Category Archives: Readings in Politics

Column: ‘Tuwid na daan’ requires standards higher than Purisima’s

Published on October 7, 2014.

Director General Alan Purisima, the country’s controversial chief policeman, bought a sport utility vehicle last year worth about P4 million for only P1.5 million. Why did he enjoy such a substantial discount? His answer before the Senate committee on public order a week ago could be fairly summed up as follows: Because he was offered a substantial discount.

If Purisima were investigating a crime, would he accept his own answer at face value? It is an explanation that does not explain, and only fosters suspicions about his dangerous and apparently recently acquired naivete.

A skeptical Sen. Grace Poe gave him polite but pointed advice: “I’m not saying it’s your fault that you were able to get it at a discounted price. But you should have taken a second look at that big a discount… Ask yourself, why is this being given to me at a cheaper price?”

But does the chief of the Philippine National Police really need advice about motives, criminal or otherwise? That the car dealer has no dealings with the PNP, as Purisima said at the Senate hearing, does not make the sweetheart deal aboveboard; the lack of a direct relationship between dealer and organization only means that other relationships may be at stake. At least that is how we expect Purisima and other police officers to think, when a public official is offered a discount large enough to make the sale unprofitable. Continue reading

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Column: Brion’s hand on Abad’s collar

Published on September 30, 2014.

Much has already been said about the incident involving Budget Secretary Butch Abad and a score of student protesters at the University of the Philippines the other week. Inquirer reporter Erika Sauler’s summary sentence, in a report she filed a few days after the incident, can serve as a helpful wrap-up: “As he exited the auditorium [and made his way] to his vehicle, a group of protesters from Stand UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP) ganged up on him, calling him a thief as they threw crumpled pieces of paper, placards and coins in his direction.” Other reports described one protester grabbing Abad by the collar.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, whether the students were justified in their violent protest or not, the incident seems to me to demonstrate that words in fact have consequences in the real world. Continue reading

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Column: Should he inhibit?

Published on September 2, 2014.

Conventional wisdom and expert judgment share a consensus: Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza will inhibit himself from Supreme Court deliberations on the fate of the Disbursement Acceleration Program. As solicitor general, he had not only argued the case before the Court; he had also submitted the motion for reconsideration.

I do not know whether he will; I am aware that most people would consider a failure to inhibit as conflict of interest writ large; as a citizen, I would rather that Jardeleza (one of my teachers in constitutional law) inhibit himself, not from the deliberations, but from the voting itself.

As a journalist, however, I would like to question the conventional wisdom that holds that, “of course,” Jardeleza must remove himself from the equation. I am prompted to do so by yet another provocative question posed by former law dean Rayboy Pandan on that virtual commons we all inhabit, Facebook. Continue reading

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Column: ‘While there is peace there can be no traitors’

Published on August 26, 2014.

Did Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno overreach?

I have not had a chance to read the supplemental comment submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council in the since-resolved administrative matter involving Francis Jardeleza, the solicitor general at the time and now the newest associate justice of the Supreme Court. But a report in Rappler attributes the following statement to Sereno, also the chair of the JBC:

“Petitioner [that is, Jardeleza] cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of his client, the Republic of the Philippines, as its agent in the Unclos [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] arbitration… His disloyalty to his client is a lack of integrity. And when that client is the Republic of the Philippines, it is treason.” Continue reading

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Column: Roxas, making up for one bad call

Published on August 19, 2014.

To many, Mar Roxas’ presidential ambition is a given. I think, however, that a certain ambivalence attends his desire to occupy the one office that exceeded his father’s grasp. My Exhibit A is Roxas’ failure to run for a Senate seat last year.

I understand that if he had done so, he would have forfeited his election protest against Vice President Jejomar Binay. Was this the actual consideration? It is hard to believe that he would have traded a probable campaign advantage in 2016 for the unlikely prospect of a belated election-tribunal victory.

The last time Roxas won a national election unequivocally, he turned heads. He topped the Senate race in 2004, becoming the first candidate in our history to garner more than 19 million votes. Mr. Palengke (a political persona based on his service as trade secretary in both the Estrada and the Arroyo administrations) was suddenly presidential timber. But that was 10 years ago—an entire geological age in political time. Continue reading

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Column: Ideological shortcuts

Published on August 12, 2014.

Sociologist Herbert Docena’s characteristically astute reply to last week’s column is too long to fit into the Letters page; I am happy to use this space to run it in full. My comments follow:

It is always an honor to be criticized by John Nery, one of our country’s most thoughtful and most gracious columnists.

Nery accused me of taking an “ideological shortcut” in making my argument that the real difference between President Aquino and the likes of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada is that he represents the more sophisticated, because more far-sighted, factions of our ruling classes: He uses public funds not so much to directly enrich himself or his family but to indirectly enrich his clique or his entire class (“What’s the difference?” Opinion, 7/18/14). Continue reading

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Column: Is there corruption without personal gain?

