Saturday, May 01, 2010

Greedy or nuts?

This was my column last Wednesday, April 28. Sorry for the late post. We had a family emergency (lost my sister-in-law to a short bout with cancer).

In the last few days we witnessed how things have made a turn for the worst in the political front as we approach the home stretch of the political campaign. There are those who see these developments as par for the course; people who think mudslinging and character assassination are normal in an electoral contest. On the other hand, there are those who, continue to be astounded at the level of muckraking that we are capable of as a people.

At the rate things are going and given the kind of effort many people are devoting into the task of unearthing all kinds of dirt and muck about certain candidates, we shouldn’t have problems cleaning the Pasig River from hereon. We definitely have the competencies, and in large quantities, present in this country.

Senator Manuel Villar’s campaign has been badly hobbled by accusations that the rags-to-riches story that he has been aggressively peddling since day one of his campaign is one big hoax—a myth, a fairytale, a canard. His siblings had to trundle out his octogenarian mother last Monday in what looked like a last-ditch dramatic effort to put the matter of his impoverished background to rest. Along the way, accusations and counter-accusations were traded as to who was the first to shamelessly and opportunistically use family members—both dead and alive—in the service of a political campaign. Naturally, Villar’s camp insists that Senator Noynoy Aquino’s camp did it first.

Villar’s campaign is now reeling from a barrage of heavy punches from no less than former President Joseph Estrada and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Both have accused Villar of unethical—perhaps even illegal—conduct when he supposedly personally lobbied for certain regulatory rules around trading of securities to be relaxed so he could maximize personal gains. Although the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange have both denied that Villar pressured them into breaking rules, Estrada and Enrile insist that there is more to the issue than meets the eye.

There are those who insist that Estrada’s and Enrile’s accusations do not deserve attention because both are allegedly polluted sources. Estrada was himself accused of unethical—perhaps even illegal —conduct as President in connection with the BW stock manipulation scandal.

What is integral to the issue—at least as far as I am concerned—is that the new rounds of accusations strike at the heart of what it is about Villar that I personally find uncomfortable about, which is that Villar’s seeming greed appears to have no bounds. There is persistent talk of how Villar—as congressman, as Speaker of the House, as senator, and as President of the Senate—parlayed the power associated with these offices into attempts to influence the distribution of advantages or disadvantages to benefit his business interests. In the banking industry, for instance, there is persistent talk of how Villar used political influence to get major concessions related to the financing of his various real estate projects.

If the accusations against Villar strike at the issue of character, the one directed at Senator Noynoy Aquino that is potentially damaging strikes at the issue of overall fitness for the post. There is persistent talk about the state of his mental health; or to be more specific, about the state of his mental health in the past.

To set the record straight, I am not voting for either Villar or Aquino although in the interest of transparency I will repeat what I already wrote in this space last February: An Aquino presidency cannot be the worst thing to happen to this country. In short, Aquino is simply not my first choice but if something were to happen to the candidate I am voting for, Aquino will probably be the next suitable candidate in my book.

Having said that, I would like to register my consternation at the way this mental health issue is being exploited as a political issue. The accusation is that Aquino has undergone psychiatric sessions in the past; I must stress the last three words because these are important. Mental instability is curable. And it is very obvious that Aquino is not suffering from any mental disability at the present—the rigors of the campaign would have already caused whatever mental problems he is supposed to have to surface.

In a column piece that is now being passed around Facebook sites and through emails, Carmen Pedrosa of the Philippine Star alleged that the late Ninoy Aquino himself sought psychiatric help for the young Noynoy because he was, in essence, a “late bloomer.” I have news for Pedrosa—I know a lot of people who were also late bloomers, some of them even went to schools for the mentally retarded before they were diagnosed simply as having dyslexia or suffering from attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. One friend of mine underwent psychiatric help when he was young and look where he is now—a topnotch lawyer and multi-awarded poet and playwright.

In a way I am glad that the issue of mental health is out there being discussed openly because as can be gleaned from the reaction of many people, there is a lot of stigma associated with mental health in this country. Visiting a psychiatrist, or even undergoing counseling, psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis is automatically given negative connotations. It’s really amazing that in this day and age when information is already readily available, many people persist in making conclusions and judgments that are not based on science.

If Aquino did visit a psychiatrist or undergo some psychiatric help, what is so objectionable about it? I personally would recommend that many of our leaders seek the same professional help! Inability to find contentment with material possessions and a seeming fixation with a wretched past are emotional issues that can be corrected with a little psychiatric therapy. Chronic womanizing, mood swings, uncontrolled temper, inability to grasp reality and megalomania—well, these are just some of the obvious behavioral manifestations associated with other presidential candidates that, in my opinion, deserve psychiatric help.

Many experts estimate that one in every five people suffers from some form of emotional, cognitive, or behavioral problems that can be helped through some intervention done by a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. Most simply go through life without acknowledging that they have a problem—or to borrow the common expression used today, that they have “issues”—and therefore suffer unnecessarily from stress or other symptoms. Some people simply can’t cope with their problems and resort to self-destructive behaviors. Of course there are extreme cases when mental instability results in socially dysfunctional behaviors; but these are extreme cases.

By using mental health as an issue against Aquino, critics are not just doing disservice to a candidate. They are perpetuating stigma around mental health issues. They are doing harm to the tens of thousands of people out there who are now forced to deny that they mental problems and therefore forgo professional help precisely because we are conditioning people to think that seeking professional help for their problems casts them as social lepers.


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