Saturday, May 22, 2010

Noynoy as fighter of corruption

President-elect Noynoy Aquino’s single-minded fixation on the elimination of graft and corruption in government is not surprising at all. His campaign slogan, “None Poor Without Corruption,” proved very effective and won him a plurality of votes over his closest opponents, former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada and Senator Manuel Villar, two candidates tainted by accusations of corruption.

During his short term as president, Erap was impeached because of his involvement in widespread corruption in government. Villar, on the other hand, was hounded by allegations of corruption in connection with a public infrastructure project that ran through a real estate development he owns.

Noynoy’s obsession with corruption is a copycat of former President Diosdado Macapagal’s campaign strategy during the 1961 national elections. One of Macapagal’s major campaign pledges was to wipe out government corruption that proliferated under former President Carlos P. Garcia. As president, Macapagal earned the sobriquet “The Incorruptible.” In an ironic twist of fate, his daughter, outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was dubbed as the most corrupt president the Philippines has ever had after Ferdinand Marcos.

Now Noynoy Aquino promises to be the nation’s most determined fighter of corruption. This is a pledge Noynoy highlighted in his political platform which he calls his Social Contract with the Filipino People.

During the election campaign, Noynoy Aquino promised to arrest all those who are corrupt. If he was referring to his predecessor and her husband, army generals and other prominent officials of the Arroyo government, it remains to be seen whether Noynoy has the will power to make true his promise. Otherwise, Noynoy is simply blowing hot air.

At least the late president Diosdado Macapagal’s pledge against corruption was tested in the case of the deportation of Harry Stonehill, an American expatriate with a $50-million business empire in the Philippines.

Stonehill was accused of tax evasion, smuggling, and corruption of public officials. But Macapagal erred in deporting Stonehill instead of prosecuting him. His rationale for ordering Stonehill’s deportation was that his continued presence in the country was a distraction and had a corroding influence on national morale, which in retrospect seems suspicious considering the subject was an American, and wealthy and powerful no less.

Macapagal then turned his attention toward the brothers Fernando Lopez and Eugenio Lopez, who had controlling interests in several large businesses. He called the brothers the “Filipino Stonehills” who built their business empires through political power, including corruption of politicians and other government officials.

Macapagal failed to investigate the Lopezes and no charges were brought against them. When Macapagal ran for re-election in 1965, the Lopez brothers threw their political support to Ferdinand Marcos who won the election, with Fernando Lopez as his running mate.

Noynoy Aquino’s seriousness in prosecuting his predecessor and other officials of her government is betrayed by his utter lack of understanding of the challenges of poverty and inequality in the Philippines.

Noynoy’s slogan that blames corruption for the country’s widespread poverty is only a political stratagem. Its purpose is merely to gather votes. Plus, having a good sound bite, it simply denigrates his opponents who were already dragged in the mud by allegations of corruption against them.

Corruption takes centre stage in Noynoy’s political platform that calls for change. His platform states that corruption has a destructive effect on families and communities because it robs children of their protection, nutrition and education; it steals from farmers and workers; and it deters businessmen from investing in our economy. Furthermore, corruption, according to Aquino’s platform, has eroded our national spirit and caused our loss of trust in the democratic institutions initiated by the Cory Aquino’s presidency after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.

Arguably, there is an element of truth in the debilitating effects of corruption to the economy and to our society as a whole. But to single it out as the substantial cause of poverty is rather naïve and being badly-informed.

Noynoy Aquino majored in economics in college so he should understand that equality is good for growth and makes that growth more effective in reducing poverty.

The exceptional slice of national wealth that is owned by the very rich in the Philippines, and this is a very small percentage of the country’s total population, makes inequality extensive and pervasive. There is chronic poverty in the Philippines as a human consequence of inequality and its compounding effects.

But it seems out-of-fashion nowadays to advocate equality and wealth redistribution, which is also true in richer economies, because it has the connotation of taking the leftist position in the debate continuum. Look at how U.S. President Obama, for example, had been caricatured as being socialist for his health care reforms.

