Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Personal essay on WHY NOYNOY

Lila Ramos Shahani

March, 2010

Manila



I had to admit I did have misgivings about re-entering this fray. Would it even be worth the compromises I would have to make as I left behind an almost idyllic existence in Manhattan? Why had I cast my lot with a politician who arguably had less experience than both my mother and uncle during their early years in public service?



I had, in fact, shunned public life entirely and had left the Philippines for good at the height of my uncle’s presidential administration. As I recall, the entire experience had been vaguely asphyxiating. As an end in itself, political power has never particularly impressed me, and I was certainly not enamored with the methods many deployed in their frenetic efforts to gain access to the power center. And I had seen them all -- power brokers full of hubris and a sense of entitlement, sycophants currying favor with all sides, self-righteous and embittered pseudo-Leftists (the most bourgeois of them all, I later discovered), political candidates (disingenuous, mostly) peddling truth and enlightenment even as they signed off the country to the highest bidder, misogynists of every cast and temper, and vicious gossip as the one unifying thread throughout… In a word, politics (as opposed to political analysis) was not exactly my idea of an illustrious universe. I much preferred a private life surrounded by art, literature and a handful of genuine friends…



But I suppose you might say that watching GMA’s shenanigans from afar had finally changed all that for good. For me, after Garci, there had simply been no turning back. By the time those gruesome images of Ondoy’s excoriating fury (with nary a life-boat in sight, for most) had been indelibly imprinted upon my brain, I was in a quiet state of rage. I knew I had to do something, which is when, I suppose, it dawned on me that I could try to write FVR, my uncle, a letter. Not, mind you, that I had any illusions about my abilities to dissuade or encourage him either way, but I loved him dearly and knew that, in his heart of hearts, he would one day understand that engagement was ultimately an act of respect. I had no way of knowing then how many people would respond to that fateful letter (http://lilashahani. blogspot. com/2009/ 10/open-letter- to-fvr.html) . More importantly, it was the first time I had enunciated -- even to myself -- my decision to support Noynoy Aquino.



So why did I choose Noynoy and why did I risk what would eventually become, for a while at least, a pretty major fall-out within the family? Was this man even worth the cousins and nieces and aunts who had been distressed and inadvertently wounded by my statement -- emphatic as it was -- that enough was finally enough? How did I know at that the fine art of blogging at the time, he certainly recognized that some of my insights were valid, although he did make it a point to correct me when he thought my readings were slightly off-kilter. If anything, the epistolary relationship that grew out of this exchange has strengthened our bond even more…

But the point is: why would I go out of my way for Noynoy, of all people? Why not Gibo, that golden boy from Harvard, or Villar, the self-made Tondo lad whose ability to amass a colossal fortune suggested a financial brilliance that was both astonishing and rare? And why not Erap, the dapper don whose extra-curricular relationships -- ever the bane of his harassed presidential security staff -- continued to remain charming in a creepy sort of way? Or Gordon, uncontrollable temper and human rights record notwithstanding, who had managed to turn Olongapo around almost single-handedly? Then of course there was Nicky Perlas, whose inability to communicate the most basic ideas had certainly not diminished the solidity of his environmental street cred; and, finally, Bro Eddie, who had somehow managed to command the loyalty of some rather impressive human beings I happened to know…

So why Noynoy, whom we had barely heard a peep from (or so I thought) until his mother’s death? Well, I suppose you might say that my choice ultimately had to do with how I view democracy itself. To my mind, the demographics in our country are such that this election is ultimately not going to be determined by classes A, B or even C. Given existing birth rates, it’s all about parts of C, and most of D and E. So whether or not I happen to like Perlas’ qualifications, say, it’s really not about people like me, see. In the end, it has to do with what the largest voting blocs in this country decide. And however much Gordon’s writers might viciously malign other writers who happen to be associated with Noynoy, it doesn’t change the realpolitik bottom line: whether we like it or not, ladies and gentlemen, this happens to be a two-way race, period. This is not to say that there are no spoilers, but even they are not going to significantly affect the numbers. Accepting this fact has less to do with pandering to popularity and ultimately more to do with respecting the will of the people, in my view. Ideally, they will make educated choices. But, either way, this restaurant is only serving up two dishes, and it’s either Noynoy or Villar, so the sooner we accept that fact, the better it will be for everybody. If you happen to believe in democracy (and I fervently do), then you will have to accept that, barring excessive cheating, the demos has already spoken. Going for another candidate, at this point, is to waste one’s vote, in my view, not unlike those who had voted for Nader against Gore, inadvertently helping Bush, Jr. Had Gibo left the ruling party long ago and established his own political personality, I might have even voted for him – but the fact is, see, he didn’t... Indeed, of the major candidates, Noynoy is the only one who has consistently critiqued GMA for years critiqued GMA for years. To be sure, the silence of Villar, Gibo and Gordon on the matter of GMA’s performance has been all but deafening. What does this suggest about who they are and what they stand for? Whether or not Villar and Gordon happen to be in cahoots with GMA, one would have at least hoped that they would behave like the opposition candidates that they are and, well, take the President to task every once in a while… So I can unabashedly say that the first thing I genuinely respect about Noynoy is the fact that he is unafraid to speak his mind, even at the risk of displeasing monolithic interests, whether they happen to be the administration, the Catholic Church, legal circles or public opinion itself. His position on the replacement of Chief Justice Puno is a case in point.

