Qwertyman No. 15: The Next UP President

Qwertyman for Monday, November 14, 2022

AFTER FOURTEEN straight Mondays of producing what I’ve called “editorial fiction”—make-believe vignettes meant to poke fun at the issues of the day, the prose version of editorial cartoons—I’ll take what will be the occasional break to engage more frontally with a concern of deep personal and professional interest.

Over the next few weeks, the Board of Regents of the University of the Philippines will select the 22nd president of our national university to succeed President Danilo L. Concepcion, whose six-year term ends in February next year. (Let me add quickly, for full disclosure, that I was President Concepcion’s Vice President for Public Affairs until I retired in 2019, and held the same position under former President Francisco Nemenzo in the early 2000s.)

Whether or not you graduated from UP or have a child or a relative there, this is important for every Filipino, because—like it or not—UP produces an immoderate majority of the people who make up our political, economic, and social elite. Its leadership, therefore, is a matter of national consequence. Since its birth in 1908, UP’s alumni roster has counted presidents, senators, congressmen, CEOs, community leaders, artists, writers, scientists, and, yes, rebels and reformers of all persuasions. 

There are six candidates on the BOR’s ballot, some of them, to my mind, more qualified—beyond what their CVs say—than others. The Board of Regents has eleven members—the CHED chairman, the incumbent president, the chairs of the Senate and House committees on higher education, the alumni regent, three Malacañang appointees, and three so-called sectoral (faculty, student, and staff) regents; it will take six of them to elect the next president. 

Whoever that choice is, he will be certain to have a challenging six years ahead, especially considering the present political regime, which he will have to contend and to some significant extent work with. UP remains dependent on the national government for its budget, for which it has to make its case before Congress every year, like any other agency. 

Prickly issues will face No. 22. There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about UP’s standards supposedly falling, with too many cum laudes graduating even as its international ranking has reportedly dropped. Indeed these should give rise to public concern, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, and UP’s level of service to the nation (think PGH in the pandemic) hasn’t flagged.

Historically, the relationship between the Philippine president and the UP president has been a testy if not an acrimonious one—most notably that between Quezon and Palma—because of the university’s role as social critic. But Malacañang now has much to do with choosing the latter through the power wielded by administration representatives on the BOR. What the Marcoses will do with UP remains to be seen; will the next UP president, for example, be given free rein to pursue the martial law museum project that’s already been approved for construction? It may not be the most important item on the agenda—more support for research and faculty development should be, if we want to shore up our ratings—but it will be strongly indicative of how the Palace will deal with Diliman.

What I’ve observed is that the role of the UP president has greatly evolved since Palma’s time. While many of us would like to see an ideological firebrand at the helm, UP is a broad and diverse community whose survival and growth will require keen diplomatic skills to negotiate between the university’s external and internal publics. (And yes, even firebrands can do that, against all expectations; Dodong Nemenzo did.) University presidents worldwide have increasingly been more of resource generators and managers than thought leaders—perhaps boring, but they deliver the goods. What’s important is for them to be able to practice and defend the academic freedom that also allows the university to become the best it can be. I pray our regents will bear that balance in mind in its deliberations.

ALSO, A word on my chosen approach to editorial commentary. I know that some of you can’t make heads or tails of my fictionalized renditions of our political and social culture, but I think you will, with just a little more effort. Maybe it’s the literature professor in me, but I believe readers should be challenged to figure out the sense of things, and not just have it served to them on a platter. 

We’ve fallen into the groove of letting others reach our conclusions for us, so all we need to do is nod affirmatively. Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, that only contributes to sloppy, second-hand, copy-paste thinking. In my pieces, I try not focus on just one person or one target—other and sharper columnists can do that. I’m more interested in the culture of our politics—in the way groups of us think and feel about what’s in our best interests—and in our complicity in bad governance. Sure, we have rotten eggs in high public office—every administration has had them. At this point, I’m much less bothered by the fact that we live in a world of despots than by the fact that we (or many of us) put them there, we keep them there, and we just pinch our noses when they stink.  

Another columnist (who actually writes wilder fiction than me and my feverishly imaginative friends) even complained that fiction has no place in the op-ed page. Excuse me? All fiction is opinion, and always has been; the critical commentary of fiction even preceded journalism. In earlier times, our op-ed pages even offered poetry—political commentary in verse—at a time when our poets were patriots, and our patriots were poets. Sadly those times and those exceptional commentators are gone, replaced by hacks producing not only dishonest and soulless but dishwater prose. 

I’m not a poet, so the closest I can get to that is fiction, which pretends that some things happened that didn’t (but then again, in another sense, really did—and that’s what some readers find confusing). One thing I must confess I do like about fiction is that, unlike factual commentary that readers today tend to forget after a week, a good story sticks around. Sadly for its implicit targets, fiction is forever. You can shoot me dead, but my work will survive me—and, for that matter, you.

Qwertyman No. 10: Monkey Poo

(Image from deviant art.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, October 10, 2022

THE WATER was still dripping from a leak in the ceiling of the office, caught in a pink plastic pail behind his swivel chair, when Gov. Tingting got the call from the Office of the President on the satellite phone. It was only a secretary on the line, but Tingting stood at attention as if he were speaking to the man himself, mumbling “Yessir, yessir” although it was a “ma’am” giving him instructions. 

