THE POINT BEING: Small-town thinking

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 08 June) — Shortly after the counting trends showed that candidate Rodrigo Roa Duterte led the pack of presidential aspirants, criticism surfaced that his was going to be a national leadership based on small-town thinking.

The concerns seemed to center around the apprehensions that he would just pursue matters that are the responsibilities of local government officials anyway, and that his style of leadership and management are too ‘local’ and not appropriate for the national setting. These are legitimate matters, and should not be dismissed lightly.

However, it is possible that the real though unsaid point of the criticism was likely the view that the country’s problems are far too big, numerous and complex, and thus out of the league of the first president of the Philippines to come from Mindanao, a long-standing manager of local development, and one without a longstanding national constituency prior to being elected.

Understand that this is not a discussion in defense of President-elect Duterte. But it is one that calls for a critical consideration of the small-town mindset. The small-town descriptor is often viewed as derogatory, suggesting backwardness, narrowness, and the lack of amenities and options associated with urban living.

I grew up in the decidedly small town of Lupon, Davao Oriental, and later Davao City, which still feels like a small town despite once being the largest city in the Philippines in terms of land area before Puerto Princesa City beat us to the claim by including small islands in their measurement. The small-town experience, and the mindset it generates are definitely not as negative as those who use it disparagingly would have us think. But it is also not without its problems.

My first assertion is that small-town thinking could be initially defined by, but ultimately is not dependent on the size of the land area, population or income classification. Although in the Philippines the term town is equated with municipality, the definition and characteristics of a town varies around the world, with some not making a distinction between these types of human settlements at all. From this appreciation, it can be argued that in a manner of speaking Metro Manila’s 15 cities and one municipality could very well be a metropolis of small towns.

My second key point is that small-town thinking can also be premised on the quality of horizontal and vertical social and political relationships of which citizens and leaders are part.

From the perspective of a citizen, a place where one knows most everyone has a small town feel to it. This does not require being personally acquainted with all who hail from the same place, but it does mean recognizing an affinity with another. While kinship and ethnicity are the default ways of establishing connections, in today’s world where migration patterns mean that many people come from another place, there is a distinctive ring to place of origin. Small towns engender a sense of pride of being from a place. From experience, there is no denying the pleasurable sparks of connection and recognition in remarking to another “taga-Davao diay ka? Taga-Davao sab ko!”

Places that are ‘melting pots’ or ‘weaving looms’ can not rely on kinship and ethnicity to cement the relationships that would allow citizens not only to co-exist but more importantly to work together. Hopefully, pride of place would be one of the positive forces that could help citizens overcome ‘othering’, and connect and interact in constructive ways.

Small-town thinking compels citizens to derive from pride of place a commitment to take care of their town. This commitment is manifested in a variety of behaviors: from picking up trash after a political rally, coming to the rescue of trees that are being threatened with cutting, even if one lives many kilometers away, to signing petitions opposing the reduction of green space requirements in housing.

The small-town mindset makes relationship between citizens and public officials personal. One trusts that a public official could be approached and asked for help in resolving a problem. The extreme of this of course is that concerns that are not necessarily of a public nature, such as defraying expenses for a wedding, get brought to officials and reinforce the blurring of lines between public and personal resources and public and personal use and gain. Corruption is not always a simplistic narrative of greedy officials, and we need to weed out the many and different beliefs and behaviors that feed it. Particularly our own.

From political leaders and public administrators, small-town thinking demands familiarity with the day-to-day concerns of constituents, and being more accessible to citizens. There is no insulation and cordon sanitaire that would protect small town officials as most everything is right in their faces.

A leader who practices small-town thinking does not have to drive a taxi at night to check on the situation of public transport and the peace and order condition. But small-town thinking would mean that a leader or manager understands and makes sure action is taken on complaints about drivers who refuse to ferry passengers and do not return change, and also sees to it that drivers are not at the mercy of criminals.

Charging exact fares and returning change are small things in the grand scheme of national leadership one might say, but by such details citizens come to intimately know that policies are enforced and passenger rights protected.

