Dota coach’s complaint about costly food in Manila sparks cost of living debate among Filipinos

Amid news reports of continuous increases in the prices of staple goods, fuel, and even the peso-dollar exchange rate sinking to an all-time low, there’s no doubt it’s a hard knock life for most in Manila, with many small businesses having to raise their prices and/or accept practices such as higher commission deductions from delivery apps.

But it sometimes takes an outsider’s perspective to bring these issues to the forefront. That’s what happened after Lee “SunBhie” Jeong-jae, the head coach of international e-sports organization Fnatic’s Dota 2 team, took to Twitter recently to complain about the high prices in the Philippine capital.

The coach, who is Korean-Canadian, is in the country presumably to train Fnatic’s Dota 2 team, of which four out of five members are based in the Philippines.

“It makes no sense how expensive things are in Manila. It is definitely more expensive than Bangkok and KL. And respectfully, the quality doesn’t reflect the prices. Just random ass mediocre food on Grab is 5.5USD. How do people survive here,” he wrote.

The e-sports coach’s hot take on rising costs (and mediocre quality) of Filipino food earned mixed reactions among netizens, some of whom argued that Grab was not the best basis for food prices since they charge extra as a delivery app.

Others said he should be able to find decent food for US$6 (PHP352.06).

“While it is true things have gotten expensive, for around 6 USD you should be able to find quality local food. Try asking colleagues what (& which stores to buy) local dishes from. Try to use local dishes as your search query in Grab e.g. Sinigang, Bulalo, Adobo, Sisig,” one wrote, but SunBhie was not convinced.

“These dishes suck,” he stated. “I suspect they are not supposed to suck, but have become bastardized versions of what they are supposed to be due to the realities of Manila. Grossly imbalanced in nutrition, relying on fats and sugar for flavour. These are not good eats, my friend.”

Meanwhile, others agreed with SunBhie’s observations and looked beyond the Grab issue, reasoning that poor food security and logistics were causing food prices to rise and restaurants to prioritize cost savings over quality.

Other users also added that the cost of living in Manila is not as affordable as some would like to believe — a 2021 report by iPrice showed that the city was the third most expensive city to live in Southeast Asia, especially relative to its minimum wage.

“We glorify suffering,” one user wrote. “Also, a weird mix of reliance on imports, bad logistics and unending exploitation.”

“For those arguing against raising the minimum wage here because the PH has higher minimum wages relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, please make sure to incorporate comparative costs of living in our cities,” another said.

The post also made its way to Reddit, where others argued that relying on conveniences in Manila is expensive.

“The price of convenience here is so expensive. For example, there’s a KFC around like 1km from me, and I want to order a 2pc fully loaded meal. The price of that [on] GrabFood is 270 + 49 = PHP319, around the same as US$5.5 as the post. Meanwhile, if I just walked that damn kilometer and ordered the food myself, I can save PHP61. You could argue that’s a small saving, but for the median income that’s already too much,” one Redditor wrote.

“I’ve been weaning myself off GrabFood,” another user wrote. “Their fees are not just. Around PHP30-50 per dish, plus delivery fee. Recently their promos have become shit as well.”

“Housing prices (and housing quality) compared to the average person’s purchasing power is completely insane here as well,” another said.

The iPrice report found that the monthly cost of living in Manila was PHP50,800 (US$866.77) for a single individual — just one percent cheaper than Bangkok, 33 percent higher than Kuala Lumpur, and 24 percent higher than Jakarta.

The latest figures from Numbeo’s cost of living index also showed that, while overall consumer prices in Bangkok were slightly higher than Manila, the Thai capital’s restaurant prices were cheaper by 0.81 percent, while Thais had over 10 percent higher purchasing power than Filipinos.

Their data shows that the average working salary of a Filipino to be PHP18,900 (US$322.48) a month.

“Given the prices stated above, it leaves us wondering how comfortable Filipinos residing in Manila really are. The average cost of living is 168 percent higher than the average salary, so it comes as no surprise that about 35 percent of Metro Manila’s population is reported to live in unstable, badly constructed shelters in the slums and 11 percent of them reside near railroads or garbage dumps,” the report said.

Despite the stark findings, it seems that the government is still in denial about the dire situation of many Filipinos, arguing in August that an individual was not food-poor if they could afford to spend PHP18.62 (US$0.33) for each meal — a statement that many Filipinos felt was out of touch.

One user asked, “What? So if I spend PHP10 on a small fried egg, PHP6 for three pieces of pandesal, and PHP10 on instant coffee, I would be considered rich?!”

“This is the way our government fights poverty, by declaring a large chunk of the population no longer poor just because they spend almost PHP20 per meal. How nice to be called ‘not poor’ even when you’re starving,” another commented.