Friday, October 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Countries

It's good to be home. Well, after one week of being out of the country, I sure do miss my four boys. My wife and I just arrived from a trip to Cambodia and Singapore. I attended a conference on the Role of Parliament in Defense Procurement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On the way home, we visited Singapore since the connecting flight was via Singapore Airlines' hub. I haven't been to the land Lee Kwan Yew built and this was an opportune time.

I had very productive conference in Phnom Penh. Aside from delivering a speech on Defense Procurement in the Philippines, I also learned from the processes and policies implemented in other ASEAN countries.

The trip also gave me an important insight on leadership and nationhood as I visited two countries with contrasting histories, characteristics and destinies. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by Filipinos from these two countries.

First, Cambodia. I do not mean any disrespect to the Cambodia people, but I would say that a trip there would give Filipinos a respite from the depression that they have about their own country. Many Filipinos have many complaints about their own country--the poverty, the chaotic streets, the congested sidewalks, corruption in government, etc, etc....the list of complaints could go on and on...

But a visit to Phnom Penh would immediately give a Filipino a boost of pride on how "modern" and "orderly" our cities are. If you think that Metro Manila streets are a nightmare to drive in, wait till you experience the streets of Phnom Penh. Motorcycles are the kings of the road, with the concept of traffic rules seemingly alien to the riders. It could even be said that traffic signs and lights are mere suggestions, not regulations in Phnom Penh.

It is also apparent that the years of economic, political and social hardship has stunted the development of the city's infrastructure. COmpared to Metro Manila, the Philippine capital gives you a sense of being in the First World.

On the contrary, our visit to Singapore gave me a feeling of envy. If I saw Phnom Penh as being behind Metro Manila, Singapore gave me a reality check...Metro Manila is still not First World.

First of all, Singapore's cleanliness puts Metro Manila to shame. Never mind what others say that Singapore can do it because they are just a small country. The fact of the matter is that not any of Metro Manila's 17 cities and municipalities alone could even measure to Singapore's cleanliness and orderliness.

I have been to many cities with Chinatowns around the world --- Washington D.C., Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney---but this has got to be the cleanest Chinatown I have ever seen! It's so clean that it's become so un-Chinatown!

Another thing that amazed me that in spite of all the development and the trappings of a modern city, they were able to maintain the healthy balance of greenery and concrete. The tree-lined streets gave the feeling of being in a garden, even though all around you are glass, steel and concrete buildings.

The contrast between the two cities--Phnom Penh and Singapore---went beyond the physical. You can also sense the difference in how the people put order in their lives. Phnom Penh is obviously still under the transition from having gone through a war-torn era while Singapore is already way ahead of their uncertain beginnings when they were separated from Malaysia.

But with their differences they also had their similarities. For one, both Singaporeans and Cambodians have a strong sense of nationalism. The Singaporeans, at the beginning of their nationhood, were like outcasts who had to fend for themselves. Through visionary leadership and a determined citizenry, they overcame the odds and even overtook many of their neighbors. Their accomplishment fuels their national pride and desire to maintain that feat.

The Camobodians, on the other hand, had a very traumatic history of violence and oppression marred by genocide. As a result, their country lagged behind, becoming the region's basketcase.

But their experience gave them the resolve to never allow war to tear their country apart again. Their collective experience as a people led to a collective decision to shun division and move together forward. Although they are still behind in terms of infrasturcture and economic development, they are now at the beginning of a new revolution---that of taking their place in the league of countries that miraculously rose from the ashes and become one of asia's wonders. It won;t be long before they will be at par with Vietnam and soon after that, Thailand.

With the examples shown by Cambodia and Singapore, one is compelled to ask oneself---how does the Philippines fare? If a visitor came to the Philippines, what would be the impression?

There are many things about the Philippines that make me cringe. But I think there are more things that make me hopeful. All we need to do now is get our acts together.

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