Our democracy on the ropes / New gauntlet defies GMA; Culture really matters - HERE'S THE SCORE
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 15 June 2001

People Power has its limits. The first in February 1986 toppled the reviled Marcos dictatorship but failed to accomplish a surgical strike on the cancer afflicting the nation�s fragile democratic institutions. The poor who were poor then remain even more wretched today and their numbers continue to grow � swiftly and explosively. The second in January 2001 achieved an unprecedented triumph � the ouster, arrest and imprisonment of a sitting president, Joseph Ejercito Estrada. His impending trial on plunder charges could lead to another epic happening � his conviction and the death chamber.

People Power II could have marked the line here. Temporarily.

But it didn�t and couldn�t. On May 1, history went into a stunning and shocking overdrive as a social phenomenon without peer or precedent occurred. The break of early dawn witnessed the poverty march of tens of thousands of Filipinos. They laid siege on Malaca�ang in a bare-handed assault � and the nation�s collective jaw dropped. How could this be happening? This was the ragtag, squatter twin of People Power II. The latter was a middle-upper class street revolt that catapulted Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the Palace. This one was outright masa. Shoot!

The May 1 marchers, who were eventually thrown back by the police and the military, appropriated the cognomen EDSA III. So who now has the copyright of People Power? Both, I suppose.

Whatever. Had the May 1 deluge been partly armed and led by a paramilitary contingent, it could have stormed the Palace. And we would have today a fascist government with the four-cornered swoop of the swastika. What catches the eye is that Estrada�s political party, Puwersa ng Masa, successfully stoked the poor�s anger. And yet the absurdity of it all is it had nothing to do with the poor. They were rich, power-hungry political-military adventurers with a fascist coloration who sought to witchride Estrada�s political magic to power. And almost succeeded.

* * *

Their idol remains in detention, not in a prison with iron bars but at the Veterans Military Hospital through the munificence of President Arroyo whose record so far in battling crime leaves much to be desired. Much earlier, she had signalled Estrada was free to leave the Philippines and reside in a foreign country. To many, that looked like a pardon. An uproar squelched this nonsense as another uproar halted the construction of an air-conditioned bungalow beside the VMH which would have served as prison for Estrada.

The man wanted more. He wanted house arrest at his Polk St. residence in Green Hills. His desire for luxurious living knew no slaking. What he really deserved, what the law prescribed was prison, ordinary prison with clanging bars. The government should and must shift gears. Estrada may have been president, but Aristotle�s law must apply. Before God, peasant and prince are alike. Happily, as this column goes to press, the Sandiganbayan ordered the return of Estrada to his detention house in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.

With Estrada in detention, his Puwersa ng Masa remains alive.

None of the May 1 plotters has been thrown into the calaboose despite the declaration of a State of Rebellion by President Arroyo. She was certainly scared stiff by the May 1 siege, and thus lowered the drawbridge to benefit now senators Panfilo Lacson and Gregorio Honasan who went into hiding and eventually rejoined the opposition campaign � and won. Lacson and Honasan had been accused of rebellion. In other countries, their lot would have been the ball and chain. Or the firing squad. Now they have the nerve to threaten vengeance on their political enemies as they take their Senate seats with the same bravado bluster of Estrada.

It is, however, the purpose of this three-column series to light and send up flares so as to illuminate the social, political and economic landscape of the Philippines. On my return after one-month vacation abroad, I now find our so-called civil society back to the tawdry business of politics, forgetting that just four months ago they were dancing around the bonfires of turbulent history, holding up the heavens with outstretched arms. I propose to show that our democracy � despite the three EDSAs � is bent and bleeding badly at the ropes. And could collapse.

* * *

And our May 14 election � unless given bone and flesh by our leadership � was a futile exercise in democracy. At bottom, its effect was to demonstrate that the culture of the Filipino is simply to play with symptoms and symbols but hardly ever to cope with and dig out the roots of any national problem. And that is why we are worse off today than we were in 1986. We have bragged to the world how we hoisted People Power on a democratic pedestal. And yet we are moving closer to the cliff. That democracy could blow up before the year 2004 and there lies the danger.

I was particularly disturbed by the May 1 revolt. It was an augury of worse things to come if this nation�s leaders do not shape up. But very few seem to care anymore. And again I hear the loud ticking of the clock.

