Beating dickheads

I KNOW EXACTLY how you feel. I see you at the brekkie table, reading a newspaper. You – a decent citizen, a reasonably informed voter, patriotic in your own quiet way. I know exactly, because I’m the same. Whether it was Julia Gillard and Labor who got your goat, or Tony Abbott and the Liberals who make you spew, the urge is universal: you sit at breakfast and poke your finger once, twice, thrice into the newsprint or touch screen. You turn, tongue-tied, head shaking, managing only to say to your spouse: What a dickhead!

This is natural. Healthy. A reasonable defence mechanism. We all feel disenfranchised, from time to time. From election to election, it’s like our vote is ultimately useless. Like our choices are always only the lesser of a few evils. Because what else can we do?

Every nation has its unfair share of dickheads, douchebags, dingleberries and degenerates. But my country, the Philippines, bests most in democratic tomfoolery. My entire life, a panoply of perfidious politicians have reigned, inheriting or bequeathing unchallengeable dynasties. Congress, Senate, governorships, mayoralties and even the presidency are but a game of musical chairs (which function, yes, like thrones).

The roots of this are deep. They pre-date our republic. The Filipino archipelago, a colony of Spain for more than three centuries, watched its revolution and independence stolen by its ally, the United States. The Americans saw in our islands a strategic and economic opportunity and waged a bloody war in which massacres and waterboarding were used for conquest while education and democracy were wielded to win hearts and minds. Into positions of power were placed members of the local elite – neither the best nor the brightest, but usually the most co-operative. If this sounds familiar, you are not off. As was once said by Mark Twain (who, incidentally, protested US imperialism in the Philippines): ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ The recent nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan echoes the Philippines, just as the same surnames recur in Filipino politics throughout the last century. Some things never change.

Yet presidents and their pundits will always declare that things are improving. On the face of it, they’re not lying. The Philippines is no longer the sick man of Asia. Our middle class is expanding. Our workers are prized all over the world. The country is politically stable compared to our neighbours. The administration of our current president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, has cracked down on corruption, most notably on a scandalous pork-barrel scam implicating a dozen powerful senators and more than a score of congressmen. And, best of all, the Philippine economy is booming.

But the same families maintain a stranglehold on power while the gap between rich and poor widens. Monopolies, nepotism, tax evasion, protectionism, erratic regulation (too little where it’s needed, too much where it’s not) and personal relationships between business and policy makers continue to bloat the wealth of the political and non-political elite alike.

A recent study by economist Cielito Habito said that the forty richest Filipinos account for three-quarters of the country’s GDP growth – the highest in Asia. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, this contrasts with Thailand, whose swankiest forty are behind a third of GDP growth. Malaysia’s fattest forty account for just 5.6 per cent, while Japan’s drive a mere 2.8 per cent. Meanwhile, the top two Filipinos on Forbes magazine’s rich list account for around $18.8 billion – 6 per cent of my country’s wealth. This was contrasted with the bottom quarter of Filipinos, who live on hardly a dollar a day. That’s twenty-five million people, more than the population of Australia, living on less than a buck. This ratio, the Inquirer reported, ‘was little changed from a decade earlier’.

But what’s more insidious than the ongoing saga of unequal growth and governmental thievery is how the Filipino elite has systematically engineered legislation and the mechanisms of government to protect its control. Some examples: the heft of the Philippine Catholic bishops scuppered for twelve years any real reproductive health initiatives. A Freedom of Information Act has languished in the legislature. Defamation is criminalised and carries stiff prison sentences. Offending religious feelings is punishable by jail. And a popular anti-dynasty bill stands no chance of even making it through the lower house of Congress. Meanwhile, top senators recently admitted that it’s not so much religion that keeps the Philippines the world’s last country where divorce is illegal, it’s that many male politicians (with their mistresses and additional families) do not wish to risk paying alimony to unhappy former wives.

