POSTSCRIPT / August 21, 2005 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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When we see officials biking, then we'll follow

WHOSE IDEA IS IT?: Who is the drummer to whose beat this nation is being asked to march backwards?

The drumbeat is rising to a crescendo for us to leave our cars home, shun the jeepney and taxi, and instead take to the user-unfriendly streets on bicycles.

For the country in crisis to show a semblance of equanimity and progress, we are being asked to retrogress by jumping on bicycles to cut on fuel expenses.

Why don’t we all just WALK — instead of bike — so this benighted nation can move backwards faster? And fall off the cliff earlier?

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MARCHING BACKWARD: Two or three decades ago, a Filipino visiting the Chinese capital marveled at the thousands of commuters on black bikes clogging the wide avenues as they pedaled to work, market, school, everywhere.

Now, having caught up with capitalistic progress, Communist China is surging forward not on two but on four wheels. Many hardy bikes are still rolling on, highlighting by contrast the progress of a people now riding on motor vehicles.

Big numbers of Chinese flock to classrooms in a crash program to learn English, the acknowledged language of global trade and commerce. The same rush to learn English is noted also in frenchy Viet Nam and other Asian neighbors determined to move forward.

Back in da Pilipins, we are murdering our already fractured English and pedaling back to Tagalog and our respective dialects. Our schools are seeing to that.

Some great nations spent so much time and spilled so much blood uniting their diverse peoples. In our case, we now seem to want to dismember our already unified Republic into several autonomous states under a federal system.

Crabs, as in crab mentality, crawl sideways. But we are worse, we move backwards.

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REGIONAL LAGGARD: Decades ago when many fellow Malays were still watching time bypass them in their klongs and kampongs, Filipinos prided themselves as second only to a resurgent post-war Japan in economic progress.

Fast-forwarding to the present, the Philippines has dropped to the bottom in ASEAN charts presented to investors looking for business sites. We have had to add Vietnam and Bangladesh in our own presentations just so we could point to another country below us. (If we don’t move fast enough, even Vietnam might even overtake us before the year is over.)

Some moneyed neighbors used to dream of sending their children to Manila’s fine schools. But now the standards of the best of our universities have fallen so low that there is doubt if they could ever climb up again in a regional listing.

The peso used to compare favorably with currencies of neighboring countries. In many tourist and shopping destinations now, the peso’s value has so fallen in their esteem that they refuse to change it into the local currency.

Why do we have this propensity to move backwards while everybody else is moving forward?

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ROAD RISKS: Now some scatterbrains in government are telling us to ride bicycles! My gad! Is that contraption the best alternative-on-wheels to mass transportation that the government can offer?

Riding a bicycle to work looks like another knee-jerk reaction to the impending problem of rising fuel costs. If biking is as good as the proponents say it is, how come not many of us in Metro Manila have taken to cycling? We see the reasons around us.

We have tricycles all over the place, placing us just a stone’s throw away from the Stone Age, huh, I mean rickshaw age. It is ridiculous, here we are trying to impress investors, and then right here in the national capital we have office workers riding grimy tricycles.

Seriously, I think there should be some kind of IQ exams, aside from drug and STD tests, for everybody running for public office.

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MORE DETAILS: Our road network and our commuters are not bike-ready. When can we ever fix that problem in this country caught in perpetual slow-mo mode?

Offices and factories will have to construct really big bathrooms with lockers where their workers can bathe and change after surviving (assuming they do) all that pedaling from home to work.

I have seen a lot of construction workers biking to and from their project sites, bless their sturdy spirits, but they are the exception. I wonder if they have insurance.

Companies will have to buy space for a large bike parking area, unless somebody comes up with a folding-type model that fits into a wallet. Management might be forced to offer bicycle plans for their personnel since bikes do not come with P500 price tags.

Oh, btw, please tell me if you notice some smart operator working out a fat contract for the purchase of fleets of bicycles for government personnel.

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BY EXAMPLE: But there is a way to make bikes acceptable. Officialdom — from the President down to senators and congressmen, military and police generals, local executives and barangay captains — must be seen on the road pedaling.

There is nothing more effective than leadership by example.

If our leaders, especially those sponsoring the idea, are convinced that biking is really that good, let them show us. I refer to biking regularly to and from work, not only as a form of exercise, a weekend gimmick, or a photo-op.

Until and unless we see our officials doing what they preach, mark my word, this big to-do about shifting to bicycles will just die down like the usual ningas-cogon.

* * *

GO BY THE RULES: Pursuing this leadership-by-example line in the matter of saving fuel, let me reiterate these long-standing suggestions:

Except for the heads of the three branches of government, no one in government should be allowed to use passenger vehicles whose displacement is more than 2.5 liters for gasoline-fed engines and 3.5 liters for diesel engines. No eight-cylinder passenger car, except for the President, should be allowed.

Government vehicles — without exception — must have “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” stenciled prominently on both sides in big (three-inch-high) letters and (NAME OF THE AGENCY) in smaller letters below it.

Imagine the impact on taxpayers seeing their President and her entourage following the above rule. Ms Arroyo should lose no time having the presidential limousine marked FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY.

No private, security, tax-free and commemorative plate must be attached on any government car. Such vehicles, including the presidential limousine, must use only standard red plates.

Also covered by the above rules are ambulances and service vehicles acquired through the PCSO and PAGCOR, as well as vehicles assigned to or acquired by officials from contractors and money-lending institutions involving a public project or contract.

(This has nothing to do with fuel-conservation, but no government vehicle must display or carry the name of any former or incumbent official, even if that official worked out the acquisition, purchase or donation of that vehicle.)

The proper government agencies will monitor compliance. Any official vehicle found in the streets or out of town two hours before or after office hours, or anytime on weekends, is presumed to be on an unauthorized trip unless the driver can show a trip ticket.

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WATER TAX: The geniuses frantically trying to raise revenue to fund misgovernment must be really scraping the bottom.

Imagine, a congressman is pushing a measure that would slap another tax on the water that we drink. Either they are running out of ideas or running out of pork barrel.

In a public hearing last week, the ways and means committee tackled the proposal of Rep. Catalino Figueroa (Samar, LAKAS-Nacionalista) to impose a 10-percent excise tax on bottled water.

The measure, HB No. 2899, also imposes the same levy on filtered water sold in water refilling stations throughout the country.

With the skyrocketing prices of fuel, electricity and basic commodities, we need new taxes like a hole in the head. Many people barely have enough to eat and drink, then we tax their water?

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SPARE SODA?: Water is not in the same league as soft drinks, which are actually a health hazard because of their high sugar content contributing to diabetes, obesity and dental caries.

Estimates put the total value of the bottled water and refilling industries between P3 to P4-billion. This is small compared to the mind-boggling P50-billion of the soft drinks industry.

Figueroa and his colleagues can zeroing in instead on soda, but it seems many key lawmakers are friendly to the multinational-dominated soft drinks industry. Bakit kaya?

The congressman said that bottled water is drunk mainly by the rich. This is not true. With our water supply having become unreliable, even the poor have had no choice but to buy bottled or purified water.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 21, 2005)

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