MANILA, Philippines -- Whenever I’m in Cebu or Iloilo, I go through the ritual of discussing with my friends the possibility of moving from Manila and living there.
The reactions are always of two kinds. One is great enthusiasm, “Yehey, yahoo, now na,” sometimes accompanied with job offers. The other, which used to surprise me, is: “But why?”
“Why?” I would retort. “Because I’m not sure I want my kids to grow up in Manila.” I would mention all the problems we have: pollution and traffic, malls and fast-food (read junk food) joints on every corner, the extreme consumerism.
I then turn to the attractions of Cebu and Iloilo (and occasionally, Davao). Cebu and Iloilo have a certain Old World charm, metropolitan yet small town, of department store (yes, they still have them) clerks who will engage in a bit of banter, of istorya-istorya while they’re wrapping up your purchases. And I remind my friends of how close they are to nature. You can live in the middle of Cebu and yet see both the mountains and the sea, and if you can’t, well, the sea’s never more than an hour away.
But my friends warn me about not having good bookstores, no good libraries, no good concerts, no good European films and how they look forward to visiting Manila to get those things. I smile back and explain that even in Manila, I don’t have time to watch the not just good but great films and concerts at UP, where I teach. As far as I’m concerned, I could live even in one of the smaller cities like Tagbilaran and still get a cultural life of sorts, via DVD (again, assuming I have the time to watch) and high-speed Internet (these days you can subscribe to Internet services like High Beam Research and Questia and get access to thousands of books and journals).
Some of my friends would persist: “You won’t have anyone to talk to here.” They would claim there’s no intellectual life in Cebu and Iloilo. Perhaps most shocking is, “We don’t have good schools here for your kids.”
So I actually end up defending my friends’ cities: “But Iloilo is like Athens: you have schools on every corner.” And I’m serious, it’s not just the number of schools, but some rather innovative and progressive ones.
Let me assure my friends in Manila that I’m not about to move . . . yet. I have too many commitments here that will make that move difficult. The biggest factor that keeps me in Manila are my parents, who are quite old. Both are big-city people who think of any place outside of Manila as “probinsya.”
It’s not snobbery on their part. The paradox is that even if our smaller cities now have malls and other trappings of modernity, they do lag behind in terms of economic infrastructure and many social services.
I’m going to be specific now and refer to the experiences of two of my former employees who did pull up stakes here in Manila to move back to their home cities, one in the Visayas and the other in Mindanao. Both now have regrets about having moved back and are asking me if they can do a reversal, a “balik-Manila.”
Yes, they say, the air is cleaner and they have the mountains and the sea, but they’re overwhelmed by problems. The kids complain all the time, missing Manila. It’s mainly their friends and the malls and “gimmicks” of Manila, but the parents have greater concerns. They moved back thinking that it would be easier to make ends meet, with better prospects for small business ventures amid lower costs of living.
They were wrong on both counts. The costs of setting up businesses, even in small cities, can be quite high. Rent and utilities aren’t cheap, while potential customers haven’t been coming in because the purchasing ability is just too low. And yes, they do see now the problems of lower standards of education, especially as their kids are about to enter college. One of them wonders if her very ill mother might be better off in Manila for specialized care.
Their sad experiences remind me that more than many other countries, the Philippines is plagued by having one primate city while the others remain quite neglected by the national government. In Thailand, Indonesia and China, capital cities are still prime attractions, but they are primus inter pares (first among equals). Shanghai has as much, if not more, allure than Beijing. In Indonesia, Yogyakarta’s Gadja Mada University puts up stiff competition against the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. In the Philippines, the best universities are still concentrated in Manila.
The Philippines is supposed to be 64 percent urbanized, but “urbanization” is a relative term. We’ve had an epidemic of municipalities converting themselves into cities, with even the League of City Mayors complaining about the newcomers not coming up to standards.
The UNFPA’s latest yearbook suggests new ways of looking at urbanization. In the past, development planners tried to discourage migration from rural to urban areas, fearful of squatters and urban poverty. Today, the thinking is that we should encourage such migration because it alleviates rural poverty. One interesting research finding is that cities can be more eco-friendly because they can be more efficient in terms of using land and other natural resources.
But poverty alleviation and environmental conservation depend on how much government is committed to ensuring that the cities have adequate housing, jobs and social services. The problems we have today is that city politicians welcome rural migrants because they become cheap labor and bring in more votes during elections, but provide them very little by way of economic and social services.
Another point raised by UNFPA is that countries should develop several urban centers so hordes of rural poor don’t stream into the capital city. I’d add here that we need a major cultural shift as well, to get Filipinos to move away from “Manila imperialism.” We forget that Cebu and Iloilo were originally considered to be more sophisticated and advanced than Manila, centers of “urbanidad” or a sense of civility and civilization. If they’re losing that urbanidad, it’s because they try too hard to imitate Manila. If they could just keep their small-town charm and urbanidad, they might attract more professionals, artists and business people.
Meanwhile, those of us in Manila should also expose our kids to other urban centers, from Vigan and Tuguegarao up north, down to Zamboanga and General Santos in the south, so they can expand their horizons and their ideas of what a city should be. Hopefully, someday they will have more choices and options of where to live. Even better, they can contribute toward recreating and revitalizing our urban areas.