One of the things that struck me as very odd and disturbing when I first arrived in the Philippines was the habit of the media – and transitively, the people – to treat news of crimes in a sensational way. A fair portion of every newscast and newspaper is devoted to lurid coverage of crimes and arrests, and at best flirts with the bounds of good taste when it is not actually unethical – which it is, when as-yet uncharged suspects are “presented to the media”, or dead victims or perpetrators are shown, with just enough pixilation to keep viewers from gagging up their dinners. News outlets will even go so far as to regularly provide vehicle license plate numbers; a public service, perhaps, if it is a vehicle containing dangerous wanted fugitives, but an unnecessary and invasive detail when the vehicle happens to belong to a crime victim. On those occasions when a really spectacular crime occurs, such as the recent armed robbery inside the Greenbelt 5 mall in Makati, the media and the blogosphere is filled for days with endless speculation and lament over the sorry state of law and order in the country. If one pays too much attention to the hand-wringing commentary and the nightly news, one could easily draw the conclusion that the Philippines is just one more phone-snatcher or stick-up artist away from utter chaos.
According to figures provided by the NCSB, the overall crime rate in the Philippines has fluctuated between 1993 and 2007, the last year for which overall figures are available. Crime incidents (measured per 100,000 population) generally decreased from a high of 145.7 to 81.9 between 1993 and 2006, but then increased sharply in 2007. To be fair, one problem with these figures is that they only represent reported crimes, and might not be exactly reflective of the actual extent of criminal activity one way or the other. A better yardstick might be the murder rate, for the simple reason that it is much more difficult to not report or record a murder than other kinds of crimes. According to figures drawn from various UN and NGO studies, the Philippines has seen a steady drop in its murder rate since 2000, averaging 3.82 per 100,000 population in 2008. That is still a bit higher than the regional average of 2.8, but well short of the US average of 5.8, or neighbouring Thailand’s 7.92. In quantitative terms, there are far more dangerous places in the world than the Philippines.
But in qualitative terms, there may not be many more lawless places than the Philippines. Visible police presence is virtually non-existent in most of the country, apart from the immediate vicinities of the local stations and the occasional roadside checkpoint. Community policing at the local barangay level varies with the level of funding and organisation; wealthier barangays, such as Bel-Air Village in Makati, have police forces that rival the PNP in terms of efficiency and resources, but other, less well-endowed barangays (such as the one I live in) might be lucky to be able to deploy a couple volunteer tanods with no real equipment save for maybe a bicycle and a second-hand radio, and absolutely no training of any sort. Obvious law enforcement otherwise is manifested by traffic wardens and security guards, each with a narrow focus and area of concern, both of which in most cases seems entirely misplaced and handled inappropriately.
It’s difficult to say whether the attitude of the population is a result of the poor management of law and order, or if the management is a reflection of a casually dismissive culture. Perhaps the reason crimes are treated so sensationally in the media is because one has to do something truly sensational to actually get in trouble here; everyday life is an exercise in impunity. Those who would gnash their teeth about a major armed robbery have a hard time seeing the connection between that and the national habits of urinating in public, jaywalking, littering, and a dozen other antisocial acts that people engage in with no more thought than they give to breathing, but those things are a big part of the reason the truly sensational crimes happen. When the small laws – whether they are the ones that are actually written down or the ones that develop as a natural product of a civilised society – are neither respected nor enforced, no laws can be enforced.
In the wake of the Greenbelt robbery, there have been calls for all the typical reactions: “more police patrols”, “tighter security”, and “better co-ordination”, but these will not solve the real problems. The rules imposed by a democratic society are, by definition, rules the people impose on themselves; it’s a distinction, one of many that defines democracy, that the Pinoy enthralled by the mere word has apparently never learned. If they ever do decide to acknowledge that the rules are not simply meant for everyone else, and break the even more destructive habit of looking the other way when ‘everyone else’ isn’t following the rules either, they may actually begin to look like a modern human society.