The CuriousPages Sketchbook

The policemen must be fed

I was reading some messages on a Philippine expat Yahoo group that I subscribe to. An American was concerned about being robbed by the police at traffic checkpoints. He had recently bought a scooter, and a friend of his had been stopped by the police at a checkpoint. The American had all the correct paperwork but the policeman simply ignored those and asked him to pay 100 pesos “for a snack”. The American was concerned about also being held up by the police at a checkpoint in this same way.

A flurry of replies then followed from other group members, reporting similar experiences. One reported that those checkpoints usually stop small bikes, “with the sole purpose of getting money”. He said that an English friend of his was stopped recently; he had all the correct papers and was readying them for inspection when the officer said, “Don't bother with papers; we just want some money for our afternoon snacks.” The English guy offered 20 pesos, but this just annoyed the policeman who asked how they were supposed to buy food for five of them with only 20 pesos.

While I was at Tagaytay, I did notice that there was usually a handful of policeman at these checkpoints (there is an abundance of labour everywhere in the Philippines; it is not manpower that they are short of), but the only first-hand encounter I had with the Philippine’s unique system of funding their police force by “voluntary” public contributions was at the airport. I had returned to collect by lost luggage. A policeman met me at a checkpoint and kindly walked me through the procedure that I needed to go through to be able to enter the airport without a ticket, and when I emerged with my luggage in tow, he walked me through the reverse procedure again, and even watched my suitcase for me while I descended a narrow flight of steps to reclaim my deposit. And as we were then walking towards the airport exit, he asked me, “Have you got anything for me?” I told him that I did not have any local currently on me, but that I would have happily given him a tip if I had, which I would have gladly done; he had been very helpful. In fact, I was embarrassed that I was not able to give him a tip.

It seems that it is perfectly normal for a Philippine policeman to openly ask members of the public to give them money. They do not even imagine that they are doing anything wrong. It seems that it is simply accepted that one way for a Filipino to make money is to demand it from people whenever they find themselves in a position to do that.

This is perfectly understandable when most Filipinos (if they can manage to find work) are paid a ridiculously low wage (by the standards of any developed country), and there is little prospect for most citizens to earn extra money above that. Of course, there are many Filipinos who would never dream of doing anything illegal and would only ever accept money that they had earned from doing an “honest day’s work”, even if that meant starvation.

I myself met several Filipinos who helped me in some way and when I offered to compensate them, or to simply tip them to show my gratitude, they refused to accept the money, and were almost offended that I should offer. As ever, it is always the poorest people who are most generous.

But it seems that, in such a poor country, many Filipinos who find themselves in positions of authority become corrupt (perhaps intoxicated by the rare experience of having power over other people) and soon expect bribes to be their due, in the same way that less fortunate people expect politeness and courtesy to be their due.

Such, it seems, is the culture of corruption in a poor country. In a developed country we take it for granted for the majority of people (including public servants) are honest. It is hard to imagine a British Policeman (or one from any other developed country) stopping you at a traffic checkpoint and saying, “Never mind about your licence, just give me some money towards my holiday.”

Such things, I had previously thought, only happened in fiction. I’m reminded of a scene from a novel of my own, The Tragedy of a Town called Nowhere, when a policeman pulls over a character called Primrose and does something equally unexpected with his truncheon, explaining to Primrose that it was “a perfect fit. Drive on, madam,” or words to that effect.

But, it seems, fact truly is stranger than fiction—well, stranger than most authors’ fiction, anyway.


22 February 2010



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