Father's Son - Miracles of Quiapo by Ingming Aberia

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Let the Magalong buzz begin

Let the Magalong buzz begin was also published by The Manila Times on 19 July 2023.

Former police officer now Baguio City mayor Benjamin Magalong.

I saw Ping Lacson's tweet: "We may have found a probable future leader our country needs. Yet, for what he stands and fights for versus the 'new normal' in Philippine politics, will he be electable as one?"

Former Senator and Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Lacson was referring to former PNP General and now Baguio City Mayor Benjamin B. Magalong whose anti-corruption soundbites recently made the rounds in media. Corruption in government is well-known. From scholarly studies, court cases, congressional investigations, investigative and fact-finding reports, etc. that document specific cases of corruption, one can see the rot everywhere. But people have probably developed immunity from the stink—which is what Lacson may have meant when he talked about "new normal"—they no longer seemed bothered by it. Corruption in "Love the Philippines" is no longer abnormal. 

Perhaps what makes Magalong's diatribes feel like a puff of fresh air is that he is talking from personal knowledge. In a media interview, he said, among other things, that:

"I had a chance to talk to several contractors. I asked them assuming that I will take cuts from infrastructure projects, how much will it be? And they said about 10 percent to 15 percent or 20 percent to 25 percent, depending on the decision of the mayors or the lawmakers."

Since everyone wants to have a cut—he says "members of the Bids and Awards Committee receive commissions, as do other individuals involved in the decision-making for projects"—Magalong explained that “only about 45 percent to 52 percent will be left (to the actual contractor and project). In short, if the project is worth P100, they said 'Sir, we will have to settle for P42.50 to P55', including their profit so they will be forced to make substandard projects.”

One may add that public goods (such as infrastructure facilities) and services are not only substandard. They take more time than necessary to finish. A close look at the details of the annual budget of government at any level (national, provincial, city, municipal, barangay), will likely show that placeholders exist for "multi-purpose buildings"; or "multi-purpose pavements"; and other recurring expenses. Turn-key one-time budgets for those kinds of projects are just not enough for the feeding
frenzy at the crocodile farm.

Thieves collaborate not only across organizations. They work together along hierarchical lines as well. Back in the day when I worked with local government units as staff of a foreign-funded project, a municipal mayor told me that the request for release of financial assistance allocations by the budget department required grease "everybody happy" money.

Congress is poised to deliberate on the 2024 national budget worth around Php5.77 trillion. It is 9.5 percent higher than this year's budget of P5.2 trillion. Surely this again should raise the mood meter at the farm—never mind that private gain will come at a cost, as always, of public pain. Taxpayers will bear the brunt of paying for amortization and interest of public debt that will finance as much as 42 percent of next year's budget. The planned borrowing exposure is bigger by 12 percent than this year's total debt. Magalong rues that while congressional pork barrel funds have been outlawed by the Supreme Court, members of Congress continue to get away with buffet rounds of full serving.

“The way they dispose of it is institutional. Some congressmen have several projects and roads but the bidding was rigged. You can check the profile of some legislators and LGU executives – many of them are contractors and suppliers. They get a percentage and they also get the projects as contractors.”

Magalong's lament needs to be contextualized in how government allocates its resources, foregoes potential revenues, prioritizes spending, and consequently how it manages possible conflicts that may arise from competing interests. Addressing PNP personnel at Camp Crame, he said:

“We, in the uniform service, are willing to give up a small amount of our pension just to help the national government, just to address this huge deficit, just to address this big national debt. Let’s wait to see what our brave legislators have to say… Hopefully, one of them will come out in the open… It is about time that legislators should also give a big contribution to address national government issues, especially on our financial debts.”

Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno earlier raised the alarm of a "fiscal collapse" unless government is able to reverse the rate at which it provides financial support to the pension system for military and uniformed personnel (MUP). The national budget has allotted P213 billion this year and as much amount for next year. It can balloon to a trillion pesos by 2035, according to Diokno, which can eat up a sizable portion of the budget itself.

Pension systems require young people to pay so that the old ones can enjoy their retirement benefits. The MUP pension system is odd because, unlike the Government Service Insurance System and Social Security System members who must contribute to the common pension fund until age 60, MUPs are not only exempted from paying contributions at all to the pension fund, but they also retire at the age of 56. Even if MUPs in active service do pay (as government proposes in its MUP reform agenda) the enjoying old would still outnumber the paying young.

