Regulating shamelessness

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

Someone once shared a joke about politicians that I found really funny. Here it is:

Four surgeons are discussing who the best patients to operate on are.

The first surgeon says, “I like to see accountants on my operating table because when you open them up, everything inside is numbered.”

The second responds, “Yeah, but you should try electricians! Everything inside them is color coded.”

The third surgeon says, “No, I really think librarians are the best; everything inside them is in alphabetical order.”

But the fourth surgeon shut them all up when he observed: “You’re all wrong. Politicians—especially from the Philippines—are the easiest to operate on. There are no guts, no heart, no balls, no brains and no spine, and the head and the ass are interchangeable.”

This joke came to mind on account of the various reactions to Senate Bill 1967, also known as “An Act Prohibiting Public Officers from Claiming Credit through Signage Announcing a Public Works Project.” The proposed measure is being pushed by the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago. Malacañang has also thrown its support behind the bill.

The measure has come to be known as the anti-epal law. Epal is slang for “mapapel,” a Filipino term for attention grabbers, scene stealers, or people who are so hungry for attention that they impose themselves on others just to get a share of the limelight. It’s a malady that is most noticeable among the terminally insecure, a condition that seems prevalent among our public officials.

It’s embarrassing that we actually have to enact a law to regulate something that should be within the bounds of basic delicadeza. Clearly, public officials have no right to claim credit from projects that are paid by taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, it appears that the shamelessness of many of our officials have become so unbridled that a law is now required to stop the atrocity.

Everywhere in this country today, public work projects are accompanied by giant billboards or signages that give credit to legislators or government officials as if the projects are funded by money coming from the officials’ own pockets rather than from everyone else’s taxes. In many instances, the shamelessness is so brazen—the officials even dare plaster their photoshopped faces on the billboards creating the impression that they are members of a royal family smiling benignly on their subjects.

Some officials are not content with just one giant billboard. In many cities such as in Tacloban City, the signages are plastered on practically every electric post. And horror of all horrors, in many rural areas, the signages are not just conspicuous, they assault the senses. I have personally come across many school buildings that had whole roofs or walls painted with the name of some senator, congressman or local executive!

Will the bill get passed? I highly doubt it. First of all, I am not sure there is a counterpart bill in the House of Representatives. In case people have forgotten, we have a bicameral system in place.

Second, it’s the kind of measure that will kill the political careers of many of our legislators, in particular, those who have nothing to show for their long years in office in the form of meaningful laws that they have sponsored or enacted. These politicians coast through two or three terms as congressmen or senator mainly aided by token projects implemented with the use of their pork barrel. The malady, however, is not limited to legislators. Local executives—governors, mayors, councilors, and barangay captains—are equally guilty.

So far, only a few politicians have come forward to denounce the bill. One congressman offered a meek objection, sputtering on television about the need for billboards and signage because as he said “how else will our constituents know that we are doing our jobs?” This kind of reaction is embarrassing mainly because it is indicative of either dementia or stupidity.

The job of congressmen is to enact laws, not to implement public works projects. Granting for the sake of argument that congressmen need to spur economic development or help deliver basic services in their respective localities, there are many ways to deliver the message without having to erect permanent billboards. And really, if they are truly competent and do a great job, word of mouth is always a hundred times more effective than 100 signages.

In reality, the proposed law does not even fully address the problem. The bill only seeks to address signages. In many cases, the public works project themselves have been designed like a shrine to some public official. In Leyte, for example, there are lampposts that have been designed in the form of the letter P (for Petilla, the family name of the former and incumbent governors). In Antipolo, we have waiting sheds in the form of the letter Y (for Ynares, the governor). In Makati, there are wrought iron fixtures attached to public structures in the shape of the letter B (for Binay, of course).

In many cities and towns, the names and faces of officials are etched on permanent structures such as welcome arches, town markers, pergolas, and even on public buildings. In some towns in Bulacan, the names of the mayors are painted on every post along with some sophomoric slogan or tacky illustration that is being made to pass as artwork.

And then, there are the officials who hijack welfare goods and repackage them in bags that carry their names. What about signages that purportedly greet constituents during special occasions such as Christmas, Valentine’s, graduation, etc?

The extent of the problem is not limited to ethical concerns. There is also the matter of aesthetics. Many of these signages are tacky and cheap. They stand out because of the abysmal lack of artistry.


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