I was at Isetan in Parkway Parade, a suburban Shopping Center in Marine Parade, Singapore. After shopping for shirts, a few electronic gadgets and accessories, I went to the customer service to claim my Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS) ticket.
The ticket is necessary to claim refunds on Goods and Services Tax (GST) when departing from Singapore. At the counter is a young lady, she was busy filling up some forms. I said I want my TRS ticket for the GST refund and presented my receipts.
Without looking at me, she asked “Your nationality, sir?”
I pretended I did not understand her. ‘Huh?” I asked.
She looked up at me and asked again “What’s your nationality, sir?”
“Same as yours,” I said, “you’re a Filipina, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, then added, “Sorry, you don’t look much of a Filipino, sir.”
Her reply made me smile. I asked, while she’s processing my papers, “From where are you, I mean in the Philippines?”
“Cabanatuan, sir,” she replied.
I asked again, “Why do you have to travel this far just to have a job?”
Then I kidded “Uwian ka ba?”
She laughed and then said, “Mahirap na ho ang trabaho ngayon sa Pilipinas eh.”
“Ha?” I retorted, ”Finding a job in the Philippines today is a lot easier than during our time. We now have more jobs in the factories, call centers and in the Information Technology field. These were not there during our time… and yes, shopping malls and fast food centers that sprouts like mushrooms everywhere.” I added. “Bakit nga ba?” I asked, then continued “And during our time very few immigrate to other countries except the United States.”
She handed me my papers, which I inspected and signed. She looked at me with a weird smile saying “Thank you, sir, come again.”
I said “Thank you, too, sana, nag-artista ka na lang sa Pinas!”
“Si sirrrrr!” she shrieked.
Parkway Parade boasts of its Waterfall Leisure and Dining Precinct, featuring one of the tallest glass waterfalls in Singapore. I sat at the Alfresco dining area to rest my feet. My conversation with the Filipina OFW was still fresh in my mind.
“Really, why do Filipino workers seek employment abroad?” I asked myself. A number of reasons entered my thoughts. Maybe, it is not because they would like to give their family a more convenient life as most OFWs say. One has to exert the same effort to survive, whether it be abroad or in one’s own country.
Then, could it be the value of their income in foreign currencies compared to the value of local money? Well, usually income in other countries commensurate with the standards of living. One spends the same kind of money, unless it is sent to the Philippines where it has more value. “So, maybe, that’s it,” I told myself. An OFW could better afford the education and sustenance of their children by sending higher value currencies while working abroad.
“But there are other ways,” I countered myself. “Local small businessmen from Batangas and Cavite, migrated to other provinces as far as Davao and Cagayan de Oro, started small businesses like bakeries, rice dealership, agricultural chemical products distributorship, etc. They were able to have better lives, some even become millionaires.” I argued with my thoughts.
“Many early Chinese-Filipinos bought and sold junks, ran panciterias, sold soy bean cakes and taho, planted high value vegetables and other crops, and most of them now are billionaires. If they can do it, why can’t the others? Some of them lack formal education. Most did not even reach high school.”
I wondered. If the problem is working capital, most OFWs spend 30 to 200 thousand pesos in placement fees and other immigration requirements to get a working visa, which is enough if not more to start a small business.
As I thought about small business, I recalled a Philippine Senator who said that doing business is simple. One has only to learn arithmetic, one plus two equals three, minus one. If you can’t learn this, better run for senator. I laughed alone.
I was in this kind of musing when my daughter and son-in-law arrived to fetch me. Both are architects working in Singapore. We took a taxi to their HDB, a state built housing condominium unit in South Bedok, which they own.
The next morning my daughter and son in law were going to work. I walked with them up to the Reservoir View Park where I continued my morning walk around a man-made lake. While walking at the park, I saw a man fishing at a pier like structure at the lakeside. For a while I observed him bait his hook and throw his line until I heard him talk.
“Ang tatalino naman ng isda dito, wala bang Pinoy na isda d’yan?” Now I know he is a Filipino. I opened a conversation. I said, “Maybe you should put a floater on your line. As it floats with the wave, it will move your bait up and down making it appear alive.”
He said, “I have no float with me.”
I advised him,”Go get a small branch and tie it on your line.” But the sun is up and he was tired so we sat on a park bench and talked. I learned that he is a musician. He plays the lead guitar with a band at a night club at Orchard Road. He works at night, thus he has time to go fishing in the morning once in a while. I asked him the same question I asked the clerk in Isetan.
His reply was, “Mahigpit po ang kumpitensiya. Maraming magagaling na banda sa Maynila.”
“So, one of the reasons of the exodus of Filipino workers abroad is competition back home, and it is true, not only among musicians, but also in other jobs.” I told my new-found acquaintance; whose name by now I know is Mario… Mario Estrada.
He replied, “Opo, at ang pinakabobong banda sa Maynila na katulad namin, pinakamahusay dito.”
We laughed. “Hindi naman kaya,” I asked, “na mas-maraming banda kaysa sa night clubs sa Maynila?” Mario answered, “Naku! Hindi po, may mga banda ngang naglalagare, balik-balik sa dalawang clubs. At maraming clubs na walang makuhang mahusay na banda.”
