By Raïssa Robles
Did you miss me?
I missed you all. I missed writing. I missed blogging and posting on Facebook and Twitter.
When I got to Singapore, my laptop suddenly simply refused to boot up. My Globe roaming on the two mobile phones I brought totally failed.
Fortunately, YMCA Hotel at the end of Orchard Road where I stayed had wi-fi. So at least I could Face-time with an iTouch.
This must be a sign, I thought, to give digital life a rest and simply be a tourist.
This will be a meandering post where I will share what I saw and thought of.
First things first.
A surprise at NAIA airport
Physically, nothing much had changed at NAIA terminal.
Yes, the ladies’ washroom which President Benigno Aquino personally went to has much brighter lighting –
Compared to months before –
But no one bothered to make the paint finish better in the ladies’ washroom.
As for the Internet connection made available on six computers, I know that at least two of them don’t work –
So much for the travel tax being paid. Where does it really go?
One thing has changed, though, at the airport terminal. For the very first time, a Filipino immigration official asked me a question before she would stamp my passport to let me exit the country: “What’s your work?”
“Journalist,” I said.
“Are you working in government?”
“No,” I said. “Why are you asking? This is the first time I’ve been asked that question,” I told her.
She explained that immigration had become very strict in allowing government officials and employees to depart ever since former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to skip the country late last year. She said it was part of PNoy’s “Matuwid na Daan.”
I asked her if the same kind of strictness applied to those working in the presidential palace. Yes, she said. In fact they had a recent case where an underling of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa tried to leave the country and when told that a travel order from a superior was needed, Ochoa sent an immigration official a text message saying the underling had his go-ahead.
But the immigration official did not budge until Ochoa faxed a signed letter granting the underling official leave and allowing overseas travel.
The immigration officer told me that even foreign travels of any government employee of functionary in all three branches of government that was strictly for leisure or vacation now need authorization from higher-ups. She said barangay captains, congressmen, mayors and governors are not exempted from these requirements.
She told me this regulation has long been there but it was the first time it was being implemented to the letter since “Arroyo tried to flee.”
By the way, I definitely knew I was in Singapore when at Changi Airport, I overheard a little girl inside the washroom squeal in delight – “Ma, ang ganda ng CR.”
Singapore’s newest attraction
Perhaps like many Filipinos who go there, half my time in Singapore was spent asking myself – What makes Singapore tick? Why did it develop by leaps and bounds while the Philippines regressed?
The Philippines has at least 13 huge natural waterfalls. Singapore has none. But the very day I arrived there, the Singapore government switched on the country’s third man-made waterfall splashing down from a man-made mountain.
I learned about this new artificial waterfall by accident that Friday night when on my way to Kinokuniya bookstore I spotted a poster saying that my favorite singer Jason Mraz was performing one night at the Gardens by the Bay. I did not know where that was but I found my way by following the precise instructions printed on the poster.
I wasn’t able to get in because all 16,000 seats were sold out. However, I saw this weird structures in the distance and I told myself I would return to check them out. One of them turned out to be “The Cloud Forest” featuring a man-made waterfall and mountain.
It was marvelous. But I felt sad because it demonstrated yet again Singapore’s amazing ability to make something out of nothing; while the Philippines has the uncanny knack of turning something into nothing. For instance, we have made our verdant mountain range in Luzon balder than PNoy’s head. And we are now in the process of eroding our lovely black sand beaches by mining these for magnetite for shipment to China.
It seems to be a cursed gift we have – making lovely natural things into barren, ugly wrecks.
Perhaps, I thought, we could learn a thing or two from Singapore which became independent only in 1965, while we have been independent since 1946.
I found some of the answers I was looking for in “The Cloud Forest”, the first newly-opened attraction in the 54-hectare Gardens by the Bay complex on reclaimed land that seems to be Singapore’s version of a Disneyland on climate change and the environment.
Upon entering one of the domes shaped like a giant clam shell, a welcome blast of cold air greeted me. I realized that the dome containing “The Cloud Forest” or man-made waterfall and mountain was fully air-conditioned.
At first glance, the waterfall disappointed me because the falling curtain of water wasn’t thick enough like Philippine waterfalls.
However, as I walked inward, I realized that the mountain and the waterfall were both green, technological marvels. Both had been entirely built from scratch on barren land. Keeping those thousands of plants alive and plastered on the mountain was a monumental task.
A volunteer guide at the mountaintop explained to me that the plants on the seven-story mountain were arranged following their natural ecology. Those at the very top were plants and flowers normally found on tropical mountain crests, and so on.
I have taken lifts up the Eiffel Tower and roller coastered up and down Space Mountain and Indiana Jones’ Mountain of Doom in Disneyland Paris. The Singapore Cloud Forest was a refreshingly different experience. Unlike the Eiffel Tower where a walk down is only for the brave and strong, I could easily walk all the way up the Cloud Forest mountain because of the gentle elevation of the walkway that wound all the way up.
It was dizzying to look down, though. But I did in order to take photos.
The walkway experience made me feel as if I were in the movie sets of “Avatar” and “Jurassic Park”.
