Rich man, poor man, and the growing gap

MANILA - IT wasn't just the "road rage" that turned the owner of a bottle recycling firm into the Philippines' latest Internet villain.

It was also the fact that he was driving a Maserati, a car so unreachable in this part of the world that only two out of over 100 million Filipinos own one (the other Maserati owner is popular actor Dingdong Dantes).

To recap: Mr Joseph Russel Ingco, a fair-skinned businessman in his mid 30s, is being vilified by the Philippines' rabid Facebook and Twitter mobs for supposedly mauling and using his blue Maserati Ghibli to drag a hapless traffic aide who flagged him for a traffic violation.

The much-older and portly traffic aide, Mr Jorbe Adriatico, was seen on the evening news with a bandaged nose, a copious amount of tears and a moving story about how he thought he was going to get run over by Mr Ingco's Maserati.

That was enough to stir up a storm online against Mr Ingco and his Maserati.

The outrage has much to do with the resentment which the have-nots feel towards the haves, who seem to be having even more as the Philippine economy booms.

A Google search for "Ingco" and "Maserati" produces websites littered with words like "road bully", "jerk", "mauler", "liar", and all kinds of hate-filled words that an unsettled Mr Ingco had to move his family out of their home, leaving behind his by then much-reviled sportscar.

Appearing on national TV to air his side of the story, Mr Ingco said the traffic aide provoked him into becoming aggressive by giving him the dirty finger, shouting obscenities at him, shoving a handphone in his face, and trying to forcibly pull him out of his car - for apparently no reason at all.

But that did little to sway public opinion his way.

The narrative was so overwhelmingly stacked against Mr Ingco that even if he had been shot and died that day, the general sentiment would still be that it was his fault and he probably deserved it.

On the day he crossed paths with Mr Adriatico, he walked into the role of a villain in a story that for decades has been percolating as gospel truth in the minds of the masses.

In the popular imagination, the bad guy is wealthy, ostentatious, arrogant and brutish but ultimately a coward without his thugs around him.

The hero, on the other hand, is dirt poor, an industrious, soft spoken everyman, a charismatic cad who gets by with a winning smile for the ladies, as well as fast and loose fists for the bad guys.

The narrative may be oversimplified and kitschy, but it is nonetheless poignant because the audience see in it the harsh realities they have to endure day after day: the crushing poverty, the snooty, privileged few, the pliable arm of Lady Justice that leans in favour of the highest bidder, the street's omnipresent menace.

One in four Filipinos can barely afford to put food on the table, and three-quarters of the nation's wealth are in the hands of only 40 families.

Those left with the last quarter meander from one small pay cheque to another, queue for hours at MRT stations, make do with rice and instant noodles for sustenance, and play cat-and-mouse games with low-lifes prowling the streets for a quick buck.

There is growth undoubtedly, but it is like an oasis in a vast desert where the few, big birds get to wet their beaks first. By the time the rest of the flock get their turn, the oasis is nearly bone dry.

Nowhere is the huge disparity between the haves and have-nots more apparent than in the urban sprawl that is metropolitan Manila.

There, the country's top one per cent have carved out exclusive enclaves surrounded by tall walls and bureaucratic sentries to keep the 99 per cent out.

Inside these enclaves are huge mansions, each built at a sum large enough to finance a small district of 100 low-cost homes for survivors of typhoon Haiyan.

The Philippines' boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, a fishmonger before he became a multimillionaire, has his own mansion in one of these enclaves, but he is selling it for 400 million pesos (S$12 million), as his neighbours have complained that he entertains too many poor people into his home.

That disparity and the accompanying condescension have naturally caused grumblings among the hoi polloi, and the resentment explodes whenever some Maserati-driving man is caught on video seemingly abusing a lowly civil servant.

A villain is exposed, and the downtrodden get their little victories, no matter how superficial.

rdancel@sph.com.sg