I watched a little bit of the Senate hearing yesterday on the ABS-CBN franchise renewal issues. One of the senators, a known lackey of the president claimed that while the president was not vindictive, “kung masama ka sa kanya, masama din sya sa yo” (I’m not sure the senator understood what vindictive means). One of the ABS head honchos later made a statement that they were “sorry if they had offended the president” even though they were just following all the relevant laws, or something to that effect. I cringed. Why do they need to apologize to an onion-skinned politician if they did nothing wrong? The whole thing had the air of “you have displeased your betters, repent and you may be forgiven.”
It seemed ironic that all this was being done on the eve of the anniversary of the so-called People Power EDSA Revolution of 1986. Not just the sheer audacity to target the free press for suppression (it’s all about sending a message), but to do it with so obvious personal vindictiveness. It reminds me of the failed promise of EDSA, specifically our failure to remove this culture of patronage that burdens us so.
Patronage defines this administration, this is obvious from the fact that we have a senator openly proclaiming his allegiance to the president above all things. People unfriendly or critical of this administration are accused of crimes or are removed from office through legal gymnastics. Favored sycophants are elected to prime government positions. Friends who steal from the people or get midnight deals get off scot-free. The administration turns a blind eye to encroachments on our sovereignty when they come from a country that is “friendly” with the president, but takes it as an insult when a long-time ally tries to get us to respect human rights. A long-standing defense pact is abrogated because a loyal lapdog was denied a visa. And of course, mass media companies are pressured when they refuse to recognize the emperor’s new clothes.
This administration has brought patronage to shameless heights, but it’s hardly unique to them. It is a general malaise of the Filipino culture for as long as I can remember. People don’t respect institutions or processes or merit, they look for patrons or connections to get ahead of others. Arcane and obtuse bureaucratic processes don’t help, they encourage the emergence of fixers and facilitators. Even among private industries, there are those where you can’t get hired or get promoted unless you know someone higher-up who can support or endorse you. People in power routinely ignore laws. Sometime ago a congressman even had the gall to ask to be exempted from traffic rules because they were “doing important work”.
This is a harsh truth, but it can be difficult to blame the Filipino people. This is what they see in their everyday lives: people getting ahead in life through “diskarte” or connections or patronage. They vote for the politicians who bring them the most personal benefit, without any regard to whether they are good for the system or the collective.
This culture of patronage is one of the reasons why there is so much power distance in this country. People are beholden to those in power in our feudalistic, patron-driven society. Many would prefer not to speak up or question those in power, knowing that their fortunes may depend on keeping a good relationship with their “betters”.
Side note: this is one of the reasons why I like working in tech. In tech companies, connections or influence can only get you so far, if you are bad at your job, it is going to show. One of my chat groups had a discussion about moving from a tech company to a nontech company like in the mass media or banking sectors, one of the tips was to be prepared for a lot more “politics”. A polite term for people getting ahead (or trying to) by using connections or influence. I have better things to do than trying to navigate political relationships or arcane company policies.
Today is the anniversary of the EDSA “revolution”. Except it wasn’t really a revolution, more of a revolt. We replaced the top leadership but not the culture that brought us down that path. And here we are still electing the same kind of leaders after all this time.
We need a different kind of revolution. The term “cultural revolution” is heavily loaded because of China, but that’s the kind of revolution we need right now - one that changes the culture in our country, one that strengthens institutions and promotes honesty, integrity and transparency, one where people are treated equally regardless of power or position. We need to be a country where the politicians serve the people, not the other way around, that is what “people power” should really mean.