Candid talk, but…

President Aquino has again used the occasion of an institution’s anniversary to take that institution to task—essentially for failing to live up to its highest ideals. This time it wasn’t a news organization, but a high-profile government agency: the Bureau of Immigration. We have gotten used to the President’s unusual candor, and think that in general it is a welcome change. But we must say that we found something amiss with the candid remarks he made at the BI head office.

“Let’s accept it: The Bureau of Immigration is one of the agencies embroiled in controversial issues in the past years. So pardon me if I take this opportunity to present matters that caused my dismay, and more importantly, our ‘Boss,’” the President was quoted as saying last Tuesday, referencing yet again his populist (and popular) notion that he and other government workers report directly to the real bosses, the ordinary people.

He criticized the BI for its handling of specific cases; TJ Burgonio’s front-page report lists three of them: the mysterious disappearance from a Philippine hospital of a South Korean national wanted by the Seoul government; the entry of a major “cybercrime and human trafficking syndicate” into the country; and, above all, the escape of the Reyes brothers after they were implicated in the murder of Palawan environmentalist Gerry Ortega.

These three cases are perfect examples; they explain why the BI remains very controversial two full years into Mr. Aquino’s term. The escape of former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, in particular, is a real sore point with the public. It is the kind of scandal that can, over the long term, turn the tide of public opinion.

In his remarks delivered entirely in Filipino, the President belabored the obvious, giving vent to frustrations shared by ordinary people disgusted by the entire Reyes affair. “In instances like this, we expect those planning to escape to do everything to avoid ending in jail. They will not identify themselves as respondents in a case, as subjects of your watch list, and more so, they won’t turn themselves in to the authorities.”

He then asked a question that must have spooked the assembly: “Can this happen without conspiracy, and without anyone sleeping on the job? If these controversial individuals managed to elude the law … , how much [more those] lesser known criminals?”

The President accusing the staff of a line agency of conspiracy—this is something new.

Just to be clear: We have nothing against the President’s rather assertive attitude toward anniversary speeches. Our political culture is not used to frank talk; between political bombast (or bomba, as a number of Filipinos still say) and political praise or promise (or bola, as everyone still says), there is hardly anything. So it is easy to understand why the President’s candid criticism of his hosts, whether it is ABS-CBN or the BI, can upset many Filipinos. We are not used to it.

But there is a difference between criticizing a news organization, over which the President has no control, and criticizing a line agency that ultimately reports to Malacañang. In the case of the BI, two of the headline cases that the President referred to happened many months ago: the Korean national Kim Tae Dong went missing last December, and the Reyes brothers decamped last March. It is already September. What has the executive branch done since?

We know that an immigration officer and a security guard at Ninoy Aquino International Airport implicated in the Reyes brothers’ escape have been placed under preventive suspension. But we expected more heads to roll, and more decisive action taken. Immigration Commissioner Ricardo David, for instance, has a lot to answer for, but nothing in the President’s remarks hinted at any displeasure with the performance of the man who was his first appointee to the post of Armed Forces chief of staff.

Our concern, then, lies not with Mr. Aquino’s increasingly frequent use of the so-called presidential bully pulpit, that power to drive opinion or effect change through moral suasion. That is his prerogative. We only question whether, in the case of what human-resources practitioners call direct reports, moral suasion can ever be a substitute for direct action.

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