The Wowowee effect and the damnation of Philippine society

(NOTE: This was written in February 5, 2006 as a reaction to the Wowowee stampede. It evolved into a discourse on politics, economics and poverty. This summarizes that the end goal of any government, no questions asked, is to enable its people to live well. The Wowowee disaster shows you what happens when you leave poverty alleviation to the charlatans.)

“It is not the P47 to the dollar that matters, but 70 lives to the peso.” “Superficial lang yan [the P47 to $1 rate]. Marami pa ring naghihirap sa Pilipinas.” All the headlines and stories on the Wowowee stampede disaster can be best summarized as “74 dreams crushed” which is how the Inquirer headlines actually goes. But what all these highlights is the true, imminent danger that poverty faces: the desperation of the spirit.Just imagine what they were all waiting in line for:

A P2.5-MILLION house and lot package, P1 million in cash and a passenger jeep were to be the top prizes in what would have been the first-anniversary celebration yesterday of “Wowowee.”

A “home partner” was to win the same prizes as the studio contestant winner through an electronic raffle system involving text messages sent to a designated cell phone number.

A minor raffle would have also given away P10,000 in cash each to a number of people in the audience. (italics are mine)

The daily show draws around 5,000 people to the ABS-CBN studios, with the main attraction being a “Pera o Bayong” segment where they could win up to P2 million instantly. Everyday. So for the planned anniversary show yesterday where the stakes were much higher, a crowd ganged up on the Philippine Sports Arena (formerly Ultra) in numbers much higher as well.

Rene Luspo, the ABS-CBN chief of security worked with the assumption that there could be about 25,000 people in attendance. The arena, from the all bleachers to the covered areas can accommodate 17,000. At the moment the stampede occurred, there were 30,000 people waiting in line, roughly 13,000 more than what the stadium can hold. “Our priority was to make sure that we can only accommodate what the stadium can hold.”

So at around 6:30AM yesterday, the guards announced that they were about to hand out stubs. There will be one for each person and only those with stubs will be allowed inside. Inevitably, this crowd of 30,000 pushed forward to the front (and only) entrance gate, wedging those first in line between a mass of people and the perimeter gate until it eventually fell. Additional reports added that the sound of the gate crashing sounded like a bomb exploding, thus intensifying the mass hysteria and amplifying the disaster itself.

74 people died and 500 are left injured, all for a stub that would guarantee them at most a chance at winning something big. But can we really blame them? Where did things go wrong?

In my social science classes, we spoke of how rebellions and revolutions in history, particularly those in China, can be fueled by desperation. Whether we look at the Taiping or Boxer rebellions, the result can only be tragic no matter how noble — to reform society — their cause. While yesterday’s stampede is no revolution, people were deperate as well and had only one cause: to change their lives for the better. They all held on to an ideal — a house and lot package, or a jeepney that would give them steady, daily income — that led them to camp outside of Ultra for three days and to rush to the front when the guards started handing out stubs.

We have long known that most of our fellow Filipinos live in abject poverty. “The reality today is that there are plenty among our countrymen who are poor,” says ABS- CBN vice president for entertainment Charo Santos-Concio. “We only want to give them hope. We’re all human, and I think most of us have tried our luck in games of chance. But we are not encouraging mendicancy, [the state of being a beggar].”

Yet, when the survivors were asked about their future, there are two basic answers: (1) “what happened isn’t Willie’s fault” and (2) “we hope there is another one next week.” They hold on to their heroes and look forward to another chance. This, more than the fact that they’re willing to gamble their lives on a game show, is what desperation in poverty means. I am sure that the suits in ABS-CBN know that evil persists when good men do nothing, but good is often in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of their good intentions, they feed into a desperate people’s need to satisfy their most basic needs. They supply fuel to the fire of their idealism.

Earlier on, as has been running since yesterday, celebrities and sober politicians appealed for sobriety, due process and anti-politics. I actually salute Erap for once; he didn’t launch an anti-government tirade after the tragedy, but simply offered mass for all those affected. And as I was writing this on the way home, Mayor Lito Atienza most recently appealed that this event not be used for politicized ends. He even went on to deliver a [flawed] comparison of other stampedes in history, and claimed [in an ad hoc manner] that too much politicking has kept our people in poverty, therefore leading to tragedies such as this. He ends by reiterating that we stay politics free.