The MUPs are of course blameless if it now appears they are ripping off government. Previous administrations, especially during the martial law years of the first Marcos government, have accorded the troopers with preferential treatment over other mortals. Perhaps there was no other way to manage discontent among men in uniform. The Cory Aquino government that followed the first Marcos government tried to experiment with other options and ended up being rocked by at least 9 bloody coup attempts.

Unease among military men that percolate into confrontation with authority often arise from perceived irregularities within their ranks and the civilian government in general. The military revolt that morphed into the Filipino-trademarked People Power in 1986 was initially a revolt against corruption and favoritism. Magalong himself has served time for an alleged participation in an attempt to topple the Gloria Arroyo government in 2006. (Her government barely survived after the "Hello Garci" scandal erupted in 2005.)

Magalong has a consistent record (probably a unique one) of advancing the truth over self-interest. An investigation he led about the 2015 Mamasapano incident that claimed the lives of 67 government troopers and local rebels came out with a report that implicated his superiors, namely PNP chief Alan Purisima and President Benigno Aquino III, for misconduct. In 2019, he testified against then PNP Chief Oscar Albayalde in a Senate investigation, charging the latter for “protecting police officers involved in a drug trade.”

Magalong’s impeccable governance record as a police officer and an LGU chief executive, done with integrity, competence and courage, makes him the leader our country needs. Hopefully we can follow his example regardless of whether he submits himself to a national vote in the future or not.

Don't sell what you sell

Don't sell what you sell was also published by The Manila Times on 2 August 2023.

President Bongbong Marcos 2023 State of the Nation Address. Photo by RTV Malacanang.

Advertising oneself is fine. In a motivational talk, Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Terminator” in movieland and former California, USA Governor in politics) said: "Work like hell and advertise." After having put in the work, it is fair to tell the world what we have to offer and put a price tag to it. Getting ahead in life for the work that one is good at doing, or even building a fortune from it, is a fair reward for his or her effort.

The keyword is work. The amount and level of standard of work that we put in—among other resources such as technology, method, capital, etc., which a production process may require—determine the quality of products or services we offer. How clients benefit from products is a function of quality; how they get to know we have an offer is a function of advertising or messaging.

The offer of quality needs constant backing, as any marketing expert will tell us. Whenever we offer substandard fake products, our reputation suffers. Soon we eventually lose our customers or clients (or publics, in the world of politics). 

To stay in the game and prosper, marketing experts further advise us that offers of quality are not enough. We need to earn customers' trust everyday by always delivering on a promise and building positive long-term relationships with them.

Speaking of offers, Jon Leger, a highly successful online marketer, has this to say:

"Here's an advertisement we saw recently, outside a hair salon: "We don't sell haircuts. We sell smiles and confidence.

"Their product is haircuts. But what they are selling is the result for the customer. Read that again, because it's an age-old secret to marketing!

"You might have heard it as "sell the sizzle, not the steak".

"If you're a meat eater, do you want an 8oz steak?

"Or would you prefer prime choice, succulent, juicy and mouth-wateringly tender steak from grass reared herds, marinated in the finest red wine reduction and served with a medley of garden-fresh vegetables?

"Which is likely to make you think about the taste sensation? Which is more likely to make you think about the experience you want to have?

"Which is likely to sell for more money!

"8oz steak, vegetables. Accurate, factual and BORING. It doesn't engage the emotions, or the imagination.

"DON'T sell what you're selling - sell what it does for your customer.

"Sell the smiles and confidence, not the haircut!"

In his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 24 July 2023, President Bongbong Marcos tried to sell "Bagong Pilipinas," supposedly the new name for his brand of leadership and governance.

If he were a barber, did he sell a new hairstyle or did he bring smile and confidence to his publics?

He cited glowing figures that are, however, hardly relatable to people on the street. His re-assuring numbers about inflation—going down from 8.7 percent in January to 5.4 percent in June—do little to provide a breathing room for household spending, especially among the poor. The snapshot on economic growth is deceptive. He said the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 7.6 percent in 2022 was the highest 1976. But he did not mention that GDP decelerated by 9.5 percent in 2020 largely because of the pandemic. This means that we need to grow faster than that to be able to say we are on our way to economic recovery.

I need time and more details to understand what he means when he said the “digital economy” has contributed about 10 percent to the GDP. But we can assume as well that automated machines do displace people in the workplace, and government needs to catch up on regulatory frameworks that govern a digital economy, including taxation of robots.