Published on August 5, 2014.

The scholar Herbert Docena wrote something truly provocative in these pages two or so weeks ago. He asked whether there was any difference between “the schemes cooked up by the likes of Sexy, Pogi, or Tanda” and President Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). In his view, both were forms of corruption, even though only the plunder allegedly committed by the likes of Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and Juan Ponce Enrile involved personal gain.

The problem, he suggests, is that we understand “personal gain” too narrowly. “But does someone have to directly gain from the use of public funds to be corrupt? What if the benefits are more indirect or intangible? And what if the benefits are more widely shared with members of one’s class? Is that no longer corruption?” Continue reading

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Column: 7 theses in the wake of Aquino’s outburst

Published on July 22, 2014.

The law is too important to be left to lawyers alone. Every citizen has the right to join a discussion involving legal issues, especially if the Constitution is at the heart of it. I am certain Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law and a constant critic of his namesake President, would agree. Like me, the columnist erroneously described as a priest-lawyer is not in fact a member of the Bar.

To be sure, as anyone can see from his biography posted on the Central Books website, he has at least two doctorates, including one in jurisprudence from a school in California.  But even if he didn’t (and this is the point), his commentaries would still be welcome. So perhaps that should be our first thesis, if we make a concerted attempt to understand President Aquino’s intemperate reaction to the Supreme Court’s adverse ruling on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP): The law is too important to be left to lawyers alone.

Second thesis: The Aquino administration was right to file a motion for reconsideration, even though the possibility of reversal is small. I did not think it was worth it the week I read the ruling, but have since come to understand that the administration was bound to file the motion, for political reasons. The idea as I understand it is not simply to exhaust all legal remedies, but for the administration to rally the demoralized with a vigorous defense. The President’s speeches on July 14 and 15, however, were too aggressive, and rightly seen as threatening. Continue reading

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Column: DAP and its consequences

Published on July 15, 2014.

I will hazard one reason why only the youth groups associated with the militant Left filed a plunder case against Budget Secretary Butch Abad last week; when the gaping hole at the center of their case becomes obvious even to reporters who are not lawyers, the complainants can always hide behind their mistake by pleading the exuberance of youth.

Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon led other youth leaders in filing the complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman, accusing Abad, the architect of the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program, of having “systematically misappropriated, converted, misused, and malversed public funds through his executive issuances and the programs implemented by him as Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management.” Last July 1, the Supreme Court recognized the DAP as effective government policy but ruled, unanimously, that the means by which it was implemented violated the Constitution.

Because of the amounts involved, the youth groups filed a case for plunder. Republic Act No. 7080, the law “defining and penalizing the crime of plunder,” is perhaps best known for its P50-million threshold. But the heart of the plunder law, as passed by the Eighth Congress (that is, the first one in session after the plunder of the Marcos years), is the very Marcosian concept of “ill-gotten wealth.” Continue reading

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Column: Dear Butch

Published on July 8, 2014.

I have written more than once on the integrity and competence of Butch Abad, whom I first met in the early 1980s. He has always seemed to me to represent the virtues of the transformational politics the Jesuit provincial at that dangerous time, Fr. Ben Nebres, asked student activists to envision; nothing in his political career since then has caused me to change my mind. Not his agonizing tenure at the Department of Agrarian Reform, not his quixotic bid for the speakership of the House of Representatives, not his leadership of the Liberal Party at a turbulent time—and certainly not his stewardship of the government’s entire budget apparatus since his good friend assumed the presidency in 2010.

But as architect of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) declared unconstitutional by a unanimous Supreme Court, he is the man most responsible for President Aquino’s worst political loss; the ruling on the DAP, in the words of the Inquirer editorial yesterday (Monday), was “an almost complete defeat for the Aquino administration.” He must bear the full weight of that responsibility, and resign. Continue reading

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Column: Five assumptions about 2016

Published on June 23, 2014.

Malacañang may not be ready to admit it, but the 2016 campaign has already started in earnest. I would like to review certain assumptions I used in previous elections, to test whether they remain valid (as I obviously thought then) or they need updating. Continue reading

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Column: Why Abad?

Published on June 9, 2014.

There is a concerted effort to pin Budget Secretary Butch Abad to, well, something, anything. Alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles swears she learned her evil trade from Abad (a risible claim that has since been expertly demolished by columnist Solita Monsod). The information that he paid only P8,150 in taxes in the three essentially jobless years before joining the Cabinet, information that was available since at least 2010, suddenly became news. And the datum he himself supplied in his most recent statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, that he has nine relatives by blood or marriage working in the government, has been transmogrified into a sweeping claim of nepotism—with the number now inflated to 11.