Such is the evidence that the separation of powers remains a quaint myth. Party lines aren’t even drawn from ideology but from personality and political expediency. Checks and balances just aren’t sympatico with bank cheques and account balances. The system is geared accordingly. The president alone has the power to appoint hundreds of prominent officials, including judges, chiefs of departments and bureaus, heads of task forces and the mid- to top-level brass of the armed forces. The ability of the president’s anointed ones to appoint others extends our commander-in-chief’s influence into many thousands of key positions.

WHY WOULD ANYONE in power seek to change what clearly works for them? That is why our dynasties put the 1980s soap opera to shame: clans control cities, districts, entire regions. They seem to be familial fiefdoms because they are.

To this, asks the regular Filipino – a decent citizen, a reasonably informed voter, patriotic in her or his quiet way – what can we do? What is left to be done but poke our fingers into the newspaper and shake our heads and curse the terrible kleptocrats who won’t bugger off?

Take, for instance, Imelda Marcos: she of the famous shoes, the former first lady to the late strongman responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings, billions plundered from government coffers and the country’s economic demise during their twenty-one year conjugal dictatorship. After opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr was assassinated, the Marcoses were ousted in the famous People Power Revolution of 1986, fleeing in distress and disgrace. Yet Imelda returned after a few years, was elected a governor and is now on her third term as congresswoman. This, despite billions of pesos stolen, with much still missing, and a graft conviction demanding ten years in jail, which she managed somehow to dodge. Imelda’s daughter was also in Congress and is now governor of her father’s home province. Imelda’s son, Bongbong, took his turn as governor and congressman and is currently a top senator with promising presidential aspirations for next year’s election – despite recent revelations that he lied about receiving degrees from Oxford and Wharton.

What can we do?

Take, for instance, Juan Ponce Enrile: the longtime Marcos henchman who turned on his boss in 1986. Hailed as a hero for ushering in the presidency of the widowed Corazon Aquino, he was sacked as her defence minister a year later for his alleged hand in a coup to overthrow her. The ninety-year-old current senator has also been a congressman and Senate president. He was recently among the many powerful politicians linked to the pork-barrel scandal. And his son, Jack, now a congressman, was alleged to have shot another teen between the eyes at a party in 1975, as well as killing his sister’s boyfriend in 1981. (More on rumours later.)

What is left to be done?

Take, for instance, Joseph Estrada: the former actor turned president who was ousted in 2001, not halfway through his term. He was sentenced to life in prison for plundering the country of hundreds of millions of pesos during the two-and-a-half years of his rule. While he was in jail, his wife won a seat in the Senate. Estrada was soon pardoned by his opportunistic successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and is now mayor of the country’s capital, Manila. His long-time mistress, Guia Gomez, is mayor of the adjacent city of San Juan, an Estrada bailiwick.

It doesn’t stop there.

Estrada’s offspring are in the family business. Of his three children with his wife, and nine bastards from six mistresses, two are now powerful politicians. JV Ejercito, who preceded his mother as San Juan mayor, is now a senator. JV’s half-brother, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who preceded him as San Juan mayor, was recently arrested for corruption – for the second time in thirteen years. It’s alleged that Jinggoy also took part in the pork-barrel scam, which skimmed billions earmarked for post-disaster reconstruction.

What can the common citizen do about such leaders?

And let’s not forget Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – Estrada’s successor in the presidency and herself daughter to a former president. In 2011, she was arrested at the international departure terminal and charged with electoral sabotage. She posted bail, claiming health issues, but was re-arrested for plunder and confined to a hospital, from where she won a seat in Congress in 2013. Her two sons are also congressmen, as is her brother-in-law. Her husband’s forbears include a governor and a senator during the American colonial era. Arroyo, who is pictured on the two-hundred peso bill, is the current chief scout of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines.

How can we shake such dynastic nogoodniks?