He felt immensely relieved to have taken, at his aide Atty. Noknok’s pleading, the call which he had first presumed to be a prank, because he couldn’t imagine why President Ongong would be interested in him or his humble dominion. Well, of course there was that supertyphoon Digoy, which ravaged Suluk-sulukan among other provinces in Kawefo’s benighted southeast, but hundreds routinely died in Suluk-sulukan’s annual floods without getting more than a passing mention from the capital media, much less a call from the Palace.

Suluk-sulukan was a province best known for not being known. It occupied an island of the same name, and was reachable by a two-hour flight from Metro Kabugaw to the adjacent province of Lagunsoy, followed by a three-hour ride by pumpboat, and then another hour by bumpy tricycle from the pier to the capital town of Maunggoy. Its chief industry should have been tourism, given the abundance of its forests, nature trails, and beaches, but it came with one huge disincentive: the mountains of monkey poo that lined the roads and clogged the waterways, raising an infernal, ammoniac stink that the locals had gotten used to and barely noticed but which repelled tourists, invaders, and potential investors alike. The floods drained some of it out into the ocean but it was back as soon as the sun shone. 

Even the free face masks given out at the pier, imprinted with Gov. Tingting’s smiling face and the slogan “Beauty right under your nose” did little to encourage the intrepid to stay. Political dynasties had risen and fallen on the monkey-poo crisis, and Tingting—who had won on a promise to exterminate the monkeys—was surviving only because the bales of face masks they had airdropped on the island in the midst of the pandemic offered a temporary reprieve.

“So what did the President say, Gov?” Atty. Noknok asked, eager to absorb every snippet of political gossip, to affirm his status as “the little gov.”

“He asked me to come to the capital!” said Tingting, his eyes still glazed over with disbelief.

“Really? Will he hand you a check for disaster relief? I can take the picture, Gov! I’ll make sure it comes out in the papers.” Suluk-sulukan had exactly one paper, The Maunggoy Times, published by Tingting’s sister Mingming; there had been two, until the other paper’s editor was shot by a pair of motorcycle-riding gunmen whom witnesses could not identify because they looked too much like the governor’s bodyguards.

“What disaster relief are you talking about?” said the governor. “This is something much bigger! He’s inviting me to watch the Presidential Cup race with him, in the presidential box, at the Santa Mama racetrack! It’s the biggest race and social event of the year—remind me to get the missus one of those big, floppy, feathery hats. Imagine me, the governor of an obscure and godforsaken province, sitting beside the President!”

“What does he want—aside from, uh, the pleasure of your company?” Atty. Noknok didn’t get to where he was by being stupid. He was astute enough to know that every conversation in politics was a transaction. The President already had Suluk-sulukan’s 150,000 votes—there were more monkeys in the place than registered voters, and there was no shortage of simians willing to vote—so that wasn’t the issue. 

And then Noknok remembered: a delegation of businessmen and engineers from the great country of Wannamia had come to visit the President to talk about Suluk-sulukan’s deposits of mahalikite, reputedly the next big thing in semiconductors. Mahalikite was found in impacted monkey poo and was still a very rare mineral, but the Wannamese implied that they had found the technology to extract it from the raw stuff. Noknok had brought it up with his boss at one meeting, but Tingting was an old-school warlord whose interest in technology didn’t go far beyond guns and calibers, and so he dismissed the report as just so much chatter. 

“Nothing,” said the Gov. “He says he just wants me to have some fun, knowing how difficult it’s been for me and my family. We lost two houses and three SUVs to Digoy! Oh my God, I still shiver when I think about it. The pain of watching that Cayenne go under the bridge….”

“So you’re bringing your family?”

“Of course. I think it’s about time my boys inhaled the fine, industrial air of Metro Kabugaw, to prepare them for the challenges of urbanization.”

“Uhm, Gov—I hate to bring this up, but—won’t it look bad for you to be out there in the capital, betting on the horses, while thousands of Suluk-sukeños still don’t have enough food and are living in makeshift tents?”

“Are you my adviser or my enemy’s? That’s why I’m also taking you along—to provide PR cover and to find something good to say about my trip.”

“You are? Well—why didn’t you say so, haha, thanks! Of course, Gov, that’s elementary. We can always say that the real business in Kawefo takes place in the presidential box of the President’s Cup, and obviously, President Ongong has serious matters to discuss with you.”

“He does?” The gov sounded rather disappointed.

“Sure! I wouldn’t be surprised if he also invited the Wannamese to talk to us about large-scale exports of monkey poo for mahalikite extraction. I talked to you last month about it, but—you were too busy—”

“Of course I was! I’m always busy looking after the welfare of every Suluk-sukeño. So what were you telling me?”

“Well—we bring in the Wannamese, they take out our monkey poo, and for every metric ton, we impose a small tax, part of which will go to your, uhm, intelligence fund, which I’ll administer. It’s a win-win deal for all.”

“I like that—for the first time in our history, we can breathe poo-free air! They’ll build statues of me as the Great Liberator! What about the President? What’s in it for him?”

“He gets the bigger chunk, of course, for his intelligence fund. No worries—there’s a lot of poo to go around.”

A drop of rainwater fell on the gov’s brow, which he took to be a sign. “Forget extermination. I want you to think of a monkey-feeding program!”

Qwertyman No. 8: The Secret

(Photo from dreamstime.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, September 26, 2022

“LOLO, LOLO, was martial law really bad? We took it up in class today!”

“Bad? Said who?”

“Our teacher, Ms. Landicho. She said that awful things happened back then that people have forgotten about.”

“How old is this—Ms. Landicho?”

