Saturday, 31 January 2004

Expatriate tired of defending RP

TENSE. Election time always brings butterflies to my stomach. These days I always feel tense and nervous, anxiously waiting where the next question could come from, and what form it would take.

As a Filipino expatriate, I have grown weary of defending the Philippines—or at least making excuses for the country—to people some of whom I hardly even know, who ask me about anything and everything that is happening in the country.

“Allan, how did Joseph Estrada manage to become your president? Wasn’t he just a B-movie actor before he became a politician?”

“Why is everybody leaving your country? Is everything really so desperate over there?”

“You know I have a really lovely Filipina maid. The poor soul left behind her whole family back home, just so she could work outside and send some money back to them.”

Sometimes, in my near exasperation, I am tempted to scream: “If you want to know what’s going on in the Philippines, why don’t you go there and ask the people yourself!”

Of course, I never do. And I find myself explaining patiently why these things are happening in our country.

I shouldn’t really bother to explain. So what if we have an insatiable fascination for movie stars? Doesn’t America have one too? After all, even California has an actor for a governor. And not too long ago, even their President was a Hollywood star.

But I take these questions personally. And it pains me, as much as it must cause untold grief to those of us who feel that we are always taken less-than-seriously by our peers, just by the simple fact that we are Filipinos.

FALLING PESO. Last year, the peso was P53 to the dollar. Today it is P56. All this despite the fact that relative to the major currencies, the dollar is at its lowest levels in many years.

According to my former AIM professor and now Economic Planning Secretary Romy Neri, the reason for the peso’s fall is nothing fundamental, and all political. Nobody looks at our economic performance anymore—we are being judged by the outside world purely on hearsay and rumor.

It hardly helps that our next chief political officer (read President) is likely going to
be another product of Fantasyland, skilled in fighting neighborhood toughies and bad guys, but hardly in leading the country to economic progress and restoring its international credibility.

Running a country is not like directing a movie, or even starring in one. The presidential aspirant’s handlers are very quick to come to the defense, pointing out the actor’s track record in running a profitable movie outfit, and comparing this to successfully running the country.

But they conveniently forget one thing—his movie company is successful because it has a priceless asset—the actor himself. No matter what movie he makes, people turn out in droves to watch. There is no way he cannot succeed, no matter how hard he tries to fail.

There is no such star-struck audience in the presidency—there are only critics and detractors. There are no illusions and fantasies, only cold and harsh reality. And when mistakes are made, one cannot simply yell “Cut!” and do another take. The show must go on, unedited and uncut.

The people are understandably exasperated with our political leaders. That’s why they are willing to try new faces, in the hope that one may yet prove to be our saving grace.

Our would-be actor president is probably an honest and decent man, and cares about the country, as many of us do. But not all decent and honest men can become president.

Perhaps just this time, our actor ought to consider giving up the starring role.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, January 31, 2004 (

Saturday, 24 January 2004

New aristocracy

CIRCLE. There was a time when political leadership was confined to a close-knit circle of anointed individuals—“presidential timber”—carefully harvested from an exclusive forest of well-heeled families and well-schooled individuals.

Names like Osmeña, Quezon, Lopez, Lacson, et al. represented the cream of Philippine society. For a long time, only those that came from families of similar pedigree were considered worthy of aspiring for a career in the public service.

A common man—by the standards of the day—named Ramon Magsaysay first broke the aristocratic hold on Philippine politics, shocking the prim-and-proper world of mestizos and mestizas, who until then had never thought that a rank outsider, much less a less-than-well-educated one, could mix within their exclusive circles.

We have come a long way from the days when only those with noses of a certain length were deemed worthy of being in public office.

Ramon Magsaysay’s ascent to the top post of the land made sure that if your heart was in the right place, and you had your wits in the place where they should be, you could aspire to be anyone you wanted to become.

TOO FAR. In fact, one may say we have gone way too far since the days of the old political aristocracy.

Today, even if one’s heart is not in the right place, and his wits are not where they should be, that would still be no obstacle at all to one’s political ambitions. Not as long as the aspirant is a regular fixture in the public eye, and a familiar face to the millions who would vote him to power.

Welcome to the new political aristocracy. Exit the Quezons, Lopezes, Osmeñas and Lacsons. And enter the Estradas, Santoses, Cunetas and Poes.

CINEMATIC. Aristocratic blue blood has given way to cinematic credentials as the ticket to political leadership. Where before, UP, Ateneo and De La Salle were the training ground of choice for would-be public servants, today it is the movie studios and television stations that are the breeding places for our future leaders.

The shift in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, none among the old political guard were ever that successful in raising the Philippines to the status of a world, or even just a regional, economic power.

While Lee Kuan-Yew and the other visionary leaders of Asia relentlessly steered their own economies to First World prosperity, our brilliant leaders like Marcos only succeeded in driving us deeper and deeper into global ridicule as the sick man of Asia.

Given the failure of the old political guard to improve our lives, we can scarcely fault the masses for trying new talent for the political leadership.

After all, the former had many generations to do something about our poverty—generations that were wasted instead in petty political bickering, endless legislative squabbles and confusing economic policies—all of which have made us relatively worse off compared to our Asian neighbors, just a few years ago.

We are so far behind every other country we could think of, with the exception perhaps of those in conflict-ridden parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Our situation has become so bleak and desperate that the only hope for many of us, it seems, is to head for shores far beyond our own.

So, could we really be faulted for trying something else?

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, January 24, 2004 (