We have not realized that in the 15 years since EDSA in 1986, our democracy has by and large stumbled on wobbly legs. We have all the reasons to be proud of EDSA, our People Power I and II. But we, the middle and upper classes, had nothing to do with EDSA Tres. And it was the latter that showed all of us up. The fundamental problems plaguing the country have worsened. As we investigate why, we find out our culture is largely to blame � a pygmy, stunted, tatterdemalion culture in a global world wired to the pathways of education, of progress and economic prosperity.

What are these problems?

The first is poverty.

It is not just simple Third World poverty, but grinding, abject, crushing poverty that has spread to 30-40 percent of the population. Or more. If the May 1 revolt was any gauge, the millennial patience of our poor has snapped. Our religious culture, largely Roman Catholic and drawn from ancient Spain, has greatly brainwashed us to accept the poor as part of our Castilian heritage. The poor have always been with us. Blessed are they and the oppressed for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. God must love the poor. He created so many of them. I say this is crap and we shall analyze it later.

* * *

The second is a non-performing economy.

It is an emaciated, flea-ridden beast of burden that has benefitted only the rich and has had its day. Look. Again we Filipinos are the Basket Case of Asia. Current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is only 2.5 to 2.8 percent, a hobo with an empathy whisky bottle in hand. Our neighbors? Malaysia boasts 7.5 percent, Thailand about 5 percent, Vietnam 5.7 percent, India 6.3 percent, Singapore and Hong Kong approximately 9 percent, China 8 percent, South Korea 11 percent. If we survive at all, with our heads still above the water, it is largely thanks to Filipinos overseas workers who send back $10 to $15 billion a year. This is supreme irony. It�s our poor overseas who enable our Makati rich to enjoy economic dominion.

The third is education.

Once, foreign students from neighboring Asian countries flocked to our leading colleges and universities. Today, our educational system has slumped to the Jurassic age. The poor have hardly any access to higher education. More than 70 percent drop out from high school. School curricula are outmoded, classes overloaded, teachers scare, schools in dire shortage, diploma mills abound. This has given Joseph Estrada his huge populist base � the ignorant, the superstitious, the semi-literate, the celebrity-starved. This at a time when Information Technology circles the globe, when knowledge is king, when the international language is techno-speak. And cyberspace is where you make fortunes. And the economic pie gets bigger and bigger.

The need for adequate, quality education � with great stress on science and math, modern management methods � is compelling and imperative. Without such education, we rot in the sewers of the global community. No amount of People Power can straighten us up. Yes, this too we shall analyze later.

The fourth is law and order.

We have no such thing as the rule of law. The joke still holds sway that it is only in the Philippines where when a crime is reported, the police are already there. Why? Because they happen to be the perpetrators. Almost always, there is the thief at your door, the bag-snatcher at your elbow, the rapist at your loins, the kidnapper at your shadow, the drug lord at your nostrils, the smuggler at your wallet, the killer at your heart.

Life is cheap in the Philippines. The archipelago has over the centuries been streaked with blood. Piracy on the high seas, tribal strife, eventually agrarian uprisings, the rampage of political warlords, mutinies of every sort, urban crime of every sort, an emerging democracy with wobbly institutions has virtually been helpless against crime. Asiaweek sometime ago reported the Philippines had the highest murder rate in Asia, one of the highest in the world. Salvagings occur daily, bodies dumped in ditches and empty lots during the night to the doleful tune of the Mona Lisa ditty: "And they lie there and they die there."

Our elections are one of the bloodiest in the Pacific. High on the growing roster of unsolved crimes was the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983. The slayings of labor leader Rolando Olalia and Filemon (Popoy) Lagman have not been solved. Nor those police officers Joe Pring and Timoteo Zarcal. Kill, kill, kill. Bloodletting is very much part of our life. Nobody forgets that in 1995, there was the police massacre of the Kuratong Baleleng gang. Nobody has been roped in by the law although formal charges against ex-PNP chief Panfilo Lacson and a half-dozen top police officials have been revived.

And whither the killing of publicist Bubby Dacer and his driver? One of the suspected masterminds � again Panfilo Lacson � has just been elected to the Senate. Whither the ghouls who masterminded the December 30 bombings which killed scores of innocent civilians in Metro Manila? Whither the convicted killers of Ateneo law school frat neophyte Lenny Villa in 1991? They remain scot-free without having spent a single day in jail. Leading university fraternities like Sigma Rho and Alpha Phi Beta of UP specialize in rumbles and fatal fraternity hazings. Their high priests are entrenched in Congress and the judiciary � particularly the Court of Appeals � their coat of arms harboring killers of the elite fraternities.

