Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Descending into Bathos: on substance, critical thinking and the nature of the public discourse

The overarching issues

So my buddy Peter and I were grumbling over gyoza one rainy NY evening. Where are all the policy platforms?, I exhorted. Where do the candidates respectively stand on issues like the VFA, the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty, the MILF/MNLF/Abu, indigenous populations and Muslim/tribal land, land reform, free/fair trade and protectionism, family planning, corruption charges against the Macapagal-Arroyos (and the Marcoses, for that matter, although I wasn’t about to hold my breath) and the environment? What were the policy directives going forward to ensure that the post-Ondoy and Pepeng flooding fiascos never happened again? Because they would happen again, of course, since typhoons and other environmental disasters are simply a reality in our little corner of the planet. I wanted to hear more about urban planning, zoning and waste management, and had been encouraged to see Miriam DS’s efforts to at least penalize people/groups who continued to inhabit waterway intrusions.

But why did everything still have to be so dumbed down, we wondered, as if Filipinos didn’t have the equipment to understand the critical issues that informed their everyday realities and very existence? Wasn’t all this genuflection towards personality rather than party ideology -- the infernal carousel of singing and dancing and the kissing of babies -- a form of elitism that was ultimately infantilizing the public?

Because it seemed to me that the onus was on the candidates to learn to communicate these urgent concerns in ways that were directly accessible, rather than concluding that the people were incapable of comprehending them. What this has led to, regrettably, is a public discourse that often alternates between a kind of mud-slinging (which does not of course include some of our finest writers and thinkers), on the one hand, and sustained adulation, on the other. Pathos descending into bathos, it has all become a rather crass form of popular entertainment. What Peter and I wanted, in short, was a little substance.

Now Manolo Quezon might argue that we Fil-Ams in the US are complaining again about the Philippines, but I would venture to suggest that the argument stands. With OFW remittances to the Philippines likely to reach $17 billion this year -- a large bulk of which comes from the US -- the potential Fil-Am contribution to the Philippines is nothing to sniff at, particularly in terms of funds and potential votes. After all, we had all contributed a great deal to the post-Ondoy/Pepeng relief efforts, particularly in terms of mobilizing the Pinoy NGO groups here in the US. The social capital we represented was enormous (Peter is a brilliant investment analyst on Wall St, for instance), and could only be an asset to the country.

There should, moreover, be nothing wrong with demanding that the public discourse be constructive, critical, stripped of family and political loyalties, and a form of civic engagement. Because America (to use an example with which we are all no doubt familiar) -- for all its foibles and embellisments, its similar propensity to dumb things down -- had attempted to do at least that during its recent presidential debates. However problematic they eventually became, they at least presented some of the hard issues – Afghanistan, Iraq, health care, big business and gay rights, to name just a few – to a largely under-educated public.

So how was the Filipino public supposed to decide on the issues, if we could only speculate on where the candidates stood? We knew that Noynoy was for reviewing the VFA and a non-interference on family planning, and that Chiz was suddenly indignant -- out of the nether blue, it would appear -- about corruption and big business. We knew that Gibo was pro-VFA and that his stance on charter change still called for a presidential-unicameral set-up (“the Filipino people still want to elect their leaders”), while Loren continued to ride the wave of environmental concern (although, as of this writing, she has yet to decide on who she plans to run with, displaying a rather alarming absence of ideological gravitas).

The blogosphere’s primary impression of Manny V was that he had certainly milked the post-Ondoy effort for all it was worth, stamping his name on all the relief goods he had offered the typhoon victims. A decision, I might add, that struck most of us as being indescribably tacky, given the desperation of the historical moment. Erap -- well, what Erap stands for, apart from the need to vindicate himself (the hubris alone of running for that sole purpose continues to stagger me, unless he is actually an administration spoiler, strategically entering the fray when he did just to split up the opposition vote) -- is anybody’s guess. Apart from that, the public has not really heard from the candidates themselves. Clearly, we shall have to continue this discussion over the next few months.


