Monday, 13 April 2009

Space


There is one big reason why I cannot stand living in Singapore – space. Limited, constricted, and limiting space, that is.

I realized this when I stayed at a condotel in Makati where all the features of a house are squeezed to fit a 36 square meter floor area. I cannot imagine raising my son in this very limited space – no trees to climb, no grasses to keep his feet moist and dirty. I cannot probably sleep for the fear that my son might accidentally fall from the 21st floor where I live.

Sometimes we fail to acknowledge the fact that in Bohol, we have so much space still (though Tagbilaran may have become crowded in recent past). A physical space to move around is important to one’s psycho, social, emotional and spiritual health.

Physical space gives you a certain degree of freedom – to walk around, to run around, shout and give vent to all sorts of emotions. The movie Revolutionary Road showed Kate Winslet running to the forest to vent her anger and frustration. In the same movie, Leonardo de Caprio, after Winslet’s death, run the whole stretch of Revolutionary Road.

I find it interesting that suicide rates in countries in Southeast Asia are coincidentally (or accidentally) positively correlated with population density. Population density, computed as a proportion of persons per land area, can be a proxy indicator for the amount of space a person has to be able to move around. Hongkong and Singapore, for example, have national suicide rates which are higher than the region’s average. (Though admittedly, there are other conditions contributing to high suicide rates such as cost of living, upward mobility mechanisms and general freedom, among others).

A friend I met in Cairo comes from Kenya where atrocities occurred in the recent national elections. He told me that violence is not in itself election-related, but it is an expression of anger because apart from the fact that economic poverty persists in several regions, people do not have a voice on how their lives have been wasted. Elections, as sites of political participation, “their space” to manoeuvre politically, is undermined by corruption and vote rigging.

Fortunately, in Bohol, while oppressive structures exist, there is an amount of space where the local constituency has the sufficient capacity to move around. While this varies from one place to another, there are concrete efforts of a few local government units to give their constituencies a “voice”, a “political space”.

Jagna, for example, portrays an example where the space where people can participate in governance has been widely increased. I was involved in one capability building session of its new community radio, the first ever in Bohol. The session with the radio team was heart-warming. The participants–from the far-flung barangays of the town, from the women sector, from the porters’ association–all felt delighted and inspired for their chance of getting involved in Jagna’s monumental move towards responsible community information dissemination. As a development worker, it was such an emotional moment to see how the grant of “space” by the powerful can make a tremendous difference in people’s lives.

In a rigidly structured society as Bohol, where economic, political, and religious powers often intersect and influence each other, opening up a space for participation is a hard task from below. For someone to do it from above takes a lot of courage. To open up one’s space is to delimit one’s own. This is the reason why some mayoralty posts in certain towns in the province were, and still are, held by the same families for the last 20 years.

Participatory approaches and legally-mandated avenues for participation needs a brand of leadership that allows space for people to be heard and tolerates criticisms and objections. I wonder how many leaders in the province can do this, and genuinely do so. It is saddening to know that sometimes, while leaders profess that their intent is to listen to people’s voices, they attend to their interest more especially when the situation calls for critical decision and action.