Bird sounds were even piped in to give the illusion of a tropical forest. I wonder if there are plans to put a robot dinosaur in there in the future.
The mountain is hollow inside and honeycombed with rooms and elevators. There are rooms to watch videos on ecology and climate change.
Was it worth the 20 Singapore Dollars I paid? Actually, the fee entitled me to go inside an adjacent “Flower Dome” but I had to skip that in order to experience Ku De Ta at the 57th floor – the rooftop of Tower 3 – of Marina Bay Sands Hotel nearby. It’s a cafe by day and a disco at night. It has a view of the adjacent infinity pool and the Singapore skyline.
To go back to the Gardens by the Bay, the Singapore government has already spent at least one billion Singapore dollars on the entire complex, which is far from finished.
Of that, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest Dome cost S$400 million, according to the Singapore Straits Times. Putting in storm drains, power transmission lines, roads and walkways contributed to the cost overrun.
Keeping the entire complex in tip-top shape is expected to cost S$50 million yearly. The complex is projected to recoup its initial capital of S$1 billion in 10 years.
The complex tries to be a model of waste management and recycling. Plant waste is used to generate power, which cools underground water pipes, which in turn cools the air to a temperature far below Singapore’s humidity.
To help earn money, eateries will be placed inside the complex and the first store has been put up selling souvenirs such as exotic plants grown in the domes preserved inside hard plastic.
Lessons of The Cloud Forest
The building of The Cloud Forest is an example of how the top-down form of political leadership works wonderfully well in a city-state like Singapore. The idea of building a “Green” amusement and educational complex started in 2004. It took Singapore eight years to bring that concept into reality.
Compare that with the Philippine experience in constructing a third international airport terminal at NAIA. By 2004, the NAIA 3 was nearly complete and poised for operations. Eight years on, it has yet to be fully utilized due to unresolved legal, business and corruption issues.
Many Filipinos claim what our country needs is a “Lee Kuan Yew” to run our government.
I wonder if they know what they’re talking about.
Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore, a city-state of 5.18 million people – of which three million are Singapore citizens. The Philippines is a country of nearly 90 million people spread over 7,100 islands. With around 700 square kilometers, Singapore is just a little bigger than Metro Manila (636 square kilometers). But MM with 11.8 million people has over twice Singapore’s population.
I think Singapore is sui generis – a former sub-state that was actually amputated by Malaysia from its federation of states in August 1965. With its back against the wall, Singapore had to sink or swim.
It was Singapore’s fortune to have Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister. PM Lee wrote in his book “The Singapore Story” (a copy of which I was given by a senior Singapore embassy official) that the Malaysian federation’s PM Tunku Abdul Rahman and other leaders took this extraordinary step of tossing out Singapore from the federation because they “feared that if ever they shared real political power with the non-Malays, they would be overwhelmed.”
Before Singapore was booted out of the federation through a simple resolution approved by the Malaysian Parliament, followed by a royal assent, leaders from Singapore had thought that “an independent Singapore was simply not viable,” Lee Kuan Yew wrote. “Now it was our unenviable task to make it work,” he said.
He noted then that at that time, Singapore was a small island of only 214 square miles with a native population of two million – three out of four of them of Chinese descent – then heavily dependent on the presence of former British colonizers to boost its economy.
Today, 47 years later, Singapore is a First World country that continues to outpace Malaysia. And of course the Philippines.
And this is partly thanks to Filipino talent that Singapore was able to harness. As Lee himself wrote in his book:
Filipino professionals whom we recruited to work in Singapore are as good as our own. Indeed, their architects, artists, and musicians are more artistic and creative than ours…
How we’re different from Singapore
As I said, Filipinos have often longed for an authoritarian leader but when a leader starts behaving in authoritarian fashion, he or she immediately comes under severe criticism and is accused of being “dictatorial”. I guess our bitter experience with Ferdinand Marcos has thoroughly spoiled for us the concept of a strong leader who puts the interest of the nation above and beyond his family and himself.
Lee Kuan Yew himself had harsh words to say about Marcos whom he said “pillaged his country for over twenty years.”
And so it seems there is this huge disconnect between our longings and our actual expectations of our leaders: They are not supposed to act on matters of national importance without prior consultation and consent of various sectors of society.
Ours is more of a bottom-up kind of political set-up – the very opposite of that of Singapore. For this kind of political structure to work, however, an active citizenry is a must, along with an incorruptible press and judiciary.
For most of our nation’s political life, we have not had an active citizenry that would hold the feet of erring leaders to the fire.
But certain moments of our history shine because ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to be active politically. These are: during the Katipunan Revolt, the Philippine-American War, the resistance against the Japanese in World War II, the election of Ramon Magsaysay, Corazon Aquino, Joseph Estrada and Benigno Aquino III to the presidency.
Perhaps the trick which we haven’t quite mastered is to harness this – and embed citizen action in all phases of our national life and not only during elections.
Do you know that in Hong Kong, one of the arguments that some officials use for not allowing the Hong Kong people to elect the HK Chief Executive by direct vote is the Philippines? We are set up as an example of how democracy DOES NOT WORK.
It is high time we the people evolve our own brand of political governance, something really made in the Philippines, and show the world it works.