The three ‘Rs’: rules, regulations and red tape


THIS last month there were two events that captured the attention of the world. One was long-drawn-out, while the other was relatively short and quick. The former ended in glorious triumph and the country involved is still basking in the glow of worldwide admiration and euphoria. The latter concluded with violence and deaths, the recriminations and finger-pointing are still being played out. One was a demonstration of resilience, courage, creativity and all that epitomises the noblest of the human spirit. The other was a showcase of … of … (words fail me), perhaps ‘imbecility’ is most apt.

TRAGIC EPISODE: An ex-policeman armed with a high-powered assault rifle (right) waves from a tourist carrying more than 20 Hong Kong tourists including children in Manila on Aug 23. — AFP file photo

Of course, I am talking about the rescue of the Chilean miners and the hostage taking in Manila. If ever there are examples of the two ends of a spectrum in human behaviour, these two episodes are indeed. For now I will leave the matter of the successful rescue of the Chilean miners for another today.

There are many things that can be said about the tragic episode in Manila where a sacked senior police inspector, Rolando Mendoza, took a busload of tourists hostage to demand for reinstatement to his former job. The Philippine newspapers have devoted reams and reams of paper to this sorry affair. For me, one thing stood out — the silliness of slavish adherence to rules.

Consider this. The chief hostage negotiator was close to convincing Mendoza to surrender until the appearance of a letter from the Ombudsman, who made an unyielding stand to deny the hostage-taker’s demand. (Ombudsman, a term of Scandinavian origin, is a government official who investigates citizens’ complaints against the government or its functionaries.)

Rolando Mendoza was prosecuted the year before by the Ombudsman for corruption and found guilty. He was sacked from his post and his pension forfeited. While the chief hostage negotiator was prepared to accept Mendoza’s demand, the Ombudsman decided to stick to the letter of the law — that reinstatement cannot be considered until the case was reopened and settled. Technically, the Ombudsman was right — ‘rules are rules’. In this case, the uncompromising adherence to the letter of the law resulted in bloody carnage and much embarrassment to the Philippines.

Not as dramatic but equally silly was a recent case in Singapore. On the island republic under the Casino Control Act, all Singaporeans have to pay a S$100 levy if they enter a casino. A group of people had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which was located in the same building as the Marina Bay Sands Casino. As it happened, the two lifts which allowed direct entry and exit to the restaurant broke down, so the diners were forced to walk through the casino. The casino in conformity to the laws sought to impose the S$100 levy on the diners. Of course, the group refused to comply. The casino’s position was that if it did not impose the levy it would be subjected to prosecution under the Casino Control Act. Fortunately, realising the ridiculousness of the situation, the authority concerned refrained from taking any drastic action against both parties (diners and casino) and adopted the stance of “aware of this incident and is currently looking into the matter”.

Many of us have been inconvenienced, if not have suffered, under the ‘rules are rules’ syndrome. Some years ago, I was in Xiamen, China. My family decided to take the overnight ferry to Hong Kong. So, we went to the ticket office by the pier. As it happened, we arrived at the office just past 12pm. When we went to the ticket counter, the attendant refused to serve us. Pointing to a notice, she told us that she was on her lunch break (12pm to 2pm). It was just two minutes past the hour. We pleaded with her, as she was still in the ticket booth she could just easily sell us the tickets and save us from having to wait for two hours. She was adamant. I could almost see the thought bubble above her head, ‘rules are rules’. Of course, she was right.

There is a derisive term we use to describe excessive regulation and rigid conformity to formal rules. It is called red tape. Apparently, the term originated in the 16th century practice of binding petitions to the King or to the Pope with red tape. Whatever it is, it is now a virtual swear term, expletive used by people who are at the disadvantageous end of rules.

There is a black comedy film that depicts the absurd situation of red tape gone wild. ‘Catch-22’ is a 1970 war film adapted from the satirical novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. It is set in a World War II American bomber base in Italy. The air squadron is committed to flying numerous dangerous missions.

After watching many of his friends die, Captain Yossarian (played by Alan Arkin), the main protagonist, seeks a means of escape. That is when he runs into the Catch-22, the supreme red tape. It goes like this — an airman could be absolved from flying on grounds of insanity. In his case, Yossarian, must be crazy to fly so many dangerous missions. Thus, on the face of it he would be qualified for an exemption. However, if he is to make a request to be grounded, he would not be insane and therefore would be disqualified from exemption. If you find that confusing, so did all the characters in the movie as they were caught by the logical paradox and held firm in its double bind.

‘Rules are made to be broken’ is a saying that has been glibly bandied around. General Douglas MacArthur (1880 to 1964) was quoted to have said, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.” (General Douglas MacArthur was prominent American general and field marshal. He was a Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the 1930s and played an important role in the Pacific theatre during World War II.)

However, before we jump on the bandwagon and join in the ‘rules and regulations bashing’, it is prudent to take a moment to ponder. Though rules and regulations may restrict our freedom and subject us to inconvenience, they exist for a reason. There’s a saying: ‘Before you take down a wall, ask why it was built. It may have been placed there for your own protection.’

Perhaps we should consider the converse, “What if there are no rules?” I recall in the days when the budget airlines did not assign seat numbers for passengers, it was virtual mayhem during boarding. Flight attendants used to announce that passengers should line up orderly. Senior citizens and those with young children should be given priority. Firstly, it was amazing how many ‘senior’ people there were. Secondly, queue? What queue? It was more like ‘buffalo line’. This is a term coined by one farmer who observed that the way the passengers bunched around the boarding point reminded him of his buffaloes as they crowded around the exit gate of his ranch.

Perhaps we should not ask, “Are rules made to be broken?” A better question is, “Are rules made to be questioned?” That is easier said than done. It is easy for a powerful general like Douglas MacArthur to say that it is the lazy who hide behind rules. However, it demands great courage to go against established rules and regulations. A risk lesser mortals like the normal functionaries dare not take.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected].