Round pegs and square holes

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

With everyone watching each of his actions and decisions and telling him what to do and what not to do, I am not surprised that President-elect Benigno Aquino, or P-Noy as he reportedly wants to be called, wants to take a break and disappear for three days before he formally assumes the presidency. It must be really tough to be in his shoes right now.

P-Noy can take comfort in the fact that people still care enough to actually want to get involved. The worst thing that can happen to a leader, or to anyone for that matter—columnists included—is to be ignored to the point that no one cares for what one does or does not do. If it adds further consolation, his own mother, the late former President Cory Aquino, has been there as well. In fact, she was deluged with so much advice in the first few days of her presidency that she actually made it known that she did not welcome unsolicited advice from anyone.

Although it doesn’t look like it on the surface, I have it on good sources that the jockeying for positions in the incoming administration has resembled a veritable mad free-for-all slugfest. Except for Edwin Lacierda (Presidential Spokesman), Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr. (Executive Secretary), Corazon “Dinky” Soliman (Social Welfare Secretary) and Teresita “Ding” Deles (Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process), the names of the other putative candidates who have supposedly already been offered certain cabinet posts, keep on changing everyday. Very early on, Sonny Coloma was supposed to be certain of being appointed as Presidential Management Staff Head; recent development indicate that the post seems to be going to Julia Abad, daughter of Liberal Party campaign manager Butch Abad.

We are told that that the various interest groups within the Aquino camp are doing their own campaigns to make it appear that their respective candidates are the anointed ones. There are the stalwarts of the Liberal Party, there are the members of the civil society (they go by the generic designation volunteers’ group), there are the members of Kaklase Inc., there’s Kamaganak Inc., and the various influential individuals who are Cory loyalists. What happens is that every single time a name becomes public, the members of interest group that’s pushing for another candidate reportedly scramble all over themselves to discredit the anointed one, throwing as much mud as they can on the candidate until the supposed appointment quickly becomes a mirage.

I look at all these with amusement and with a certain degree of curiosity. Unlike others, I don’t feign disgust or mock alarm over the squabbling and the political equivalent of mud wrestling. Whether we like it or not, all these are part and parcel of politics; what we are seeing are textbook illustrations of legitimate political behavior. So to all those who continue to express disgust, dismay, or repulsion at what’s happening at the Aquino camp related to the selection of cabinet members, I have this to say: Where have you been? There is nothing that’s happening now that has not happened in the first days of any President-elect anywhere in the world. Fighting over the spoils of victory is an activity that is instinctive in the animal kingdom; we Filipinos just happen to do it with a little more hysterics.

Having said that, let me now express my disappointment over the flap generated when the name of Boy Abunda was floated as potential Tourism Secretary and the current buzz over the supposed imminent appointment of Jim Paredes to the post. The appointment of Paredes has not been officially confirmed. Paredes is trying hard to contain his eagerness to become Tourism Secretary but he is really such a ham as an actor; his body language betrays his efforts to appear cool and disinterested. Why he bothers to conceal the fact that he is interested in the post is beyond me because he is very much qualified for the post, as far as I am concerned.

It would be a lot simpler of course if the selection process for Cabinet posts were made public and formal and all that lobbying, jockeying and squabbling were laid out in the open. For crying out loud, there is nothing wrong with applying for certain posts. We do it every day in the private sector, why should it be any different for Cabinet posts? The problem is that certain people seem to think that openly coveting certain government posts is beneath them—they hem and they haw and spew gibberish about how they are willing to help in any capacity—even as janitor or messenger—when they really should just cut to the chase and declare their interest in certain positions.

Of course, we cannot do it the way the garrulous presidential sister would have it done—with a talent showcase, a lugubrious side bar about the candidate’s sordid past, and an opportunity to make it all about her. But something a little more dignified, formal, and structured, would be preferable. Perhaps a structured review of the resumes of those who have signified interest, a series of interviews would be good, even a public presentation of the candidate’s plans and program of action. It goes without saying of course that the people tasked with the selection process should be qualified for the job, as much as possible free of partisan political bias, and very important—aware of the strategic mandates of the various positions candidates are considered for.

This brings me to what my disappointment over the hullabaloo about Abunda and Paredes. It is tempting to just automatically dismiss the qualifications of these two people on the basis of perception about what kind of people they are and what they bring to the post. But doing so smacks of bigotry and prejudice because, really, perception is so much different from objective reality. Even more infuriating is the fact that others dismiss these two individuals on the basis of the fact that they are from showbiz. Okay, I am willing to grant that our experience with some—all right, many—politicians with showbiz pedigree has not been all that good. But indulging in mass generalizations is still dangerous.

At any rate, Abunda and Paredes are not exactly our regular run-of-the-mill showbiz personality with vacuous personalities. Abunda is not just a talk show host, he is a topnotch manager of his own production company and is behind the phenomenal success of many celebrities. He sits as adviser in many advocacies and is actually a sought-after speaker in many conferences. Paredes is not just a singer—he is a book author, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, and for many years now at the forefront of the civil society movement in the country. Paredes was host and the spirit behind Tatak Pinoy, that long-running television show that any tourism secretary would have benefited from.

The tourism post is critical because it is primarily a marketing post. I think that our relative failure in pushing tourism as a strategic contributor to the economy is mainly because of our utter inability to think out of the box. We’re stuck in this Field of Dreams—built it and they will come—paradigm. We should be able to learn from the Wowowee phenomenon—that show may be derided by the hoi polloi in this country but there is no mistaking the fact that that show pulls in more balikbayan than any other. Given a choice, more people will probably pick an hour at Wowowee than an evening at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

All I am saying is that we shouldn’t really be quick to judge people just because they don’t fit the square holes we have conjured in our minds.


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