“Maaari nga,” I said, “Many job applicants in the Philippines do not meet the qualifications of the industry. It could mean that the standard of education in the country needs updating. Many job fairs sponsored by local governments cannot totally fill all the offered jobs for lack of applicants who meet the qualifications. So, we could rule out the inability of the government to provide jobs. Di ba Mario?”
“Hindi ko po alam sir, hanggang banda lang ako,” Mario replied.
I gave Mario a very light right jab in slow-mo on his biceps. He laughed very loud. I said,”One who does not have the necessary skills really would find it difficult to compete.”
Mario asked me if I would like to have a coke or a cup of coffee. He said there is a refreshment kiosk nearby and the attendant is also a Filipino.
We walked, Mario carrying his fishing gear, a tackle box and the fishing rod. I was thinking while walking, “Does it mean that the Philippines have yet to meet the requirement of full blast industrialization? Or, could it be attitude? Most Filipino applicants that fail to get the job, say they are overqualified, not admitting that they did not meet the necessary requirements. I remembered, the mid 80s, when I have a general insurance agency. Almost every day, I would interview job applicants. After reading their résumé, I will offer them a job opening that would best fit their qualifications. Often I would convince them to be an insurance agent, which at that time could earn around Php2000 a week. Better agents could make up to Php5000. Most applicants would opt to become secretaries or clerks, which earns only half, or even less than the income of a neophyte agent a month. Even today, it is not easy to find young marketing people in the fields of insurance and real estate.”
We reached the refreshment kiosk. Mario offered me a seat, and then asked me if I would have a coke or a cup of coffee. I said I’ll have a coke. Mario pulled a 5-dollar bill from his pocket. “No, no” I said, “This is on me.” Mario retorted, “Si sir naman, ngayon lang tayo nagkakilala eh, pag-aawayan pa ba natin ‘to?”
I smiled and said “Bahala ka!”
The kiosk attendant approached us, “Magandang umaga po.”
Mario said, “Sir, si Ernie.”
Then I stretched my hand to reach his, “Kamusta ka, Ernie, ayos ba trabaho dito?”
He scratched his head and replied, ”Ayos lang po. ‘Di pa lang makapagpadala sa Pinas.”
“Accounting graduate yang si Ernie, sir,” said Mario.
“I said “Siyanga, bakit ka nagtitiyaga dito?”
“Wala hong makitang trabaho sa Pinas eh.” Ernie replied.
“Ow, puwede ka ngang magtayo ng ganitong kiosk doon. Isang sari-sari store, o’ carinderia. Palagi ko ngang sinasabi sa mga anak ko noon, kapag nasa bahay ka, hindi ka mawawalan ng gagawin. Or is it the Pinoy interpretation of the dignity of labor?” I contended.
“Anong ibig mong sabihin, sir?” asked Mario.
“Mario,” I said “I have a friend who is a former bank manager in the Philippines. He migrated to the United States. When he came back he said he drives a Mercedes-Benz with a flag in his job. He always wears a tie, but his tie is as wide as his torso and up to his knee in length.”
Mario asked, “Anong trabaho niya sir?”
I answered, “He’s a janitor at the airport. The Mercedez Benz is a ride-on floor polisher with the same brand, and his tie? an apron.” Ernie and Mario laughed.
I explained, “What I mean is, perhaps my friend would not accept this kind of job in the Philippines even if it offers a high salary, for fear of being scorned or discriminated by friends and relatives, so with Ernie, ‘di ba Ernie? But here, you are even proud you are working in Singapore.”
“Oo nga ano? Basta ako band leader pa rin ako.” Mario said.
“Kasi,” I continued,”You have your own band. Your employer employs the whole band where you are the boss. That’s why it’s nice to have your own. Like your own business, or being an entrepreneur, you are the boss in your own country or anywhere else.“
It was getting late so I said goodbye to the two OFWs, “Oy, salamat sa inyo, I still have to buy popiah and hokkien mee at the hawker. I’ll have lunch with my grand children.”
I continued to reflect in my thoughts until afternoon, thinking on the expression of most OFWs that they are sacrificing their lives for the welfare of their family. “Do they really?” I asked myself, “…or are their families the ones sacrificing, because of their absence? They might have the quantity of life, but the quality is lost.”
My daughter called and asked me to wait for them for dinner. While waiting, I spend my time in the internet. I discovered that there are more than 150,000 Filipinos working and residing in Singapore. The city-state is a haven of Filipino workers from low to high skilled professionals. OFWs in Singapore work as domestic helpers, technicians, entertainers, architects, engineers, and IT professionals. Even television and radio are filled with Filipino talents working as newscasters, announcers and disc jockeys.
With only a land area of 704 square kilometers, Laguna de Bay is bigger than Singapore by 207 square kilometers.
My daughter and son-in-law arrived with chili crab, Singapore’s favorite dish for dinner. While dining I told them what occupied my thoughts during the last two days.
“While I have asked the others,” I said, “I haven’t asked you why you chose to work here in Singapore.”
My daughter replied, “Don’t ask me, my whole family is here and we’re already Singaporean citizens.”
When I asked my son-in-law, he said , “Wala, trip lang, most of my friends and former classmates worked here, so I followed them. However, most of them now have migrated from Singapore to the United States and Australia in search of better paying jobs.”
I said, “Grass looks greener on the other side of the road.”
author: Gilbert Miranda