“Oh, maybe in her thirties? She’s just about to be married—to Mr. Arnaldo, our Physics teacher! We’d been teasing her about it for months!”

“In her thirties? Then how would she know what the heck happened under martial law? She wasn’t even born then.”

“Were you around then, Lolo?”

“Of course I was. I’m seventy-three now, so fifty years ago I was a young man. I had just left my first job because my boss was a tyrant! So I moved to another bank and that’s where I met your Lola Auring, whom I would marry two years later. If I hadn’t made that move, you wouldn’t be here!”

“Was that the bank you now own?”

“The bank we own, hijo! That’s why I want you to go to Wharton after college. I’ll be there for your graduation, and then I’ll give you the keys to that Mercedes G you’ve always wanted—”

“Really, Lolo? But that’s at least ten years away! Golly, a Mercedes G….”

“I remember, my first car was a used and beat-up Datsun Bluebird that your Lola Auring wouldn’t even step into until I got it fixed, because the door kept opening on her side, hahaha! I spent half-a-month’s salary just replacing that door. Oh, the things we went through….”

“Ms. Landicho said her lolo died under martial law….”

“So? So did a lot of people. People die all the time—of heart attacks, diabetes, even slipping in the bathroom can kill you, like my friend Pepito—”

“She said her lolo was arrested by the soldiers, and then they tortured him and dumped his body under the mango trees in Cavite.”

“Well—he must have done something to deserve that. You go against the government, what do you expect? There was a war with the communists going on. War is ugly, wherever you go. Was that was your teacher said about martial law being bad? Did she also say how many crimes and strikes were averted, how clean, peaceful, and orderly everything was, with people following the law?”

“She said her lolo did nothing wrong—”

“Of course she’d say that. Nobody’s lolo does anything wrong—right, hijo? Haha.”

“Yes, Lolo!”

“I did all the right things. I stayed out of trouble, focused on getting my life and my future together, on raising my family and raising my income. And then I went into business for myself, so nobody could boss me around. I showed everyone what I was capable of. I didn’t care about what everybody else was doing. You listen well, hijo. In this world, you take care of yourself first, and then your family next. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your family.”

“You’ve always taken good care of us, Lolo. Papa always tells me, if not for you, I’d be taking the bus or the jeep to a public school—”

“Like I had to, at your age! We were poor as rats and sometimes I went to school with nothing but gas in my stomach. I made sure your papa never went through that. That’s why I had to succeed.”

“Mama also says that if not for the President, you wouldn’t have succeeded. She says that you worked for people who worked for the President—”

“Is that what she said? I have to talk to your mother one of these days. There’s a lot that woman will never understand. There’s a lot that women will never understand. What you have to do to keep yourself and your family afloat. Instead of gratitude, you get questions, questions, questions—”

“What did you do for the President, Lolo? I want to know! Was it a big job, a secret mission, something nobody else could do?”

“Well, I guess you could say, all of the above! Remember, I was still a very young man. But I realized—and my bosses did, too—that I was very good with numbers. And secrets! They could trust me with their lives. But shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!”

“Like what kind of secrets, Lolo?”

“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”

“Awww, Lolo, I promise not to tell anyone! You can trust me—like they trusted you!”

“Well…. All right. Since it’s been a long time and since the President himself is gone, I suppose I can share a secret with you—but just one secret, okay? And this will remain a secret between the two of us—never tell your mama or papa.”

“Okay! Cross my heart and hope to die! What’s the secret, Lolo?”

“I… took… care… of… the… President’s… money. There was a lot of it. I had to collect it and send it safely abroad.”

“Why you? Did you carry it in a bag? Couldn’t the Air Force or the Navy do that?”

“Hahaha, it’s not that simple, hijo, a 747 wouldn’t have been enough to carry everything! He had to keep it abroad because—there were bad people here who were after it. So I was sent on secret missions to make sure everything was okay…. I went to Hong Kong, to the United States, to Switzerland. I loved Switzerland most of all—oh, to be in my thirties again and to watch the fountain at Lake Geneva at sunset. Le Jet d’Eau est tres beau!”

“So that’s where you learned French!”

Juste un peu, mon garçon! If she were still here, I would have loved to take your Lola Auring there again. You must go to Geneva—after Wharton!”

“Lolo—Ms. Landicho said—she said the President stole a lot of money—”

“Wha—I pay so much for that school and they tell you this? Your teacher keeps saying things she knows nothing about! I was there! I saw no stealing! And let me tell you something—even if I did, presuming I did, it was none of my business. Making money was his business, keeping it safe was mine. That’s called compartmentalization. Remember that word—compartmentalization! You put everything in its box, just worry about the things you should worry about, and you’ll be all right. Understood? Comprenez vous?”

“Yes, Lolo…. So I’ll put the lolo I know in one box, and then my secret lolo in another box….”

“They’re one and the same person.”

“That, Lolo, will be my secret.”

Hindsight No. 19: Plot and Character

Hindsight for Monday, May 23, 2022

(Photo from philtstar.com)

WITH THE counting all but over—setting aside some issues not likely to change the outcome—it’s clear that our people have spoken, and that, by a 2-to-1 majority, they have chosen Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to lead this country for the next six years. 

It’s no huge secret that I, among many others, voted for somebody else. Of course I’m unhappy, but what I feel doesn’t really matter much in the scheme of things. Given that the life expectancy of the Filipino male is 67.26 years, I’m already on borrowed time at 68 and would be lucky to see the end of this next administration, let alone the one after that. I’ve told my mom Emy—who voted at age 94 and who shed tears of dismay and disbelief when the results rolled in—that living for six more years to vote one more time should now be her goal. Just surviving will be her best revenge.

