BECAUSE PRESIDENT Aquino made mention of “wangwang” not once, not twice, but 28 times, in his recent State of the Nation Address, it’s easy to surmise that, among other things, he was hoping to re-ignite the same widespread approval the unexpected imagery had received the first time he used it in a speech. That was during his swearing-in as president last year, when his inaugural address leapt from heretofore commonplace to genuinely galvanizing the moment he uttered the word.
In gist, Mr. Aquino promised something radical: From now on, he said, under his new administration, “Walang wangwang, walang tong, walang counterflow.” The “wangwang” referred to the blaring sirens that invariably accompanied the vehicles of the mighty and powerful in the country, the sound a menacing order to everyone less privileged to give unimpeded space to the sundry potentate passing through.
By the time Mr. Aquino came to power, the “wangwang” had become an iconic symbol of the arrogance and sense of entitlement of uncounted politicians and government officials in the country. By vowing to eliminate it, Mr. Aquino caught the public imagination with the simplicity and potent promise of his avowed first step as President. And when he showed leadership by example by abolishing the “wangwang” from his own motorcade, lesser political lights had to comply—grudgingly in the case of Vice President Jejomar Binay, but, eventually, the change would take root.
The “wangwang” hasn’t entirely vanished from the country’s roads and highways, but their scarcity these days is noticeable, and Mr. Aquino can take direct credit for that. Over a year later, for his second Sona, he must have thought its success merited a reiteration, and on a larger scale. So he sought to extend the franchise by anchoring his speech on an anti-“wangwang” campaign that expanded the meaning of the term from petty power-tripping on the road to nothing less than the insidious mindset that undergirded it. In Mr. Aquino’s view, it’s the “utak wangwang” of government crooks and their enablers that accounted for the unabashed looting and debasement of public resources, such that an agency tasked to run a national lottery whose proceeds were earmarked for the country’s poorest would end up spending P1 billion for coffee alone.
The link Mr. Aquino sought between that predatory disposition and the destructive ills it spawns was a valid and perceptive one. He could only have been mystified, therefore, had he listened to the general chatter that erupted online and in the media right after his Sona. The common refrain by ordinary people: “Wangwang na naman?” Not a few took the President’s harping on the same theme as evidence that, after over a year in office, he was basically stuck in a rut, unable to expand his bearings to encompass more significant and urgent national concerns.
Mr. Aquino and his handlers forgot one thing. This is the age of the instantly disposable and forgettable, from ersatz stars to political soundbites to the latest tawdry scandal. In the brutal 24/7 news cycle when everything is old hat by the time it’s been retweeted around the world practically within seconds, the President’s “wangwang” metaphor had used up its Warholian 15 minutes a long time ago—over a year past, in fact, a virtual lifetime in the new order of things.
But is it old hat, really? Mr. Aquino’s original promise did hold out something more. Aside from the banishment of those irksome sirens, it also said “walang tong, walang counterflow.” So how are those two holding out so far?
The most telling answer can be found in the recent news that the President of the Republic himself had a vehicle owned by TV station Channel 5 apprehended for countering traffic flow. Along with beating the red light, it’s a common enough traffic infraction, if you think about it—but, this time, ordinary citizens are often as guilty of it as the next politico, aided by local governments or a Metropolitan Manila Development Authority too inept, or corrupt, to enforce the law.
Clearly, merely within those three benchmarks laid out by Mr. Aquino, the landscape looks disappointingly unchanged. While “wangwang” is fairly out, its sibling evils still bedevil our roads. And nothing drives the point home about how deep-rooted “utak wangwang” is than the rampant sight of otherwise decent folk violating the most basic traffic rules without a moment’s thought—and then engaging in official bribery when caught. Indeed, from that small but everyday gesture of impunity, of cutting corners if one could, what comes next?
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