A more preferred source of information over other social weather stations known with leftist leanings, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has identified the main causes of poverty in the Philippines.

The ADB pointed to the following: low to moderate economic growth for the past 40 years, low growth elasticity of poverty reduction, weakness in employment generation and the quality of jobs generated, failure to fully develop the agriculture sector, high inflation, high levels of population growth, high and persistent levels of inequality (incomes and assets), which dampen the positive impacts of economic expansion, and recurrent shocks and exposure to risks such as economic crisis, conflicts, natural and environmental disasters.

Instead of aiming his saber-rattling against corrupt officials, Noynoy Aquino should understand that to eliminate poverty, his administration must address those causes identified by the ADB.

Due to global recession, the Philippine economy is sinking further as unemployment continues to grow and extreme poverty remains unabated. It is under these circumstances that a social explosion could be expected as working people find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Noynoy should not wait for his leadership to be tested by military coups, similar to those that beset his own mother’s uneasy tenure.

Time, therefore, is of the essence. Noynoy Aquino must step up to the plate when he assumes the presidency. He should start mapping a coordinated poverty framework and strategy that will help the poor out of their doldrums, instead of grandstanding about his obsession to eliminate corruption. Even if he were successful in eradicating corruption and all its harmful effects to society, it would still not erase poverty on the Philippine map.

During her presidency, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that the Philippine economy has vastly improved and was growing at a high rate. If that was true, why are the benefits not trickling down to the masses?

Partly, because Arroyo’s economic policies, as with previous administrations, were designed to favour a handful of big business and landowning families. These few families own the largest slice of the country’s national economy.

For instance, Arroyo failed to implement meaningful land reforms citing legal technicalities. The government’s comprehensive land reform program which was started by Noynoy Aquino’s mother, Cory Aquino, had the initial aim of redistributing huge tracts of land from the rich to the poor farmers.

These are the same problems that face Noynoy’s presidency and have contributed substantially to poverty and inequality in the Philippines. If he wants to leave a lasting legacy as president, he should start with the transfer of Hacienda Luisita to its farmers and tenants. His family’s ownership of Hacienda Luisita only reflects the oligarchic control of the national economy by a powerful and wealthy few.

In his Social Contract with the Filipino People, Noynoy Aquino pledges to be different from the Arroyo government whom he accused of making up economic growth statistics which the Filipino people know to be untrue.

Sooner rather than later, Noynoy Aquino needs to match his lofty pronouncements with real and effective leadership and governance, if he wants to eliminate poverty and inequality in our country. Enough with grandstanding as the country’s number one fighter of corruption.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Noynoy Aquino’s inaugural speech

A friend of mine from the Noynoy Aquino camp in Manila emailed me last week, right after the initial election returns came out, to request that I prepare a draft for the president-elect's inaugural address. He told me to write whatever I want, and he'll take care of bringing it up with the new president. Here's the draft I sent back.

Mga kababayan, magandang araw po sa inyong lahat.

Today marks a new dawn for all of us and for our country.

When asked what one can do for his country during the darkest hours of martial law, my father, the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., said that each of us has been assigned a role to play. That we must keep lighting the beacon-light of unity for those who have lost their way. That we must articulate the fervent hopes of a people who have suddenly lost their voices. And that we must stand with courage in the face of seemingly hopeless odds so that hope, no matter how dim or distant, will never banish from sight.

On August 21, 1983, my father fulfilled that responsibility when he gave up his own life so all of us could be one again. So that our voices could be heard again. So that we could rise from the ashes of hopelessness and from the dark abyss of repression.

It would, however, take our country three more years before it could stand up again and assert its rights, through the sheer power of the people, when you installed Corazon Aquino, my beloved mother, as your president.

Now as I stand humbly before you and our entire nation, you have once again rekindled that hope which my parents always wanted to preserve, to fight for and to prevent from banishing from our sight.

