially opened in 2008, became fully operational in 2014. And while it’s called Terminal 4, we all know that it’s the Old Domestic Terminal, which was built in 1948. Sounds like outdated LEGO block-building to me, all centered on runways dating back to the 1950’s.

Everywhere else in the world, airports are built away from the city limits to minimize noise pollution, and for safety reasons - less tall buildings on flight path trajectories, landing and take off accidents happen in less populated areas. Ideally, you’d even want multiple aircraft circling before landing to be doing so over bodies of water. So right away, it’s obvious that while convenient for those living in the city and planning to travel, NAIA is an outdated airport system. And yet, we keep fighting for it’s survival!

Imagine if all that NAIA land, of high commercial value, could be converted to commercial and residential purpose? And yet, what do we have, developers who have purposely made proximity to the NAIA as one of their core selling propositions. Their success shows us just how topsy-turvy our situation is - that one would actually want to live beside an airport. I doubt that this kind of property marketing holds true anywhere else in the world.

So it seems that some hard decisions have to be made, if we are truly going to take those steps to modernize, and be the tiger economy of the future we’ve always wanted to be. Are we ready for those decisions?