Ridding the Streets of 'Tambay'

With collective reflection rather than confrontation, we should be able to craft a framework for clearing up our streets.

President Duterte instructed the police to rid urban streets of ‘tambays’ (understood to mean vagrants and idlers) and immediately, the country erupted into a cacophony. Here we go again, between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of human rights and the Charybdis of public order and safety, the great culture war of the Philippines.

We can never seem to navigate this difficult pass so that we can reach our destination safely. Why? Because as soon as this issue rears its head, we assume the worst of each other’s intentions. On the one hand, the human rights’ advocates immediately conclude the presidential directive is an infringement of people’s human rights, and is yet another, closer drift towards authoritarianism and the police state. On the other hand, those who favor public safety and order support the president’s desire to make our cities and towns more livable, relatively freer of potential criminals.

Ridding the streets of ‘tambay’ is a reasonable goal and expectation of any urbanite, but implementation is the problem.‘’Tambay’ is a loaded concept and needs to be unpacked: who are the people covered, during what time, and under what circumstances? The police, some lacking in common sense and presence of mind, sometimes go about this task cluelessly, with little guidance. And of course, in times like these, we often forget the context of homelessness, unemployment, and squatting in public spaces; of poor housing conditions, forcing people to go out and get some fresh air; and of people’s need to socialize.

With collective reflection rather than confrontation, we should be able to craft a framework for clearing up our streets. This issue need not be turned into academic and political wrangling. Philippine streets are one of the ugliest in the world, and we have to clear up these public spaces for traffic to flow, without restricting people’s rights. Clear guidelines are needed for the police to do their jobs – to remind idling people of their civic duties, and not to arrest them. Community enforcement of anti-loitering ordinances have been done in the past, and can be revived.

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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