Street Talk – No place for heroes

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Ramon was a lawyer and a customs examiner at the Manila International Airport (before it was renamed NAIA). But he was not your typical “custom-built” civil servant. He owned an old car and a small house and his wife called him “stupid” behind his back, because he had not enriched himself, which was what Customs examiners were expected to do.

Ramon also felt uneasy whenever people handed him gifts for helping facilitate their shipments. He would occasionally accept modest items like a bottle of scotch or a ream of cigarettes – but not without protesting that the gifts were unnecessary because he was simply doing his job. Expectedly, his fellow examiners resented his “hypocrisy.”

Ramon’s wife never doubted his sincerity but felt that a one-time binge (minsan lang) was forgivable. But he would have none of that.

At a chance meeting I had with Ramon in Makati, he told me that he had resigned from the Bureau of Customs and had accepted a job in Iloilo as a judge. He confessed that he could no longer guarantee that he could continue to resist the “minsan lang” temptation.

I met Ramon years later on one of my visits to Manila. I learned that he was doing well as a judge, drove a brand new car, had a new house, and his wife had stopped calling him stupid. Rather awkwardly, he confided that he finally “gave in to the temptation.”

“One time?” I asked.

Ramon shook his head. We changed the subject.

Another fellow, whom we shall call Ray, happened to accompany some old friends to our house in Daly City, shortly after my family and I had relocated to the US. Ray and his family were also new immigrants.

Ray was curious about why we had moved to the US, giving up my job as CEO of a large ad agency in Manila. I said it was to seek better opportunities for our four children. I felt that I had already achieved my modest goals in life and that it was their turn to get their breaks. We decided to send them to college in the US.

Rey confided that he had been a member of the provincial board in an Eastern Visayas province but he had resigned to join his wife in the US. She was a doctor and had found a job in a hospital in Chicago.

He said he was looking for “honest opportunities” and had given up seeking them in the Philippines.

“I could have made a lot of money,” he said. “I just needed to ‘play the game,” like the governor and the other officials.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

“My position did not pay enough for our needs,” he explained, “but people didn’t believe that. They would hang around the house and the office, asking me for money for their children’s tuition, weddings, burials, hospitalization, and for living expenses. They actually felt entitled because they had voted for me.”

Ray continued. “They wouldn’t believe that I was not rich – but worst of all, they wouldn’t believe that I was not making money ‘on the side,’ like the other officials.”

That was the unkindest cut of all.

“Everyone assumed that I was also corrupt.” Ray complained. ”I decided to give up.”

It has often been said that government service in the Philippines is no place for heroes. The experiences of Ramon and Ray would appear to confirm that.

It has also been said that in America, corruption doesn’t pay. At this late stage of my life, I believe I have seen and experienced enough to acknowledge that things aren’t as cut and dried as that.

First of all, there are heroes in the Philippines. Of course, they are a rarity – but they actually exist.

I have just read about the young mayor of Pasig City. Victor Sotto, who was one of twelve public officials and community leaders honored by the US State Department as “International Anti-Corruption Champions.”

Notably, the other honorees also come from Third World countries, some notorious for corruption: Albania, Ecuador, The Federated States of Micronesia, Guatemala, Guinea, India, Iraq, the Kyrgyz Republic, Libya, Sierra Leone and Ukraine

The US State Department initiated the honors, in line with the objectives of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Yet, ironically America has its share of corrupt public officials.

But neither the Philippines nor the US has a monopoly of corrupt, lying, cheating and double-dealing politicians. Indeed, the world is full of snakes. Even the Garden of Eden had them.

In truth, it is because of the prevalence of villains that heroes stand out. It is because of the temptations posed by snakes that integrity and honesty, nobility and strength of character are so admired and honored.

America has just survived four years of chaos under a president who epitomizes the quintessential villain, the serpent who would bite its own mother, the Sivana Jr to Captain Marvel, the Luther to Superman, the Joker to Batman, the buck-passer who would grab credit and deny any fault, the liar who can’t even tell himself the truth.

This was a president who mishandled a pandemic and, in effect, presided over the death of over half a million Americans – more than the total casualties suffered by the US in all the wars the country has fought – and yet over 75 million US citizens voted to give him a second term and over 56 million believe he should have won but was cheated. These people genuinely believe that Donald Trump is America’s redeemer.

The Philippines has also been bitterly disappointed by would-be redeemers who turned out to have feet of clay; a heroine who emerged as the hope of a bloodless revolution but who was suspected of allowing her kin to continue the plunder; and a son who was hailed as a virtual Messiah, but turned out incompetend and weak.

And now, the country has a president who is loathed for being vulgar, feared for being tyrannical, but admired for being down-to-earth and for getting things done.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s term is expected to end in 2022 – unless his surrogates in the Senate and the House of Representatives succeed in changing the Constitution to keep him in office.

Meanwhile, communications manipulators in Malacanang and the Legislature, as well as hired guns in media and the usual trolls in social media have been purposely muddying the waters, so that it’s difficult to know the truth.

Supporters of Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, has made noises about her running for president. Her father says she won’t but appears to have endorsed her for vice-president and running mate of Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos.

The son of the late dictator, who is depicted as Philippine history’s super villain, would have the country believe that he is the New Redeemer of the country.

We had better hope and pray that he will be. Armed with the oratorical gift of his father, alleged billions in campaign funds, plus the regional loyalty of Northern Luzon, Eastern Visayas and Mindanao, Bongbong Marcos would be a formidable candidate.

Aren’t there any heroes who can stop this surge? Of course there are individuals who theoretically would fit the presidency.

But it seems that when it comes to the presidency, the Philippines is no place for heroes.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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