Nov 26, 2019

If you’ve been on social media for the past week, you’ve probably seen how much of a mess the 2019 SEA Games is gearing up to be. From journalists not getting their media passes to portions of the stadium still finishing construction or renovation a mere week before the competition (with the rush even causing a workplace accident), the whole thing reeks of Fyre Festival-levels of corruption and ineptitude.

One aspect that stood out the most is how the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC) has been treating its guests. Images of various football teams in distress (the Cambodian team sleeping on the hotel room floor, Timor Leste’s team left stranded while waiting for their shuttles, and the Thai team given limited food and water rations) have been circulating around the web, inciting the frustration of many, local and foreign governments alike. 

It’s a PR nightmare, but one that’s especially damning for the Philippines. 

Filipino hospitality 

Ecosia search (Google is not welcome in this house) the words “Filipino hospitality” and you’ll get a deluge of articles talking about this one mythic quality all Filipinos can be proud of. It’s something the tourism industry thrives on. Sure, our traffic situation is one of the world’s worst; sure, we’re experiencing extreme political unrest; sure, our beaches are on a decline; whatever, we as a people at least, treat our guests right.

The way the SEA Games organizing body has been treating its foreign participants right now directly contradicts that. Spending P50 million on a cauldron but not making sure your guests have enough food and water (or, as in the case of many of the Muslim athletes, not even the right kind of food)? The Filipino hospitality coda at its very core entails treating guests as best as you possibly can no matter your financial limitations, and the inefficiency that we’re seeing violates all of that.

“Timor Leste is just a poor country,” a netizen wrote about the Timor Leste’s football team’s frustration. “So don’t ya (sic) act like your (sic) mistreated.” The implicit meaning: “You have no right to complain.” It’s an incredibly insensitive and horrible statement to say, especially because of the national attitude concerning hospitality, which is why that statement was lambasted throughout social media. 

And yet, there’s a sad honesty to it. In 2014, global research network World Values Survey included the Philippines as one of the least racially tolerant countries in the world, a dubious honor that rings true to anyone who’s heard an acquaintance defend their use of the N-word, or seen someone deride the Filipino-Chinese community. Or, look at how IP groups are constantly being displaced, how informal settler communities can be stripped of their homes in a day. For many Filipinos, if you’re poor or different, you don’t deserve the same rights.

And that’s an important dimension of Filipino hospitality that’s left unsaid: That it’s largely given only to those with cultural and economic power. Not to say that all Filipinos are like that but that enough are. So when an organization screws up this badly at hosting an international competition, how much of that can be owed to the fact that the competitors are mostly fellow Asians from mostly developing countries? Would the governing body have allotted more money and time into their wellbeing if majority of the contestants were from the West, instead of using its budget on a cauldron and a comfort room with two toilets inside a single stall? Would they have been more efficient if, instead of the SEA Games, this was the Olympics?

In any case, the #SEAGamesFail is a wake-up call for everyone. On the political side, it shows that we need to hold our government more accountable for the projects they take on. But it also shows that we need to examine what we mean when we say hospitality.

 

Header photo courtesy of Tristan Tamayo for Inquirer Sports

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