Yes, we can hope once more. Yes, we will always keep our hopes alive.

At first, I refused to be drafted as your candidate for president. The problems our country is facing today are enormous. I was afraid I would take over a government that is ridden with so much graft and corruption that is beyond redemption. People distrust the government and its leaders. Our people have lost their hope.

I was grieving when key members of my party approached and asked me to run. My mother Cory had just passed away. I told them to give me time so I can reflect. As I ponder whether to accept the challenge, I thought of my parents. What would have they done?

My father came home on that historic day only to spill his blood on the airport tarmac. Full of courage, without fear, he faced his destiny. My mother, who had always been the calming presence in our family, without the savvy and experience of a seasoned politician, answered the people’s call for her to lead our nation in its darkest hour.

This is their legacy: a selfless love for our country and our people.

How could you not accept the challenge to lead your country? When the two closest people, your very own role models in life, left you with the right and moral choice when it is your time to decide? So, I accepted your challenge, and here I am on the threshold of this political journey. You and I, together, we shall march forward to greatness. Greatness not for our self-gratification, but for the empowerment of our people.

During the election campaign, I have said that I will not only steal, but I’ll have the corrupt arrested.

The first thing I will do as your president is to establish a Truth and Redemption Commission which will investigate all corrupt practices of the previous government. This Commission will identify those who were responsible and will recommend their prosecution in our court of law. No one will be spared. Every guilty person will be held accountable. That is what our people want our leaders to be — to be accountable for their actions. If they did anything wrong, then they must suffer the consequences of their illegal deeds.

But this Commission will not stop there. I will instruct this Commission to develop and implement the standards upon which our government will be measured. There will be a code of ethics for all those in government, whether you are elected or appointed. This code will supplement all existing laws and regulations governing the conduct of all government officials. Every elected or appointive official will be subject to this code of ethics. You violate it, you are gone. Strike one, and you are out. There is no second chance.

In my government, there will be no room for corrupt behaviour. It is about time for us to redeem ourselves from a nation of corrupt leaders, to a nation of honest and responsible leaders. This is our time to shine.

Good and honest governance is the foundation of a strong government. This shall be the guiding principle for my administration, and hopefully for all succeeding administrations.

In the first two years of my presidency, I am committing my administration to use all resources available in the pursuit of the following goals:

We are committed to the achievement of effective and meaningful economic reforms that will benefit the people, through job creation and policies that encourage and promote investment in all sectors of our economy.

We will strengthen our educational system that will prepare our young for the technological demands of the future, not to export our new graduates and skilled workers abroad because there are no jobs for them in our country.

We will foster equal rights for men and women, embrace our cultural and religious differences, and respect human rights.

We will provide opportunities for our Muslim brothers in the south to exercise self-determination and political autonomy in their region.

We are committed to end all armed conflicts, between our military forces and rebel groups. We will continue our quest for genuine peace, for this is the only way we can achieve prosperity.

During one of the military coups staged against my mother’s administration, I was hit by bullets from the soldiers who participated in the unfortunate coup. I sustained injuries in the neck and hips, but that’s past now. I learned and picked up a principle from my father that we must respect the rights even of your enemies. Because this makes democracy shine. As for me, genuine reconciliation is democracy in action.

Lastly, we will continue the legacy of comprehensive land reform started by my mother during her presidency. As a testament of my good intention, I have instructed the members of the Cojuangco family to withdraw its opposition to the redistribution of the farmlands covered by Hacienda Luisita to its farmers and tenants. We will ask the Supreme Court to vacate the temporary restraining order which has stopped the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council from parcelling out Hacienda Luisita to its workers.

My opponents and critics during the election campaign said that Hacienda Luisita is the bane of my candidacy, the litmus test of my competence for the presidency. I want to prove all of them wrong.

I have invited to this momentous occasion Mr. Lito Bais, the head of the farm workers’ union at Hacienda Luisita along with some of their members.

