The barrio versus modernity
We have been trying to be a modern nation since 1935 (after the stillborn efforts of 1896 and 1898), but our collective attitudes still hark back to the barrio (not the barangay — at least if you adopt, as I do, Damon Woods’ argument that the barangay is a myth due to an American scholar’s intervention in translating a friar’s report). And so, however increasingly complex governance for an ever-growing population gets, our expectations are simple. And the more things get complex, the more we hardheadedly insist on simple approaches to complicated problems.
So: Calamity strikes, and we expect national officials on the spot, personally taking charge. When President Benigno S. Aquino III tried to make a rational response — visit later, rather than get in the way — he was raked over the coals by the public. When his successor did the same thing, on exactly the same logic, the response was muted. The difference lies in the expectations both chief executives raised, and which spells all the difference. Time and again, Aquino said the public was the boss; his successor has time and again thundered that he is the boss. The former then declared it open season on himself, while his successor directly stated that any criticism is a challenge, and hardly anyone dares.
Besides which, the President operated by proxy in the most dramatic way possible: Sen. Bong Go vroom-vrooming into Tulunan, North Cotabato, not only made good copy, it was almost as if the President himself was there. This kind of political bilocation was once the preserve of first ladies, but the point is that it works: When Go announced that the NHA would help with housing and DTI would distribute livelihood packages, everyone understood it as being as good (because authoritative) as if the President had announced it himself.
Genaro Magsaysay wasn’t a memorable senator, but he did make one statement that’s proven memorable: “More talk, more mistake; less talk, less mistake; no talk, no mistake.” While it could be easily said that the President subscribes to this dictum, what might be more accurate to say is that we have gotten more used to what bureaucrats like to call an “all-of-government approach” to calamities.
But the approach, this time around, is remarkable, not for what it’s doing, but the absence of those doing it. Consider how the natural manner in which Cabinet officers, at their worst, tend to bicker over turf or try to steal media exposure, or at their best, try to come to grips with the logistical challenge of relief operations, isn’t particularly on display this time around. Calamities in the past have hurt the reputations of civilian officials. This time around, the proliferation of ex-generals in the Cabinet doesn’t open up the official family to criticism — not least because it’s not in the nature of ex-top-brass to be particularly forthcoming to public scrutiny (though some may be better at public relations than others).
The designated head of relief efforts, the secretary of national defense, Delfin Lorenzana (PMA ’73), is a former general not even senior in either former rank or military experience to the other former generals in the Cabinet: Rolando Bautista (PMA ’85), former Army chief, now head of the DSWD; or Eduardo Año (PMA ’83) former AFP chief of staff, in the DILG; or another former AFP chief of staff, Roy Cimatu (PMA ’70), in the DENR.
Just because the secretary of national defense is, ex-officio, chair of the NDRRMC; the secretary of the interior, vice chair (for disaster preparedness); the secretary of social welfare also vice chair (for disaster response); and the secretary of the environment an ex-officio member, doesn’t mean they would automatically get along or work together well. But they have had enough time to get to know each other in their civilian capacities, and their shared military culture may make them suited to cooperating and sticking together — though again this can have its downside.
To be sure, the NDRRMC issues regular reports, but it requires institutional knowledge to sift through and read between the lines of these reports, a task to which the increasingly resource-starved media is increasingly ill-equipped to conduct on a sustained or even focused basis. Which actually makes the task easier for government: Less scrutiny, fewer reporters on the ground, an absence of foreign correspondents, and a presidency that knows how to push the right buttons make for a controversy-proof effort, not least because there are enough critics to bog down discussions on fanning regionalistic bickering to take the spotlight away from where it belongs — government.
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