The love letter

But before I go any further, I feel I should discuss my letter to my uncle (please see my first blog) briefly, in view of the heated response and vigorous debate it has since engendered. To say that I’m slightly overwhelmed by it -- the firestorm that has since ensued, in short -- would be a colossal understatement. I had somehow thought, like Dostoevsky’s underground man, that I would never have any readers… As of this writing, there have been at least a thousand comments on different sites (mostly on Facebook, but on others as well) and 2000 views of this new blog, even as I continue to try to make sense of an increasingly unmanageable e-mail Inbox. Clearly, I owe it to my readers to try to at least address some of the concerns they have already raised. There are apparently issues that beg clarification.

But before I do so, I’d like to thank everyone for the generous and truly heartwarming comments they have been kind enough to share with me. These are the impalpable gifts that matter, in the end, and I will be certain to cherish them forever. Because I think most of my readers ultimately understood that the letter was not in fact an anti-FVR/pro-Noynoy letter: it was, truth be told, a love letter to the Filipino people. To see it as a partisan letter – to reduce it in the crudest possible way, in fact -- is to miss some of the more profound and subtle points I was trying to raise. But more on that later.

First, I should clarify why this and why now. Well, people have been trying to get me to write for over twenty years. But I had gone to a Chinese school in Manila, and had lived in the Philippines, Romania, Australia, Austria and India as a young woman -- so which universe was I going to write about, which frozen architecture to be given life? I had gone to school in the US and the UK, and had worked both in the Philippines (CCP and UP) and in the US (Oxford University Press, UNICEF, UNDP). I had restricted my writing to my academic work and my poetry, most of which has remained entirely private. Quite simply, a writer cannot write until the writing comes. At the end of the day, you can only write about what truly matters to you. And, ultimately, you can only write about what you have truly experienced, however raw and visceral that experience might be.

And then Ondoy happened, followed by Pepeng, and I literally didn't sleep for a month. I couldn't stop following what was happening in the Philippines, even as I continued to monitor events in other parts of the world. If I had ever had any doubts about where my heart lay, I don't anymore. I suppose, after years and years of watching and waiting, of hoping for change, I had become increasingly aghast at the unspeakable excesses of GMA. Saddened, too, that many of my nieces and nephews -- that entire generation, in fact -- no longer believed in the possibilities of revolution and social change. I suppose -- after seeing the Ondoy images, the absence of lifeboats, the endless horrors of mudslides and preventable flooding -- something in me just snapped. To have the Filipino people go through this again the next time around was simply too inconceivable for words.

So I did what I thought I had to do. I wrote my uncle, because I knew that the Liberal Party machinery, particularly in the provinces, was not particularly comprehensive. The Lakas Originals (those who had moved away from Lakas-CMD-Kampi) could hypothetically carry a strong machinery with them, as well as an unparalleled international component, in view of their relations with the Social Democrats in Europe and elsewhere. So to the many people who have said: “Sino ba si FVR? Wala na siya; hindi siya kailangan ni Noynoy, etc, etc,” I would argue that, as a matter of fact, the LP very much needs all the help it can get, particularly in terms of the kinds of logistics the Lakas Originals might be in a position to provide. From a purely strategic point of view, therefore, FVR was critical (although it now appears that this hope might not have been realistic after all).

I drafted the letter and sent it to my Mom and two brothers. They had ten days to go over it. Some changes were demanded, and eventually it was approved and sent to my cousin, FVR’s daughter. But once she had it, my immediate family had a change of heart, and asked that the letter not be delivered. The exchanges were, to put it mildly, rather heated. In a nutshell, everyone in my family was pissed at me, in one degree or another. Why are you haranguing us now, particularly when 80% of Pangasinan is under water? Don’t you understand that we’re dealing with matters of great consequence??

The inadvertent allusion to the Little Prince, of course, was not lost on me. It was a lonely and very painful time. But I thought long and hard about it for a week, and concluded that I owed it to the Philippines to at least try. I decided to ask my cousin to deliver the letter. Once FVR had it, my cousins and nephew (those in the family who cared about such issues, at least as far as I knew) got copies. I waited ten days and then put it in my blog.

Since the actual letter says that I would blog it, I feel that everyone was given fair warning. There was, in my view, time enough to let me know if in fact there had been deep misgivings about my decision to make it an open letter. The cold reality is that, as the youngest and as a mere “girl” in a family such as mine, there was the very real possibility that my letter would be ignored. And I couldn’t afford that, in view of the urgent points I felt I was trying to make. Since I encountered nothing more than a stony silence throughout those ten days, I felt I had the right to make it open. Regrettably, it now appears that the letter had not been read very carefully and the import of my intention not clearly understood.

