Yellow Pad


I object to Senator Leila de Lima’s description that President Duterte is the “pambansang tambay.” Here is the press statement of Senator de Lima:

Si Duterte ang tunay na tambay ng bansa na walang ginawa kung hindi magmukhang palaging lasing at bangag sa harap ng publiko. Yan ang taong hindi talaga nagtatrabaho, na walang ginawa kung hindi magpatawa, magkalat ng tsismis at intriga, at mambastos ng mga babaeng dumadaan sa harap niya sa araw-araw ng kanyang pagka-pangulo ng bansa. Si Duterte ang tunay na pambansang tambay.

By describing Duterte as the “pambansang tambay,” de Lima is making Duterte the icon of all tambays. In effect, she is insulting the thousands or millions of Filipino tambaysTambay is a colloquial term in Filipino for a loiterer or an idler.

Duterte and de Lima are reinforcing each other’s view that the tambay is a scourge. Duterte associates the tambay with illegal drugs, drunkenness, and crime. But so does de Lima, calling Duterte for doing nothing but looking always drunk and stoned in front of the public (walang ginawa kung hindi magmukhang palaging lasing at bangag sa harap ng publiko).

The problem with that view is it associates tambay or being idle to activities like being under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs, disturbing the peace, spreading gossip, and harassing women. This is how de Lima sees the tambay, with Duterte as the national representation. Similarly, Duterte, the supposed pambansang tambay, has utmost disdain for tambays.

Is the tambay or the idler the proxy to the drunkard, the drug user, the rowdy, or the rumormonger? But the intoxicated, the unruly, the gossiper are found everywhere, not only among the tambays in the streets and in the slums. They are also among the workaholics and the producers, the intelligentsia and the creatives, the moneymakers and income-earners.

The tambay should not be associated with attributes or activities that society seems to frown upon. We must resist the negative connotation that accompanies some words. Tambay connotes neither deviance nor crime. Similarly, a bakla — a gay — is not an outcast. And a bakla should not connote cowardice and fecklessness.

Even then, what’s wrong about getting stoned or getting drunk? Steve Jobs, a global personification of a successful life, once said, “LSD [a psychedelic drug] was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Our hero, Jose Rizal, tried hashish. In a letter to Dr. Adolph B. Meyer, Rizal wrote: “I myself, though in 1879, used hashish; I did it for experimental purposes and I obtained the substance from a drugstore.”

As to drinking, Rizal and his compatriots in the Propaganda Movement frequented the bars in European cities not only to have liquor but also to ogle at women. (See, for example, Juan Luna’s painting, The Parisian Life.) As to staring at women, I recall what my late sis-in-law Ginny told her husband Louie, “you can ogle and gasp at beautiful women, but do not touch them.”

To return to being drunk or stoned, our examplars like Jobs and Rizal did it. It’s a normal activity. One should regulate it, but do not punish criminally the user who does no harm.

A related point is: Do not throw the tambay in jail for being a tambay. It is the criminal activity done by tambays and non-tambays alike that should be punished.

How about the noise and disturbance created by the tambays? Not all tambays create noise; non-tambays as well create a lot of noise. Among other reasons, Tim, a restrained person and husband of sis-in-law Pep, opted to leave the Philippines because he could not stand the blaring music at night from a band practicing in the confines of the neighbor’s home.


How about gossiping among tambays? My friend Doray, a feminist, says that gossiping especially among women is a way of de-stressing after work, be it housework or work for income. In economics, gossip is seen as a way of creating and strengthening social networks and spreading information that formal institutions don’t like to talk about. Thus, it fills in the information that is necessary to build trust and make good choices in any market activity.

But what is the quality of information from gossip?

According to a study by RIM Dunbar et al., “Human Conversational Behavior” (in Human Nature, September 1997), only a small fraction of gossip (three to four percent) is malicious. That is perhaps a better record than Facebook or the social media.

Tambay is a pastime done by many Filipinos. It has an equivalent in other parts of the world. It is essentially about leisure, a form of leisure. It is about spending idle time. But remember that all people, including those who work hard, have idle time. The idle time, or the time away from work, can be used for different activities — sleep, eat, drink, play, read, watch TV, see a movie, date, make love, send text messages, surf the Web, or do tambay. In fact, some of the activities enumerated above can be done while being a tambay.

Being idle, or having leisure including doing tambay, is part of life and serves a purpose. Recall the saying: “All work and no play makes Juan a dull boy.”

It is wrong to say that tambays are lazy and unproductive; that they do not contribute to society. Many of the tambays do work. After all, the poor especially have no choice but work to survive. Society’s main problem is not exactly unemployment but the lack of good jobs, jobs that pay at least the minimum wage, jobs that are stable and that provide social benefits.

For the hard-working people, leisure is inseparable from production and reproduction. In the advanced economies, working hours have been reduced, giving more time for leisure. But the productivity of workers remains high.

One can be more productive by having time for leisure. One cannot survive; one cannot be fully happy without leisure.

In the Philippine setting, leisure includes tambay. Filipinos work to live and to have leisure, unlike those who live to work.

In another sense, being a tambay can be productive. The culture of tambay creates the space for fostering cooperation in the community. It creates networks that provide new or additional jobs. It facilitates trade or barter (not the type where fresh fish is exchanged for made-in China noodles and canned goods). It provides security to the neighborhood as the tambays act as the neighborhood’s informal sentries.

In summary, nothing is wrong about being a tambay. In other ways, tambay serves a common good.

So please, Senator de Lima, do not demean the tambays by making Duterte the pambansang tambay.

Incidentally, Ginny’s late son, Luis Joaquin Katigbak — his generation’s greatest short story writer and essayist, Palanca awardee, handsome, intelligent, and audacious — would turn in his grave if he heard Duterte being accorded the title pambansang tambay. Luis would have loved that title. Pambansang tambay is an appropriate Tagalog equivalent of the moniker that he gave himself — “the king of nothing to do.”


Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.