Published on July 28, 2015.
IN JULY 2005, at the lowest point in Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, she went to the Batasan for the State of the Nation Address rite not so much to defend herself, as to test her political allies’ defenses. She received an enthusiastic welcome.
To witness the outpouring of support, to hear the lusty cheers and to see the outstretched hands, for a leader who only a couple of weeks before had considered resigning because of an election fraud controversy, was to learn a crucial lesson in political resilience.
The political class respects power, recognizes it, rallies to it—and nothing adds sheen to power like surviving a crisis.
I am reminded of this fundamental fact of Philippine politics because of the spreading notion that President Aquino is “losing clout,” is becoming a “lame duck,” as he begins his last year in office.
This notion runs counter to Philippine political experience. Continue reading
Published on June 16, 2015.
I wish to revisit a topic that colleague Oscar Franklin Tan and I have debated in recent weeks: the role of commentary in the so-called free market of ideas. I have the sense that while we are both believers in free speech, we define the terms of the argument differently. To be more precise, we may have different ideas of what passes for publishable commentary in newspaper opinion pages.
The argument has not lost its appeal for me since Oscar first raised what I called his “seductive” but “untenable and misguided” appeal to Inquirer editors to screen out controversial opinion pieces like those contributed by retired Court of Appeals justice Mario Guariña III; I have continued to review my own response, borne out of the experience of working in opinion sections in three newspapers, including in particular almost a decade and a half with the Inquirer, to check my biases and trace the consequences of my position. But I am led to return to the subject because Oscar’s criticism of an opinion piece, in another newspaper, raises an even more uncomfortable question. Continue reading
Published on June 2, 2015.
IT IS an imposing sight. The massive balete tree in Maria Aurora town, in Aurora province, is about as tall as a 15-story building and at its base is as wide as a three- or four-bedroom house. Tourists visit it by the busload, drawn by a simple superlative: It is known as the largest balete tree in Asia.
There is some slip-sliding, sometimes, and local guides also call it the oldest—but that title probably goes to the balete tree in Canlaon City, in Negros Oriental, which has an estimated age of 1,300 years, or more than twice as old. (I have not yet been to Canlaon myself.) But the tree in Maria Aurora is an extraordinary sight; first there is its sheer size; then there are the thousands of hanging roots that have descended (the tree starts as an air plant) to form an incredibly dense curtain right around it; and then there is the gap, just big enough to accommodate a crouching adult human, in the middle of the tree.
It takes only a couple of minutes to walk through the tree. The roots inside have been smoothened over the years, from contact with tourists’ suddenly helpless hands and wayward limbs, but being inside the tree, and looking up from within its hollow core at a hall of roots, is an eerie, unforgettable experience. Continue reading
Published on February 10, 2015.
Last Friday, in a news analysis for Inquirer.net, I raised “three points to consider” for a public about to view President Aquino’s nationwide address. Official sources had given assurances that he would use the occasion to announce Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima’s resignation. But, given the circumstances, the mere announcement of acceptance was not, could not have been, enough.
There were at least three threshold questions the President had to answer. That he ended up answering only one suggests to me that the theological concept of “patterns of sin” (and therefore of redemption) might apply, if only analogically, to understand Mr. Aquino’s latest televised address—and that he was sticking to the pattern again. Continue reading
Published on November 25, 2014.
Let me begin with a basic question: Is Ninoy Aquino a role model of good governance? Millions of Filipinos see him as a modern-day martyr and (as a 2011 Social Weather Stations survey reminded us) a genuine hero. But is he the sort of political figure who represents the ideal that a school of government should aspire to form, to graduate?
When the Ateneo School of Government was renamed last August after Ninoy and his wife, the late ex-president Corazon Aquino, the reaction, or at least the response I was able to monitor, was generally positive. This reading may have been a result of the filter bubbles I am wittingly or unwittingly encased in, but as far as the Aquinos are concerned (in August 2009, for instance, I wrote a series of four columns on the legacy of this influential family), I think my opinion closely tracks that of a national majority.
As we prepare to mark Ninoy’s 82nd birth anniversary (it is to be held later this week), we can revisit the original question, and perhaps rephrase it: Was Ninoy a martyr in the mold of a Thomas More, who was by all accounts an excellent administrator before Henry VIII turned against him, or was he more like Jose Rizal, less a political personality than a heroic one, whose violent death sealed his fate as a national hero? Continue reading
Published on November 4, 2014.
I see that my good friend, the eminent scholar Jojo Abinales, has written a deliberately provocative think piece. I think he would be delighted to learn that I disagree with him. He enjoys a good argument, and I will give it to him.
In “It’s the barangays, stupid,” Abinales borrows an expression made famous by US President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team to highlight an important fact about the 2016 elections in the Philippines: “A glimpse at the balance of power across the nation shows that [Vice President Jejomar] Binay has a clear advantage over [Interior Secretary Mar] Roxas.” He means the balance of local power, in “the provinces and peripheries of the nation.” The Carvillean “stupid” part refers, I assume, to the obvious clearness of this advantage.
He lists the local clans and political blocs likely to support Binay; it is not an exhaustive list (the form dictates that it cannot be). But four to five paragraphs of prominent names do not an accurate political map make; it may or may not be true that “Davao City’s Rodrigo Duterte has not made his choice yet, although rumors are if Binay promises to respect his autonomy, the charismatic and popular mayor will surely vote UNA.” But even if Duterte did, how many of Davao’s 900,000-plus voters will vote with him? Abinales doesn’t show. Continue reading
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Published on June 24, 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
Published on May 27, 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
Questions, plus an infographic on the jump page. Published on February 12, 2013
In its “Ten Facts about President Aquino,” an illustrated information sheet distributed to help mark his birthday last Friday, Malacañang emblazoned Facts No. 11 and 12 under an image of the President: that he was the 15th President of the Philippines, and the fifth President of the Fifth Republic.