That quiet courage (occasionally a bold conviction) is tempered by an unassailable sense of integrity. He has never once been suspected of being involved in anything corrupt. To my mind, we need a leader with such a reputation who can set a moral tone throughout government.

The one issue that his opponents and cause-oriented groups have continued to milk is Luisita, but an examination of the facts indicates that his share is indeed fairly insignificant. And however imperfect CARP, CARPER and the entire fractured legacy of land reform in this country might be, it cannot all be reasonably placed at Noynoy’s doorstep. He cannot be held responsible for Fernando Cojuangco’s statements or the NYT’s decision to only look at a polarity of interests (namely, a landowner, on the one hand, and an Anakpawis representative, on the other; not that there is anything inherently problematic with either, but they most certainly don’t represent the complex range of interests in the Luisita case, nor do they adequately reflect the Aquino family’s perspective) .

Of course it can be argued that the failure of land reform in the Philippines has to do precisely with the interests of big landowners, who ultimately tend to block reform. But it would seem to me that the only things Noynoy can do, as a shareholder (short of holding a gun to the other shareholders’ heads), is to continue to strive to disengage from Luisita with those members of his immediate family who fully support him; the only other thing, as a government official who is not yet president, is to fight corruption and tax evasion so that agrarian reform might be more fully and successfully implemented in the long-term. It would seem to me, at any rate, that this is exactly what he’s been trying to do. In fact, instead of holding on to land he could be holding on to, he has essentially offered to give it up altogether: the day the rest of his social class follows suit will be a revolutionary day indeed for this semi-feudal country of ours…

I suppose you might say that courage and integrity are the most important issues to me because of my mother’s example. In living the life that she has led, she taught me that it is still possible to be a successful politician in this country without becoming corrupt. Her inviolable sense of honor happens to be the one legacy I am most proud of. Chatting with Noynoy, it suddenly struck me that his quiet, unassuming manner reminded me a little of her… If anything, his home is modest and simple, and clearly has no unnecessary frills. It is, indeed, a far cry from the homes of many politicians I’ve seen, and conveys a great deal about his scrupulous honesty.

I also appreciate the types of bills he has filed: they are clearly reform-oriented in very overarching ways. It comes as no great surprise that Noynoy became a strict fiscalizer in his time, focusing more on accountability in government appropriations and spending than anything else. Among the measures he pushed for were greater restrictions on exemptions to the requirement of public bidding and strengthening legislative oversight over executive spending. He also sought to tighten congressional oversight on the executive’s use of public funds.

More importantly, if one studies the actual bills he filed and the quality of thinking that has gone into what are clearly pro-reform views, what is more striking is how many of them were not passed. How is it that none of these (arguably stellar) initiatives -- on PNP reform; an increase in penalties for corporations and work establishments not compliant with minimum wage; the banning of reappointments to the Judicial and Bar Council; the prevention of reappointments and bypassing of the Commission on Appointments; real property valuation based on international standards; and superior responsibility for senior military officers, who are ultimately responsible for their own subordinates -- had been passed? Had they been blocked, I had to ask? These were after all not the kind of trivial initiatives one might associate with certain legislators, for instance, and could certainly have benefited the country as a whole…

Noynoy agreed with my reading, noting that the job of an effective legislator goes beyond merely proposing laws. After all, legislators have the responsibility to ensure that the checks and balances system in our government is at work as well. But he had clearly pitted himself against the administration in a score of privileged speeches that questioned the government’s alleged human rights abuses (with respect to the desaparecidos, informal settlers, marginalized groups and extrajudicial killings). He has also continued to question the misuse of public funds (ZTE-NBN, “Euro Generals” and Fertilizer Fund, etc.). So it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if he had rubbed the administration the wrong way, which would certainly explain why so many of his initiatives never saw the light of day. Clearly, he would have been threatening to many in the establishment, which further sheds light on why he was stripped of his post as Deputy Speaker for Luzon after he called for GMA’s resignation at the height of the “Hello, Garci” scandal…

This was not about the re-filing of insignificant bills, and I certainly appreciated country without becoming corrupt. Her inviolable sense of honor happens to be the one legacy I am most proud of. Chatting with Noynoy, it suddenly struck me that his quiet, unassuming manner reminded me a little of her… If anything, his home is modest and simple, and clearly has no unnecessary frills. It is, indeed, a far cry from the homes of many politicians I’ve seen, and conveys a great deal about his scrupulous honesty.