For there’s also Romeo Jalosjos: a congressman in 1997 when he received two life sentences for raping an eleven-year-old girl. On the grounds of the country’s main maximum-security prison, Jalosjos reportedly drove around in his luxury SUV and played tennis daily on the court he had built. From jail, he won re-election to Congress in 1998, then again in 2001. President Arroyo pardoned him in 2009. Now the chair of the Tennis Academy of the Philippines, Jalosjos wants to re-enter politics.

What can you do but shake your head and curse?

For there’s also Teodoro Bacani, one of the many influential bishops in a country that is more than 80 per cent Catholic. An outspoken moraliser against reproductive rights, Bacani resigned his bishopric in 2003 after his young secretary said he grabbed her from behind and fondled her privates. Bacani has since been named bishop emeritus and continues to rail against telenovelas, selfies and the legalisation of divorce.

Shake your head and curse.

For there’s also Socrates Villegas, elected president of the country’s most powerful unelected leadership – the Catholic bishops conference, who see themselves as the nation’s moral stewards. They’ve had a performance artist arrested for criticising them, censored a McDonald’s commercial showing a young girl and boy flirting over french fries, protested a Lady Gaga concert as ‘devil worship’, closed down an art exhibit that used Christian imagery, and threatened to excommunicate or pull from power politicians and academics who supported reproductive healthcare. Despite our impoverished population of a hundred million people (in a land area only a little larger than the state of Victoria), Villegas insists that ‘contraception is corruption’ that will lead to ‘greater crimes against women’.

Shake your head and curse.

For, our present president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, has done nothing to break this cycle. The faces of his parents now adorn the five-hundred peso bill, yet he was considered, by a relevant majority, merely the better candidate among the worst. With less than a year now left in his presidency, his competence has been questionable and his churlishness towards accountability unforgivable. He’s been conspicuously fickle during times of national crisis and mourning, and his mishandling of a recent raid on a terrorist hide-out, which saw forty-four elite police commandos massacred, has triggered calls for his ousting. Even his administration’s much-celebrated anti-corruption campaign has targeted only opposition politicians.

So is there hope at next year’s presidential election?

AMONG THE CARNIVAL of dozens of candidates, only a few will be seen as presidentiable, as we Filipinos dub them. These are: Bongbong Marcos – with his campaign war chest from his parents’ plundered wealth; Rodrigo Duterte – the popular tough-talking mayor who vows to shoot rice smugglers, drug dealers and corrupt officials without the hassles of a trial (he’s also allegedly linked to vigilante groups murdering ne’er-do-wells and petty criminals); Mar Roxas – an Aquino administration official, son of a senator, grandson of a president, but lacking the popularity for the pageantry that is the Philippine presidential race. Which leaves the most likely: Vice-President Jejomar Binay.

Binay, the former mayor of Makati, the Philippines’ financial capital, has ruled the wealthy city with his family for twenty-nine years. His younger daughter is now a congresswoman, while his eldest girl won a Senate seat with no political experience beyond being his personal assistant. Binay’s wife, as mayor, faced accusations of corruption. Their son, Junjun, the current Makati mayor, was recently suspended pending an investigation into his alleged receipt of kickbacks; in reply, Junjun barricaded himself in his office, using as a human shield hundreds of his supporters lured to City Hall by free food, giveaways, movie screenings and zumba sessions. The Binays, however, say there’s no proof of their corruption, though last year they fielded allegations they own, beyond accountable means, a palatial country estate with air-conditioned piggery and hedge maze inspired by London’s Kew Gardens.

To these choices, what can Filipinos do or say?

Not much, actually. A nation ruled by Goliaths will always make illegal the slings of possible Davids. While those in office are plush with parliamentary privilege and immunity, the citizenry’s ability to dissent and demand accountability is constantly whittled further. As in many countries ruled by tenuous legitimacy, constitutionally protected freedom of speech is a danger to the status quo. This is why those who would speak on our behalf – the journalists of the fourth estate – face both violence and the law itself.

Last year, Rubylita Garcia, a hard-hitting newspaper and radio journo, was shot in her home. As she died, she told her children that the town police superintendent was behind it. The previous year Joas Dignos, known for reporting widely on corruption, was assassinated on the street by gunmen. Since 1992, seventy-seven journalists have been killed in the line of duty, making my country one of the most dangerous in the world for those who would report the truth.