I wonder how it is, however, for the young people who took to the streets for Leni and Kiko, believing that they would make a difference. They did, although not in the way they expected, to ride a pink wave all the way to Malacañang. They realized, as we ourselves did ages ago, that money and machinery are always heavy favorites over hope and idealism, and that issues, ideas, and the truth itself can be made to look far less important than image and message, if you can buy the right PR consultant.

They will also have learned, as has been pointed out by other commentators from both sides, that it wasn’t all disinformation—that Marcos Jr. appealed to the genuine desperation of the poor with a promise of relief, however illusory. Since most of Leni’s young supporters were visibly middle-class, first-time voters, it was a rude but necessary awakening to the realities of class politics in this country, which politicians of all kinds—none of whom have to worry about where their next litson baka is coming from—have learned to negotiate and manipulate. 

Defeat, it’s been said, can offer more lessons than victory, and while we may have metaphorically won in some significant respects—chiefly the aggregation of “middle” forces not tied to any traditional political party into a burgeoning progressive movement—there will be much to review and refine in the years ahead. This very dissociation of the Kakampinks from the old parties and their command structures, for example, was a blast of fresh air for many volunteers, but also a liability for operators used to the old ways.

Understandably there’s been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in the trenches, in the desire to meld seething resistance with grudging acceptance. I see it in both young and old activists—the young, because they’re heartbroken for the first time, and the old, because they didn’t expect to find themselves facing a Marcos all over again. The bashing and taunting they’re getting online from galleries of screeching monkeys doesn’t help. 

Being one of those old fogeys, I tend to be more subdued in my reaction to Marcos Jr.’s victory, and advise my young friends to cool down, ignore the bashers, and steel themselves for a complicated and challenging future. As someone who went through and survived martial law—I was eighteen when I was arrested and imprisoned for alleged subversion (although I was never charged or tried in court, just locked up for the state’s peace of mind)—I can offer them living proof that we can survive dictators and despots, with faith, resourcefulness, and courage. My parents survived the Second World War, and many other people have gone through worse.

I’m neither predicting nor wishing that a Marcos presidency will be bound to fail. I’d hate for the country to suffer just to prove a point. Besides, whatever I think today won’t matter one bit to what will happen. Whatever Marcos does, he will do so of his own will, by his own nature, out of his own character. What that character really is will emerge in the crucible of crisis—and crisis is the only thing the future guarantees, whoever the president happens to be. Beyond and regardless of the propaganda for and against him, Mr. Marcos Jr. will have ample opportunity to display what he would not have us glimpse in a public debate, and that revelation will do more than a million tweets calling him a thief or praising his acumen.

Speaking of character, I had an interesting discussion last week with an old friend, a renowned professor of Business Administration, who brought up the possibility of “luck or destiny” to account for the Marcos victory. He added that luck was an important factor in business, and that he would flunk a student who thought otherwise. 

I disagreed; as a teacher of creative writing, I said that I wouldn’t accept “luck or destiny” as a resolution for a student story. We’d call it deus ex machina—a helping hand—which thwarts the logic of the narrative with an artificial and improbable ending. I know: it happens in real life, but not in good fiction. As Mark Twain says in one of my favorite quotations, “Of course fact is stranger than fiction. Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” 

Whether factual or fictional, stories are really less about events—the plot—than character. The plot is simply there to enable character development. Things happen for a reason: to test and reveal our character, to show ourselves and others what kind of people we really are, with dramatic clarity and inevitability.

If you’re wondering why I strayed from the May 9 election to a mini-lecture on writing, it’s because we can look at that election and its aftermath as a long and continuing narrative that will establish our character as citizens, and as leaders. The next crises—the post-pandemic economy, China’s ambitions, a crackdown on civil liberties, getting deeper in debt—will come to try us. That’s the plot. And when that happens, Bongbong will be Bongbong, and all Filipinos—31 million of them, especially—will see exactly what they bargained for.

So if you’re still smarting, just chill, recuperate, get back to something you enjoy doing, and let this drama take its course. Like my mom Emy, endure and survive. Give Marcos Jr. a chance to achieve his “destiny,” which could yet be everyone’s best education.

Hindsight No. 15: The Also-Rans

Hindsight for April 25, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

I USED to hold Isko Moreno in high esteem when he was the new mayor of Manila and seemed intent on cleaning it up, figuratively and literally. My wife Beng and I were once on one of our regular sorties to the Japan-surplus shops along Avenida Rizal when we heard a great commotion outside, and when we looked, a team from the mayor’s office was spraying the street with jets of water and making sure the sidewalks were clear of obstructions. 

When he announced his bid for the presidency and came out with that beautifully produced “Ako si Isko” commercial—before Leni Robredo entered the race—I thought he was a viable prospect. I even told Beng and my mother, who had their misgivings, that I would vote for Isko if Leni didn’t run because he checked all the boxes: coming out of poverty, visibly on the job, willing to stand up to presidential bullying, good-looking, and passably articulate. Even his sometimes broken English was no problem and might even have been endearing, proof positive of his struggle to learn the language of another class. 

