The Elysium, Philippine Style

I saw a movie the other night that reminded me of the Philippines. “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, is set in the year 2154. It’s about a man-made space station in which the very wealthy live. Gleaming buildings, lush parks, manicured lawns, beautiful homes and even more beautiful people populate the enclave. The rest of mankind are trapped on a ghetto-like earth, epitomized by a futuristic but grimy Los Angeles.
In the film, there are futile attempts by the earth-bound population to break into the Utopian enclave, but like Mexican wetbacks trying to cross the US border, they are invariably apprehended and deported back to earth.
The harsh fact is that we don’t need a time machine to experience the Philippine version of Elysium. The enclaves of the wealthy, detached and insulated from the rest of the population, exist right here in our midst.
The reality of a dual society – one controlled by the very rich and the other populated by the great unwashed – stares us in the face every day. Crossing over to the virtual paradise is the obsession of most. For that, some are prepared to cheat, steal or even kill.
While people blithely talk about all men being created equal, there are those who feel they are more equal than the rest. They are jealous and extremely protective of their turf, resisting any effort of the lowly and the un-beautiful to intrude into their kingdom.
Ironically, they depend on the poor to protect their piece of paradise. The security agency business is a thriving one in our country. You could swear that every military and police general owns and operates one.
Every exclusive subdivision is guarded by an army of uniformed men, and many homes have their own second layer of armed sentries. Shopping malls are guarded by security contingents, with every car driving into it being given the bomb-detection once-over. And inside the malls, individual shops have their own guards.
What may be escaping the consciousness of the wealthy employers of these guards is the fact that the latter are among the most poorly paid workers in town. One wonders how these guards must feel, standing watch over the profligate rich while they themselves hardly have enough to eat.
Many of those who reside in wealthy subdivisions invariably develop a sense of entitlement, a belief that they deserve special treatment, and that those who do not acknowledge this are uncouth, disrespectful, even criminal.
When my wife and I enrolled three of our children at Colegio San Agustin, inside Dasmariñas Village, one of the super-rich enclaves in Makati, they were asked, on the first day of school, how many cars, how many maids, how many appliances and electronic devices they had and what businesses their parents owned. It was enough to give an impressionable kid a massive inferiority complex. Thank heavens, our children were made of sterner stuff.
Thank heavens, too, we eventually decided to have them continue their schooling in a small town in Maryland in the US. There, they learned to appreciate the dignity of labor, waiting at tables if they wanted spending money. Bringing them back down to terra firma was one of the best decisions we made.
The gap between rich and poor is apparent wherever one looks, not the least, in Metro Manila’s hellish traffic situation.
In a recent piece for the Inquirer, columnist Neal Cruz wrote about the traffic chaos that will result from the construction of the skyway that is supposed to connect the south Luzon and north Luzon expressways. In the US, provisions for alternative routes would be part of the master plan. When the San Francisco International Airport was expanded and when a new section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was constructed, commuters hardly experienced undue traffic snarls, mainly because of the alternative thoroughfares that were built.
I don’t think we can expect that kind of thoughtful planning from the Department of Transportation, whose officials have become the epitome of incompetence. At any rate, Neal Cruz raised the possibility of opening up the exclusive subdivisions on EDSA in Makati, to provide alternate routes for vehicles.
It was obviously wishful thinking. It is unlikely that the residents of Dasmariñas Village and Forbes Park will allow public utility vehicles and private cars to raise dust on their immaculately-paved roads and smudge their ritzy homes. You can bet that they will bring the case all the way up to the Supreme Court to prevent such an occurrence.
For this reason, Cruz couldn’t help wondering if the wealthy subdivision dwellers still consider themselves part of Philippine society. Frankly, I think they, like the residents of Elysium, believe they belong to a world apart.
Back in 2000, that exclusive fortress was momentarily breached. During the presidency of Erap Estrada, the village roads were, in fact, opened to public access. Vice-president Jejomar Binay, then chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), ordered it. An item in the January 15, 2000 Inquirer read:
“…The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority opened the village roads late last month to serve as alternate routes due to the total closure of the northbound portion of EDSA from Magallanes interchange to Ayala Avenue.”
Small wonder, there is no love lost between the wealthy village people and the Binays.
Indeed, the rich in our country are so unfeeling for the plight of the poor and the latter have become so used to the neglect that the situation hardly merits any serious commentary. In social media, which is said to be populated more and more by social climbers, the worst critics of the poor and the unwashed are folks who probably do not qualify for residency in Forbes or Dasma. But these social media pundits vicariously relish the sense of entitlement.
Sociologist Nicole Curato recently wrote an interesting piece about this sense of entitlement in a piece for Rappler:
“Social scientists have expressed caution against the tendency of gated communities to deepen urban inequality. At the core of fencing off communities from the squalor of the city is a process of social segregation based on income, and, in some cases, race and ethnicity…
“Also prevalent in gated communities are ‘procedures’ that, in effect, set privileged residents apart from suspicious outsiders….Each day, thousands of working class communities—those on whose backs urban developments are built—are subject to random stops and searches. Separate service elevators and waiting areas are provided for cleaners, drivers, delivery boys and security guards. Intense questioning of those attempting to enter exclusive areas whose physical profile and economic status do not correspond to the template of home or unit owners have become routine.”
Curato continues: “This is where the bigger scandal lies. The hidden cost of residential enclaves is the institutionalization of class segregation in the city, where social interaction cluster around socio-economic lines. Restricted public access to otherwise common spaces deters meaningful social interactions among citizens who do not share the same social and economic background, engendering ignorance, mistrust and suspicion towards the other….
“At worst, these trends can create a generation of privileged urban inhabitants with entitlement complex—the type of citizens who have an inflated sense of self-importance and socialized to think they deserve more good things in life than others by virtue of their wealth.”
Indeed, the gap between rich and poor is widening and trickle-down economics, instead of narrowing the gap, appears to be exacerbating the separation. We can only hope that the social time bomb on which our country sits will not suddenly explode.
If that should ever happen, the rich had better pray that, like Spartacus, their underpaid, overworked protectors will not rise up in arms and hold their masters hostage.
Meanwhile, the bomb continues to tick…tick….tick….

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