Such lawlessness, however, is no match for the law when protecting lawmakers. Defamation remains criminalised and carries a penalty of up to six years in jail. Yet its definition is open to interpretation: according to the Philippine penal code, it is ‘a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to cause dishonour, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead’. In other words, we must beware of insulting the powerful, or of making even founded allegations.

Such is what leads to good reporters answering lawsuits filed purposely in far-flung jurisdictions, meant to intimidate them into silence through legal fees and absence from employment. This harassment is in addition to the real possibility of imprisonment. Newsman Alex Adonis discovered that the hard way when his reporting of a politician’s alleged extramarital affair saw him sentenced in 2007 to four years.

IN KEEPING WITH modern times, a new cyber-crime law has also been introduced, thanks to Senator Tito Sotto, a former comedian whose repeated plagiarism in his senate speeches earned him ridicule for his arrogant impunity and coddling by his colleagues. Netizens took to blogs, comments boards and social media to pillory him in jokes, memes, satirical articles and hashtags (such as #sottocopy). It was soon revealed that Sotto had introduced into the cyber-crime law a clause that doubles the current penalty for defamation. Because of Sotto, even comments made on Facebook can now land you in jail for twelve years, despite the Philippine Constitution, which states: ‘No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.’

The ‘redress of grievances’. Our forebears knew that freedom of speech is what guarantees our ability to fight for exactly that: the redress of wrongs and the equality of rights. By slowly forgetting this, our leaders are able to prioritise some rights over others to suit their agenda. In the Philippines, as in other conservative Asian countries (from Malaysia to India, Singapore to Saudi Arabia), this often involves dissent silenced through accusations of sedition, oppressed religious freedom, blasphemy or contravention of moral propriety. In Saudi, for example, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and one thousand lashes for posting criticism of the clerical elite. In Singapore, seventeen-year-old student Amos Yee was arrested for YouTube comments deemed insulting to Christianity and the country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. In India, outrage from Hindu groups led to the pulping of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus (Penguin, 2009). In Malaysia, a bookseller faced two years in prison for selling a translation of Allah, Liberty and Love (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a book by Muslim reformist Irshad Manji.

And in the Philippines, Muslims marched against depiction of their prophet, issuing the statement that ‘the Charlie Hebdo killing is a moral lesson to the world’. Meanwhile, activist Carlos Celdran was sentenced to fourteen months in jail for ‘offending religious feelings’, for holding up, during an ecumenical meeting, a sign criticising the Catholic clergy and later shouting: ‘You bishops, stop involving yourself in politics!’ Celdran’s landmark case, involving a rarely used law from 1930, has opened a Pandora’s box. In January of this year, three non-Catholic Christians were also arrested for offending religious feelings when they preached, on the street, against idolatry; they were released when the devout Catholic cop who filed the case decided to forgive them. Similarly, four evangelical Christians were charged with offending religious feelings when they called out comments about Catholics during the visit of Pope Francis; the accused also held up signs saying such things as: ‘Only Jesus Christ can save you from sin and hell.’

This ongoing debate over freedom of speech and religious rights is alarming. After the eight murders at the French satirical newspaper, many intelligent and sincere writers and commenters, in the Philippines and abroad, are now questioning whether expression should indeed be limited by respect and responsibility to religion – forgetting that it is freedom of speech that ensures our freedom to worship, to co-exist in a world of differing values, to prove and disprove ideas, to engage in representative democracy and to require responsibility from the leaders we elect. Forgetting that when we cede power to religious feelings we will inevitably privilege, at some point, one faith over others. Forgetting that when we conflate insults with threats, and hate speech with hate crimes, we punish thoughts and words rather than actions; this undermines our right to a government strong enough to protect equally both our freedoms and our safety. (As Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, reminds: ‘There is a huge difference between an insult and a threat, and…it isn’t actually that hard to tell one from the other.’)