I gather that I have incurred some hurt and surprise (my uncle was kind enough to respond), and for that I am deeply sorry. But I feel that my effort to be as inclusive and democratic as possible -- rather than ignoring everyone and simply writing my own thoughts down, the way most writers do -- had been in fact rather Promethean. It was apparently harder to reach a multilateral consensus in my family than it is to do so at the UN! So I take full responsibility for my own ideas, and would add that the only real intellectual influence in the family, as far as this letter was concerned, is my brother Chanda, whose striking intelligence doesn’t always receive the credit it is due, particularly in a family such as ours, where political figures often loom larger than life. My mother and brother Ranjit, in fact, are simply much too busy with their respective activities to discuss such issues with me at length.

The other intellectual influence is my jovial and rather brilliant band of friends on Facebook – Sylvia Mayuga, Jo de Veyra, Peter Casimiro, Mac McCarthy, Marcel Antonio, Marian Roces and Oscar Campomanes – who pretty much counseled against sending the letter, although some, like Sylvia, left the decision entirely up to me. All, that is, except for my friend Jo, whose sense of integrity has been inviolable throughout. His opinion -- that there was nothing that couldn’t be discussed openly, whether in families or in the public discourse itself -- finally convinced me that it was very much the right thing to do.


Closing the circle: the implications of the response

So what was all the fuss about anyway? I say this not to sound disingenuous: yes, FVR is a former president, but so what? People blog their ideas and letters all the time, even if they happen to be relatives of famous people. What was it exactly about this little blog that appeared to captivate the public imagination? I gather many of my readers understood exactly how I felt. I would also suggest that it is precisely the lack of constructive criticism at home (at least in large measure), where substantive issues are not raised and where elders are most certainly not taken to task by younger generations -- that led to the intense collective response. Of the thousand or so comments I had to read over, the overwhelming majority where warm and supportive. Only about 10% disagreed, not all of whom were particularly civil. One was inordinately rude, although I have since gathered that his ideas are not his own as much as they are those of his financial backers. All appear to have been somewhat taken aback by a stance that was at once respectful and critical -- because the approach was so culturally new. 

The vast majority, thankfully enough, immediately recognized my love for FVR and the country of my provenance. The fact that my letter became a love letter to my country in the end, I suspect, was what had indeed struck such a deep chord. So I would suggest that we have actually come full circle here: that what Peter and I had been grumbling about over dinner might be precisely what the public is in fact now looking for. Perhaps, indeed, they are tired of media hacks casting aspersions at political personalities and are instead looking for a kind of constructive and critical debate in the public arena. It demonstrates all too well, I think, the importance of being earnest.

Perhaps what we need is precisely to go beyond personalities and their pragmatic (and often ideologically dubious) parties and coalitions. What we want is an open and substantive debate about the issues that concern us all. Not in legalese or off-putting economic jargon, mind, but in the type of language most Filipinos can absorb and appreciate. Instead of stooping to conquer, perhaps candidates might focus more on who they represent and what they are fighting for -- as opposed to the mere bottom-line. Because the stakes for our people have never been quite so high, and it is critical that we all understand what we are voting for.

What this also suggests is that we need to stop being so balat sibuyas and need to accord people with opposite points of view the space and respect they deserve. That we need to resist the parasitism that demands that candidates single-handedly solve all the problems in the country in one fell swoop. It is this very expectation of Obama in the US that may well be his undoing in the end. Indeed, all citizens are responsible for the realities around them, and everyone -- the candidates and the public -- would do well to think critically about their own positions, while responding with generosity to those of others. As Bertrand Russell would put it, "The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment." Even for non-Liberals, this has always struck me as a valuable methodology: being self-critical, at all times, and open to new information.