And yes, the Abu Sayyaf, no different from man-eating anthropoids, are back to kidnap for ransom. But hate them as we may, the Abus and commanders Sabaya and Robot are simply the most revolting specimens of crime run riot. The Philippine Government is simply unable to tame ethnic strife in the south. Remove the Abu Sayyaf but the grim and ghastly social, economic and political landscape remains. It is that of a Philippines seeking to wrestle demons to the ground with both hands tied behind its back.

Our culture is a lost and vagabond culture unable to cope.

* * *

We are a destitute spin-off of Castilian civilization which planted the cacique culture and the ever-forgiving Roman Catholic religion which plies the backward south of Europe and virtually the whole of Latin America. We are trying to play catch-up in a world that has left us far behind. But our kind of democracy � wedded to a culture that largely remains hostile to knowledge, science, math and technology � forever dances the tinikling. Lee Kuan Yew said it best when he indicated ours is a fiesta democracy without discipline and national ardor. How indeed can a nation progress when it has not saved and the bulk of families splurge what is left of a year�s earnings on fiestas and opulent offerings to the saints?

Listen again. In the latest international exams sponsored by the United Nations for young students of 45 nations in science and math � 9 to 13 years old � the Philippines came out 43rd. It doesn�t shock me at all that our exports have now plummeted by 46 percent, the peso reels anew against the US dollar, and our stock exchange resembles the leavings of a pig. In SWS and Pulse Asia surveys, 58 to 70 percent of the citizenry rate themselves poor. If our Catholic religion should matter at all, Jesus Christ should get down from the cross and lay His shepherd�s staff on our fundamental problems.

The fifth problem is graft and corruption.

This is the ugly cloven-hoof of Philippine politics. Corruption, too, is an integral part of our culture from the tribal period, then even more deeply-rooted as poverty spread during the colonial days, and again when Ferdinand Marcos came from the shadows to corrupt almost everything he touched, including the military establishment. It is a truism that backward, undeveloped countries are corrupt while the developed and industrialized countries have little corruption. According to the figures of Transparency Internationial 1998 Corruption Perception Index, the top 20 developed countries have a per-capita income in purchasing power of US$17,000 or more. The 20 most corrupt countries have a per-capita income of US$4,000 or much less.

In a comparative study, social scientist Daniel Trieisman presented statistical evidence that "a greater percentage of Protestants and a British colonial history are two of the most important factors associated with low levels of national corruption, second only to GNP." The Catholic Church, it is said, "places more emphasis on the inherent weakness of human beings, their inability to escape sin and error and the need for the Church to be forgiving and protecting."

* * *

Are we surprised then why a number of our top Catholic ecclesiastics are inclined to forgive Joseph Estrada? Are we also surprised why the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) reportedly furnished the battalion that stormed Malaca�ang on May 1? And why Brother Mike Velarde and his El Shaddai congregation � Catholics they � never got out of the clasp of the "shocking serial sinner" that was Erap Estrada? In Protestant countries where the rule of law is taken for granted, an accused like Estrada would be behind prison bars, locked up as any other prisoner is locked up, smelling and soaking in the pungent man-smell of fellow convicts, seeing only grey and grim prison walls, and peeing in prison latrines.

The US currently provides a dramatic sample lesson in the rule of law. The twin daughters of President George Bush � Jenna and Barbara, 19 � have been caught drinking alcohol (beer) illegally. Both have been penalized, performed community work for several weeks, paid fines. A third alcohol violation by Jenna � and she goes to jail. Can this ever happen here? The sons of Estrada broke the law and scuttled civil behavior � and arrogantly dared anybody to touch them. Nobody dared, of course.

We Filipinos are a curious people indeed!

We stress another point as we link up our five fundamental problems: poverty, non-performing economy, education, law and order, graft and corruption. The nuclear Filipino family as it presently exists and functions is not only trapped by its Iberian Catholic culture (which has held back Latin America from joining the North) but also caught in the cross-hairs of the North-South temperate-tropical civilization. This is the geographical theory that goes all the way back to French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). The theory is that temperate countries embody the full human challenge that leads to economic and political progress, whereas those located in the tropics like the Philippines fall behind. Not that inhabitants of the tropics are lazy. But the balmy, breezy sunny climate and rich natural resources reportedly conduce to the easy life, the wonder of the dance, the greater wonder of song. The overpowering wonder of prayer.

