Sunday, October 26, 2014

The best of times for the worst of people


SUDDENLY, Charles Dickens is new again. In The Tale of two Cities, he wrote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The words score a bull’s-eye on the Philippines circa 2014.

The age of foolishness clearly applies to our times because of all the corruption, scandals, abuses and crimes that are sprouting everywhere in the country. Even America’s bizarre affair with gay culture has wafted to our shores with the horrific killing of a Filipino in Olongapo by an American serviceman.

The season of Darkness could soon fall upon us if the forecast of daily brownouts next year proves correct.

Many of our public figures, business moguls, and socialites could fit right into a Dickens novel. Their antics and ingenious skullduggery could enrich his fiction.

Benigno Aquino 3rd, our student-council president for a term of six years, will be a surreal counterpoint to Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom for 64 years..

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to report that I got a shellacking for my column last Saturday (“Jejomar Binay: Echoes of Caesar and Hamlet”, October 18, 2014). The shelling came from everywhere—readers, friends, left and right, relatives.

Most were agitated by my elevation of Vice-President Binay to the elite company of Shakespearean characters Julius Caesar and Hamlet. And they were appalled by the thought that I was giving Binay’s bid for the presidency a push–which I was not. (I take the criticism seriously. See below for my final take on this issue.)

A Dickensian country
The vice president—his Makati dynasty, his alleged wealth, and all the quaint features of Binay rule in Makati—forms a curious part of the Dickensian country we have become with BS Aquino at the helm.

Collins dictionary (third edition) defines Dickensian as follows:

1. Denoting, poverty, distress and exploitation as depicted in the novels of Dickens.

2. Grotesquely comic, as some of the characters of Dickens.

Dickensian is a mild word for the level of mass poverty in the Philippines. While poverty is a perennial problem in the country, the past four years has been the worst of times for the Filipino poor, as their lot has worsened instead of improved.

Although the country has experienced over 6 percent GDP growth for several years now, it has been mainly jobless growth.

The unemployment rate stands at 7.1 percent, which means some 2.8 million Filipinos are jobless.

The underemployment figures are even more alarming: 20.9 percent underemployment rate and 7.93 million underemployed, as of 2013.

This period has been depressing for the citizenry across the board because of rising prices of commodities, the deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure, and the general decline of government public services.

Best times for politicians
In contrast, this period has been the best of times for politicians, as they have been the biggest beneficiaries of the pork barrel (which trebled under Aquino), the massive Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), and Aquino’s new budget policy of distributing money directly to local governments at town level.

With Budget Secretary Florencio Abad as facilitator, the funds for patronage have been collared and forcibly mustered (sometimes at the expense of projects already approved). The politicians allied with the administration have never had it so good. .

Aquino himself has feasted on the largest pork barrel and discretionary funds in Philippine history.

Invisible reforms, invisible projects
You would think that with so much money flowing, there would at least be some concrete results beneficial to the nation. But the benefits are nowhere to be seen.

In bidding for a second term as president, Aquino talked about the need to continue his reforms.

But when the media challenged him, saying “What Reforms?”, he and his Palace propagandists have been unable to cite any.

It is now turning out that virtually the only reforms he has actually put in place are dubious ones. These are:

1. The banning of wangwang (car sirens), which was decreed on his first day in office.

2. The invention of the P150-billion DAP, which the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional

Beyond these two, Aquino would have to palm off as reforms his vindictive actions against other officials and his predecessor, namely:

1. The hospital detention for over three years now of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on trumped-up charges.

2. The impeachment of former chief justice Renato Corona, and the bribery of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

3. The impeachment of former ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.

4. The filing of plunder charges against key members of the opposition in the Senate, including the Senate Minority leader, former defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile.

To Aquino , these actions are reforms and achievements, because to his innocent mind, the intent to punish is a form of reform.

All the posturing appears hollow, because Aquino’s anti-corruption efforts do not cover his allies.

Invisible projects
In a Manila Standard story on October 8, Christine Herrera reported on an expose by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and its secretary-general Renato Reyes, jr.

Bayan averred: “The no-impact, non-existent and invisible projects belie claims that the DAP was a stimulus program, but was instead clearly used as pork barrel,”

It backed its claim with citizen complaints and photos of flooded streets, even though P1.25 billion in DAP was allocated to flood control systems for those streets.

“It has been nearly three years since the first DAP memorandum was signed by the President on Oct. 12, 2011. Up to now, the Aquino government has not fully accounted for how the funds were spent,” Reyes said.

What is more, DAP was indiscriminately used for all kinds of projects by lawmakers.

Based on a tabulation made by the Computer Professionals Union, Reyes said the top DAP projects of congressmen, senators and local officials were barangay road projects amounting to P1.9 billion. The second biggest DAP allocation went to flood control systems at P1.25 billion, followed by so-called livelihood projects at P1.19 billion.

“The barangay road is the quintessential pork barrel project used for patronage politics at the local level. There is no explanation why such projects would be the top recipient under a stimulus program other than the reality that these projects are intended to boost the electoral bid of politicians,” Reyes said.

He continued: “The DAP spending of politicians shows an irrational disbursement scheme that is based solely on the discretion of politicians rather than on actual needs and the overall development thrusts of the so-called stimulus program.”

It’s as if the politicians were in an orgy. And it is doubly immoral and offensive, because many Filipinos are starving and jobless.

An answer that destroys the question
This is also why most Filipinos find the allegations of unexplained wealth and corruption against Vice-President Binay both repellent and compelling. Binay cannot just explain them away by saying they are politically motivated. That is nothing.

The philosopher Susan Sontag has written: “The only interesting answer is that which destroys the question.”

For the nation to be satisfied, the Vice-President’s response to the allegations, unfair though they may be, must be such that all questions and doubts about his integrity are destroyed.

Approval ratings will not destroy the question. Neither will political success.

I like what a writer once said that government is only as good as we are.

This is why it is so important that we ensure the 2016 elections are free and clean and fair and foolproof. The candidates and the political parties must present their best selves and their best ideas to the people. And we as voters should vote only for those who understand what’s really at stake.

All our necks are on the line—the candidates’, the voters’, and the nation’s.

We must wrestle then with this grisly truth, or we will wind up in the worst of times.

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