I have always known Abad to be an honorable man; in July 2010, at the start of the second Aquino administration, I was moved to defend him (and his wife Dina and their daughter Julia) in this wise: “It pains me to see the incorruptible Abads suffer so much speculative intrigue, when anyone who knows them at all can testify, not only to their commitment to public service, but also to their integrity.”

It has been four years, and I haven’t seen any evidence that would make me change my mind. If the worst that can be thrown at him are Napoles’ attempts at fiction or Rep. Toby Tiangco’s shoot-from-the-hip accusations or PR man/columnist Yen Makabenta’s glittering generalizations, then Abad remains the same man I have looked up to all these years: the competent Catholic exercising his faith as engaged, and honest, politician.

So why Abad? Why this orchestrated campaign to paint him as the real mastermind of the pork barrel scam or (failing that) as the face of daang matuwid hypocrisy? Any citizen sufficiently attentive to recent events would know who the real target is: President Aquino, at a time of intense political drama. But why Abad in particular? Continue reading

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Column: The administration’s ‘inattentional blindness’

Published on May 26, 2014.

Apparently there is a scientific term that explains why children engrossed in something—playing a game on the tablet, say, or reading the comics—seem to ignore anyone talking to them at the same time. The word is “inattentional blindness,” reports a BBC piece on a recent experiment, and it describes a familiar phenomenon characterized by “a lack of awareness, especially outside the immediate focus of attention.”

It is related to the development of the primary visual cortex. “The capacity for awareness outside the focus of attention develops with age, so younger children are at higher risk of inattentional blindness,” Prof. Nilli Lavie, of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, told the BBC. It was Lavie who conducted the recent experiment at the Science Museum in London.

Reading about the concept of inattentional blindness reminded me of the Aquino administration’s approach to the achievements of the administration that preceded it. (Yes, at this point it bears repeating: There  were  achievements, buried under all the corruption scandals and the all-consuming struggle for legitimacy after “Hello, Garci.”) Mr. Aquino’s presidential campaign in 2010 was based on the simple appeal that he was Gloria Arroyo’s opposite. He was not alone in capitalizing on her unpopularity (and that of her husband); depending on how one reads the votes for Manny Villar, as much as 90 percent of the voters who cast their ballots voted “against” Arroyo.

But four years into his term, President Aquino has stuck to the black-or-white reading of recent history that resonated so loudly with voters in 2010. His address before the World Economic Forum on East Asia last Thursday may be usefully thought of as the epitome of that mindset. Continue reading

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Column: Mapping the humiliation of China

Published on May 12, 2014.

UNOFFICIALLY FROM 1915 to 1926, and then officially from 1927 to 1940, the fledgling republic of China observed National Humiliation Day. “During the Republican period,” writes the scholar William Callahan, “the holiday commemorated May 9th, the day when the Chinese government succumbed to Japan’s twenty-one demands in 1915, which seriously compromised China’s national sovereignty.”

In 2001, the communist government revived the tradition, instituting the third Saturday of September as National Defense Education Day, a holiday Callahan said is informally referred to also as National Humiliation Day. “In this way,” he writes in “History, Identity, and Security: Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China” (2006), the holiday “is one manifestation of the discourse of national humiliation, which recounts how at the hands of foreign invaders and corrupt Chinese regimes, sovereignty was lost, territory dismembered, and the Chinese people thus humiliated.” Continue reading

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Column: Will the US defend ‘a few rocks’ in our sea?

Published on May 5, 2014.

Diplomacy is the art of calibrated ambiguity, and during his first visit to the Philippines last week (he will return next year, barring another American federal government shutdown), US President Barack Obama was nothing if not diplomatic.

On the question of the day, whether the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States would apply in case of an armed confrontation in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China, he was both forceful and ambiguous. Before reporters (and a television audience), he said: “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China.” At the state dinner, and again before US and Filipino troops the following day, he described the United States’ “commitment to defend the Philippines” as “ironclad.” Continue reading

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Column: Jinggoy et al as Pontius Pilate

Published on April 21, 2014.

I realize that many Filipinos will readily volunteer a comparison they think more apt: Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile and others deeply implicated in the pork barrel scam are Judas. The defining act of the crimes they are charged with is the act of a traitor; that is, someone who betrayed the people’s expectations, the public’s trust.

But it is also possible to argue that the senators and congressmen and their staff who allegedly looted pork barrel funds are, in fact, Pontius Pilate. Allow me to make that argument, but first I must prove another point: Pilate’s liability in the judicial murder of Jesus Christ is not the learned helplessness of a pragmatic bureaucrat (“What is truth?”), but rather the sophisticated use of the political power of a ruling elite (“What I have written, I have written.”) Continue reading

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Column: Even though Mayweather would win

Published on April 14, 2014.

