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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jeepneys remain a stark symbol of the Philippines’ utter failure to prosper

Coming up with a great product — an innovative one even — is just 20 percent of the job. You also need to develop systems to produce it and market it. That system is also known as the business enterprise.
An example of a failure to complete the remaining 80 percent of the job is the jeepney. The jeepney emerged from the ashes of war in the mid-1940s — morphed from GI surplus jeeps to become that “ingenious” weapon of mass transit that remain to this day the Filipino’s preferred mode of public transport and symbol of that post-war ingenuity.

Marston Mats used for temporary airstrips in Wold War II
Marston Mats used for temporary airstrips in Wold War II
For that matter, lots of other junk left behind by the Americans were “ingeniously” used by Filipinos. A less-trumpeted but just as ubiquitous GI relic was the large number of steel Marston mats used primarily for the rapid construction of temporary runways and landing strips in World War II. Marston mats are steel strips perforated with circular holes and slightly corrugated for rigidity along its length. When laid on the ground side-by-side, they were strong enough to be used even for roads by land vehicles.

I recall growing up in the 1970s and still seeing lots of Marston mats being used mainly for fencing. More importantly, they were also being used as building material for — you guessed it — squatter shanties. Like the Willys Jeeps, the Marston mats found a use in the Philippines. Innovation? Arguably. Filipino ingenuity? Definitely.
With the jeepney, however, the Philippines had in its hands a huge headstart to what could have been a world-class automotive industry. Compare this to Kia, the Korean company that would go on to become one of the planet’s biggest automobile manufacturers. Back in 1944, Kia was a small company making steel tubing and bicycle parts. But while the jeepney, stayed the same for the 60 years following that headstart in both design and manufacturing technology, Kia was making motorcycles by 1957, trucks by 1962, and cars by 1974.
Today Kia is giving US, European and Japanese car makers a run for their money. Over 1.5 million vehicles a year are produced in its 13 manufacturing and assembly operations in eight countries which are then sold and serviced through a network of distributors and dealers covering 172 countries. Kia today has over 42,000 employees worldwide and annual revenues of over US$14.6 billion. It is the major sponsor of the Australian Open and an official automotive partner of FIFA – the governing body of the FIFA World Cup. Kia Motors Corporation’s brand slogan is “The Power to Surprise”.
Since 2005, Kia Motors has singled out design as its “core future growth engine”.
Consider the two catch phrases that describe the key success factors contributing to the phenomenal success of Kia:
(1) “The Power to Surprise”; and,
(2) Design as the company’s “core future growth engine”.
Simple but powerful, and everything the jeepney is not. Jeepney manufacturing has utterly failed to surprise over the last 60 years. It consistently disappointed. The growth in the manufacture of jeepneys was not driven by design. It was driven by desperation.

The Philippines' King of the Road
The Philippines’ King of the Road
The jeepney today symbolises everything that is wrong with the Philippines. A stark monument to a monumental opportunity that was squandered. The jeepney, instead, became a vast social and economic cancer. Baked into its industrial history is just about every aspect of the Filipino character that led to failure — a lack of originality, a bankruptcy of imagination, and a renowned heritage of smallness.

Many jeepney apologists would rather laud the continued “ingenuity” with which Filipinos heroically churn out these pieces of automotive junk with the limited resources at their disposal. That sort of thinking, sadly, merely highlights the root of the problem that hobbles Philippine industry. Resources were never an issue — not in an island nation “blessed” with vast mineral and agricultural resources and situated right smack in the middle of a strategically important shipping corridor. At the heart of the matter is Filipinos’ consistent inability to turn quantity into both scale and quality. The “ingenuity” of the jeepney of the 1940s has long been buried under a mountain of failure to develop a world-class business enterprise around it.
Indeed, this intellectual disability that infects Filipino business is evident across industries and time. Ambeth Ocampo described this inherent Filipino affliction in an Inquirer article he wrote in September 2005 after a visit to the marble-producing Philippine island of Romblon.
Of this island’s craftsmen, he wrote:
What did the people in this sleepy town do with their marble? They made them into tombstones, mortar and pestle. As a tourist, I asked myself: How many “lapida” [tomb markers] and “dikdikan” [pestle] do I want? How many lapida and dikdikan do I need? Come to think of it, how many lapida and dikdikan do they sell in a year? Here is a region that has skilled manpower and an almost inexhaustible natural resource, but their products are unimaginative. If culture comes in to introduce new designs and new uses of Romblon marble, that would go a long way in developing the industry and the province.
Indeed, one can draw similar analogies in the Filipino entrepreneur’s penchant for following a “me too” approach to getting into business. There is an almost lemminglike behaviour in the way Filipino entrepreneurs get on a business model bandwagon. This behaviour accounts for the lechon manok (roast chicken) and shawarma (Mediterranean wrap) booms in the 80’s and 90’s. The proliferation of jeepneys and tricycles also illustrates how such safe but low-returning (and, in the long run, unsustainable) ventures are among the favourites of individuals with a bit of capital to apply.
Hardly surprising then that the Philippines today remains the beggared state that it is — pathetically reliant on the remittances of its overseas workforce and the “generosity” of old colonial masters. There is no internal economic engine of consequence to drive national prosperity — only an internal sweatshop that produces the millions of warm bodies to drive its jeepneys while relentlessly crushing any hope for a brighter future.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org articles “Marsden Matting” and “Kia Motors” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site.]

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