Ka Lito once believed that as long as the Cojuangcos are in Hacienda Luisita, they’ll never give up the land. To which his answer was, “And as long as we’re here, we’ll never give up the struggle for this land.”

Well, we can now bury the past. The future is now. Hacienda Luisita is now the farmers’ land!

My fellow countrymen, today we start a new journey. I will not be able to be the kind of president you want me to be, unless we do this together.


You think this is really going to happen? This is just a made-up speech of president-elect Noynoy Aquino. Maybe, all these wishes will be fulfilled — in your dreams.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The accidental president –Part 2

After coming to Toronto sometime in 1987, I read a story published in one of the city’s major daily newspapers endorsing General Fidel Ramos as the most likely successor to President Cory Aquino, one who could continue the country’s arduous path toward a full-pledged democracy and stability. The story credited Cory Aquino for restoring democracy in the Philippines after almost 20 years of dictatorship.

Fresh from our experience with the sporadic coups against the Aquino government at that time, and struggling through the repressive Marcos regime, I wrote to the newspaper to demystify the belief that Cory Aquino saved the Philippines from the throes of a dictatorship and delivered a new era of democracy. My main argument was that Cory Aquino was a reluctant leader, who ascended to the presidency by accident, that it was the Filipino people’s sentiment and debt of gratitude to her husband Ninoy for his martyrdom that gave her their vote.

Now, history is repeating itself. Noynoy Aquino, the son, also rises on the strength of his parents’ legacy. An inconsequential and do-nothing member of Congress, both as a congressman and senator, Noynoy is at the cusp of becoming the country’s next president. Early results of last Monday’s election gave Noynoy an insurmountable lead over his opponents.

The present political reality in the Philippines is not a rarity. When Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India, was assassinated, party members loyal to him wooed his wife Sonia to succeed him. Sonia refused, perhaps for fear for her life and family. Her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, suffered the same fate that befell her husband Rajiv. Sonia Gandhi later became the president of the Indian National Congress and currently serves as chair of India's ruling United Progressive Alliance.

Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was the world’s first female head of government, ahead of British PM Margaret Thatcher. Bandaranaike was the widow of a previous Sri Lankan prime minister, and the mother of Sri Lanka’s third president, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

When Kim Sung-il passed away, his son Kim Jong-il ascended to the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Everyone in North Korea now considers Kim Jong-il as their “Supreme Leader.”

Even former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yee of Singapore did not leave his post quietly. He ensured that his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong would become the country’s third prime minister when he stepped down from power.

This is the same narrative of politics in the Philippines. It runs in and around the family. Almost every congressman or senator is a member of a political dynasty. Noynoy Aquino happens to be the most recent of scions of a political family to assume the reins of government. He will be succeeding another president who came to power on the coat tails of her father’s name and tenure in Malacanang.

But what is so different in the case of Noynoy Aquino?

Prominent among Noynoy’s serious shortcomings is his continuous self-denial of the right of the thousands of farm workers to own their piece of land at Hacienda Luisita. Because of the Cojuangco family’s intransigence, Hacienda Luisita has earned an infamous place in the history of agrarian reform in the Philippines.

The Cojuangco family took ownership of Hacienda Luisita from Tabacalera y Compania in 1958 through a loan from the Government Service Insurance System and a private loan from the Manufacturers Trust Company of New York under a guarantee by the Central Bank of the Philippines. It was President Ramon Magsaysay who offered the sale of the hacienda to the Cojuangcos through his protégé, Ninoy Aquino, a Cojuangco son-in-law. The sale was consummated during the term of President Carlos P. Garcia.

One of the terms of the loan agreement between the Cojuangcos and their creditors was the transfer of the hacienda to the hands of the farmers by 1967. This never happened.