Is he? The usual list of the country’s presidents begins with Emilio Aguinaldo, who proclaimed Philippine independence on June 12, 1898. (The same day, incidentally, when Apolinario Mabini came to work for Aguinaldo; Mabini did not approve of the proclamation he had no part in writing.) We then skip an entire generation, and resume our count in 1935, when Manuel Quezon becomes the first president of the Commonwealth. In 1943, when the Philippines is under Japanese occupation, Quezon is reduced to leading a government-in-exile in Washington, DC; and Jose Laurel becomes president of a parallel republic. On Quezon’s death in 1944, Sergio Osmeña assumes the presidency; in May 1946, he loses the presidential election to Manuel Roxas. Roxas retains the presidency when the Commonwealth is dissolved and a prostrate Philippines is granted independence on July 4, 1946; he is followed in office by Elpidio Quirino, Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos.
Published on August 7, 2012.
The Judicial and Bar Council, meeting this week to agree on a short list of candidates for chief justice, would do well to remember one specific untruth Renato Corona said at his impeachment trial. He infamously began his premeditated walkout from the Senate trial by intoning the words, “The Chief Justice of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” But in fact, there is no such office, and therefore no such official.* Continue reading
Published on July 31, 2012.
President Aquino is wrong to think that the fundamental nature of news has changed. But he is entirely in the right when he calls journalists to account according to journalism’s own standards. Unless, of course, journalists think those standards are only meant to be paid lip service.
“Negativity” in the news—the word the President used in his remarks at BusinessWorld’s 25th anniversary rites last Friday—has become the shorthand defining what an ABS-CBN story online would later call his “scolding spree” against the media, even though the real controversy erupted only after the President directly criticized ABS-CBN anchor Noli de Castro at the 25th anniversary party of the iconic “TV Patrol” newscast, later that same Friday. Continue reading
The last column I wrote in 2011, before I left for a year-long fellowship with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The feedback–to the subject of the column, not to my departure (or so I think!)–was overwhelming. Published on August 9, 2011.
The scene was surreal: the old cheat was visibly moved by the resignation of the young cheat, and praised the young man’s moral courage and sense of dignity. Apparently, there really is honor among election thieves.
For those of us with a long memory, Juan Ponce Enrile is the unlikely but altogether fitting benchmark for Juan Miguel Zubiri’s act of resignation. Even though Enrile did not lose the first dagdag-bawas case filed against him by Koko Pimentel’s father, involving allegations of cheating in the 1995 elections, Enrile did own up to massive election fraud—in 1986, during the heady four days of the Edsa revolution, when circumstance and strategic candor made him admit that he had cheated for Ferdinand Marcos in the snap election.
That made his reluctance to accept Zubiri’s resignation both an acute reflection of Philippine realpolitik, and an apt reminder of the many times our country has lost its way. Continue reading
Another difficult piece to write, because as I say at the very start, I do like Harry Roque. Published on July 19, 2011.
I like Harry Roque. I do not mind that he styles himself, in his own blog, as an activist lawyer, because in fact that is what he is. I remember him best for his prominent role in the effort to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at a time when almost all of the political cards seemed to be stacked against the opposition. I met him for the first time at a conference in Hong Kong last year, where we served on different panels; I took to him immediately. I saw him as a family man and a patriot, the kind of affable Pinoy who seeks out other kababayan when travelling abroad.
His latest turn in the headlines, however, outraged me. In an attempt to head off any further debate on the possible uses of Zaldy Ampatuan’s testimony, he irresponsibly politicized the issue by claiming—without any evidence—that the so-called Balay faction in the Aquino administration was behind an effort to draft the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a state witness in the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre case. Continue reading
Column No. 200. A second attempt to categorize the types of criticism leveled against the second President Aquino, published on July 12, 2011.
Last August, about six weeks after his inauguration, I tried to distinguish the “types of criticism [already] being leveled against President Benigno Aquino III and his administration” by identifying three patterns in the criticism. That attempt, under the column title “‘Politico’, ‘Inglisero’, ‘hacendero’,” drew a vigorous response from several readers. To the most lucid rejoinder, by Herbert Docena, I ceded my column space the following week. Continue reading
The second of three Rizal columns written in June 2011. Published on June 21, 2011.
The idea that Rizal was prickly, sensitive to slights and quick to take offense, was a criticism he himself heard again and again. On Oct. 9, 1891, for instance, while preparing to leave for Hong Kong (and eventually to return to the Philippines), he declined his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt’s suggestion that he resume writing for La Solidaridad. “I have suggested many projects; they engaged in a secret war against me. When I tried to make the Filipinos work, they called me ‘idol,’ they said that I was a despot, etc. …. They said that Rizal is a very difficult person; well, Rizal clears out.” Continue reading
The Inquirer feedback loop just got fat–or it did, about 15 months ago, some time before this column was published on May 24, 2011.
IN RESPONSE to Monday’s editorial on the designation of Mar Roxas as President Benigno Aquino III’s chief of staff, an online reader wrote, in an angry burst of colloquial Filipino: He hasn’t even started yet, and here you are already taking a shot at him! (I can no longer find the comment online, hence the paraphrase.) Continue reading
A difficult piece to write, for obvious reasons. Published on March 22, 2011.
IT PAINS me to disagree with the dean of Filipino journalists, at whose last book launch, in October 2008, I had the happy privilege of serving as grateful emcee. But on the issue of the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, I think the eminent Amando Doronila is fundamentally mistaken. Continue reading