On constructive criticism and the public discourse

I think by now it should be fairly clear that I didn’t in fact “trash” FVR: as his niece, I was simply asking my uncle to preserve his valuable legacy. No, he was not the only hero of EDSA 1, to be sure -- the people were, without a doubt, along with Cory, Johnny E, Cagayan 200 and others – but he was most certainly a critical catalyst. Even his most strident critics will have to grant him that. So: if I can attempt to think analytically and objectively about my own family and its endless kinship system, so can we all, in my opinion. Clearly, GMA and Erap deserve much harsher criticisms than those that I had leveled against him, but I am after all not their relative (the gods being fairly decent, in the end), and for now I don’t have my own column. In this case at least, I am restricted to writing directly to those whose lives I might inadvertently touch, simply by virtue of being in my family.

What I am recommending is not so much a “my country right or wrong/my candidate right or wrong” way of looking at things. On the contrary. What I am suggesting, instead, is that we practice a kind of critical nationalism (although this only in a constructive fashion), just as we need to remain vigilant about the candidates we support. While our moral failings no doubt merit deeper sociological investigation as well, our short-term policy decisions are still very critical.

Do I romanticize Noynoy and the LP? As a matter of fact, I don’t think I do. My friends on Facebook will confirm that I questioned his candidacy from the very start, on precisely the same grounds of birthright that Patricia Evangelista has raised ("The Aquino Son," Philippine Daily Inquirer). What had he achieved on his own merits, etc, etc? Of course I was well aware of the Hacienda Luisita/CARP maneuverings, the “Mendiola massacre”, the PCGG capers, the few questionable asset sales and other issues. Where, for instance, had the funds for the Mt. Pinatubo relief and rehabilitation gone? Tita Cory, too, had had her IPP issues and some questionable sales in relation to Clark and Subic, the continued national maintenance of which she bitterly defended. Not to mention human rights questions in relation to CAFGU, Alsa Masa, Tadtad and the rise of other violent armed groups. We will always love and respect Tita Cory, but these questions should most certainly be asked, for the sake of our country’s future.

But, again, Noynoy is not Cory, just as I am not Eddie Ramos, although we no doubt love our respective families deeply. It should therefore not be assumed that we necessarily agree with them hook, line and sinker. Noynoy cannot be held responsible for decisions his parents might have made, or things that happened when he was not in office. Indeed, even after having raised the issues above, I will still say that he is my candidate (unless I learn something new that might force me to change my opinion). Because, as a public figure, he has not himself been tainted by any hint of public corruption, at least as far as I know. As my mother’s daughter, this issue happens to be deeply important to me.

In the interests of keeping the discussion constructive, I would ask the following of my preferred candidate: if Benpres, say, is one of the corporate backers of his campaign, how might this influence, for instance, his future policies on Meralco fees? Where does he stand on the issue of debt relief in general (beyond the "fraudulent loans" that the Freedom from Debt Coalition was asking Cory’s government to study and investigate)? What of the Muslim real estate problem, which is not merely a tribal lands issue, after all? What exactly is his stance on land reform, and on Hacienda Luisita in particular? And, finally, what of the charges against the Macapagal-Arroyos, not only in terms of corruption, but also in terms of tax evasion, unexplained wealth and other family abuses?

I would suggest that all Filipino citizens ask equally probing questions of their own respective candidates. We owe it to ourselves -- and the future of the country -- not to let ourselves be bribed or duped by glib and facile promises.

So: by all means, let’s elevate the public discourse and address the issues. I’m not anti-FVR, nor am I an FVR apologist, just as I am not for Noynoy no matter what. I’m a critical thinker who recognizes the merits of some actions, even while I may question others. Context, in all things, is paramount, as is specificity. Based on what I have personally seen and read, Noynoy is my candidate. But I may well change my mind, depending on the information at my behest. People are free to throw their arguments my way, and I will certainly do my best to engage with them. If you'd like me to specifically address your concerns, I would ask that you leave your comments under the blog itself, rather than on other sites, so it's a little easier for me to collate. I would ask further that you remain civil and avoid getting personal, since that is precisely not the type of discursive level we are striving for. We can all agree to differ in a courteous manner, and I am open to having my opinion changed (although I should add that I came to it fairly carefully). Perhaps then, with or without the economic incentives, more ex-pats like Peter and myself might consider coming home. Critical engagement is not only an act of respect, after all, but also an unspoken act of love.