When Cory Aquino ran for president, she promised to redistribute the hacienda’s land to its farmers under a comprehensive land reform program. After assuming the presidency, Cory Aquino changed her heart and the Cojuangcos continued to hold ownership under a stock distribution option, which meant that the farmers would be considered co-owners through stock ownership and the hacienda would be exempt from land reform because it was now a corporation. Stock options were never distributed and the farmers were never considered co-owners.

Noynoy Aquino insists that there are no tenants or farmers in Hacienda Luisita based on the stock option plan, hence there is no need to redistribute the land. If there were any land, according to Noynoy, it would be too inefficiently small to distribute among more than 5,000 farmers. Thus, it was unrealistic to give every farmer one hectare of land to till. But Noynoy Aquino doesn’t understand that the farmers can still own the land as members of a farmer’s co-operative, which is in existence and operates in Hacienda Luisita.

To insist and to deny that there are no tenants or farmers in Hacienda Luisita reveal something is definitely awry in Noynoy’s frame of mind. Some of his opponents voiced their concerns about reports that Noynoy was seeing a psychiatrist and raised the issue of competence. There is nothing wrong about consulting a psychiatrist, and even if this were true, would not prove Noynoy’s incompetence for the highest position in the land.

What could be more damning evidence of incompetence than Noynoy’s continuing resolute defence of his family’s stake in Hacienda Luisita? The father of one of the victims of the massacre during the farm workers’ picket at Hacienda Luisita on November 16, 2006, aptly summed up Noynoy Aquino's incompetence when he said: “How can Noynoy lead the country when he cannot manage to solve our problem here at Hacienda Luisita? This is a small piece of land, a very small problem compared to running the country. Yet, he can’t do anything about it.”

For the farmers who have been tilling the hectares of land at Hacienda Luisita, the continuing ownership of the Cojuangco family mirrors the oligarchic control of the country by its powerful few. To them, the agrarian dispute at Hacienda Luisita stands out as an issue of competence for Noynoy Aquino.

But the presidential election would soon be over in a few days, and when all the votes have been counted, Noynoy Aquino will be proclaimed the country’s new president. Just as reluctant as his mother Cory to lead the country, expect Noynoy and his accidental presidency to yield nothing more than a mandate of false hopes and empty rhetoric to Filipinos.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Racism 2010

Many have condemned Arizona’s new immigration law for betraying America’s deeply held values of justice and compassion. The law is so draconian because it empowers police officers acting as border patrol agents to commit racial profiling. While the primary purpose of Arizona’s law is to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants, it is obvious that it will only be enforced against brown and other coloured folks, mostly Mexicans and other Latinos who have used Arizona as their gateway to the United States.

TV talk show host David Letterman had joked that a number of Dutch people visiting the Grand Canyon were already afraid they might be targeted under the new law. Of course, this will never happen. There isn’t any Arizonan alive who gives a damn about the legal status of Dutch, Swedes, Brits, Germans or white people, basically. They only care and carp about their neighbours south of the border.

U.S. President Obama has joined those who have criticized the Arizona law by saying that it threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

In the meantime, America’s toughest law enforcer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, has already been making rounds praising the new law which he says will give his men more authority to detain illegal immigrants. You would recall Arpaio, not of Mexican descent, became world-famous on the web for requiring prison inmates to wear pink underwear.

I was recently talking with an Italian woman from Milan who is on a working visa in Toronto, and this surge of anti-immigrant hysteria, not only in Arizona but also elsewhere, came up as a topic of our conversation. She said Arizona’s law is not new. As an Italian she had experienced being stopped by the police who demanded her identification document which Italians are supposed to carry with them. This was also true on subways and public places in France and other countries in Europe. It wasn’t by happenstance that European countries allow their cops to be overzealous sometimes in demanding documents from people they suspect as terrorists – but as an aftermath of 9/11 and the fear that terrorism has instilled in our minds.

