BMW 531 1951 01

1950s BMW

Recent issues with the MRT3 – and recent DOST developments – show the struggle for modernity in the Philippines. For a long time, modernity was defined by its outward trappings, not by real modernity. I shall expound on this.

Outward progress

Some Filipinos tried to tell me how progressive the Philippines – or Makati – was with arguments like this:

  • Hollywood movies arrived in Germany months after they were already shown in Manila
  • Fax machines were used more extensively in Makati before most German offices used them
  • The Internet was used more extensively by the same crowd before it was widely used in Germany

And yes, cell phones were more widely used by Filipinos before Germans used them. The skyline of Makati is definitely more impressive than that of Munich or even Frankfurt. All true, but:

  • Hollywood movies used to arrive in Germany later because of dubbing into German done in Berlin. This is done synchronously now, so no more delay.
  • What is the use of being first in using the Internet if it is slow? Germans – and Swiss even much more – are typical late adopters who want things done properly.
  • Anybody can buy cell phones. But Germany is a country that builds a lot of the equipment used for telecoms networks. Siemens dropped out of cellphones at some point.
  • The difference between what someone in a German village and one of the big cities – not only Berlin – can get is not so big. Makati is highly modern, some other places too, but the rest?
  • Kudos to the largest malls in the world in the Philippines. But how about the public spaces in the cities? Philippine malls are a replacement for other failings in making public spaces livable.

Some Filipinos with money might buy a BMW first and possibly on credit. A German will probably first see to it that he or she has a proper washing machine – or go on vacation to Spain, after saving money. These is where the two mentalities diverge, even if some among the young generation in Germany tend to be more consumerist and get into debt compared to the older ones.

Attempted progress

MRT-3 Kamuning Station Platform 3

MRT-3 Kamuning Station

The MRT-3 stands as a testimony to attempted progress. There are a number of major mistakes that were made from the very beginning:

  • Too small coaches, equivalent to smaller subway lines or trams in Europe. Not enough to truly replace buses on EDSA, or absorb most of the people travelling there.
  • Maintenance, operation and supplies seem to not have been planned properly planned by contractors. Rails were “borrowed” from LRT1, coaches and engines not there on time.
  • Stations are not extendable for bigger coaches, meaning the system cannot grow to accomodate additional needs. And not suited to managing the crowds that use the system.
  • Hardly any local capability was built to be able to make own simple spare parts like metal wheels, rails, or even coaches. Inspite of local capabilities in making bus bodies.
  • The interfaces to other transport systems and to major buildings are catastrophic to say the least. LRT1 and LRT2 at least have a common station for interchange in Manila.

Practically everything was done wrong here, and the present administration has a mess to sort out. Even if one wants quick wins, it does not mean that one should go quick and dirty. One should always try to make sure that one can upgrade, especially if the upgrades are foreseeable. It just takes some common sense. Bus rapid transit proposals were ignored, even if they could have been quick wins, and cities worldwide show their success.

Real progress


DOST AGT, Bicutan (source: DOST)

There are examples for real progress that have taken place recently: the DOST AGT, the DOST Roadtrain, the Diwata satellite completely constructed by DOST to be launched by the USA. All of these examples work by the following principles that have made real progress possible, and made developed countries successful:

  • Don’t live beyond your means. DOST AGT uses concrete elevated rails, not metal rails, because these are as yet still hard to manufacture in the Philippines. It uses rubber tires, because they are easy to procure in the Philippines. It uses existing capabilities from local bus body manufacturing.
  • Develop own capabilities. DOST AGT and DOST Roadtrain use metal working capabilities developed by the Metals Industry Research and Development Center. Only buying other people’s stuff means you are dependent forever, while own local capabilities can be built upon. You will always have to buy some stuff elsewhere – even Germany does. But have enough of your own.
  • Don’t rely too much on the private sector. They are good when it comes to bringing prototypes to production, putting up running systems and of course also making money out them. Of course large industrial companies have research and development, but in a newly industrializing country like the Philippines, one cannot expect too much in terms of their investment.

Japanese cars in the 1950s did not amount to much, neither did BMWs from the 1950s. But unlike the Filipino jeepney, they were developed into more. Building the capabilities needed for a truly modern country – which include mindsets such as thinking of maintenance, operation and supplies – takes time. Filipinos can be fast learners. If they want to be – and are not hard-headed.

Irineo B. R. Salazar, München, 10 January 2016