In the mid-1950s, I wrote and directed a movie with this title, Espiya Kontra Espiya meaning Spy vs. Spy. It starred Divina Valencia and Nestor de Villa. Who would ever have thought that I would have occasion to use it for a newspaper column?
But the times are a-changing. President Rodrigo Duterte has stated publicly what diplomats only wink at each other about but never actually admit spying. Reacting to concerns that China may have dispatched spies along with casino and construction workers that are reportedly now numbering in the thousands in the Philippines, Duterte said with characteristic kanto boy candor that it is normal for countries to engage in espionage and that China is no exception.
However, without meaning to suggest that the president doesn’t know what he is talking about, no one from a foreign country will ever admit to working for a spy agency operating in the Philippines.
While Wikipedia may tell us that China’s equivalent of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency or CIA is the Ministry of State Security or MSS, the Chinese embassy has vehemently denied its presence in the Philippines.
The Chinese ambassador has dismissed any suggestion that there are MSS operatives spying on the Philippine government. According to him, MSS means Mami Siopao Siomai and the suspected spies are nothing more than vendors of the Chinese delicacies.
Even the original Chinese name of the intelligence ministry, Zhónghuá Renmín Gònghéguó Guójia Anquán Bù has “nothing to do with espionage,” the embassy insists, and if you really want to know the meaning of the term, you will have learn Mandarin first at your own expense — so it’s really easier to just accept the Mami Siopao Siomai explanation.
Similarly, the Americans will not admit that its notorious espionage office, the Central Intelligence Agency, has any kind of covert presence in the Philippines. They’ll tell you that those guys hanging around at the US embassy are connected with the Community Interaction Associates or CIA for short, and its principal function is interacting with the Filipino community — well, what else?
Even that suspicious-looking Russian office reportedly staffed by Kremlin komrads is really nothing more than a community support system known as the Katipunan ng Gabay ng Bayanihan or KGB for short.
And the sinister looking James Bond-type agency holding office at the British embassy, which is rumored to be an element of the Secret Intelligence Service also referred to, in hushed tones, as MI6, is really the Society of Internet Specialists, which was founded by 16 social media masters also known as M16.
I happened to meet these guys at a cocktail party hosted by a Makati socialite at the posh Manila Polo Club (foreign embassy staffers frequently rub elbows with high society in the Philippines — a perk their salaries can’t pay for in their home countries). Among the guests were folks who were introduced as members of the MSS, the CIA, the KGB and the MI6.
I also met someone from the NICA. I thought that it stood for National Improvement of Communities Authority but, no — the pot-bellied fellow who introduced himself as the head of the agency said that his office was the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and he elucidated, “We are the principal counter espionage arm of the Philippine government.”
“Just call me James,” he said. “James Bond.”
I would learn later that his real name was Jaime Bondat, but it is the fashion in Manila to glamourize one’s name, e.g., Esteban becomes Steve, Rustico becomes Rusty, and Tecla becomes Tex.
The NICA chief was not subtle at all. He even thought he was being clever when he quipped, “Just call me Agent 0210.”
I thought that was vulgar but I’ve been told that the Duterte administration has made vulgarity fashionable. Members of the cabinet and of Congress usually greet each cheerfully, “How are you, ’tang ’na mo!”
The appropriate response is supposed to be, “’Tang ’na mo rin!” or “Bog!”
At any rate, the conversation among the MSS, CIA, KGB, MI6, and NICA guys was pretty civil and bland (“How’s the weather in Moscow?” and “Is it true that Trump and Putin have a secret love affair?”) when along came presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.
Panelo loudly greeted the MSS man with a slap on the chest, “Where have you been conducting your covert operations lately?”
The MSS man was flustered and managed to mumble, “Ako benta lamang mami siopao siomai.”
But Panelo wouldn’t have any of that. “Come on now, don’t be shy about your real mission in the Philippines. President Duterte says it’s okay to spy on us. In fact, we are sending Col. Bondat here to Beijing as an OFW to also spy on you.”
And then Panelo winked at the CIA guy and added, “With a little help from our friends, of course.”
Without missing a beat, the fellow from the US embassy added, “Oh yes, the Community Interaction Associates or CIA for short has been helping Chinese farmers learn the essentials of freedom and democracy… uh, I mean, the techniques of farming and poultry raising.”
The MSS man was not amused. He snapped at the CIA guy: “Don’t tell me your people are also teaching farming and poultry raising in Hong Kong!”
Panelo, being his usual frank, honest and truthful self, cut in, “Have you read the latest news in the papers? It’s only natural for countries to spy on each other, according to our president. In fact, in the Philippines you don’t need to spy. The NICA will gladly give you a full intelligence briefing. And if you attend the Senate and House committee hearings, you will learn all our dirty secrets as well as our dirty linen.”
And Panelo added as he walked away to hobnob with Manila’s high society, “So just go ahead guys… spy na more.”
As Panelo left them, there were worried looks on the faces of the MSS, CIA, and MI6 guys. Said the MI6 fellow, “If the business of spying is so open in the Philippines, what will happen to covert undercover specialists like us?”
“That could make us useless,” said the CIA guy and he spoke the dreaded words, “We could be sent home!!!!”
“Noooooo!!!” exclaimed the MI6 man. “Home to our tight and tiny flats in London???? No more Forbes Park homes and plush BGC condos????”
“And no more cocktails at the Manila Polo Club???” The CIA man added a more dreaded possibility: “And no more maids and drivers? That means I go back to washing the dishes and doing the laundry??? My wife will divorce me if they send me back to Washington, DC!!!”
Only the MSS and KGB guys didn’t look worried about being sent back to Beijing or the Kremlin.
“The Philippines, she is home to us,” said the MSS guy and, in a moment of indiscretion, he went on, “We are making the Philippines a province of China.”
Realizing his indiscretion, the MSS man tried to correct himself. “I mean, kami gawa lamang mami siopao siomai.”
The KGB man did not look worried either. “We Russians are welcome in the Philippines. President Duterte knows that we of KGB are friends of the Filipino people.”
And he quipped, “In fact, everytime President Duterte speaks, he fondly says the name of our great leader. Putin ’na mo!”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.