In other words, to ask that free speech be conditional or transactional means it is no longer free; instead, it is doled out upon approval by whoever holds power. This is dangerous. State-sanctioned dissent can no longer be true dissent; it robs citizens of our individual social agency and excludes us from the democratic right to engage with the workings of society. Our views cannot even fail in the marketplace of ideas. When this happens, our society can no longer be called a democracy. It becomes an oligarchy. Which, presumably, is the point.

Why would the Goliaths let it be any other way?

Yet Filipinos will never submit. As human beings we’re hardwired not to. Simple profanity challenges what is empowered as sacred. That’s why we sit at the brekkie table poking the newspaper and uttering invectives. Calling Tito Sotto a dickhead is not only a constitutionally protected opinion, it is palliative and healthy. Everyone is encouraged to do so. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine, especially for a country that is ailing. Especially when the legitimacy of those in charge is so flimsy they neither listen to nor condone criticism. Rumour, humour, storytelling and name-calling become weapons of self-defence that function by knitting together the weak, binding
them jointly.

THIS COLLECTIVE IMPULSE to mock out of frustration is seen every day among drinkers at beer gardens, in editorial cartoons, in the comments beneath Facebook posts. A semblance of power is retained by the powerless in refusing to accept the official narrative of the powerful. As with conspiracy theories, satire – on such Filipino websites as So, What’s News? – plays a vital role in political discourse. When Senator Jinggoy Estrada responded to one of their stories with an official statement – that he had not, in fact, tried to smuggle wads of cash into the US via his pectoral implants – this 

was both a triumph for Philippine satire and a spotlight on the legislator’s alleged corruption.

Similarly, in such clanky democracies, rumour serves as an important coping mechanism. There are many examples of such narratives, which I do not in any way present as fact, but as hearsay illustrative of the country’s political frustration: Joseph Estrada is said to have gorged on twenty-four-hour buffets in the presidential palace, quaffing cases of Chateau Petrus while brokering deals over poker games he was allowed to win. Stories have been spun about Ninoy Aquino, Jr’s taste for Taiwanese prostitutes, procured by a pimp named Pembong, which may link to rumours that the opposition leader was assassinated by his brother-in-law. It was also bruited about that his wife, Corazon, as president, hid under her bed during an attempted coup. And message boards are rife with comments that their son, President Noynoy, is autistic or retarded. Meanwhile, rumours surrounding Tito Sotto allege he used his influence as senator to exonerate his brother and friends from the gang rape of an underage starlet who eventually committed suicide. And that, as an anti-drug crusader, Sotto was allegedly linked to a drug kingpin whose rumoured pay-offs he used to finance the writing of an anti-drug book. Even as fiction, these tall-tales function as criticism of what’s factually dysfunctional in our society.

The most brutal gossip, however, is usually directed, perhaps with due cause, at those who seem the most untouchable. After all, the Marcoses, during their brutish two-decade rule, manufactured their own to their advantage: the dictator’s war medals; the unsuccessful ambush on his henchman Enrile, which prompted martial law; or Marcos’s karate chop that unhanded an assassin’s foot-long dagger and saved Pope Paul IV during his 1970 visit. Even the ill-gotten Marcos billions have been explained as General Yamashita’s lost treasure, which the retreating Japanese commander supposedly hid in the mountains at the end of World War II. Information, the cliché goes, is power – which is why, soon after declaring dictatorship, Marcos made rumour-mongering punishable by law.