On revenue generation, the mention of economic benefits from gambling (PAGCOR and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes) is something that no one should be proud of. Instead, there needs to be a more elaborate tribute to diaspora surplus (OFW remittances), which also accounts for a tenth of GDP. Often discriminated against and sometimes physically and verbally abused—from the Middle East to New York subways—our overseas contract workers have been the anchor whenever external shocks and internal headwinds batter the economy. The country’s labor export is one single factor that gives government confidence to be able to repay its debt in the future, just as foreign powers like China and the US draw their confidence from exports of their war products.  

With accomplishments that he could attribute to his government and a bucketful of wish list, the SONA’s overall message is to rally support for his vision of rebuilding the nation from its social, political, and economic ruin. He said: “I know that the state of the nation is sound and is improving…. Dumating na po ang Bagong Pilipinas.”

It remains to be seen whether he succeeded or not in getting his message across, in ways that engage the people’s emotion and imagination.

Selling an administration well is important because it keeps the people inspired and excited. The taxpayers, especially, would be inspired to open their wallets and pay with no remorse whatsoever, willingly, without need for the police to drag them to court.

People are inspired to work like hell and do something more for themselves, their families, and their communities.

An inspired citizenry also keeps people in government motivated. Civil servants perform at a level that is expected of them. They show respect when dealing with their clients. As a culture of integrity takes root, they become models of professionalism; they take courage and blow the whistle when irregularities take place.

While a rebranded Philippines raises extra expectations, the old unmet ones should remain a priority. For the business sector, people expect a consistent application of government regulations, cutting of red tape, mitigation of corrupt practices and influence peddling, and a lasting solution to peace and order problems.

For most of the population who are poor, we expect equity. In many cases, except in times of emergency, the poor do not need dole outs. They need access to basic services and opportunities. Investments in education and health care that promote social levelling remain important. The level of their participation in the development process largely determines the viability and sustainability of those investments. The new governance brand will require the transformation of constituents from being beneficiaries to being decision makers.  

For everyone else, there is expectation that leaders will lead by example, with a work ethic that inspires less of gambling and more of honest means of livelihood.

To the brink

Former president Rodrigo Duterte.

"To the brink" was also published by The Manila Times on 7 February 2024.

Former president Rodrigo Duterte has a reputation of being a strong man and a strong mouth, although no one could tell which one preceded the other.

At a “prayer” rally in Davao held on 28 January 2024, he was at his usual blabbering self as he denounced attempts to change the constitution through people’s initiative.

He addressed the troublemakers and prepped a junta-like takeover by the military:

“Wala kayong prinsipyo, mukhang pera kayong lahat. 'Yan ang totoo. Kaya ang gusto ko pag nagka-letse-letse na, pumasok ang military…palitan ninyo lahat, arestuhin ninyo kasi nagsasayang ng pera at yung ginagastos nila is a fraud. Swindling ang ginawa nila. You must account for the wasted money or the money that you bought the signature of the Filipino…bribery."

Reminiscent of his calling Richard Gordon being “a fart away from disaster,” he asked: “Bakit pumasok sa utak ninyo 'yang people’s initiative? Anong nakain ninyo? There’s nothing wrong with the Constitution right now." He charged that the true agenda of people behind the people’s initiative was to perpetuate themselves in power.

In his diatribe against Gordon, who was a sitting senator at the time and had criticized him for the series of appointments of retired military officials to key civilian positions in government, Duterte was referencing brain cells that dripped towards the visceral parts, ready to bomb out as the dreaded smelly air. Gordon also chaired the Senate committee that probed anomalies in the procurement of COVID 19 supplies involving Pharmally Corporation, eventually drafting a report that recommended the filing of plunder charges against Duterte, among others, as soon as he stepped out of office.  

In keeping with the grain of the metaphor, the two separate public rallies two Sundays ago had the flair of two camps trying to out-fart each other. Another serving of that kind could well drive either of them to the brink of aborting a partisan union, if a divorce has not yet happened, flirting disaster for a political marriage that has been arranged for convenience in the first place.

One wonders why these show of forces—one organized by Malacañang in Manila and the other by a Malacañang-like overlord in Davao—needed to be mounted on the same day when both camps had at least 700 days left in the calendar to square off for the next mid-term elections. The inuendo is that neither event was a prayer rally nor a kick-off blast, but one to sieve which of the freeloading minions were friend or foe. The likes of Gloria Arroyo and other prominent politicians that joined Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.  in the Manila rally have been known to aim for the best of both worlds, but the required logistics kept them from wielding the perfect art and the practice of traditional politics. 