* * *

To understand ourselves, we Filipinos have to glance up north, to the huge and seemingly forbidding giant that is China and neighbor countries with a Confucian or post-Confucian culture like Singapore and Hong Kong. Why is China, why are they so far in front? Why are we Filipinos so far behind? Many social scientists like Laurence Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington look at Confucian values as the underlying reason.

Hard, unrelenting work. The need for achievement. The quest for excellence. Reliance on social networks (guangxi). Taking the long view. Respect for authority and elders. Aggressively saving for a rainy day (in China�s case, 30 percent). Seek market share rather than profits. Because of guangxi (overseas networks), Chinese largely from Hong Kong and Taiwan can move capital swiftly into the mainland to set up new enterprises. Western practices of contracts, obligations and copyrights could not have achieved this.

Lucien Pye for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says this is why the bulk of East Asia economies � certainly not the Philippines � have recovered more rapidly than expected from the 1997 economic crisis, a recovery that he says reflects Confucian values. Japan�s Meiji restoration that started in 1868 broke the back of the Tokugawa dynasty�s isolationism and wired Japan to the political and economic culture of Western countries. Japan�s economy is now the second largest in the world.

As we go deeper, we encounter capitalism�s prophet himself � German historian and sociologist Max Weber. In his enduring classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber said Protestantism pushed back "aspects of the Roman faith that deterred or hindered free economic activity."

Let�s have no illusions. The "social volcano" former President Ferdinand Marcos warned us about has finally erupted. May 1 was its first belch of fire and molten rock. Unless President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo takes heed, her presidency can be blown to bits over the carcass of a flawed democracy. And political adventurers of the right or remotely the left � self-anointed messiahs all � will very possibly take over. They will bear the skull and bones flag of a new dictatorship. Probably a junta of young military officers.

It is now clear that our kind of democracy has failed. Our kind.

The many "miracles" attributed to People Power I and People Power II have simply proved to be puffs of roseate smoke. While they toppled a dictator and a phony populist who is charged with largescale plunder, they never improved the lot of the citizenry, much poorer now and miserable than they were before. It is indeed a shame that Filipinos, once proudly ascendant, now bear in hand the biggest begging bowl in Southeast Asia.

The three social institutions presumed to embody and strengthen our value system � the Church, the family, the school � have abdicated their responsibility.

In the first two columns of this series, we blamed our culture more than anything else. It was and remains Indo-Polynesian, its arms lifted to an all powerful, all forgiving and mystical God, a culture moved more by emotions and tradition than by logic and reason. It is a culture that never experienced the cleansing cultural fire of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. The Spaniards brought their religion. The Americans the English language. One felt the contrasts of the convent and the constant gaiety of the Mardi Gras, caroused to the entertainment deluge of Hollywood.

The end result was a democracy that had surface exuberance � national elections, a presidential system of government, Congress, the judiciary, an inept bureaucracy. But democracy to be democracy had to be riveted upon a culture of struggle and hard work, social trust, libertarian values, mass and quality education, the rule of law, focus on the future and not just ma�ana. We Filipinos just didn�t have that. Or if we do � very precious little.

* * *

So what can we do?

Lawrence Harrison who together with Samuel P. Huntington published the best selling Culture Matters declared that "to modernize, some have to change their culture." I was once entranced by a quote of Fr. Horacio de la Costa, a great Jesuit writer, who wrote the following long ago: "The pauper (Philippines) among nations hides two jewels in her rags � our faith, our music . . . These are the bonds that bind us together . . . This nation might be conquered, trampled upon, enslaved. But it cannot perish. Like the sun that dies every evening, it will rise again from the dead."

Words from a wine-press. Beautiful and intoxicating. But they cannot come to our rescue anymore.

For as we sing and as we pray, a Marcos, then a Joseph Estrada come to life, greedy and a tyrant, bawdy, bodacious, brazen, the latter bringing his ill-mannered vagabonds with him to knife off the fragile buds of our democracy. And, believe me, until now there are those who want Estrada back, blatantly his lawyers led by Rene Saguisag and Raymond Fortun. And we all remember the Craven Eleven: Juan Ponce Enrile, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Blas Ople, Francisco Tatad, Tessie Oreta, Gregorio Honasan, Nikki Coseteng, Robert Jaworski, Ramon Revilla, John Osme�a, Tito Sotto. If we are not careful, Estrada might still slip away, a Houdini freed from a pirate�s chest in the deep seas.