This was not about the re-filing of insignificant bills, and I certainly appreciated the assiduousness with which he doggedly pursued specific issues close to his heart, as well as his tenacity when it came to protecting his sisters….

Like all of us, of course, he is far from perfect. If there is anything I am somewhat critical of, it is how he has allowed the conflicting interest groups around him to position themselves. I am well aware that his, too, was a midnight appointment, if you will, while other forces had invested years in pushing for a Mar presidency. I also have a great deal of respect for Mar and consider him to be highly qualified. But if the surveys, funders and public response were such that it was finally deemed more expedient to have Noynoy take on the mantle, then everyone, in my humble opinion, should simply adjust accordingly, period. It is absurd for Mar to magnanimously step down while some of his more ardent supporters remain ambivalent about his decision.

Ultimately, of course, Noynoy has the command responsibility of keeping these diverse interests in line and instilling a sense of party discipline in everyone. Personally, I strongly believe in having a professional approach towards one’s political party. After all, in the end, we’re a team. Perhaps my worldview is borne of my experiences at the UN, and my affiliations have less to do with specific personalities than with specific causes. At this point, Noynoy happens to be closest to the ones I hold most dear….

I first had a sense of this lack of organization and discipline in September of last year, when I had written someone in the party from abroad to offer to help raise funds in the US. Like a great many people (some of whom are far more eminent and qualified than myself) who had offered to help, I received no response. Now this was not about a desire for recognition on the part of many; instead, it had to do with fund-raising or voter registration that could have been done, but wasn’t. A great many volunteers have walked away because they feel their views have not been adequately considered or respected; that, precisely, Noynoy’s success in this election very much depends upon his ability to look beyond his cordon sanitaire so he can understand and reflect the will of the people.

But are these high crimes and misdemeanors? Hardly. If this is all that can be said of Noynoy, then I would suggest that we’re still in pretty good shape. These issues, after all, form part and parcel of party/institution- building, and are inevitable in young, postcolonial democracies such as ours.

And, however amorphous and chaotic it might be, it is infinitely preferable to have a party culture such as this, rather than one in which only Mr. Villar, his wife and their sons get to call the shots. Infinitely preferable to have conflicting interests, still, than to watch a candidate slowly morphing into a cross between Thaksin and Berlusconi (http://lilashahani. blogspot. com/2010/ 03/concentric- circles-private- musings-on. html).


Perhaps Noynoy has resonated with such a startling number of Filipinos because he is an Every Man who precisely doesn’t come across as a bull-shit artist. At his mother’s funeral, people saw a man who was forthright and simple, and one who didn’t grandstand in his sorrow. Almost, if you will, an ethical version of Erap. Or a Ramon Magsaysay: down-home, occasionally corny, but certainly not pretentious or elitist.

As cultural theorist Marian Pastor Roces confided: “As the Tagalogs would put it, magaan sa dibdib. Mababa ang loob. Nagpapatotoo. The choice of this sort of human being is consistent with both cultural and historical notions of leadership in pre-Islamic, pre-Christian Southeast Asia… There is a large layer of our society that chooses leaders for qualities of a good loob: tapat, makatotohanan, matapang, malumanay, magalang. Between the 1980s and Cory’s funeral, there was no leader who exhibited these qualities, and Filipinos voted instead for magaling (FVR) and maka-kapwa (Erap). But they rejected GMA for being none of the above.”

The phenomenon of people power -- for all its vague and perplexing aspects – is one that Noynoy apparently understands at a deeply intuitive level. The prospect of tapping into it once again after EDSA 1 was certainly beguiling. Not for the sake of Cory and Ninoy, but for that of a much younger man (a relation, as it happens, but clearly not one who was bereft of his own convictions) -- one whose sense of vision meant that monopolies, bloated government interests and extra-judicial killings were all mightily and single-handedly being taken to task. In which case, I was exactly where I needed to be at this historic moment: as I continued writing in this gritty, fetid and occasionally glorious city, the one word that continued to hum insistently in my brain was change.

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