I was similarly impressed by Ping Lacson’s command of governmental matters and his coolness under fire, and especially by his refusal to avail himself of his pork-barrel allocations. I might even have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—a huge doubt bordering on certainty—on the Kuratong Baleleng murder case if it came down to that. I recall having been in the Senate gallery in 2003—the UP Charter was also up for deliberation then—when Lacson took to the floor, put up a screen, and with devastating efficiency and cutting sarcasm laid a trail of dashes connecting the First Gentleman to the mythical “Jose Pidal.” After the presidential debates—and as Isko’s sheen began to dull and darken—I began to think, like many others, that he would have been a great No. 2 (whether as vice president, or second choice). 

But whatever remaining palatability Isko Moreno had—dragging Ping Lacson along (Norberto Gonzales we can kindly ignore)—vanished with that Easter Sunday gripe session masquerading as a press conference that only revealed their pettiness of mind and character. It wasn’t even just what they said—for which they would’ve already been raked over the coals hundreds of times before this column comes out—but the way Isko in particular handled the post-presscon flak that sticks in the craw. 

Given a chance to refocus his sights on Ferdinand Marcos Jr. instead of yapping at Leni’s heels, Isko doubled down on his silly dare for Leni to stand aside and let him take on Marcos Jr. one on one, claiming that he owned the “everyone-who-can’t stand-Leni” vote, next to the frontrunner. And no, said his manager, it wasn’t some impulsive remark brought on by the summer heat. It was all thought out; they’d made their calculations—Leni had hit her ceiling, and Isko, well, his ceiling was higher. 

Which has to make one wonder: how did he think he was going to get there? Did he imagine he’d inherit a suddenly headless Pink Army, and merge that with a gazillion Leni haters defecting from the Marcos camp (and his bottomless war chest)? What about the “everyone-who-can’t-stand-Isko” vote, which can only have ballooned after his stunt? And no, Leni Robredo isn’t some sidewalk obstruction to shove out of the way.

Dissociating himself from Isko’s call, Ping Lacson said that he “didn’t see it coming,” which of course was possible, but troubling for someone supposed to be a consummate tactician. Should he have been bothered that Isko upstaged him, or even more, insulted that Isko didn’t even care to ask him to withdraw as well, given his deep-frozen standing in the polls?

Manny Pacquiao dodged a bullet by what his manager called “divine intervention”—a congested airport—and so was able to land and perch on a square foot of moral high ground. Giving the Almighty more work to do (after all the “acts of God” recently being attributed to Him), Pacquiao also explained that only God could change his mind about running.

Leody de Guzman did the smart thing and enjoyed his halo-halo in South Cotabato. Whatever happens, I think history will salute Ka Leody’s albeit largely symbolic candidacy, as an example of pushing principles over percentages. 

Leni Robredo ignored the press conference and asked her Kakampinks to do so as well, training their attention on the remaining weeks of the campaign—and on the frontrunner.

Frontrunner Marcos Jr. may have had the best time of all, laughing his head off at the Easter show. (When a Facebook friend asked if he might have paid for the presscon bill, I told her that those fellows couldn’t have come that cheaply.)

It’s a sad turn of events—and I’m not being facetious here in any way—because it would have been good for our democracy and for our people to have had truly worthy and viable candidates to choose from, to offer hope beyond May 9 in a new breed of political leaders willing to stand up to despots, kleptocrats, bullies, monsters, and crooks—and children thereof. Instead we see politicians willing to do and say anything to win—even if they won’t, which only makes it doubly sad and puzzling. By holding that pointless presscon—the more expensive equivalent of an email blast announcing “I’m alive!”—the three men merely highlighted the singular fitness of Mrs. Robredo to take on Marcos Jr. for the presidency.

Come May 10, either Marcos Jr. or Robredo will have won. That will leave all the others as also-rans, some of whom will take their loss with grace and dignity, some of whom will protest to high heaven, some of whom will count their net income, and some of whom will look for someone else to blame. 

You can be an also-ran and hold your head high, prepared to fight for the people again not six years down the road, but all the years in between. You can also be an also-ran whom people will be happy to consign to oblivion, having revealed how desperate, how foolish, and how nasty you can get just to be called “Mr. President.”

Hindsight No. 11: A Political Playbook

Hindsight for Monday, March 28, 2022

I WAS rearranging the books and periodicals in my library the other day when I came across a copy of a journal from more than 60 years ago—the 3rd quarter, 1958 issue of Comment, self-described as “a quarterly of Philippine affairs… conceived in the observation that absence of thought has resulted from a prevailing atmosphere of conformity and dread of ideas.” 

It was quite an assertion to make, but the journal’s mainstays were up to livening things up in the Cold War chill that had turned many Filipinos—both in government and academia—into rabid anti-communists. On Comment’s editorial board were F. Sionil Jose, Onofre D. Corpuz, and G. Burce Bunao (on leave for their studies abroad were Alejandrino Hufana and Elmer Ordoñez). Then only in their early thirties or even younger, these men would count among the most prominent intellectuals and writers of their time. 

What particularly caught my attention was an article written by Corpuz on “Filipino Political Parties and Politics.” O.D., as he would be known, had just recently returned with his PhD in Political Economy and Government from Harvard, on the verge of a long and prominent—though sometimes contentious—career in public administration that would see him serve as Secretary and then Minister of Education, founder and president of the Development Academy of the Philippines, member of the Batasang Pambansa, and president of the University of the Philippines. 

Another political scientist and UP president, Jose V. Abueva, gave due praise to Corpuz upon the latter’s passing in 2013, citing his landmark scholarship in economic history. But Abueva also pointedly noted that O.D. was “soft in his judgment of Marcos’ authoritarian rule.” (Interestingly, Corpuz had described martial law as “an anti-democratic but constitutional coup” and EDSA as “a democratic but unconstitutional coup.”)

