"In societies where Robbing Hoods are treated like a celebrity it is but natural to expect political parties to act like a Mafia syndicate" Political Jaywalker "In a nation where corruption is endemic people tend to confuse due process with aiding and abetting criminals" Political Jaywalker "War doesn't determine who is right, war determines who is left" Bertrand Russell "You have just one flash flood of money, you keep your people poor. It's like a time bomb and it's scary" Philippine Lawmaker

A conversation with Noynoy

This is being re-printed with the kind permission of Philippine Graphic and refers to the April 5-12, 2010 edition. Many thanks to Inday Espina-Varona for having been such a wonderful editor throughout.)

Give five individuals you want for your cabinet, their positions and why you want them.

“We are still in the process of assessing potential candidates and are, at any rate, far more focused on winning the election right now.” (Note: Dinky Soliman’s name has already been mentioned in this regard but no other names have been brought forward.)

Do you see a need to review and modify the Visiting Forces Agreement? If you do, which parts would you like to change and what would you recommend? If not, why do you think it works just right?

“As an archipelagic country with one of the longest combined coastlines in the world, we still don’t have the ability to protect our people or our country’s strategic and economic interests. Coming to an agreement with the US on their forces in the Philippines is therefore critical. But the VFA merits further scrutiny, as the ‘Nicole’ case has shown all too well. How is our national sovereignty being protected? For that matter, it might be good to review all agreements that our government enters into so we can ensure that the interests of the Filipino people, above all, are treated as a fundamental defining principle.”

“If a Filipino is tried and found guilty in this country, shouldn’t justice dictate that he be detained in prison as a result? Regrettably, because of the VFA, an American soldier guilty of a crime is afforded the privilege of being detained at the US embassy instead. It’s high time that we looked at the VFA in its present form and asked ourselves: “Paano naman ang mga interes natin?”

“The economic provisions of the VFA should be reviewed, specifically (with respect to) the rights of Filipinos vis-à-vis those of the visiting forces… I want to review the concept of visiting. It seems that they are not actually visiting; they seem to be a permanent presence and are already in this country in violation of the law… A review would tell us which provisions we will have to alter in the VFA.”

How would your administration ensure that the amended agrarian reform law were fulfilled, both in terms of land coverage and aid for beneficiaries? What improvements are needed to make agrarian reform a more successful component of social justice and economic development?

“I have already talked to members of the Cojuangco-Aquino clan (to discuss) the turnover of (Luisita) to farm worker-beneficiaries by June 2014. We are committed to distributing the land to farm worker-beneficiaries at the end of the extended Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARPER). This is a matter of principle and not just a campaign promise.”

Do you support the current version of the reproductive health bill? If not, which provisions would you want changed and what changes would you want instituted?

“I cannot in good conscience say that (overpopulation) does not exist (in order) to appease the more conservative elements in our society. (Getting) their support should be secondary to espousing something that I believe in and that I think is right… I’m being labeled today as an abortionist for espousing education. But I’d rather defend (what) I think is right…”

“In 1986, the Philippine population was only around 50 million; in less than 25 years, we have arguably gone well beyond 90 million. Allowing our population to bloat at such an alarming pace suggests that we will not be in a position to maximize our resources or ensure that the basic needs of every citizen are met.”

(Note: Noynoy strongly supports the RH bill because he feels that it is ultimately critical for our national survival. However, it should be noted that he did not co-author the bill and has some reservations about specific provisions. The bill in its present form should be revised so it can focus more effectively on providing people with the ability to make informed choices about the future of their own families. This is primarily why he thinks the Reproductive Health bill should be renamed the Responsible Parenthood bill. He is also not in favor of abortion.)

Specific questions for Sen. Benigno Aquino III

What legislative initiatives are you proudest of, and why?

* Congressional Oversight Committee (House Resolution No. 788): creating a Congressional Oversight Committee to check and study the use of intelligence funds by government agencies. This would ensure that allocated funds are actually used for the purposes they were originally intended for.

* The Budget Impoundment and Control Act (SB 3121): impoundment refers to the power of the President to refuse the release of funds appropriated by Congress. Regrettably, this power has been used and abused by the President and, as a result, Congress’ ability to check the President’s authority has been significantly emasculated. Noynoy filed this bill so the President would have to pass through Congress every time s/he decides to impound part of the budget.

* Preservation of Public Infrastructures (SB 2035): this bill seeks to raise standards in the construction of all public infrastructures by penalizing contractors of defective infrastructures. It also requires the Bureau of Maintenance under the DPWH to conduct periodic inspections of public infrastructures.