Looking beyond the hypocrisy of his statements, I will have to disagree. This event needs to be politicized, but not in the typical trapo manner where we start pointing fingers. Now, more than ever, our government has an impetus to address the problem of poverty head on.

Our people have been desperate for far too long. Ironically, it has been easy for me to excuse our country. We are a fledgling democracy, we have bad leaders and the burden of our colonial history bears down hard. However, these shortcomings, mistakes and setbacks at the expense of the lives of 74 people and 500 others are utterly inexcusable. I have long lost my rage to raison d’etre; now I have found it again.

At this point, the “high” peso-dollar rate is moot, more so the question of charter change, if we cannot carry our people out of a lifestyle of desperation. I still agree with leaders and commentators such as Lee Kwan Yew and Kishore Mahbubani that we need economic reform first, but only insofar as those are means and not ends. P51 to a dollar means nothing if it doesn’t translate to cheaper goods, services and facilities for 80% of our people. Higher foreign investment inflows mean nothing if it can’t guarantee jobs to the economic classes C, D and E. And lastly, a federal-parliamentary system is nonsense if it doesn’t guarantee that politicians and civil servants can become more responsive to the needs of our people.

We know too well the effect of poverty on our people. The Wowowee disaster only reminds us that poverty costs lives. Our country may go to hell, but damn us twice if we have the death of our helpless people on our soul.


5 thoughts on “The Wowowee effect and the damnation of Philippine society

  1. gud pm sir Martz (?!)…

    could i ask some reactions from you (if you’ve already watched the play “baka sakali”) regarding the wowowee stampede last year…

    i just need some points for my critique paper…

    thanks and God bless… Animo!

  2. On this subject, i leave comments whenever i can while on the net. Actually only two before this, one in YouTube and another to a Pinoy artist’s blog. I went as far as saying that the Lopezes should cancel this show. Its not going to bury their company anyway. Ive always tell Pinoys here in the US that Wowwowee is bad for the country’s psyche. It is not just entertainment, it is exploiting the miseries of the poor, squeezing them of what’s little left of their dignity. I dont know of any anti-Wowowee movement over there but after the stampede, the Lopezez should have sacrificed millions in ad profits, tainted with blood…

  3. Here’s a piece I wrote at the time of Ultra…but never new what to do with until i found your blog…

    On the Ultra Stampede

    “It’s just hard not to listen to TV, its spent so much more time raising us than you have.”
    – Bart to Homer, “The Simpsons”
    There are fishermen today who catch sharks, sever the fin, and throw the rest of the animal back into the sea to die. Our civilization uses no more of us than that fin, and fears the rest. Circuses or television are civilization’s cure for energy–to draw it off so that we sleep, and threaten nobody.
    – Unkown

    I have been looking on as an interested outsider at the tragic events of Saturday, at times with tears in my eyes as I listened intently to the stories of victims, organizers and the authorities. I have also watched intently the conduct of the fact-finding mission and the delivery of its final results. Similarly I have watched the commentaries on the tragedy.

    While I can acknowledge the apparently resolute response of ABS-CBN in the statements of its President that ABS-CBN will take care of “all the costs” of the incident, like most others, I’m forced to conclude that they simply can not. For the biggest cost was the lives of those killed.

    As I heard the statement that the television company would take care of all the costs I was forced to reflect further on the values that such a statement portrays. These reflections were affirmed when I then heard the statement of the chair of the investigatory panel that people had been “exploited, manipulated and treated like animals” something occurred to me concerning the ignorance of those who pursue ratings and revenues in the media business. For what was interesting about the statement of the chair was that he expressed a view that this was how people were treated, he did not say that this was intentional – although it goes without saying that manipulation and exploitation are done by one person (or persons) to another, Usec Corpuz’s statement said nothing of anyone’s intentions. Gaby Lopez III of ABS-CBN, who apparently viewed the statement otherwise, promptly issued a statement saying “”While we acknowledge that we may possibly have had some shortcomings, a callous and malicious disregard for the people is not one of them.” As Shakespeare, himself a master of media and mass entertainment in his time might have asked does Gaby “protest too much”?