I was curious about what O.D. Corpuz observed of Philippine politics in the 1950s and if those observations would still hold today. Let me share a few choice quotations from the article, and you tell me if they don’t remind you on some level of what we’ve been seeing lately.

First, he notes the political centrality of the family and the elite:

“The importance and strength of the family and of its manifold of values, interests, ethics, and behaviors is one of the basic facts in the cultural context of politics and government in this country…. Close association between party and family was natural from the outset. 

“The first elections in this country in this century were municipal elections. This meant that, as a general rule, during the critical time when the foundations of political leadership were to be established in this country, those foundations had to be local…. The organization of national politics that later came after 1907 was essentially a superstructure resting on local foundations, in which the locally dominant families were the primary factor.”

I knew that only men could vote until 1937, but I didn’t know until I read Corpuz that, early on, you also had to own “real property worth at least five hundred pesos or paid at least thirty pesos of the established taxes annually” and read, write, or speak English or Spanish.

These requirements of maleness, wealth, and literacy lodged if not locked political power within the elite. Citing the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, Corpuz then goes on to classify political parties into “cadre” and “mass” parties, with practically everyone falling into the former category (the communists being the notable exception), comprising individuals bound by common interests and goals. These groupings were temporary, opportunistic, and shared the mindset of the elite from where their members came. These members also freely defected from one party to the other as circumstances required or suggested:

“The frequency of defections is a unique and interesting characteristic of Philippine politics. No party system abroad seems to breed that adventurous individual in whom ours abounds, who changes his party affiliation almost every season…. Defectors do not defect by themselves. They have personal and independent followings that go with them wherever they go, and it is these, as much as the defectors themselves, that are coveted by the parties.”

All parties needed money, and they knew where to get it:

“Cash contributions come in the form of large donations. M. Duverger calls this the system of capitalist financing…. The majority party would enjoy a positional advantage over the minority in the matter of contributions, forced or voluntary, from business firms. It is similarly favored when it comes to per capita levies from aliens, especially the overstaying Chinese, who render their donations unto Caesar during the Christmas and political seasons.” 

Corpuz predicts, presciently, that the old landed aristocracy would at some point be matched or supplanted by new wealth coming out of commerce and industry, which would then control the political levers. Ultimately, family trumps party and ideology; its survival and prosperity are what matter most:

“A somewhat more important factor is the existence of private and family interests that are not subordinated to the demands of administration unity or party discipline. Some families affiliate themselves to a party only as a tactical maneuver, with the basic aim of acquiring a means for aggrandizing family interests.”

Finally, Corpuz observes the existence of a significant “floating electorate”—today’s “undecided” or “convertible” voters—and how to win them over:

“In the Philippines, to a degree rarely matched elsewhere, the slogans of the parties belong to the corpus of political myths…. The lack of ideological meaning in the party platforms is often lamented… (arising from) the fact that the attitude of the floating voter is unpredictable…. As a minimum condition, they must not alienate the floating vote. In this case, therefore, the safest course of action for the campaign planners is to declare the party’s unswerving dedication to generalities.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination what those “generalities” might be today. But I have to say that for a minute back there, I thought I was reading a political playbook for the 2020s.

Penman No. 427: Lights and Loudspeakers

Penman for Monday, November 8, 2021

THE ELECTION season is upon us, and for Pinoys for whom Christmas begins in September, November 15 can’t come soon enough to start figuring out who they’ll be voting for on May 9, a full half-year down the road. That date should really have been October 8, the official deadline for the filing of candidacies, but given our penchant to further complicate the already-complicated, we just had to set the stage for the last-minute substitution dramas we expect to happen by next Monday.

What couldn’t wait for November 15 or even October 8 was the onset of the propaganda war—the long series of campaigns and battles for our hearts and minds, with the prize being the right to seat someone you think you know and who thinks they know you in the Palace by the Pasig. And if there’s anything we can depend on to display Pinoy character and creativity at their best and worst, it will be a political exercise like a presidential election, during which people who had been largely content with watching telenovelas, munching sweet corn, playing pusoy, and sharing some kakanin with the neighbors suddenly rediscover their convictions, prejudices, longings, and peeves, and jump onto one bandwagon or another, many with knives drawn. (Of course, there are others who had been suffering in silence and gritting their teeth for the past five years, just waiting for the trumpet to sound from the top of the hill.) 

As a boy in the 1960s whose father kept getting roped into some politico’s campaign, I reveled in the hoopla that heralded every election. The contending parties held rallies in the plaza or the bukid (depending, I guess, on whose side the incumbent mayor was), and places more often attended by dog poo and carabao dung were transformed into one-night circuses. 

The stages were festooned with banderitas, and the lights and loudspeakers promised an evening of entertainment, at least from the movie stars, singers, and comedians whom the people really came for, before the real jokers running for congressman or mayor came onstage. Bands played as pickpockets worked the crowd. They gave away fans, hats, key fobs, stickers, and anything they could stamp a candidate’s face on, and if you were lucky you got a T-shirt—flimsy as hell and reeking of paint thinner or whatever it was they used for silkscreening. I’m sure some folks got more than that, but being too young to vote, I missed out on the serious stuff backstage.