That proved futile, of course, and only reinforces the thesis that mockery is a powerful political tool for the powerless. To the comical fictions of the Marcoses, Filipinos replied with their own specious tittle-tattle: Imelda is said to have, soon before meeting Marcos, screwed Mayor Arsenio Lacson in his car outside Manila city hall to reverse her loss in a beauty pageant; the Marcoses’ eldest daughter is said to be the fruit of that protracted affair. Bongbong, the only Marcos son, is said to have died and been replaced with a cousin who underwent plastic surgery, to maintain a male heir for the dictator. The youngest Marcos sibling, Aimee, who is adopted, is said to be the child of Bongbong’s incest with a first cousin. Another Marcos daughter is whispered to have had her breast milk flown every day from the US, where she was partying, to her newborn she left in Manila. And Imelda was said to have ordered the Beatles roughed up in Manila airport for not playing a private gig for her children. She is also famously reputed to have had dozens of injured workers buried alive in concrete after their scaffolding fell during the rushed construction of her prized national film centre. None of these can be corroborated, but they’re oft repeated with purpose.

This is because rumour can sometimes drive the truth into the light. When the country was abuzz that President Arroyo was hospitalised for leaky breast implants, her staff said it was swine flu, calling the rumours ‘absurd’ and saying that she was not some ‘sexy actress’. The perky allegations finally forced Arroyo to admit to having augmentation in the 1980s, but that the silicone was not, in fact, now leaking. And the gossip about President Estrada’s excesses in the palace? They combined with revelations regarding his corruption and drove the people into the streets to successfully oust him from
the presidency.

Yes, sometimes the effects of tale telling can be as silly as fake tits, but sometimes it can be as significant as real democratic change. That is why, as a fiction writer, I’m constantly considering how my work can have the most impact – especially when one considers how few novels have ever driven actual social centrifugal force beyond the insularity of literature. Given my comparatively small upper- and middle-class readership in a country of tens of millions of poor and under-educated, writing can seem quixotic. An older Filipino writer once told me: ‘If you want to keep something secret in the Philippines, publish it in a book – because nobody will read it.’ A joke like that stings because, to a certain extent, it’s true. Politicians don’t care much about what artists say or create, because it doesn’t hit them where it hurts: at the ballot box.

WHAT, THEN, IS to be done? I’m convinced that the role of artists involves the long game – honesty, memory, legacy, posterity. But, in countries where inequality stifles democracy, there is inherent and immediate value in challenging those rules omnipotent rule-breakers make against our freedom of expression. In doing so, we question the legitimacy of such mandates. In doing so, we highlight the hypocrisy of those proven worthy of, as the penal code says, ‘dishonour, discredit or contempt’ – the dynastic scofflaws whose own legacies they themselves will have blackened, of which we must dutifully remind the world. In doing so, I believe, we can be revolutionary.

I think often of José Rizal, one of the many great Philippine heroes of the late nineteenth century. At the time, his homeland was under the influence of Western imperialists. The Catholic Church held sway over society. Wealth was held by a small percentile. Equality did not exist. The laws benefitted the powerful. (History, as we now know, would prove to rhyme.) Young Rizal, then living in Spain, worked with his compatriots to press for reform that was not forthcoming. As some of his comrades considered revolution, Rizal returned home to pursue peaceful change. He wrote two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, both funny in their honest satire and brave in mocking the ruling friars and elite. For this, Rizal was charged with sedition, rebellion and conspiracy. He was executed in Manila by firing squad, though his words and example helped spur the Philippine Revolution that ousted Spain and established Asia’s first constitutional republic. Few novels have ever had such an effect. Few ever will. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

What then is the role of the writer? In a country like mine – where the powerful insist most on their honour and respectability – perhaps it begins, but does not end, with simple, unabashed, constitutionally protected dissent.

Perhaps it begins with doing as we all do – poking a finger into the news of the day and declaring in public what most say in private: Imelda is a dickhead. Enrile is a dickhead. Estrada is a dickhead. Jinggoy is a dickhead. Arroyo is a dickhead. Jalosjos is a dickhead. Bacani is a dickhead. Villegas is a dickhead. Aquino is a dickhead. Binay is a dickhead. Duterte is a dickhead. Roxas is a dickhead. Sotto is a dickhead. (The list goes on.)

And in that way, we begin to beat them.

Listen to Miguel discuss nepotism in The Phillipines, with Phillip Adams on ABC Radio National.


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