A safe and sound Philippines for all


I WILL continue with my “wish list,” albeit from admittedly a foreigner’s but neighbor’s point of view, for the new Duterte administration. The revival of the once-great Filipino economy is undoubtedly the top priority for the new President, but a close second, and I suspect this is, indeed, something very close to the President’s heart, is safety and security.

In my humble opinion, as far as the Philippines goes, safety and security encompasses at least three dimensions. The first is domestic safety, or more precisely, a robust disaster mitigation system. My home state of Sabah is blessed with both the alluring nickname and the lucky fate of “the land below the wind.” What this means, as I was taught since young, is that the annual arrays of tropical typhoons would sweep across the Philippine islands, but barely brush the northern tip of Sabah, hence, sparing us Sabahans from tremendous devastations of both lives and properties brought about by the torrential storms and ensuing floods. The same happy circumstance, alas, could not be said about many of our Filipino neighbors.

The earthshaking natural power of Typhoon Haiyan and the havoc it wreaked on the Philippines, in Nov. 2013, stunned the whole world. Pictures, especially of children awaiting rescue, perched on teetering tree branches after losing both their homes and loved ones, reverberated in many minds. Search-and-rescue teams from around the region, including from Malaysia, rushed to the disaster stricken areas, but they were often hampered in their urgent work by dire lack of communications and coordination mechanism.

The new Philippine government must take this to heart and spare no effort in building up a working disaster prevention and mitigation system covering the major parts of the Philippine islands. Nearly two decades ago, I worked on a communications plan for an island-country similarly visited always by natural disasters. Among the most effective methods used for conveying disaster information was the deployment of human runners, who passed evacuation news from town to town reminiscent of Olympic athletes in ancient Greece. The lesson is that very often, in matters of disaster-relief coordination, it is not so much the advanced technology, but the onsite effectiveness of the system that counts the most.

Another dimension of safety and security is indeed domestic security. Duterte, when he was mayor of Davao, had registered an impressive record of turning an otherwise crime-ridden city into one reportedly sound and secure, and ranked highly around the world. Similar experiments would, of course, be yearned for by residents of many other cities and countryside, not the least Metro Manila. Over the years, Filipino friends of mine have been telling me how they would have to employ armed security details in their forays outside of their homes and offices. These, for me, are very sad stories, especially for a country holding so many positive promises as the Philippines.

It is, of course, unrealistic for most Southeast Asian metropolises, from Bangkok to Jakarta, including Manila and Kuala Lumpur, to even try to completely eradicate all sorts of vices—illegal drugs, gambling, prostitution—from their urbanscapes. What can be done, however, is to implement stricter regulations and beef up enforcement mechanisms, to make sure that these vices stay under control and do not proliferate to such an extent that they bring about violent crimes, such as murder, rape and kidnappings, to name a few.

The new President has vowed to crush crimes, especially violent and drug-related ones, as one of his top priorities. This is undoubtedly welcomed and will bring about a fresh image for the Philippines. It must also be done in strict accordance with the law. I am fully confident that the Philippines, being a legalistic country and having a former prosecutor for a new President, will be appreciative of the importance of the rule of law. What should not happen is, of course, the sort of vigilante-style killing and public-lynching so prevalent in some parts of South America.

And the third and most important for us, Sabahans, is the dimension of safety and security—which is, of course, frontier security or, more precisely, the tranquility of Philippine borders with Malaysia and Indonesia. It is no secret that the maritime areas within and surrounding the Sulu Sea—stretching from Palawan to the north, through the eastern seaboard of Sabah to the Indonesian Kalimantan borders—are infested with profit-seeking armed elements. News about pirates carrying out kidnappings and hijackings is almost a weekly affair nowadays. Due to proximity and porosity of this stretch of maritime area, it is futile for the law enforcements and naval authorities of any of the three countries to try to hunt down these pirates.

But the combined enforcement resources of all three countries, or at least better coordination among them, such as allowing the crossing of borders by enforcement personnel in hot pursuit, would greatly enhance the efficiency of hunting down the dangerous elements. And doing so calls for political will, especially from the new Philippine President, who hails from the south and would hopefully better understand the difficult local situation. It is in this spirit that I welcome the recent announcement of joint patrols by all three countries in the Sulu Sea.

Safe and secure domestic and frontier environments will serve as a precondition for the Philippines in its attempt to pursue its long overdue dream to be prosperous.

Dr. Ei Sun Oh is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Email: eisunoh@manilatimes.net


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