SINGAPORE — I first met Sen. Sherwin “Win” Gatchalian at his best.
He opened his TEDx Diliman 2014 talk by asking why toilets in government buildings are always dirty. When he became mayor of Valenzuela City, he resolved to fix small details like toilets.
Technology and simple changes in mindset go a long way, he said.
He flashed the photo of Aling Nena, a stereotypical sari-sari store owner. He went through and reduced business permit requirements to the legal minimum, reducing turnaround time from two-to-three weeks to 20 minutes.
He flashed satellite images that replaced human tax inspectors. The satellite-driven system doubled tax revenue and eliminated opportunities for corruption.
He challenged us to remain hopeful with government.
Despite the critical University of the Philippines crowd, Gatchalian received a standing ovation. I felt moved to shake the hand of the young leader who won “The Outstanding Young Men” in 2011 and would be elected senator in 2016.
But for the entire first week of 2018, all the news cycle debated was whether he should apologize for his Twitter “meltdown.”
On Jan. 1, reacting to an article “Liberal Party: 2018 ‘may be the fight for nation’s soul,’” Gatchalian tweeted, “The nation already lost its soul in the last 6 years.”
When two Twitter users reposted his old tweets praising then President Benigno Aquino III, Gatchalian uncharacteristically called them gago (stupid) and ulol (fool), sparking even more comments.
His first TV interview in 2018 was to explain to Karen Davila why he declines to apologize, and blamed paid trolls out to provoke him. Ultimately, he confessed he is only human.
His fellow Seatmate bloc member Sen. JV Ejercito tweeted: “we get hurt & affected too.”
But what did the public flogging achieve?
Gatchalian obviously made a lapse in judgment and national leaders should stay humble. Nevertheless, is there not something wrong when not one of the snarky replies invited discussion of the nation’s soul?
Ejercito controversially tweeted last May 27: “Dumami ang mga constitutionalists… nitong mga nakaraang mga araw (The constitutionalists increased these past days).”
I disagree with how he threw shade but must sympathize with his frustration. Some less informed critics of last May’s martial law declaration did use “Constitution” as mere code for their politics.
Even the New York Times made blatantly wrong statements such as: “The martial law edict gives the military widespread powers.” The government repeatedly argued to Congress and the Supreme Court that martial law is largely symbolic and confers no new powers outside combat zones.
As with Gatchalian, not a single tweet in the resulting firestorm invited Ejercito to elaborate on any phrase in the Constitution.
There is surely something wrong when the Seatmates are readily reached on Twitter, yet their audience seem more intent on who can score the most clever public burn than genuine engagement.
If one could sit down for a minute with a senator in person, even one who just made a public gaffe, would one really just call him names?
In contrast, Sen. Tito Sotto tweeted agreement to my column on drug testing on Dec. 26, 2016, and stated he authored the law removing this for driver’s license applicants. He followed up privately, recalling decade-old debates with the late Sen. Robert Barbers. He cited statistics such as how only 0.06 percent of applicants tested positive in 2002-2010, implying a huge waste of resources.
His profile picture showed him casually wearing dark glasses and a leather jacket, so I initially thought it was a curiously well-researched parody account.
We still correspond. I forwarded an Inquirer guest column on lack of support for a bill protecting child soldiers. He met the author, lawyer Jaime Arroyo, and promised to refile the bill.
Social media must indeed be toxic if even senators become pikon (touchy). But if Sotto can use Twitter to start thoughtful conversations about his legislative agenda the day after Christmas, can those who make fun of him do better?
React: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.