Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beyond repair

This was my column on the date indicated above.

When I was young—ahem, not too long ago—my friends and some relatives thought I was a perfect candidate to become chairman of the Kabataang Barangay (the precursor of the Sangguniang Kabataan) in our district. I was idealistic. I really and truly believed in Rizal’s admonition that the youth was the hope of the fatherland. I was just in high school then and had great dreams for our hometown.

So I was “drafted” into becoming a candidate. Everyone thought I was the candidate to beat. Many thought—and I believed them, perhaps foolishly—that my being chairman of the KB was “in the bag.” Modesty aside, I was clearly more articulate, more intelligent, had more leadership skills than my opponent who was not only lagging in school but also couldn’t speak in public even if his whole life depended on it. I was also (ahem, again) cuter. Unfortunately, my opponent was rich. He was the son of a town councilor and also had the support of the politicians in our town.

But I had a core of supporters—young people, classmates, friends who I thought were also full of idealism and who I believed would fight for me to the very end. So I remained confident.

On the eve of the elections, all my friends were invited to a party at some beach house. It was supposed to be an ordinary birthday celebration of one of the councilors of the town. The party lasted two days and my friends didn’t get to go home until after the canvassing of votes was over. They were practically kept incommunicado from our camp throughout the day of the elections as they got wined and dined, herded into the precincts to cast their votes, and back to the beach again after for more partying. As can be expected, I lost the elections. And the KB council of our district and our town merrily coursed through their whole terms without doing anything for the community. No projects, no activities, nothing at all. I went on to do community organizing through a church movement and people told me I was doing a much better job than the KB people. They asked me to run again when elections were up but by then I had already sworn never to get involved in politics again after that tragic experience.

Perhaps it was a good thing I didn’t get involved in the KB because it would later on become a national organization that helped propped up the dictatorship; it had presidential daughter Imee Marcos at the helm. I would become busy at the other side of the fence fighting Marcos and his minions.

The story above happened in the early eighties when traditional politics was supposed to be at its worst. The KB has become the SK but the idea behind the whole thing has remained the same. It was supposed to be a training ground for young people to become community leaders. It was supposed to provide opportunities for the young to get representation in matters relating to governance. The SK was supposed to be a catalyst in the community as it was supposed to embody idealism, patriotism, vigilance.

I heard that the same modus operandi to “protect” and “safeguard” votes for some SK chairmen continued to be done in the run-up to last Monday’s elections. In fact, the whole set-up has only gotten more elaborate, expensive, and lavish as whole villages of young voters got rounded up and “locked up” in hotels for the weekend to make sure they didn’t get “swayed” by the other candidates. Worse, there have been reports that parties were thrown to keep the young voters happy. Booze flowed despite the fact that there was a liquor ban in place. Most resorts in the country, I heard, were fully booked over the weekend.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we corrupt our young today. This is the way we perpetuate traditional politics in our country. This is the way we train the young to be wily and scheming, to circumvent laws, and to hijack elections just to ensure that certain politicians continued their hold on power.

The reality is that everywhere in this country, the SK has become so muddied in politics that it cannot be a breeding ground for idealism. SK groups are corrupted by politicians into forging alliances with them and most SK leaders become extensions of political networks—they do community organizing on behalf of the politicians.

President Benigno Aquino and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo were correct in advocating the abolishment of the SK. The idea was met by vociferous objections from politicians who insist that the solution is to reform the set-up, not to abolish it. I disagree. The current set-up is beyond reform; it cannot be salvaged anymore. It’s really about time we learn to let go of things that don’t work and start all over again the from the ground up.

I am also for providing the young opportunities to learn the art of governance and allowing them representation in community affairs. There are many models that we can use to forward the idea. To my mind, a good model would be one that is free from political intervention and is linked to other existing structures and initiatives.

The Boy Scouts of the Philippines, for example, has this program where top scouts are given the opportunity to sit as governor, mayor, and other elective posts for one day. Of course one day is not enough, but we probably need to look at the model for inspiration. See, the scouts who are given opportunities to become mayor for one day are top scouts who approach the idea of governance from a purely idealistic standpoint—that of being an honorable, trustworthy scout. They also bring to the post the idealism and the mission of their respective organizations. What’s more, we ensure that the representatives are students rather than professional bums with political connections.

Instead of electing young people directly to sit in barangay, town or provincial councils and get them embroiled in dirty traditional politics, perhaps we can use existing structures such as the boy scouts, student councils, even community groups like Youth for Christ, etc. We can put up a system where legitimate student and youth organizations are given accreditation to sit for specific terms in barangay or town councils as youth representatives. Any town or city in this country has a national high school or a college where there are student councils or student organizations. Every high school in this country has a scouting program in place. We will never run out of young people who can be tapped to represent the youth sector in various councils. The challenge is how to accredit student or youth organizations and to ensure fair and equitable representation. Perhaps the student councils can form their own council and rotate the term of office among the various presidents or they set up an arrangement where everyone gets to sit in the council for a fixed number of months only. The possibilities are endless.

We need to become more creative in fixing our problems. More importantly, we need to make sure that we stop this fixation with trying to make things work even when they are beyond repair. The current SK setup is beyond repair. It’s about time we change the idea completely.

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