Yet the Arizona immigration law and the upswing in opposition to immigrants in the developed world today had nothing to do with the trepidation against terrorism. Multiculturalism, for example, is being blamed in Canada by some quarters for divisions and strife between ethnic groups that they claimed prevent these people from integrating in mainstream Canada. Liberal Member of Parliament Ujjal Dosanjh has blamed multiculturalism-supporters for allowing an extremist faction of Sikhs to grow and nurture old grudges they brought from their homelands, making them difficult to assimilate into the Canadian mainstream.

What is mainstream Canada in the first place but a forced acceptance of the belief that Canada’s dominant cultural fabric is woven by English and French traditions and values and that the rest of society’s pining for their cultural heritage is only of secondary importance, although they are allowed to celebrate their values, their religion and their past.

Canada’s immigration law and proposed innovations in its screening of refugees and foreign workers are not to be envied at all. By and large, these initiatives are designed to stem the tide of newcomers who potentially bring to Canada a different set of cultural traditions and beliefs, and partly to placate the critical mass of naysayers who believe that immigrants and refugees are imposing a heavy strain on the country’s social and health services.

Recently, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was captured on open microphone slamming a voter he’d just been trying to win over. Forgetting that he’d left a television microphone pinned to his chest, Brown called the voter a “bigoted woman” for needling him on immigration. The woman voter, a supporter of Brown’s Labour Party, was complaining that immigrants from eastern Europe are taking jobs at a time when Britain’s unemployment level is rising. What she didn’t realize is the fact that although more than 1 million of these immigrants have moved to Britain since the European Union expanded its membership, many have left during the bruising recession. British pundits are already saying comments such as this one by Brown would cost him the election.

President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, however, is stoking the national debate about a controversial legislation forbidding wearing of Islamic veils that cover the face on grounds that they don’t respect French values or women’s dignity. While such law might not pass constitutional muster, in France or in the European Union, Sarkozy whose popularity has sank in the polls needed this political opportunity to boost his image and his conservative party which was trashed during the March regional elections.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has found himself in similar waters. His government has proposed a bill to ban women donning the niqab or face veil for purposes of identification, communication and access to government services. Charest said, “This is about stressing the values that unite us... An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality of men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state.”

Isn’t that self-contradictory? Quebec would abide by the equality of its subjects and the religious neutrality of the state, yet it would not allow a woman to wear a veil because of her religious belief. Or is it because the law targets and prohibits Islamic women from wearing their niqabs and professing their faith?

“Show me your face” or “show me your papers” is a degenerate act. To do such a thing is like recycling the evils of the past that we have fought and defeated. We have enshrined our new freedoms and rights in our constitutions and ratified them through international agreements. Underlying all these freedoms and rights is the respect for the dignity of the human being. We cannot tell our immigrants what to worship or whom to pray, or what to eat and how to eat. We take our immigrants as they are, with all their traditions and values from their cultures, including their eccentricities like wearing a niqab or a ceremonial kirpan.

The Arizona law allowing police officers to demand anyone to show his or her identity documents conjures ghosts from the past. If you were a black man in the South during the Reconstruction and unable to show proof of your employment on demand to the police, you could be arrested and spend time in jail, or eventually be sold to a farming or mining operation. During those times, the violation was known as vagrancy. Since only black people were subjected to this “show me your papers” demand, it was like being delivered into a new form of slavery. In Arizona, it’s now the law to arrest people, citizen or not, simply for appearing Hispanic.

The state has always been complicit in exploiting inequality. This type of inequality has its roots in slavery. The history of U.S. immigration is littered with a litany of policies aimed in creating unequal status for different groups of people, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Act, anti-miscegenation laws, Public Law 78 and the Bracero Program. Canada likewise has its share of offensive laws, such as the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, the War Measures Act that gave the federal government the power to intern all persons of Japanese racial origin during the second World War, the Indian Act which created the Canadian Indian residential school system, and the current Live-in Caregiver Program.

The Arizona immigration law, anti-niqab legislations, and other similar immigration initiatives are all designed to create an unequal status based on race and national origin. Despite their alleged good intentions, such laws also engender xenophobia and nativistic fear of immigrants.