The undefeated Floyd Mayweather has an excellent reason to finally agree to a hundred-million-dollar fight with Manny Pacquiao: The odds are he would win. And Pacquiao has an additional reason to want the fight: The risk of losing is high. Continue reading

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Column: The irrelevance of the Left

Published on March 31, 2014.

A specter is haunting the extreme Left in the Philippines: the specter of irrelevance. We can glimpse it, not so much in the startling arrest of Benito Tiamzon, the chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines and chief of the CPP’s armed wing, the New People’s Army, with his wife Wilma, in a textbook-perfect operation in Cebu on March 22, as in smaller acts of reality-denying desperation.

Let me highlight three such gestures. Continue reading

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Column: One real legacy of Edsa

Published on March 3, 2014.

For lack of space, an article prepared by Inquirer Research on the so-called myths of Edsa 1986, as seen by political scientists, did not see print last week. I was especially struck by the view of Benjamin Tolosa Jr.—a friend and indeed a fellow citizen of the streets in the 1980s—because he cogently summed up not only the worldview that many Filipinos (myself included) subscribed to but also the history that it helped shape. I reproduce Tolosa’s view, which he shared with me by e-mail, below. Continue reading

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Column: Cardinal Sin’s biggest mistake?

Published on February 24, 2014.

The idea that most Filipinos are deeply disillusioned with the People Power revolution is merely conventional, and needs to be empirically tested; I think the reality is somewhere between benign ignorance (many see Edsa 1986 only as an event in history, the occasion for a school holiday) and active acceptance (some continue to see it as a source of genuine change). At least that is how I interpret the 2011 Social Weather Stations finding that 20 percent of voting-age Filipinos embraced Ninoy Aquino as a genuine hero, next only to Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. Aquino’s martyrdom makes full sense only in relation to what happened a thousand days after his assassination, on Edsa.

My view, it almost goes without saying, should be subject to validation, too. Continue reading

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Column: The Amanpour interview: framing Aquino

Published on February 17, 2014.

Almost a hundred days ago, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed President Aquino in the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” It was not a winning moment. Annoying speech tics, factual slip-ups, outright exaggerations—and I’m just talking about Amanpour.

Mr. Aquino did not do very well; he tried to describe a national government that was, to use the familiar phrase, on top of the situation, but five days after the supertyphoon devastated parts of Central Visayas, especially the unfortunate city of Tacloban, the government was in fact still looking for its bearings. Was he covering up for the chaotic reality on the ground, or was he determined to not play the helpless leader of a helpless country? Or was he just talking through his storm-soaked hat? The feedback on social media that I followed was overwhelmingly negative. Continue reading

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Column: Pacquiao vs Marx, or Funding a Senate run

Published on February 10, 2014.

It should have come as no surprise that, as he was scrambling up the ladder of worldwide fame with his thrilling boxing style, Manny Pacquiao also made up his mind to run for political office. He famously failed on his first try, when tiny Darlene Antonino-Custodio bested him in the congressional race to represent General Santos City, in 2007. But he is now on his second term as lawmaker, representing the province of Sarangani.

No surprise, because Pacquiao has a fighter’s killer instinct, and in creating his own political base (his wife is now also vice governor of the province) he was reaching for the jugular. In his view (I am hazarding a guess), the real source of staying power in Philippine society is not wealth, but political clout. Continue reading

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Column: ‘What kind of man are you?’

Published on January 20, 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. Continue reading

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Column: Analysts vs surveys: Aquino post-‘Yolanda’ edition

Published on January 6, 2014.

When Reuters ran an analytical piece on the “backlash” against President Aquino on Nov. 15, a week after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” swept through central Philippines, I sent a message to one of my friends in the wire agency. “Did you compare raw satisfaction (74% in Mar 2013) with NET satisfaction (+49, Sept 2013)?”

Like many at that time, my assessment of the Aquino administration’s response had swung from the initial thumbs up the day after the storm (when we interpreted the lack of news from the disaster areas as good news) to an emphatic thumbs down several days later, when the question of leadership was very much in the air (and on the Inquirer front page). “Who’s in charge here?” Indeed. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino: ‘Incompetent’ and ‘insensitive’

The fourth edition, as it were, of an annual roundup of anti-Aquino criticism. Published on November 26, 2013.

At least once a year in the last three years, I’ve tried to document the patterns of criticism directed against President Aquino. I got started because of what I thought was unfair criticism; I continued partly because of the vigorous, sometimes orientation-altering feedback, and partly because tracing the patterns can be instructive and useful to understanding politics, Philippine-style.

The documentation is hardly comprehensive; my so-called field notes are only preliminary; indeed, as I wrote at the get-go about the patterns I discerned, “there are others, some of them perhaps better objects of study than the ones I’ve chosen.”
Continue reading

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