Column: ‘What kind of man are you?’

Published on January 21, 2014.

Actor and occasional politician Phillip Salvador was among the first friends who showed up at the Senate yesterday to show their support for Sen. Bong Revilla. I caught reporter Christina Mendez’s tweet soon after he arrived, which quoted him as saying in Filipino: “In a situation like this, your friend needs to see you, [to know] that your support is there and will never change.”

Revilla stands accused of channeling the most amount of pork barrel money through bogus organizations or bogus projects into his pocket, and needs all the friends he can get. Salvador’s very public declaration of support must have gone down well, not only with Revilla, but with many Filipinos following the news. Loyalty translates well, especially on television.

But something about Salvador’s remarks stirred an old memory—from 2001, a few months after Joseph Estrada was ousted from Malacañang. Revilla, then the governor of Cavite, had cast his lot with Gloria Arroyo; his decision strained relations with his close friends Salvador, the even more popular Rudy Fernandez and Estrada’s actor-son, Jinggoy.

I apologize if I get some of the following details wrong, but I am reasonably confident that I have the gist right. When Salvador ran for vice mayor of Mandaluyong City in 2001, his campaign slogan, which I saw plastered on tricycles plying the area, was simple and resonant—and understood by movie fans as a straightforward explanation of the (temporary) rift with Revilla: Tapat na kaibigan. Serbisyo sa bayan. (Or something very much like that. Again, I am quoting from tricky memory.)

Even then, I did not question the candidate’s sincerity. I was struck by the contradictions that that pairing of motherhood statements managed to disguise, but I understood that the campaign slogan was genuine in the sense that it was truly representative of the candidate. Or, to be more precise, that it could not be mistaken as something only belatedly bestowed on him. It was who he was: a man who saw himself as a loyal friend and a public servant.

Tapat na kaibigan. Serbisyo sa bayan.

In the immediate aftermath of Estrada’s ouster, however, I was angered by the easy conflation between private virtue and public service, between the assured smoothing of differences between a personal morality and a public one. (Hence, the memory I retained of that slogan.)

We all know that charity covers a multitude of sins. Apparently, so does that period in the middle. In fact, the demands we burden a loyal friend with should be different from the demands we place on public servants. One can be a loyal friend (and we can think of the names on Chavit Singson’s infamous ledger as an inventory of loyalty), and still cheat on the public. Conversely, one can be an exemplary public servant and be, in personal life, a fraud and a cheat.

John Adams, from that revolutionary generation of American leaders we can all learn from, defined public virtue for all time. I will quote, yet again, from one of his letters: “There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.”

We can respect Salvador for showing up at Revilla’s side yesterday. To preempt any sweeping periods, however, we should also remind ourselves: His loyalty is not a guarantee of Revilla’s integrity, or Tonka brand of public service.

* * *

I am obliged to note that the official memorial page in honor of the late Jesse Robredo, on gov.ph/salamatjesse, uses the same kaibigan/bayan tropes. In a list of eight descriptions of the much-admired interior secretary and mayor of Naga, who perished in a plane crash in 2012, we can also find the following: “Tapat na kaibigan. Lingkod bayan.” Maybe the pairing of loyal friend and public servant comes naturally in Filipino, because of the assertive rhyme?

* * *

A great teacher died last week. I will always remember the philosopher Ramon Reyes for the example of intellectual honesty he provided, day in and day out, in his survey course on modern philosophy. I did not fully realize what he was doing then, but over time I realized that his approach to each of the great philosophers was unusual enough to be distinctive: He discussed each of the greats under their own aspect—that is to say, outside the frame of the philosophers who came after them.

I was not much of a philosophy major; intense discussion turned my thoughts, not to more philosophy, but to poetry. In Dr. Reyes’ class, I was moved to write a couple of pieces. I never did make anything out of my favorite Reyes anecdote, though.

Recalling his graduate school days at the famed University of Louvain, he once spoke of being accosted by one of his professors right after class, or perhaps it was after an oral defense. Looking closely at him, the professor asked, “What kind of man are you?”

Reyes, from what I remember of his story, immediately launched into an involved discussion of man as an embodied spirit. No, no, the professor interjected. “I mean, are you Vietnamese?”

To be able to poke fun at one’s self, at one another’s limitations, even at the limits of language—now that’s a lesson that abides.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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