By Jojo Robles | September 2, 2014

A developed country, according to Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.

It’s pretty obvious, using this simple metric, that the Philippines is far from being a developed country. This is a place where the poor dream of having cars so they don’t have to take public transport anymore and where the rich would never dream of leaving their cars at home to take a taxi, a bus, a jeepney or—heaven forbid —a commuter train, instead.

In places like New York, London or Tokyo, even the richest people take public transport, which is reliable, safe and sensible. In Manila, government officials have to be “challenged” into riding the MRT, just so they can appreciate for themselves what ordinary commuters go through every blessed day.

But you know it’s not that much of a challenge for the top transportation official to ride the MRT when he has an aide hold an umbrella over his head as he boards the train during off-peak hours. Small wonder, then, that Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya found his train-riding experience “pleasant.”

For the half-million or so Filipinos who take the MRT daily, the commute is anything but. And if Abaya really wanted to find out what it’s like, he should fall in line like everyone else (instead of having his bodyguard do it for him) during rush hour, when the queueing takes longer than the actual ride; if he still finds that pleasant, then perhaps he should do it every day.

After Abaya (who has been rechristened “Secretary Pabaya” in the social media) did his Imeldific thing on the MRT, Senator Grace Poe and Malacañang spokesman Abigail Valte followed suit. Both of these women braved the rush hour queues that Abaya, the former soldier, could not; neither of them had aides holding umbrellas over their heads, nor did they describe their journeys as pleasant.

Of course, the whole point of challenging officials to take the MRT, as advocated by former elections commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, is to make them aware of how difficult the plight of the ordinary commuter is. If more government officials forsook their air-conditioned, taxpayer-paid SUVs and took the trains, perhaps they’d make sure these were reliable, safe and fast.

But Abaya only apparently understands the publicity value of riding the MRT, like it was the public transport equivalent of that ice bucket challenge that everyone seems to be doing online. And so Abaya misses the point entirely when he adjudges the ride he took as pleasant, having made sure that the conditions would be just so—including making provisions for some inconvenient rain—when he did.

Abaya only exposed himself as a publicity hound and a liar who wants to convince us that taking the MRT isn’t as bad as people say it is. Someone should tie Abaya to the front of the next train that blasts through the concrete barrier at the end of the line.

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What Abaya is good for, really, is bowing down to the Ayala conglomerate and giving it whatever it wants, like the common station that the secretary wants relocated to the Trinoma mall in Quezon City’s North Triangle. After the Supreme Court restrained Abaya’s department from reneging on its contract with the SM group to favor the Ayalas and handing the latter the common station for the connected MRT-LRT line, the transportation secretary has come up with his own version of a “win-win” solution—a “mini-station” in front of SM North Edsa and another 600 meters away in front of Trinoma.

This Abaya simply has no shame. And very little brains, besides.

Whilst the common station brouhaha continues to simmer, Abaya’s Department of Transportation and Communications has announced that work will soon start on the MRT-7 project, which will link the two existing train lines to a new overhead line that runs all the way to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. According to sources in San Miguel Corp., the leader and majority partner of the MRT-7 consortium, the contract stipulates that the common station will be located at the SM North Edsa mall—which is where the group will connect its new commuter line.

Abaya may attempt to persuade San Miguel to relocate to Trinoma —but while that would benefit the Ayalas, it could be disastrous for the government because SMC can very well declare that it is not bound any more by all the other provisions of the contract. And this is entirely because Abaya and his DOTC predecessor (and political mentor) Mar Roxas wanted to steal the common station project from the Sys of SM.

Of course, Abaya could have just opted to follow what the government’s contracts stipulate, like keeping the common station in front of SM and making the new MRT-7 connect to both LRT and MRT there, as well. But because Abaya is really the errand boy of the Ayalas, he will do their bidding even at the risk going to jail—because that is surely the fate in store for him, if he continues on his illegal path.

But Abaya, we now know, will not act unless challenged. Unfortunately for him, he can’t have an aide hold up an umbrella for him and join him in his jail cell.