Nograles and the quiet dignity of office

/ 04:06 AM November 05, 2019

In his magnum opus “The Origins of Political Order” (2011), Stanford University scholar Francis Fukuyama highlights an often forgotten fact about human civilizations. A central requirement for any functioning society is the development of an autonomous, well-organized and capable bureaucracy. A weak state, namely one that is beholden to a narrow elite and is incapable of providing basic public services, undermines faith in democracy and stifles long-term economic development. At worst, it breeds anarchy and despotism.

A look at the world’s most prosperous nations with divergent political systems and cultures shows that having a strong state is a prerequisite for national success. This is especially true in East Asia, a postcolonial region of immense dynamism and diversity, where a whole host of nations, some under communist rule, others under presidential or parliamentarian democracies, have achieved similarly remarkable economic “miracles.”


One of the most refreshing aspects of Fukuyama’s two-volume work, “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay,” is his analysis of the origins of the modern state.

While the term bureaucracy is rooted in early modern Western Europe, especially imperial France, it’s actually China that gave birth to the first modern state. This had less to do with philosophy and metaphysics, and more with brutal realpolitik. Modern China is a product of centuries-long civil wars among neighboring kingdoms, which eventually encompassed large parts of Eurasia’s eastern rimland.


During the Warring States period (475 BC-221 BC), various Chinese monarchs waged total war, until a central imperial authority was created under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It was raw political Darwinism.

Throughout ancient times, the success of a Chinese monarch was largely determined by one important element: an effective bureaucracy, which could hire the best and brightest generals and officers as well as collect sufficient taxes for waging perpetual war. In order to accomplish this, the ancient Chinese monarchs established elaborate bureaucratic structures ran by capable “mandarins” who were, in turn, selected based on a competitive, merit-based examination system.

While popular history is filled with praises for supposedly “great leaders,” the true progenitors of national success were often the quiet, taciturn bureaucrats, who were devoted to the efficient functioning of state institutions.

In “Peter the Great” (1980), the Pulitzer-winner biographer Robert Massie brilliantly demonstrates how bureaucrats and reformers such as Artemon Matveev and Prince Vasily Golitsyn paved the way for Czar Peter’s transformation of a once-backward society into a great power.

Through the centuries, the ant-like army of unassuming mandarins, rather than the megalomaniac despots, has served as the backbone of civilizational advancement. Yet we often forget about the unsung heroes because we are so entranced by the narcissism of autocrats and populists.

When I interviewed Karlo Nograles, Malacañang’s youthful Cabinet secretary, the contrast with the more prominent members of the Duterte administration was striking. Among the youngest members of any presidential Cabinet in recent memory, Nograles exhibits a refreshing combination of quiet dignity and a sharp mind.

Devoid of the megalomania of some of his more senior colleagues, not to mention the populist President’s millenarian streak, the soft-spoken Nograles seamlessly explained the nitty-gritty and nuances of a complex array of policy questions under his jurisdiction.


A proud product of the Philippine Science High School and Ateneo de Manila University, he analyzed the many dimensions of an ever-expanding portfolio, which includes, among others, food security (the “Goodbye Gutom” program) and peace and development in Mindanao, aside from coordinating manifold interagency clusters under Malacañang’s wing.

A former congressman from Davao who oversaw protracted budget deliberations in the legislature in the full bloom of youth, Nograles is a fine representation of the other side of the southern city, which has simplistically become synonymous with the Duterte dynasty. The youthful and conscientious mandarin in Malacañang represents a larger phenomenon in the current government: the countless truly “best and brightest” nonpartisan Filipinos working in the bureaucracy sans fanfare.

More importantly, the quiet bureaucrats, unlike the more partisan and often brazenly incompetent political appointees, are a sine qua non to the functioning of our state institutions. Without them, we would be at the total mercy of incompetent populists and shameless opportunists who have come to dominate contemporary local and global politics.

[email protected]er.com.ph

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TAGS: bureaucracy, Horizons, Karlo NOgrales, Richard Heydarian
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