    I beg to differ with Gaby Lopez, I believe that people were treated like animals, exploited and manipulated – and I believe that this does reflect a callousness and indifference that pervades society. In other words, while many others are searching for culprits I find myself seeing victims everywhere. The victims are not just the dead, nor are they those that survived the stampede, but they are all who live uncritically and unaware within a social system that leave them lapping up the products of that system’s social mirrors and propagandists that are semi-consciously purveyed by the media machines. So, to Mr Lopez, Ms. Almaden, and others (with perhaps less forgiveness for the head of ABS-CBN security who, I personally feel, acted without either sufficient of care or competence) this is not an article that seeks to malign you or anyone else personally but it does seek to ask some questions concerning the role that you, as media moguls, and ordinary people, as media consumers and game-show participants, play in today’s Philippines.

    As I try to address those questions I also hear the voices of Lisa Masa and the left citing the structural and class faultlines in the Philippines as the real reasons for the desperation of the masses who thronged at the Ultra. I hear from them a predominantly economic or, more accurately, “political economy” argument which blames the state for failing the people’s economic aspirations.

    And yet, underlying – or is it overlaying? – the media and legal response (on Government’s and ABS-CBN’s part) and the political economy response (on the part of most of the Left) to the tragedy are some deeper cultural and spiritual questions that need addressing and these questions go to the heart of why we have shows such as Wowowee, why they prove so attractive to the poor, and why indeed, the primary beneficiary of the show Mr Willie Revellame (for that is he…the grand showmaster!) can possibly be genuine in his obvious distress at the deaths that occurred.

    Meanwhile it is also important to raise these questions in their social context. Too often we see the tragedies of Infanta, Cherry hills, the Black Nazarene procession and many others – and all too often we uncritically accept the technocratic questions posed by commentators asking why there was nothing done to prevent the tragedy and why the emergency preparedness and management systems are inadequate. Too often we also uncritically accept the media coverage of such events.

    For instance I recall being informed one network that covered the Infanta floods provided relief goods through its foundation, which is all well and good you may say, but then they piled the goods in the centre of Infanta and held the crowd back until the beginning of the evening prime-time news. Of course what took place among hungry people who had been waiting all day was a stampede – fortunately without the deaths we saw at Ultra. Putting aside the indignity to which those who waited for relief were subjected, what are the lessons that ordinary viewers are likely to get from such coverage? Similar scenes occur following any tragedy here – the personalities and the politicians stand on platforms or on the back of trucks handing out plastic bags of relief goods to the outstretched hands of supplicant survivors surrounded by guards. At news time this is followed by a cut-away to a tearful survivor thanking their God for surviving and either pleading with or thanking GMA (read: member of the powerful elite) for the provision of relief and medical assistance. Meantime others crowd around to get into the picture.

    As viewers our emotions are triggered by these pathetic scenes, and for most of us most of the time the emotions are those of pity. However I am forced to wonder whether pity really extends to empathy as I sense emotions also reminiscent of the Roman circuses – the fascination with death – like onlookers crowding round a car smash. Yes, you too can go through a real living disaster in your sitting room but without facing any of the real consequences (or can you..?). Like game-shows and reality TV, this form of media coverage is also a domestic simulation of the real that lies “out there” happening to “someone else” for the watching public. It draws us away from the fundamental questions of purpose and meaning that such events should provoke in all of us – whether it is a gameshow or news coverage of a disaster it is still spectacle…and spectacle is exactly what the Roman circuses consisted of too…in the process as one writer put it “blood and death become an acceptable detail”

    Bread and Circuses – the ratings game

    In Roman times the Emperors used provide bread and circuses to the masses to improve their popularity – or should we read “ratings”. This consisted of inviting the masses to the colosseum to receive a distribution of bread and to watch animals and gladiators in combat with one another to the delight of a blood-baying crowd. Behavior and a delight in gory spectacle as people competed with one another, or with wild animals, for their lives which would not have been permitted in the domestic environment was deemed acceptable when such events were staged. It also perhaps ironic to note that the first gladiatorial fights appeared as funeral rites for the Emperor Brutus in the forum boarium which was the cattle market in Rome.

    “We just want to help people” say Willy and friends – is this really the best we can do?

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