Last Saturday Sen. Bongbong Marcos said he is considering running for president—his clearest declaration of intent so far. Previously, only his mother, former first lady Imelda Marcos, had been vocal about the possibility, but this time, “Many are saying that I should run [for president], that I am capable of winning,” he said on radio. “I listen to all of them, and of course, it is heartwarming that they have such strong support for me. We will study that carefully.”
Two days later Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, a contemporary of Senator Marcos’ late father, died. How is that event related to the Marcoses’ dream of returning to Malacañang? Well, if you think about it, the passing of Lee and the appraisal of his legacy have the unintended consequence of throwing some fresh light on the legacy of his fellow strongman Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines—not only because they straddled the same political stage as founding leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but also because, in his 31-year tenure as prime minister of Singapore, Lee had a unique vantage point on which to view the developments happening in the Philippines under Marcos’ watch.
Lee’s government was authoritarian, too—as harsh to the press as Marcos was, for instance—but the disparities between the two couldn’t have been greater. Lee led a spartan, incorruptible life, and that stamp of honesty and efficiency became the hallmark of Singaporean governance. Marcos and his family lived extravagant lives on the back of the public till, with Imelda reveling in her stature as one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful women even as her country slid into abject poverty. Lee’s long-term, farsighted vision for Singapore led to a government of meritocracy and open enterprise, paving the way for the impoverished and tiny city-state he led, with no natural resources and a fragmented society, to become an economic powerhouse in the region. Marcos, on the other hand, inaugurated a new era of economic plunder and cronyism in the Philippines by sidelining the old oligarchy and replacing it with his own family and associates.
Where Lee made Singapore an impressive First World outpost in Southeast Asia, the Philippines deteriorated under Marcos, until, in 1983, buffeted by an economic crisis and scorned by the international community following the assassination of former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., he went to Lee with begging bowl in hand.
As Lee wrote in his memoirs, “[Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos] sent his minister for trade and industry, Bobby Ongpin, to ask me for a loan of US$300-500 million to meet the interest payments. I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Will never see that money back’.”
This is all easily retrievable history, but apparently Senator Marcos had not read Lee’s book, because in 2011 he famously said that had Ferdinand Marcos not been ousted in 1986, his father would have made the Philippines another Singapore. The historical obtuseness of that statement elicited derisive laughter, but then it has been characteristic of the son to constantly defend the family legacy with a combination of studied nonchalance and plain cluelessness. Not one for him, his mother and the rest of the family the penitent posture of people who once had to flee in the dead of night to escape the wrath of a people they had abused for so long. There is nothing to apologize for regarding his father’s misrule, he also once said. As for the tens of thousands of human rights victims under martial law, as late as 2010 the senator would claim that “there are no human rights cases against any Marcos”—belied, of course, by the compensation subsequently awarded the victims by the courts from the Marcos estate.
But the Marcoses have not only rehabilitated themselves, now the son also thinks the family name is once again viable enough to take a crack at the father’s old job. In other words, the family that remains unpunished, and is still unapologetic, for having driven the country to ruin is firmly back in business.
Lee himself was puzzled by the “soft, forgiving culture” of the Filipinos: “Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.”
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