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MONDAYS WITH PATMEI | Traveling courageously

I am writing this while in Singapore to attend the Rotary International District Convention 2024. It is my first time to travel internationally again since the pandemic (so that’s almost five years) and since I became a full-time caregiver of loved ones who cannot yet travel. So I was really looking forward to this.

I am traveling with my immunocompromised 84-year old mother, the original Rotarian in the family, who’s even more excited than I am. A few days before our departure, news about a new Covid-19 surge in Singapore was trending, but we’re unfazed. We just packed all the essentials to be prepared for any health emergency. Plus travel insurance. Besides, our doctors not only gave us clearance to travel, they are literally prescribing it.

After all, travel relieves stress and boosts mental health. As neuroscientists would say: “Travel feels good because new experiences are the key to building new neural pathways in the brain.” By rewiring your brain, you become more creative and accepting of new ideas.

But traveling to and from the Philippines does not relieve stress, it increases it.

We flew to Singapore from the Davao International Airport via Scoot, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. I used to prefer departing from and arriving in Davao when traveling internationally because airport, immigration and customs personnel seemed nicer there. Well, not anymore. At least, based on my experience last Friday.

First, let me talk about how annoying it is that the travel tax and terminal fee are not included in your airfare and that you have to line up at two separate counters and deal with not very helpful government staff.

It seems you have to figure out everything yourself, prepare the exact change, search online for answers or call a friend and basically just make life easier for government agencies to do their jobs.

I consider myself a seasoned traveler and I have low expectations in terms of efficient public service from my own government (based on years of experience as a citizen and as a government worker in my past life), but I think the service just plain sucks now.

Terminal fee for international travel from Davao is P784. It would be reasonable to expect that people will probably give P1,000 so the agent collecting the fee must anticipate having enough change for x number of passengers for that day. But such is not the case. This lack of planning on the government agent’s part holds up the line and causes delays and stresses the travelers.

Naturally people would start complaining about the delay. Instead of explaining nicely and comforting the weary passengers, the government agent resorts to victim blaming and actually has the gall to tell us in a stern manner: “Kasi P1,000 lahat ang pera nyo!” (Because you all paid in 1,000 peso bills.)

I was too stunned to even talk back. Government admonishes stores that do not prepare enough change for customers but it looks like they do not follow their own advice.

So I was already a bit frazzled from travel tax to terminal fee by the time I reach the immigration counter. I do not know when they started changing the rules because there was not even a sign anywhere, but families traveling together usually cleared immigration together. We have done that all the time when we travel as a family.

Since my mom needs assistance in walking and standing, she uses me as her human cane. So we walked up to the immigration counter together. Instead of being considerate because she (yes, it’s a woman) is serving an elderly person who is visibly in need of assistance, she practically barked at us: “Isa-isa lang, di pwedeng sabay!” (Just one at a time!). No “please” and “thank you.”

When I tried to explain that my mom needs me to assist her, the immigration personnel nearly yelled at me, obviously exasperated that I am not following her orders, and sarcastically blurted: “Bakit, di ba sya makasalita?” I was too shocked at the utter disrespect in front of my mother.

I tried to calmly reason with her that my mom needs me by her side to steady her. But she glared at me like I was an unruly child. This violent (yes, it is) encounter shook my mom up that she barely heard the interrogation (yes, it’s like a torture scene by this time): “Kanus-a balik?” (When are you returning?) My poor mom could not reply so I told the agent: “Pwede bang magtanong ng maayos and di pabalang?” (Can you just ask her properly without being intimidating?) She glared at me some more.

When it was my turn, I could not help myself: “Immigration ito, hindi police investigation ng nahuli na terrorist. And Pilipino kami na paalis dito, hayaan mong ang Singapore mag interrogate sa amin kung criminal ba kami.” (This is immigration, not a police investigation of a detained terrorist. And we are Filipinos departing, let Singapore interrogate us to find out if we are criminals.)

I reported her to the supervisor who was very apologetic. I do understand the work of an immigration agent. What I do not understand is why she has to impersonate a bad cop while doing her job. I have dealt with many immigration officers around the world and she is the rudest one yet. She needs to be retrained.

And what’s up with the interrogation when we are all required to download and fill out all our travel information on the eGovPH app, including scanning our passports? Shouldn’t that be enough data for them to figure out if you are a fake or a criminal? Technology did not make our government service better, it made it worse.

And when we arrived in Singapore, the shift was seismic. Everything just works and it is all smooth. When you come from the Philippines where everything is an obstacle race, the ease of visiting Singapore is nothing short of amazing.

No immigration counters and grumpy agents. You scan your passport on a turnstile and instructions are automatically translated into your native language. Your thumbprint is scanned next and you breeze through. No one is harassing you and throwing their weight around. There are agents around ready to help you, not intimidate you. They are not asking you when you are leaving because they already have that information on their MyICAMobile app. They make technology work for them and make their public service better.

It baffles me why we cannot do it in the Philippines. Where is the “bago” (new) in Pilipinas?


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