The speeches were loud and bombastic, and you stood in rapt attention, feeling like a droplet in a huge surging wave about to engulf the nation. (Decades later, someone would call this “astroturfing.”) One particularly artful speaker might weave a tale of woe, of how the people had only themselves to blame for all the misery they had sunk into, because they had cast their lot with the other party in the previous election. (Decades later, someone would call this “gaslighting.”) Every candidate promised the moon, the stars, and a galaxy or two of blessings dependent on his or her election: more artesian wells, more puericulture centers, free dental clinics, free coffins, and a lechon for every barrio’s fiesta (loud applause). At some point, some bags of rice and boxes of milk might even go around, the word “RELIEF” overstamped with its new donor’s name.

No self-respecting campaign today would not claim a party color or motif—pink, white, blue, checkered, etc. (What was that? Pink as well? Maybe I should have said “No self-respecting campaign today would claim another party’s color.”) Back in the day, this didn’t seem to be a big deal. The Nacionalista Party’s colors were red, white, and blue, while the Liberal Party’s colors were—well, red, white, and blue. At least, if you were a Liberal today and a Nacionalista tomorrow, which sometimes happened, you didn’t have to change your wardrobe or your paraphernalia.

Neither do I recall proprietary hand signs then, like the Cory-Laban “L” that helped to overthrow her predecessor, and FVR’s jaunty thumbs-up. Ferdinand Marcos flashed the “V” sign, but that had been around for ages, and is now more widely associated with young girls in white socks trying to look their cutest for the camera. I suppose it stands for “victory,” although the “V” word that springs to mind most quickly when I hear that particular name is “vaults.” (Is there such a word as “villions,” like a billion billions?) Mayor Isko has appropriated the “No. 1” sign, with the forefinger pointing up, as if to suggest he has nowhere else to go. (That other mayor who became President, which must inspire Isko, prefers raising the next finger.) 

Frankly Leni’s hand sign remains a bit of a mystery to me, and I haven’t seen one from the boxer and the police general. At any rate I doubt this election will be won with carpal contortions. After all, there are only so many things you can do with your fingers, and the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” hand salute is difficult enough to master.

The fight, as everyone says, has gone to the Internet and the airwaves, and while we may like to believe that everything has changed in half a century, the very players on the field tell us they haven’t—only the lights and the loudspeakers have. So now, as ever, truth, reason, and justice will remain the underdogs, and those who root and clap for the jokers will end up getting their pockets picked.

(Photo from asiatimes.com)

The President We Deserve

I GREW up a Marcos believer.

He was the guest of honor at my grade school graduation in 1966. Newly elected, he looked every inch the hero he said he was—handsome, dashing, gifted with a golden tongue. Watching him I thought that a President was a great man, greater than all of us.

Just seven years later, I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison. I was there because the President I admired as a child had lied to me. He said he wanted to make the Philippines great again. Instead he acquired more power and more wealth, for which he stole from both the rich and poor, and punished those who opposed him. 

That included young students like me. They called us “radicals” and put many of us in prison, and many of my friends suffered horrible deaths. Sadly, many more Filipinos didn’t care. Happy to see new roads, they did not know that billions that should have gone to their food, housing, and education went to secret bank accounts abroad.

I was at EDSA when Marcos left, and I was overjoyed that a good and honest woman would now bring change. But even Cory couldn’t do it alone. The system was too strong. Many Presidents followed Cory, some better than others, but the lust for wealth and power did not leave with Marcos. And instead of being remembered as the man who destroyed Philippine democracy, Marcos became a model for some of his successors, who not only buried him as a hero but who now want to resurrect him in his son.

When VP Leni Robredo offered herself for the presidency and said “Mas radikal ang magmahal,” I had to think long and hard about what she meant, and what kind of difference she would make in our lives and futures. Was she asking us, like Jesus, to love our enemies? After all the evil—the corruption, the oppression, and the despotism—we have been through, could we find it in ourselves to love those who clearly do not love us?

And then I remembered what another visionary, Martin Luther King, preached on the same subject. He said: “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.”

And that’s when it struck me that the real enemy is not people, but the “evil systems” that have created and supported the Marcoses among us. It is not one man or family we must vote against, but what they represent.

The easy temptation is to focus on personalities and their shortcomings. The harder option is to fight for the good and the positive.

These are the values and ideals that many of our national leaders, by their speech and behavior, have forsaken over the past five years. These are what VP Leni reminds us are worth loving and living for. And in today’s environment of violence, fear, and falsehood, to love them is to be radical indeed:

God. Country. Freedom. Justice. Peace. Truth. Life. Beauty.

Big words, they take big hearts and minds to accommodate. If I can find that largeness in me, then I can be a radical again, and instead of imprisoning us, our new President will free us from our past to become the nation we aspire to be. And that President—the President we deserve—can only be as great as we ourselves can be.

(Photos from ph.news and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.)

Penman No. 214: Soon, Another Presidential Race

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Penman for Monday, August 29, 2016

 

 

NO, NOT for President of the Republic of the Philippines, but, for some Filipinos, an almost equally significant post—that of President of the University of the Philippines System, who will be chosen by the UP Board of Regents in a meeting in mid-November. Standing at the forefront of Philippine higher education, UP—recognized by its new Charter as “the national university”—very often sets the standards and the tone for other Philippine universities, especially State-funded ones, to follow. Thus, the position is much more than honorific or ceremonial; the UP President is expected to be a visionary, an executive, a manager, a motivator, a mentor, a democrat, a disciplinarian, a nationalist, and an internationalist all at once.