To the candidates, I would say simply: please share your respective visions with us. The people -- intelligent and hopeful, as always -- are listening.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An open letter to FVR

Fidel V. Ramos, President of the Philippines, 1992-98

Breaking my silence finally. My new blog, which begins with an open letter -- a letter conveying a lifetime of admiration, bewilderment and the occasional sense of dismay -- to a beloved uncle.


14 October 2009

Dear Uncle Ed,

I was very relieved to hear that you were all safe and sound in the wake of Ondoy and Pepeng. But how devastating that our people had to go through two such onslaughts (particularly in Pangasinan, Ilocos and Manila -- all of which remain very close to our hearts) one after the other! I hope and pray that the flooding eventually subsides and people are rehabilitated safely. And if Napocor and the San Roque people are in fact partially responsible for the terrible flooding in Pangasinan, I sincerely hope that they are made to face their day in court.

I thought I would write you because I’m concerned about some things that have been happening at home. I am not sure who you will endorse for president but I know that it will most likely tip the balance again, much in the way that your endorsements have done in the past. I have never felt the need to write you before, although I have always carefully observed your decisions through the years.

And I certainly had questions -- questions about human rights during the martial law years, military logging under the Marcos administration, the signing of IPP contracts after the power crisis (and the high cost of electricity for consumers), the San Roque dam, PEA/Amari, the Fort Bonifacio conversion/privatization program, the VFA, the Centennial celebration, the endorsement of Joe de V and the continued support of GMA until the bitter end. I was relieved to learn that you had been cleared of any wrongdoing in the PEA/Amari case, but always wondered whether your decision to endorse Joe de V (which was after all a party decision as well) was inextricably linked to it.

Why am I bringing all this up now? Only to say that, as your niece, I have had many questions about your decisions through the years, but none that ever made me feel the need to engage with you at length. To begin with, ours was not a particularly discursive relationship. More importantly, I always felt the need to give you the benefit of the doubt, and trusted that you had the best interests of the Filipino people at heart.

And there was certainly ample evidence that you had done tremendous things in your lifetime. Not only were you a hero of EDSA 1: you had had a brilliant military career and were arguably one of the best presidents the country has ever had. Winning by only a small margin, you turned what might have been a costly liability into the success of pluralism. With liberalization and deregulation during your term, FDI increased and the economy as a whole remained strong, even throughout the Asian financial crisis. In fact, privatization, revenue generation through a VAT on luxury goods and services, working with the communist and Muslim insurgency, and focusing on OFW rights (particularly in the case of Flor Contemplacion) -- were all hallmarks of your administration, and certainly the kind of decisions my Fletcher professors would have applauded. Indeed, the suggestions of corruption were minimal, seen in the context of all your positive contributions and in comparison with preceding and succeeding presidents. Without a doubt.

But I finally had to break my silence after having watched the Ondoy aftermath with horror, realizing that our government was as much to blame for the colossal loss of life and habitation in the country as was climate change. As an engineer, you know that the flooding was also due to poor civil engineering, urban planning and zoning; lack of waste management; lack of education and corruption.

The thought of your supporting Gibo (or even a Villar/Escudero tandem, for that matter, in the event that Gibo has become too unpopular since Ondoy) was finally enough to make me put pen to paper. Without a doubt, Gibo is “incomparably competent,” but then so were Joe de V and GMA, Uncle Ed -- and look what happened. I understand that you supported GMA because you wanted macroeconomic stability in the country above all, particularly in the apparent absence of any viable alternatives.

But I think the sweep of history speaks for itself: competent candidates with strong party affiliations are not necessarily going to be good leaders, nor will they necessarily be what the people want. Because they lack a certain basic honesty, and I suspect the people sense that. If Gibo were sincere, why would he stay with Lakas-CMD, particularly now that the merger with Kampi has been honored by the Supreme Court? Surely the ruling party has been discredited at this point, in view of everything GMA has done? There really is no need to enumerate anymore: I think, by now, we’re all pretty familiar with what those things are.

