A silent movie
For proof that the Philippines is really a democracy, you don’t have to look further than the unusual case of Sen. Manuel “Lito” Lapid. The high school dropout-turned-action star was making movies as late as 2006, but he has been elected to the Senate not only once but twice – the first in 2004, and the second in 2010 – speaking much to either his popularity or the gullibility of Filipino voters.
True, there are other actors who have been elected to the Senate, but it is usually Lapid who is held up as an example as to why Filipinos should stop electing actors to a national office. Lapid is most notorious for never having stood up in the Senate to speak on issues under Senate deliberation. In many ways, his reelection to the Senate was most surprising, particularly noting how easily he won the public vote.
So is he really unfit to be a senator, and simply riding the wave of his fame as a movie star to stay in the Senate?
The truth is more complicated than that. Believe it or not, Lapid has actually been a rather prolific legislator, having filed a stunning total of 239 measures in the Senate, ranking him the fifth most productive among the senators, so it cannot be said that he is lazy. He cannot be accused of truancy either, as he has better attendance records than more prominent senators like Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Manuel Villar, although, unfortunately, he is also noted for his vanishing acts at the Senate session hall as soon as the roll call for attendance is done.
The problem then is not in the quantity but in the quality of Lapid’s performance. The measures Lapid has filed can sometimes verge on the bizarre. Among the most unusual he has sponsored are: a bill that seeks to give left-handed Filipinos the same opportunities as right-handed Filipinos; another sets a limit on the weight of the school bags borne by Filipino schoolchildren; and, most recently, one that requires Filipinos to financially support their parents once they become elderly.
But the Senate is the rarefied chamber where proposed laws are fought for to get enacted. It is the place for crackerjack lawmakers who are not afraid to dive into discourses head first. It is not a place for amateurs, and to think otherwise is to do a disservice to all the Filipinos who take the time to vote for senatorial candidates not because of their popularity but because of their legislative competence.
This tricky situation particularly came to light during the recent debates over the controversial Reproductive Health bill in the Senate. Lapid expressed excitement at joining the debates, but held back because he was worried about his ability to speak English during the sessions. “What if they don’t understand my Tagalog or I don’t know how to answer their questions in English?” Lapid said in Filipino. “These senators are also lawyers who spent 10 years in law school while I spent 10 years practicing my stunts.” He added, “Much as I want to interpellate, my tongue is not used to English.”
Candid as his admission was, Lapid seriously damaged what little legislative reputation he had, and turned a Senate interlude into a running joke. Things became more ridiculous when his well-meaning fellow senators went the extra mile to accommodate him, offering to change the level of their discussions so he could join in.
But then on the day Lapid was scheduled to question the RH bill’s champions, he didn’t show up. He only appeared the next day to do his much-awaited act. “I was really nervous,” Lapid said. “I can’t explain it myself. I have been so used to acting so I cannot see a reason for my nervousness.”
The discussion itself was strange in that the other senators were doing the legislative equivalent of holding Lapid’s hands. One senator jokingly asked him which language they should use that day. Later, Lapid would thank his colleagues for helping him by showing him how to stand while asking questions.
All this might be amusing to many, except that all this played out inside the Senate, supposedly a place for great statesmen and “legal gladiators” ready to do verbal battle over the hottest or most pressing national issues of the day. Lapid’s fears showed he doesn’t belong there, and everyone who tried to enable him on the Senate floor just added to the disservice already being done to the Filipino people.
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