UP Presidents have been known to surprise their constituencies. The very first one, Dr. Murray Simpson Bartlett, was an American and, of all things, a Protestant pastor—and yet he envisaged the new institution as a “University for Filipinos.”

Edgardo J. Angara was a successful lawyer and a budding politician, having served as a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when he was asked by outgoing UP President Onofre D. Corpuz to consider taking over in 1981. The reluctant nominee and non-academic turned out to be one of UP’s best presidents, restructuring the university’s organization, boosting faculty salaries, and reforming its curricula.

Francisco Nemenzo was a professed Marxist who modernized the university’s facilities and mindset, revitalizing UP’s core General Education program, and making better commercial use of UP’s vast landholdings. Emerlinda R. Roman broke barriers as UP’s first woman president, after having served twice as Chancellor of UP Diliman. A management expert, she was able to harness considerable resources on the crest of UP’s centennial in 2008 and to employ those to the UP community’s benefit.

Incumbent President Alfredo E. Pascual’s ascendancy to the presidency came as a surprise to nearly everyone—perhaps including Pascual himself—when the BOR elected him in 2010 on the first ballot, reportedly by a one-vote margin (by tradition, the BOR members agree on a unanimous vote after the fact). A Chemistry and MBA graduate who later spent many years in the private sector and with the Asian Development Bank, Pascual was seen to be an outsider and went off to a rocky start. But he proved to be a quick study, and has worked hard to raise UP’s international profile and its connections, to raise performance incentives for UP’s professors and researchers, and to expand the UP System’s reach.

Their successor, according to search guidelines recently released by the BOR, must meet the following basic standards: (1) hold a master’s degree, with a doctorate preferred; (2) have substantial academic experience at the tertiary level; (3) be able to serve the full term of six years before reaching the age of 70; and (4) have no conviction for administrative and criminal offenses.

Additionally, and just as importantly, they should demonstrate (1) a commitment to academic excellence and national development; (2) the political will and the skills to defend and promote academic freedom and the University’s institutional autonomy; (3) a commitment to democratic governance in the University based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency, and active participation of constituents; and (4) a commitment to preserve the public and secular character of the University. (There are more requirements, which you can check out in the guidelines here: http://www.up.edu.ph/call-for-nominations-for-the-next-u-p-president/.)

This early, several prominent academics and personalities have been heard or rumored to be interested in running for the presidency. They include UP Law Dean and popular radio host Danilo Concepcion; former UP Diliman Chancellor and physicist Caesar Saloma; current UP Diliman Chancellor, anthropologist, and newspaper columnist Michael Tan; current Vice President for Academic Affairs and marine biologist Gisela Concepcion; and former Senator and now Representative and UP Law alumna Pia Cayetano. The names of former Vice President for Academic Affairs and now National Historical Commission chief Maris Diokno and of former CSSP Dean Cynthia Bautista have also been mentioned. (My information, mind you, is based on coffeeshop chatter, and could very well be denied by any of these eminent persons tomorrow.)

In practical terms, and despite and away from all the spirited rhetoric we can expect of the campaign process, it will all come down to a matter of securing six votes among the 11 members of the BOR. The composition of that board is provided for by the new UP Charter, RA 9500 (which, as Dodong Nemenzo’s Vice President for Public Affairs, I among others had the privilege of lobbying for in the Senate before it passed under Emer Roman in 2008, perhaps the government’s greatest gift to UP on its centennial).

The BOR comprises the chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education, who also serves as the BOR’s chair; the incumbent UP President, who serves as co-chair; the chairs of the Senate and House committees on education; the president of the UP Alumni Association; the elected representatives of the UP faculty, staff, and student sectors; and three regents appointed at large by the President of the Philippines (the BOR will recommend a shortlist of persons chosen for their academic and professional accomplishments—at least two of them have to be UP alumni—but the President can technically make other selections). Effectively, therefore—considering that the two representatives from the Senate and the House will likely be Malacañang allies—the Philippine President can exercise tremendous influence in selecting the UP President.

Before the new Charter defined an odd-numbered BOR, a tie was possible. In 2004, the then 12-person BOR was deadlocked 6-6 between Emer Roman and the Palace candidate, then Ambassador to the UK Edgardo Espiritu. The tie was broken 7-5 in a second vote a week later.

It’s a critical choice for both the Palace and the University because UP’s history is replete with instances when the two presidents have clashed bitterly, with sometimes brutal consequences. Rafael Palma fought Manuel L. Quezon over political issues, including free speech at UP, as a result of which the government cut UP’s budget and denied Palma a gratuity upon his retirement in 1933 after a decade of service. (Upon Palma’s death in 1939, however, Quezon praised him as “a patriot, a scholar, and one of the noblest characters that ever lived,” and even had Palma’s interment delayed so he could personally attend.) Bienvenido Gonzalez and Elpidio Quirino also warred over academic freedom. Salvador Lopez stood up to his fraternity brother Ferdinand Marcos in defense of civil liberties.

Bearing these presidents and precedents in mind, if you have a candidate whom you feel should lead UP onward, take note that nominations will close on September 23; the BOR election will be held November 15; and the incoming UP President will take office on February 10, 2017.

I myself will be retiring from full-time teaching in three years and so will see only half of the next President’s term through, but whoever gets chosen should have an impact less on the outgoing profs like me than on the incoming freshmen of Batch 2017. Admittedly, UP could always do better at basketball, but choosing the next coach of the UP System could prove just as important to the shaping of the Filipino mind as the one that 16 million of us made just a few months ago.

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