The opposition to charter change is best left at the hands of anyone other than Duterte. While in power, he tried but failed to revise the constitution. In 2019 media interview, he called the 1987 Constitution provision on the country’s exclusive economic zone “senseless and thoughtless,” further defaming it as a piece of “toilet paper.”

The use of what his spokesperson described as yet another metaphor came out in the context of a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that “China’s claim—including its nine-dash line, recent land reclamation activities, and other activities in Philippine waters—were unlawful.” China trashed the ruling and, consistent with its snub of the proceedings that led to the decision, did not recognize PCA’s jurisdiction on the issue, a position that China has since defended by taking bullying and aggressive actions to the detriment of the Philippine government’s exercise of sovereignty.

The treacherous bent of the man showed throughout the whole time he represented the country. But no one in Congress dared to impeach him, probably out of fear from losing either physical or financial wellbeing, or both.

Two days after his expletive-littered rant, he called for the secession of Mindanao from a sovereign country whose constitution provides that its territorial integrity is inviolable.

When he was president, he bombed Marawi City to its ground to kill rebels who espoused the same cause. What makes Duterte and the Maute group different is that the latter employed arms to achieve their ends, although he reportedly got licenses for more than 300 firearms two weeks before he stepped down from office.

Duterte warned that President Marcos, Jr. risked being ousted from power unless the latter stopped the charter change drive, perhaps suggesting that public opposition to it constitutes the magnitude of the 1986 people power revolution that toppled the government of his father, the late Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. Despite the obscene manner by which the people’s initiative has been undertaken, I would think that the warning seems presumptuous at this point. The Joseph Estrada parallel is closer to this case—he who fell from power on account of greed and betrayal among friends.    

I would also attribute to friendship as the force that allowed the burial of the late president Marcos, Sr. at the Libingan ng Bayani, as well as the dodging from jail time for convicts like his wife Imelda Marcos and those charged for plunder like Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Gloria Arroyo, among others. 

The charge that Bongbong Marcos Jr. is a drug addict, debunked promptly by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), was probably meant to mount a compelling call to action.

Duterte knows if he has been lying all his life, otherwise he discriminates if his drug war killed thousands of drug suspects while the one he believes is a user beyond doubt lives another day to in fact rose to succeed him. In the end, whether he or PDEA is a liar is of lesser consequence than the troubled mind his blabbering strong mouth has exposed.   

President Marcos rebrands his administration

The harder the government presses to sell “Bagong Pilipinas” (New Philippines), the easier it is to recall old, broken promises. 

A few months after President Bongbong Marcos assumed office, he issued an Executive Order and a Memorandum Circular launching the “Bagong Pilipinas Campaign as the Administration's Brand of Governance and Leadership.” Dated 3 July 2023, the Circular defines Bagong Pilipinas as “the overarching theme of the administration’s brand of governance and leadership, which calls for deep and fundamental transformations in all sectors of society and government and fosters the State’s commitment towards the attainment of comprehensive policy reforms and full economic recovery.” The directive also calls for all national government agencies to use communication tools with the “Bagong Pilipinas” logo.

The punch line of a well-received State of the Nation Address he delivered before Congress on the same month proclaimed that the “Bagong Pilipinas has arrived”. 

Amusing how the organizers of the event at the Luneta on 28 January 2023 could call it “kick-off rally” when Malacañang has already kicked around much of the pre-selling. It was a show meant to entertain a crowd. However, instead of charging fees for those who wished to be entertained by it, some were paid just to make themselves available to become part of the audience. They even lured the destitute which, in another place, should be a win for humanity. Prior to the event, the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) announced that the Department of Social Welfare and Development would distribute cash to beneficiaries of its Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations program.

Reports said that by the time President Bongbong Marcos stood up to deliver his speech (serving as the highlight of the event, everything else were mounted to lead eyes and ears to it), crowd estimates ranged from 200,000 to 450,000. Among other things, he told the crowd that ‘sa Bagong Pilipinas, bawal ang waldas’ (in English, wasteful spending is not allowed in New Philippines, or something to that effect) in a show that cost the taxpayers at least Php29 million, according to PCO records. Of these expenses, Php5.3 went for “Entertainment Services”. It will probably take an eternity for the Commission on Audit months to count the total cost spent for per diems given to government employees who were required join the rally as these kinds of expenses are normally not reported as such.

