In search of ‘walang kamag-anak’
One of the defining features of being Filipino is the primacy of the family in our lives. This is in full display not just in festive occasions like Christmas gatherings, but in pressing times such as when someone gets confined in the hospital. During my medical training at the Philippine General Hospital, I saw how dedicated family members could be when it came to taking care of their loved ones — some to the point of sleeping on the floor or not sleeping at all. Especially in those pre-sin tax days when PhilHealth offered very little coverage, I saw how one’s family functioned as an “insurance policy”: Even the poorest would be able to cough out some funds, thanks to the pooled resources of their relatives.
This primacy is not limited to one’s immediate family, but to grandparents, cousins, in-laws, and even fictive kinships like being one’s ninong or inaanak — and it spans geographies and generations. For a Filipino, one’s family is indeed a source of support, an assurance that you will never be alone.
This virtue can turn into a vice, however, when our loyalty to institutions and principles is undermined by our family interests. This is especially true for government officials — holders of public trust but at the same time still inexorably beholden to their families.
Pia Cayetano, for instance, was a staunch advocate for women’s rights and a champion of reproductive health, for which she deserves credit. However, when then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte — her brother’s running mate — started making misogynistic remarks and rape jokes, she became woefully silent, and in effect defended him by sidestepping the issue. Her feminism, it seemed, was good and useful only as long as it didn’t get in the way of her family’s interests.
There are many other examples of women and men in our government, brilliant or otherwise, who espouse good and sensible principles — but they stop short of applying the same principles when it comes to their families. The whole idea of political dynasties — in full display as a new election season unfolds — rests on favoring one’s own family over others. Out of the millions of Filipino families, I refuse to believe that the right or the ability to govern resides in a select few.
But why have our members of Congress not acted on the constitutional mandate on this regard? Blood, it seems, is not just thicker than water, but weightier than the law.
For much of humanity’s history, power lay in the hands of the few, preserved through kinship, as when kings and queens passed on the crown to their heirs. Lest we think we are particularly ill-fated in this regard, we must bear in mind that examples of nepotism (nepos means “nephew”) can be found all over the world, in second-generation national leaders, for instance — George W. Bush, Aung San Suu Kyi, Justin Trudeau, Shinzo Abe. Some of them, admittedly, are better than others.
Also, the tendency to favor one’s family members is not confined to politics. In the medical profession, the children of consultants are referred to as “anak ng diyos,” and are sometimes given — or at least perceived to have — an advantage when applying for residency programs.
Similar privileges exist in other professions. Some argue that having their children receive special treatment is a reward for their services, but in most cases, I think the social costs far outweigh the benefits, especially when it comes to government service.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that most nations have a strong ethos about avoiding any conflicts of interest in civic affairs. In Poland, even the spouses of elected officials are required to declare not just their assets, but their income. In the Philippines itself, similar laws exist, but they are flouted: Family members routinely serve as city administrators, secretaries, etc., and are unashamedly lobbied into positions, further entrenching themselves — and their families — in the corridors of power.
If public service is indeed to be a public trust, we can only succeed if we have leaders who are willing and able to place our nation’s interests above those of their own families. Alas, 20 years after Erap vowed “walang kamag-anak,” the search continues.
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