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Manila Bay clean-up: ‘Broken windows’ theory on a grand scale

IT is not an exaggeration to say that President Duterte’s dramatically termed “Battle for Manila Bay,” his grand project to clean up what has been the polluted-landscape symbol of the Philippines, will be a watershed in our nation’s history.

Its impact on our culture and institutions will go beyond simply the physical accomplishment of cleaning up the bay and its waterfront.

That area had been the Philippine version of the mythical Augean stables of ancient Greek legend; the cleaning of centuries of horse shit there seemed an impossible task until the demi-god Hercules did the job — cleverly rechanneling a nearby river to flow through it. (Duterte and Environment Secretary Frank Cimatu’s version of that: Get a wave of over 5,000 people to “flow” through it, and clean it up.)

One dimension of realizing the impact of this Duterte project would be in terms of the famous sociological and criminological “broken-windows” theory. First proposed in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the idea became renowned when the New York police head and Mayor Rudi Giuliani used it as their framework to restore peace and order in the metropolis that had become so crime-infested that mugging was a commonplace occurrence.

One of many similar comments on social media.

In simple terms, the theory says that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.” To change that situation, prevent those visible signs from being created.

Climate of lawlessness

The theory’s name is from the illustration that if a broken window in an abandoned building isn’t fixed fast, it would attract vandals to break its other windows. A building with all its windows broken would portray a climate of lawlessness, which would then create a culture of impunity in the area, so that more and more crimes will occur.

The theory says that it is not only fear of police enforcement that prevents people from committing crimes. People look for signals in their environment on how they would behave. If an environment is filled with things that suggest criminal or anti-social behavior — windows shattered by rocks, graffiti, and litter — people would be emboldened to commit not just similar crimes, but even worse.

The cesspool that Manila Bay had become, starting roughly in the 1960s, has been a colossal, feces-filled building with broken windows. What made it so is a microcosm of almost everything that’s gone wrong in our nation.

We have a capitalist class with no sense of responsibility to the community they live in and generate their profits from. It is not just the restaurants along the bay (one of which is reportedly the famous Aristocrat restaurant owned by the family of Sen. Bam Aquino’s wife) that polluted it.

The filth also came from the numerous factories and squatters along the Pasig River that had been discharging their wastes there which eventually end up in the Bay.

Corrupt political class

We have a political class that is not just incompetent but corrupted by our kind of capitalists. Those enterprises polluting the Pasig River and Manila Bay would have been closed overnight with the power of city governments to issue business and even sanitary permits. But they weren’t, for millions of reasons of course.

It is not just graft money that has made our political class look away from the hideous picture of a bay world-famous for its sunset that had become a cesspool. The urban poor squatters along the Pasig River who throw their wastes there that end up in the bay are there because mayors and other politicians protect them, since they have made these communities their electoral bases that deliver the crucial votes on election day.

It is a condemnation of our political system that the capital of the country, the City of Manila, has been governed by mayors who proved to be either incompetent or corrupt that they have allowed its bay to be turned into a cesspool. Manila even has a mayor who is a former President of the Republic, whose popularity and therefore political base has been enormous yet who hasn’t lifted a finger to clean up Manila Bay.

A clean Manila Bay with clear waters, without squatters and petty criminals, will create a culture of peace and order and of responsibility to the community we live in. It will have a chain effect on the things that the nation needs to clean up – the esteros of Chinatown that have become garbage dumps, the whole length of the Pasig River and its estuaries, the squatter areas along the river.

More importantly perhaps, this drive to clean up “things” will evolve into cleaning up our institutions. Indeed, the histories of societies involved a single precedent, which was then replicated.

As corrupt before

The US bureaucracy was as corrupt as any developing nation before. The reform of its Department of Agriculture which had been notorious in its corruption due its power to give subsidies to farmers. was the precedent that led to the anti-graft campaigns in most of its other federal departments.

Hong Kong’s bureaucracy in the 1960s was also a graft-ridden one. It was the cleanup of its police department in the late 1970s by a newly established Independent Commission Against Corruption (funded by income from its world-renowned horse races) that became a precedent for the transformation of its entire bureaucracy into a graft-free and efficient machine.

The following are from my book Debunked*:

“Note the following descriptions by scholars:

— ‘Patronage-oriented political parties and free-spending corruption dominated…’ ‘The political system consisted of a ‘distinctive complex of a weak national administration, divided and fragmentary public authority, and non-programmatic political parties.’

— ‘The nation-state had a weak hold on the imagination and consciousness of a people who were now forced to think of them as one community. Most identified themselves with their province of birth, not with the nation.’

Apt descriptions of the Philippines today these may be, but these referred to different countries. The first described the USA in the 1930s. The second described Italy in the 1920s. Yet these two countries were able to build strong nation-states within a generation.”

For the sake of our children’s children, I hope Duterte does build a strong nation-state. Wouldn’t it be dramatic if the Manila Bay clean-up signals the start of such a strong Republic?


*** Debunked available at National and Popular book stores, and Amazon.com.

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