The election of President Rodrigo Duterte raised hopes of a clean, corruption-free government that was also progressive and dynamic (unlike the passive and pass-the-buck tenure of President Benigno Aquino III).
In America, the election of President Donald Trump was met with consternation by those who knew him to be the quintessential snake oil salesman. Yet even the cynics hoped that, somehow, Trump would make good on his vow to “drain the swamp” in Washington DC.
Now comes 2018 and one year of Duterte and Trump governance. Both in the Philippines and in the US, hopes have been dashed and the consternation remains. The situation may, in fact, have become worse.
2018 also marks my 30th year writing Ad Lib for BusinessWorld. The very first line of my initial piece read, “Masturbate it!” — a phrase considered out of place in such a venerable business paper. But the late Letty Martillo-Locsin, managing editor, pushed the envelope to the edge by translating that into Tagalog: “Salsalin mo!”
The piece, entitled, “Oh, for the good old tabloid days,” recounted one of the first lessons taught to me as a cub reporter in one of Manila’s tabloids, which were notorious for fake (or masturbated) news. I noted that in 1988, at the time that I began writing for BusinessWorld, fake news was being regularly dispensed, even by ostensibly reputable broadsheets. And this was well before Trump made hyperbole and outright lying the SOP of his presidency, and long before Duterte’s bloggers and trolls invaded social media.
According to my friends in Manila, the occupants of Malacañang and the legislature routinely flaunt their vulgarity and immorality, drug smuggling continues even in Duterte’s bailiwick of Davao, bureaucratic incompetence is the rule, and corruption has become worse, with kickbacks on public works projects breaching 60%. The ten percenters of the post-war years are now the stuff of ancient history.
Worse yet, postings on social media indicate that self-righteousness may have become outdated and synonymous with hypocrisy and pretense. In the face of these, a friend has suggested, in all seriousness, that 2018 calls for a different set of new year’s resolutions.
Firstly, he said, it is useless to expect politicians to change. Diogenes would have better luck finding an honest man than stumbling upon a politician who does not “supplement” legitimate earnings with illicit sources, whether knowingly or unknowingly — the latter being a euphemism for a bagman doing the collecting.
“Thus,” he concluded, “Resolution Number One is: If you can’t beat them, join them!”
He even related a bit of trivia. According to him, the original expression was, not surprisingly, mouthed by a politician, Sen. James Watson of Indiana. Watson believed that compromise was inevitable in legislative negotiations and it was futile to buck that harsh reality — thus, “If you can’t lick ’em, jine ’em!” Quid pro quo.
Recently, I wrote about a relative in the province who had been landing public works contracts by parting with 60% of the official bid. Everyone, from the provincial governor and the congressmen down to the clerks in the disbursing office, “joined” in the partitioning. The alternative was having no project at all or not being able to collect payment for a contract.
Years ago, a former provincial board member in Western Visayas recounted to me why he had resigned from his elective post (luckily his wife was a doctor who had found a job in Chicago). First of all, his official pay was measly and could not cover his living expenses, much less satisfy the unending requests from his constituents for pampalibing (burial money), pambili ng gamot (for medicine), pangkasal (wedding money) and pang-matrikula (for tuition). Secondly, he had become a pariah among fellow board members and with the governor for being walang pakikisama (no team spirit).
But worst of all, no one believed he was not on the take. In the Philippines, people assume that politicians steal, extort or can be bribed.
“Second resolution,” my friend continued, “What are in power for? Use it!”
He was actually echoing that immortal statement attributed to the late Senate President Jose Avelino of Samar back in the 1940’s.
But then, at the time, the epitome of corruption and abuse of power were an expensive presidential bed and a gold-plated bedpan (arinola), purchased by President Elpidio Quirino. They were actually described in a Manila Times article as costing the “gargantuan” sum of P500.
Compare that to the P6.5 billion reportedly at stake in the drug smuggling scandal linking Paolo Duterte, son of the president. Senate hearings have pretended to look into these allegations but nothing has come out of the inquiries. Naturally. What are the Dutertes in power for?
The use of power takes on other forms in the Duterte government.
Against a backdrop of killings, many of them reportedly EJK (extrajudicial), with some victims liquidated on mere suspicion of drug use, Duterte himself has acknowledged using fentanyl, an opioid described as 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl is reported to have been the cause of death of the pop singer, Prince.
According to one news account, in the US, fentanyl has overtaken heroin in many regions.
“It started out as an opioid epidemic, then heroin, but now it’s a fentanyl epidemic,” Maura Healy, the attorney general of Massachusetts, told The New York Times in an interview.
In a report by ABS-CBN, Duterte admitted using fentanyl to relieve a recurring pain due to an injury he suffered in a motorcycle accident some years ago. The news account read, “In a speech in Davao City, Duterte admitted that he took more than the required dosage of the pain reliever because apart from easing his burden, it also made him feel like he was ‘on cloud nine.’” That’s the “high” that drug users experience after a hit.
In other words, Duterte is a drug user. But what makes him different from the thousands killed by the police and the vigilantes?
Duterte is in power and, to paraphrase Avelino, What is he in power for?
“Third resolution,” my friend went on, “Weather-weather lamang iyan. If not now, when? If not us, who?”
My friend concluded that those of us living in the US were so much luckier, not having Duterte as president.
My response was heavy with irony and sarcasm: “Oh yeah? You forget that America now has Trump.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.