How can President Arroyo win back the trust of the poor? How do we stop the ever widening gap between the rich and the impoverished? How can we transform our abominably selfish rich to socially sensitive mortals? How does one begin to slay poverty? There is right now a new civic organization with the acronym CNN-APC sharpening its knives with the intention of waging war on poverty. I know some of its founders, and I wish it well. I trust it will not fall into the same loop as its many predecessors have � the shallow waters of do-goodism. And the extravagant reliance on philantrophy. I would wish they had come together to wage war on crime and corruption for that would be the excellent lever to mount future crusades.

* * *

In the few times I have conversed privately with President Arroyo, I emphasized the presidency was a constant labor of carving out niches. The first had to have near immediate results, impressive, with a tremendous impact on the national psychology.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt roared out of the dark of the Great Depression in the �30s to fling back the American people�s fear and set up the New Deal to extricate the US from growing joblessness. Winston Churchill gave courage back to England by staring Adolph Hitler in the face, telling him to go to hell. the war could be long and bloody, Churchill said, but England would crush him and his ruthless Gestapo and brownshirts, and England would fight on every beach, every neighborhood, every street corner. Kemal Ataturk (literally Father of the Turks) ripped out the maddening, ultra-feudal face of Islam and introduced his countrymen to the European way of life.

And so we counseled GMA to concentrate on the restoration of law and order. The opportunity was right there on the instant. Get the big crooks. The conniving rascals behind the May 1 palace siege. Get the smugglers, get the narcotics lords. Get them and bust them and kick them into the calaboose. Don�t play footsie with Erap Estrada, smack the law into his face, if not the Ten Commandments, show him no mercy. Absolutely, no house arrest. But I do not think I have succeeded. She often walks on tiptoe, our president, afraid the palace chandeliers will fall. Suddenly she stops, absurd fury on her lips: "Isang bala ka lang! Dudurugin ko kayo!" A lady president should never speak like that. That was vintage Estrada.

Now she begs, pleads, entreats for help in her fight against poverty. Now, yes twice, she visits Estrada in detention, once in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, once at the Veterans Memorial Hospital. I was abroad on vacation then. That too was unpresidential, a wrong signal to the youth.

* * *

The impression is that she has no mind of her own. And she has a temper. I have experienced that temper, a temper that comes from surface emotions, not the depths of political morality which she has yet to plumb. GMA must understand Philippine politics is bereft of ideology. It is largely money politics and patronage politics. Incestuous politics. She has to stamp her own personality, her own ideology, her own code of moral conduct. She has to choose the hill where to plant her flag and die there if need be. You afraid to die, Mrs. President?

I am somewhat distressed writing this series. For I am a Catholic and I blame the Roman Church for much of our cultural backwardness. But things have to be said, blunt as they may be. Our Catholic schools and colleges � spiritual beacons they might still be � are cut off from the global world, the world of information technology. The only world that can subjugate our poverty. Schools must remain "the temple of virtue and morality" where there is a "collective commitment to modernization," where "human capital is culturally determined." These are the words of David Lande whose opus The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is a masterpiece.

This author maintains that President Arroyo must mount a cavalry charge on crime and corruption, for the results can be instant if she has courage and the political will. So doing, she establishes a vital beachhead. From there, she can restructure and reform our whole educational system, at least jumpstart the process. If the big crooks and criminals are convicted and made to rot in jail within a year�s time, then President Arroyo has bought herself a trip to the moon and back. Foreign investors will see she means business, and they will come with a happy hoot and holler. Then she can fine-tune the economy, which is her specialty.

Okay, there�s nothing wrong with waging a "long and bloody war" against the Abu Sayyaf. This Abu Sabaya is a 14-karat sonouvabitch, and I�d personally relish laying a hand on his arrogant kisser, take out his smoke glasses, and grind his head in the mud. And feed him limb after limb to the sharks. But first things first. GMA must unhand democracy from the ropes, where it lolls and lurches like a drunken bum prior to conking out. Time is of the essence. Our poor crouch in the shadows, an army of them. If again they march in the night, our democracy is finished.

The barbarians have already crossed the gate.

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