* Amending the Government Procurement Act (SB 2160): this applies to all government procurement activities, regardless of source of funds, whether local or foreign; only treaties or international/executive agreements entered into by the government prior to its enactment should be exempt from its coverage. The bill was filed in light of the DOJ declaration regarding the validity of the NBN-ZTE deal, where its international aspect, as well as the fact that it was an executive agreement, was cited as one reason for its exemption from the procurement process stipulated in RA 9184.

Why is there a scarcity of successful legislative initiatives in your political resume? What political and work philosophies did you bring to the legislature?

“The Philippines already has decent laws. Some countries have even used some of our laws as the basis for crafting their own legislation. What is far more critical is the implementation gap, which is ultimately beyond the scope of the legislative branch alone. Often, the gap has to do with corruption itself.”

Just how do you solve the problem of Hacienda Luisita?

“I would ultimately like to transfer Luisita to the farmer-beneficiaries themselves. The question is: how to transfer the assets without passing on debts that have been incurred? Unfortunately, the corporation’s financial obligations have surpassed its income, thereby incurring debts. But the turnover should be ‘debt-free’ to allow the farmers to begin without any financial baggage.”

“At P 10.00 per square meter, that would be P 4.5 billion for 4,500 hectares. That would certainly take care of our debts… But if we do that, the 10,000 farmers will only get less than one hectare and that would not be enough for a single individual, much less an entire family, to live on. It would not necessarily be in the best interests of the 10,000 farmer-beneficiaries…”

“In working out a solution on the Luisita issue, 75% of the shareholders of HLI, which would include the farmer-beneficiaries, should agree to any plan.” (Note: only 1/32 of Luisita stock shares actually belong to Noynoy himself, so he does not necessarily exercise direct influence over the rest of the shareholders.)

How do you intend to solve the country's fiscal deficit without raising taxes? Is an anti-corruption campaign enough to wipe away the deficit? How soon would the nation see the effects of your anti-corruption campaign?

“In addressing the looming fiscal crisis, good governance and the drive against corruption are critical components of our strategy. We will refrain from imposing new taxes or increasing tax rates. I strongly believe that we can collect more taxes at the BIR and higher duties at Customs if we become more serious in curbing and punishing tax evasion and smuggling. The BIR’s collection dropped by 5.5%, while that of Customs declined by 16.6%. This is the first time in recent history that absolute revenues have actually declined.”

What would your working style be like as Chief Executive?

“As much as possible, I’d like to base my major decisions on a consultative process throughout, and keep myself open to constructive feedback. With judicial reforms and regular monitoring of the bureaucracy, I hope to instill professionalism and a checks and balances system as an integral aspect of my working style. People power in one form or another, as well as a positive approach, will be nurtured...”

What are your fondest personal memories of your father and mother?

“I have vivid memories of going horseback-riding with my father in Baguio as a child – we had a lot of fun…”

On his father’s death: “there was a time when the New Testament in the Bible didn’t apply to me. I felt a deep sense of rage at the marked injustice that had been my father’s life. But when I finally came home and saw how people had responded to his death, I began to feel faith, humility and a deep appreciation once again…”

On his mother: “above all, I remember her kindness and thoughtfulness throughout…”

What are your favorite rest and recreation activities? Who usually accompanies you in these?

“I enjoy music, billiards, shooting and both Chinese and Japanese food. I tend to be surrounded by people…”

Describe each of your sisters and the role each plays in your life. If you win the Presidency, what roles would each sister play? Who would step in as official hostess?

“Ballsy is the ate, the second mother, the family sounding-board. Pinky is my hyperactive sibling. Viel is steady and quiet, while Kris tends to speak her mind…”

There seems to be discord among the disparate forces supporting your candidacy. How do you navigate the political, class and ideological fault lines?

“This is inevitable, since most of my supporters are voluntary. But I have already begun to reach out to those who came forward and volunteered when I first announced my candidacy -- beyond the circle of political veterans I have known throughout my entire political career.”

Personal essay

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. 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 stage in the game that he even held any promise? To his credit, my uncle had been the one family member who continued to respond to my constructive criticisms with the largesse of a consummate professional. While he may not have fully understood 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 realpolitikbottom 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. 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 thedesaparecidos, 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…

So 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.

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.


Lila Ramos Shahani
March, 2010

LILA Shahani - I grew up in the Philippines, Romania, Australia, Austria, Kenya and India. I did my undergrad at Brown and went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts for my MA. Places of work: CCP, UP, Oxford University Press, UNICEF and UNDP. I'm currently an editor for the UN in NY and also a doctoral candidate at Oxford. This article by Sylvia Mayuga might explain a little about some of the more impalpable stuff: please click here. Meanwhile, this is the short, online version of a recent book on Amartya Sen and human development that I co-edited; the authors were primarily Oxford scholars.

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