Even Obama was reluctant to have an audience with her, and overseas Filipinos continue to refuse to send money to the Ondoy victims through their embassies and consulates, so deep indeed is their distrust of the government! Moreover, his performance in the post-Ondoy relief effort has hardly been stellar, as you must have already noted. Gibo is also undoubtedly backed by Danding (despite the alleged rift), which suggests that the two things that very much impede progress in our country -- monopolies and oligarchy itself -- will ultimately remain unchanged. This is ostensibly the reason why many young people remain wary of Chiz/Loren or Villar/Escudero. As for Manny V, his meteoric rise to power is nothing short of impressive, to be sure, but his proclivity for engaging in back-room deals has certainly not gone unnoticed. In short, what we see in these candidates appears to be more of the same -- a position, I might add, we can no longer afford, and certainly not at this critical moment in our nation’s history.

Of course Erap’s decision to run will split up the opposition even further, which certainly strengthens the ruling party’s hand. But perhaps my biggest fear about Gibo (apart from the very real possibility that, in subtle ways, the ruling party might cheat) has to do with the fact that charter change appears to be imminent, in which case, if GMA runs for Congress in the meantime, it is not entirely inconceivable that she could become our next Prime Minister. To be sure, you would be granted the same type of soft power you’ve been granted during GMA’s administration, but is it really worth it in the end, Uncle Ed? Do you really want to go down in history as the guy who saved GMA after “Hello, Garci” and who continued to hand the country down to its unscrupulous elite from one administration to another? Isn’t the respect of the young -- and of history itself -- the most important thing, at the end of the day? In my humble opinion, the best way to refurbish the fading Eddie brand now is to do the right thing and heed the will of the people.

Noynoy, of course, is less than perfect: we all know that. His record is remarkable only in its lack of remarkable achievements, and he certainly isn’t a particularly brilliant thinker or charismatic speaker. But he has never been tainted by any suggestions of corruption and does not appear to have the propensity to throw his weight around. He is apparently thoughtful, respectful and humble, and we can only hope that his lineage will encourage him to sacrifice for the country the way his extraordinary parents did. Because of this inimitable heritage, he is now the one candidate with the potential to unite the opposition against the ruling party. For his part, Mar is no slouch, moreover, and the Liberal Party appears to have some progressive elements.

The point is: the people are clearly tired, not just of the “bickering,” as you say, but of the trapos themselves, and are willing to bet on someone who falls very far outside the standard mold (Noynoy is, if you will, a reluctant Cojuangco, something many respect and appreciate). At any rate, I sincerely hope you will consider my thoughts -- the thoughts of a young Filipina who loves her country immeasurably -- when you make your decision.

But none of this changes my love and respect for you, Uncle Ed. I’m just sorely disappointed and hope that, for once in my life, you might actually recognize that I'm old enough to make my own assessments. Nor does this mean that I’m not a “team player.” Because my definition of teamwork is not that you command the team and everyone is thereby obligated to obey you. Instead, team members should be able to have different view points, while still working together for the greater good of the collective whole. In fact, democratic exchange within the team can often enhance the quality of its collective decisions on the whole.

I sincerely hope that you place the country over any other considerations and choose the candidate who is really best for the country, and not in terms of who might further consolidate the tremendous power you already wield.

I hope you won’t be offended by what I have written (and hope you understand if I decide to include some of these ideas in my new blog) but, at 42, I think I’m finally entitled to my own opinion, Uncle Ed. You are after all the only father figure I have ever had (although you may not know it) and I’m writing you the way I would have written my own father, had I just been given a chance.

Please take care of yourself.

Love always,



1.) Three people deserve special mention in the writing of this letter: the first is my wonderful brother Chanda, who has unfailingly shared his very deep insights into the murky inner workings and internecine warfares in Philippine politics throughout. Chand also continued to stay in touch with me when no one else in the family seemed to want to talk to me after the letter had been written. The second is my good friend Jojo de Veyra, who criticized much of the draft and defended my uncle in a number of instances, forcing me to reformulate my own positions. Both the insights of Chanda and Jo led to a revision of my original PEA/Amari reference. And, finally, Sylvia Mayuga, another dear friend, who shared much of the heartache that followed the stony silence, continuing to encourage and support me regardless of whether or not I chose to send the letter and make it public. Jo and Sylvia never stopped bugging me to write something -- anything! -- because they apparently believed in my ability to do so. Jo even went out of his way to set up this blog, since I was clearly too inept to do it myself. ;-) To all three, I remain deeply grateful.