Standard time

COUNTDOWN to the first minute of the New Year was a game that my children loved to play when they were younger. The TV would be set to one channel where a digital clock shows the time. The whole family would gather in front of the television, in its conferred role as god of time, and follow the flashing of the last seconds of the old year. As the final seconds fade away, we seek each other out to exchange hugs and kisses in gratitude and hope. But, one of the kids would then switch the television to another channel, where almost always another countdown is still going on. For them this is the real one, and so they would go through another round of hugs and kisses.

I guess this is the last year this charming guessing game is going to be played. The Department of Science and Technology has recently prescribed a Philippine Standard Time (PST) that every TV station, every office and school will be obliged to follow. It is set by Pagasa, the government’s weather agency, and is based on supposedly the most precise time-telling  instrument available. The official time can be accessed at

Whether official time is the one true time is another matter. My own belief is that standard time is just one more of those social constructs that are formed by deliberate agreement or by habit. They are the “articles of faith” that make the world in which we live more bearable and manageable. That they work for us does not however necessarily prove they are true. Like many things official, standard time can be erroneous. As Nietzsche said: “We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live—by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.”

Even more to the point, standard time may make life more pleasant for the urban commuter who must rely on the precise arrival and departure times of trains and buses. But it is totally irrelevant when the modes of mass transport themselves are not bound to any definite schedules except for the most general estimated times. This doesn’t make a society necessarily dysfunctional. Ordinary Filipinos have lived with delayed plane and boat arrivals and departures for so long that indefinite waiting has become second nature to them.

PST would make no difference either to farmers and fisherfolk whose life rhythms are dictated basically by the seasons, the tides, the winds, and the rising and setting of the sun. But a common time becomes essential when fast trains have to share the same tracks, when a discrepancy of a few minutes could spell the difference between life and death. It also becomes crucial when people’s lives have become fuller and more differentiated, such that a day must be parceled out precisely to ensure that one activity does not encroach upon another. Filipino workers abroad who find themselves holding down two or three jobs with different employers know this only too well. They must observe exact times and rush like everyone else in the host country if they are to survive.

Thus, on any given day, they learn to juggle various tasks within a single time horizon. Clearly, it is not so much the existence of standard time that makes them behave like this, as it is the emergence of a life that is rich in complexity and no longer one-dimensional. We are already seeing patches of this modern way of life take shape in our own society, but they remain isolated fragments of the national life rather than the norm. We see modern time-consciousness in the growing community of call center employees, who mostly work at night. While the rest of the country sleeps, they remain awake, fully attuned to the time and cultural horizon of the overseas clients they are serving at any given time.

As soon as their shift ends they go back to a physical world whose time horizon is different from the one they inhabited just a few moments ago. This discontinuity makes them highly sensitive to the plurality of temporal worlds that cannot be fitted into one common chronology. Chronology implies movement or progress in time. Time, on the other hand, is a way of interpreting reality in terms of the difference between the past and the future. They should not be confused with one another. Because different cultures have different interpretations of what is past and what is future, their conceptions of time are bound to vary. This would partly explain the saying, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Time tends to be slow in traditional society, and fast in complex modern society.

Precise time accompanies the emergence of a functionally differentiated society. It is not the cause. One does not erase so-called “Filipino time” by merely prescribing and requiring adherence to a standard official time. Filipino time is a function of traditional society, a society marked by hierarchy, by sharp social inequality, by the privileges enjoyed by the powerful and the uncertainties that constitute the lot of the powerless. Filipinos will demand a common time for the whole nation as soon as a few individuals are no longer given the privilege to come late, and the rest of us no longer believe that waiting indefinitely is part of our way of life.

Happy New Year!

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