What marketing for the new brand does is present an improvement offer, which forces people to admit past failures. The future of Bagong Pilipinas struggles to glimmer against the backdrop not only of a predecessor’s rule who envisioned a “Bagong Lipunan” (New Society), but also by the profile of a profligate, lying, and allegedly thieving younger version of the successor.

Reconciling the fresh rebrand with the mascot’s record is a challenging task. Marcos Jr. has been known for his profligate spending while attending college abroad, also at the taxpayers’ expense of course, which included support for a party-going lifestyle, watching Formula 1 races and rock band concerts, an addiction that he indulges in up to this day. Just recently, he watched an out-of-town concert using a publicly funded chopper for transport.

He claimed to have earned a bachelor’s degree at Oxford University in London, only to balk when the school debunked the accuracy of the claim.

Citing a Supreme Court decision, a former commissioner of the now-moribund Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) said during the 2022 electoral campaign period that then presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos was responsible for “hiding the wealth his family unlawfully acquired during the administration of his late father.” A 2003 Supreme Court ruling established the "undeniable circumstances" and an "avalanche" of documentary evidence against the Marcoses who, the same ruling said, “failed to prove they lawfully acquired $658 million plus interest deposited in Swiss bank accounts.”

An article featured in the University of the Philippines’ Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies published photocopies of Swiss Credit Bank documents that showed his parents (Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and Imelda Marcos) had signed with fictitious names as William Saunders and Jane Ryan, respectively. An account with Citibank in New York in the name of Fernanda Vazquez has also been suspected of being owned by Imelda.

The PCGG estimated that the Marcos family's ill-gotten wealth amounted to billions of US dollars, from a low of 5 billion to a high of 10 billion. The government has reportedly recovered a total of Php170 billion (or around 3 billion dollars in today’s exchange rate) of the stained money since 1986.

When the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr. became president in 1965, the Philippines and South Korea have almost identical Gross Domestic Product per capita incomes. Since then and up to the point of his outer in 1986, World Bank data in current US dollar shows that South Korea’s per capita annual income had risen to $ 2,800, while that of the Philippines wallowed at $600. The average in the rural areas was even worse, hovering at about $100. (For context though: the widening gap between the two countries accelerated even after the Marcos Sr. years, suggesting that Marcos was not entirely the problem.) Equally noteworthy were his outputs in putting up infrastructures, although mostly funded by scandal-marred foreign borrowings) which continue to provide public benefits up to this day.     

Governments at all levels, regardless of who the president is, have never been corrupt free, yet even dirty money may find its way back into the hands of honest labor, helping stimulate economic activity in poor communities. What distinguished corruption during the Marcos Sr. era was that his cronies brought their loot out of the country at the first sign of incoming turbulent weather, perhaps typified by the Dewey Dee caper in 1981. Reportedly fronting Marcos Sr., Dee left the country with millions of unpaid debts, igniting a bank run that further stomped the economy already wobbly under the weight of kleptocracy and overall public distrust in his administration. Inflation rate in 1984 leveled at 50 percent, and as what pollster Mahar Mangahas described as a rare mood meter reading, the pessimists (30 percent) outnumbered the optimists (26 percent).

And yet recovering the stolen money was not the biggest issue then, contrary to what many cash-strapped Filipinos would want history to be written; it may not still be even now. While much of the hidden wealth issue remains unresolved and the stealing of public funds remains rampant up to this day, it is the murder of people that hurts the soul of the nation. The wounds inflicted by state-sanctioned summary killings are beyond healing; the psyche that drives the killings today are likely to be farts (to use a Rodrigo Duterte metaphor) of a residual anger generated by armed conflicts that happened during the dark days of martial law. We have seen enough to know that summary killings and other quick fixes of law enforcement that oversteps due process create more problems than what they intend to address.

The present administration has so much work to do to address the failures of the past, particularly in the protection and promotion of human rights. Facing up to the same broadside of mass murder that blighted the Duterte administration will determine if Bagong Pilipinas is true to its meaning or, like the kick-off rally, it is all for show.

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Let the Magalong buzz begin

Let the Magalong buzz begin was also published by The Manila Times on 19 July 2023. Former police officer now Baguio City mayor Benjamin Ma...

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