Why I wrote a story about slums in Manila

15 Jan 2011 | By Jeremy Boo

My introduction in yesterday’s 9-page spread was shortened, perhaps for brevity or house style.

This was what I wrote:

When Jeremy Boo, 22, led a journalism trip to the Philippines as part of his Mass Communication course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the first thing that struck him was the rigid dichotomy between the rich and the poor—just outside his hotel window in Makati, the country’s Central Business District, the poor and homeless linger opposite Starbucks and beside a strip club.

It was then he knew that he wanted to write a story about poverty but it was too difficult to explore this dichotomy with the little time he had.

Incidentally, the helper of a local photojournalist, whom was facilitating a journalism session, has a sister who worked in Singapore as a maid. Jeremy seized this opportunity to better understand the Filipino people to find out what are some of their aspirations, their fears, and their motivations. And why are they still trapped in the quandary of poverty? Where is home, when you have spent years working overseas? Where is home, when you live your life moving from street to bridge?

It was difficult to find these answers even as he stayed in slums for three days. Often, he found that these answers sometimes lurk in the subtlest things: a twitch of an eye when memories about family are recalled; that pharmacies sell syringes but not condoms; how drink and fun takes precedence over food; the way youth frequently describe their peers as chismos; the helplessness people feel as their homes are infested by the equally desperate, are demolished by the government, are razed to the ground by electrical fires and, in one instance, buried under an avalanche of sodden, burning garbage.

Poverty is not as simple as it seems. And he wanted people to know this.

Writing this story was nearly as difficult. With only three days to work, he had to quickly gain the trust of the Filipinos.

“Are you Korean? Japanese?” they would inevitably ask.

“No, Singaporean.” “Oh.”

It is a reply that is short but eloquent. Many Filipinos he met perceived Singaporeans to be brash, proud, and arrogant.

He managed to speak to them only after much listening, patience, and sensitivity. It was fortunate that the few locals who trusted him acted as interpreters when they needed to and took care in introducing him to their friends and neighbours.

Still, there was a harrowing experience when loitering strangers repeatedly uncocked and cocked a rifle, which he cannot determine whether it is real, outside the house of a person he was interviewing. He was led out through a different route in the end.

About a year after he returned from the Philippines, Mr Robin Yee, the lecturer who supervised him during the trip, read online about the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Young Reporter Competition and urged him to participate.

Despite being hesitant in the beginning, he took part in the competition because he wanted people to know about what he had seen and heard in the Philippines. Also more persuasive was the opportunity to continue telling stories about people, as ICRC will fly five winners to an area of armed conflict—Georgia, Lebanon, Liberia, Senegal, or the Philippines—on a reportage trip.

By winning this competition, he will travel to Georgia, where simmering tensions boiled over in the 2008 South Ossetia War, in February next year. He expects that the stories he encounters this time will be more challenging as the problems that the Georgians face are more hidden, and hence more difficult to illustrate, than problems like poverty; the problems of displacement and missing family members, for instance.

And even as he attempts to find an undergraduate course that satisfies his curiosities, he intends to work or volunteer, even if it is for a stint, in the frontline of a humanitarian organisation. This way, he will be able to truly empathise and witness the tales he have heard of blood shed and lives torn asunder.

Otherwise his stories will only be, as George Orwell has so clearly expressed in his essay Inside The Whale, “written by a person to whom murder 
is at most a word.”