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Being on time

/ 09:22 AM November 18, 2012

Teaching has forced me to try to make it a habit to be prompt. You have to be in the classroom before students arrive, or at least before the “invisible” checker comes to see if you are there at least 15 minutes before official time, otherwise you’d be marked absent and not get your pay for the day.

When students don’t arrive after 15 minutes, and the checker sees an empty classroom, he or she may interpret it as “no class”. So you are forced to become a stickler for punctuality, demanding that students come on the dot. Soon, the nice and tolerant professor that students love evolves into a strict clock-conscious record-keeper.

But making sure you get there on time slowly becomes a mental habit. You skip the night life, sleep next to an alarm clock, eat little, take the early commute, and walk like you’re running. You become good at joining the rat race.


When we used to live in Lapu-Lapu city, I found that the traffic jam at the Mandaue-Mactan bridge made it impossible for me to reach the university on time, so I shifted to riding a bike. I would take my bike with me when I’d board the World War II landing craft that ferries people across the Mactan Channel.

Then from the small wharf in Mandaue, I’d pedal past more traffic jams to school. It took me only 30 minutes what could reach more than one hour if I were to take a jeepney on my way to work. I told my students that they could do the same, that sometimes the best solution to a complicated problem is the simplest one.

But where everyone is tardy, promptness may actually put you in inconvenient situations. Once, I came to a friend’s wedding about five minutes before the time only to find out less than ten people were in the church, among them the anxious groom. It took almost another hour for the wedding to start. Even the priest came late.

Such is “Filipino time”. Lonely Planet warns travelers to Philippines of the need to adjust to our shameful culture of tardiness: “Don’t be punctual if you’re invited to a social occasion! Turn up at least thirty minutes after the arranged time if you want to be a really polite guest.”

It turned out that I was actually not being too polite by showing up early on my friend’s wedding day. The late Tito Cuevas, who used to manage an airline company before he quit the job to become a painter, was known for being a stickler for punctuality, a rare quality among artists.

He had developed the habit of making sure workers do things as scheduled, that planes arrive and leave on time, so it became part of his lifestyle. He always showed up early when invited but was also notorious for walking out when things failed to start on time.

Tito would never buy the idea of Filipino time. He thinks our inability to stick to work schedules is making us less productive. And artists are not exempt. The bulk of his own work would show how strictly he would maximize his own time to make art. Unfortunately, he succumbed to cancer last year, a rather untimely passing.

Recently, Sen.  Miriam Santiago proposed that government clocks be synchronized as a way to start a culture of promptness, first in the bureaucracy and then, hopefully, the citizenry. Such efforts replicate what other countries also notorious for tardiness have done in the past. Ecuador synchronized clocks in 2004, with President Lucio Guttierez, himself notorious for tardiness, promising his participation in the national campaign for promptness through his spokesman who arrived at the TV studio several minutes late as expected.


Cultures are said to be distinguished between those that live on “event time” and “clock time”, with the latter being more likely to succeed economically. One may think that promptness has to do with education and breeding, yet in cultures of tardiness, such as Ecuador, the Philippines and Indonesia, the rich tend to develop the habit of making what we call a “dramatic entrance” or coming in late to show privilege.

“Lateness can be a way for the rich and powerful to assert themselves, to show how much more valuable their time is,” says James Surowiecki of The New Yorker writing about “Ecuadorian time”. “In a country where everyone is late, it becomes rational to be late. There’s no point in getting to a meeting on time if no one is going to be there. Tardiness feeds on itself, creating a vicious cycle of mañana, mañana.”

We Filipinos are quick to blame the Spanish siesta habit for why we dawdle if we don’t simply admit that maybe we just tend to have more night life or parties to attend the night before. Or perhaps, it’s our jeepney culture or the lack of a train system that runs on clockwork.

But cultures, as Ecuador shows, could change, according to Surowiecki. “By taking on tardiness Ecuador citizens are telling us something else: culture is what you do, not who you are. It’s about time, too.”

The introduction of a local bus rapid system that hopefully works on strict schedules and the synchronization of government clocks are significant steps toward changing Filipino time. It’s long overdue but it’s better late than never.

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