President-elect Duterte won in Metro Manila, the place most intimate with the pronouncements and actions of national government. Perhaps this is not surprising as Metro Manila has traditionally been opposed to incumbents. But my own pet theory is that people who live or work in the metropolis and who commute and particularly rely on the railway trains must have voted with residual memories of the long hours of waiting in line and enduring the discomforts of riding the trains influencing their choices. The small everyday details of poor service, corruption, bureaucracy and indifference of public officials tend to trump all official claims to improvements in the national life.

Small-town thinking also encourages creativity when responding to governance challenges. In part, resource limitations, diverse and competing concerns and direct pressures compel local public officials to respond in non-traditional and fresh ways. The firecracker ban in Davao was initially brought about by the rising yearly costs of city expenses because of firecracker injuries during the holidays and the decision to instead allocate LGU resources to other initiatives.

But small-town thinking does not automatically guarantee a functional and responsive public administrative system. Small towns, any locality for that matter, are governed best with a professional public sector, but small-town thinking can jeopardize this because of the risks posed by nepotism and accommodation. The proclivity to appoint people whom a leader knows and trusts is not unique to small-town thinkers. But the consequences of such a practice is more damaging to small-town thinkers because of problems associated with another small town scourge: political dynasties.

Whether because families maneuver to stay in power to protect their economic, political and territorial interests, or because they get deluded into thinking that the governance of the locality has become their family’s burden, small-town thinking political leaders can become attached to power, become vulnerable to flattery, lose perspective due to the sycophantic behavior of appointees, allies and supporters, and equate their continued reign with the fortunes of the town.

Many of the country’s established political families started out in small towns—the Cojuangcos-Aquinos in Tarlac, and the Roxases in Capiz for instance—until they got enough traction to move to provincial and national platforms.

Small town leaders are also well aware of the relationships and dynamics between national and local politicians. The political fortunes of these politicians who operate at different levels are intimately tied, and reinforce patronage politics. National leaders often serve as gatekeepers, demanding the allegiance of local leaders and controlling the flow of resources and opportunities to localities. Far from being beholden, local leaders play the game of territory and access to voters, courting and promising support to national actors in exchange for largesse and accommodation

Used to dominating their own local stages, small-town leaders who graduate to the national scene could insist on their own way and infuriate those who expect elected national leaders to behave predictably and generally follow entrenched frameworks and policies—for instance neoliberalism—with little interruption.

Having no longstanding strong relationships with institutions and stakeholders at the national level, small-town leaders who step up to the national arena might initially shake things up to the delight of their supporters who see these as signs of change. But if all that it amounts to is a ruffling of feathers and no substantive alterations in the way things are, such saber-rattling can stoke confusion, frustration and disillusionment.

There is a huge tendency that other local officials, for a variety of reasons, would copy the ways of small-town thinkers who have gone national. The latter has to be able to see through this, and instead of being sucked into and reinforcing the same patterns of patriarchal leadership and patronage relationships, institute reforms that would challenge and enable small town leaders and managers to succeed in the governance and management of their areas, using their own assets and opportunities.

By their experiences and mindsets, and also because of the huge political capital bestowed on them by voters who think small-town leaders are the anti-thesis to incumbent elites, small-town leaders who are suddenly thrust into the national scene are in the position to make a huge difference. But this position is not without its limits and political capital can over time be squandered away.

There are huge battles for vital change to be fought in the coming days. Small-town thinkers who are now at the helm of national governance are thus well-advised to be selective in picking fights, and to be mindful of relationships. In a setting where the notion and scope of horizontal relationships have expanded tremendously, leaders with the small-town mindset have to adroitly figure out the relationships that are worth keeping, which ones have to be transformed, or created, and which need to be rethought, and even walked away from.

Lest small-town leaders who have gone national forget, they need not be the only leaders, and the entire country does not have to be reduced to a small town to be effectively led to transformation. Because what we are is an archipelago of many small towns; and small-town thinking, harnessed properly by citizens and leaders, can be one of the ways that we can continue to change our situation for the better.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. This piece was first published in two parts – June 5 and 6, 2016 — in SunStar Davao where she writes a weekly column, “The Point Being.” MindaNews was granted permission by the author and SunStar Davao to reprint this. Please email feedback to