FORMER President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd was a master of the technocratic narrative in the two times he appeared before Congress on the Dengvaxia controversy. One got the sense he knew he was on top of things, from the time the proposal to use the untested Dengvaxia was put forward to the approval during Ms. Janette Garin’s time as health secretary.
On precedents and antecedents, on the field trials and the clinical and pharmaceutical details, on the scientific findings that vetted Dengvaxia, Mr. Aquino’s testimonies gave the general impression that he knew what he was talking about, the minutiae of policy and the broad picture even.
The allies of President Rodrigo Duterte who wanted to trap Mr. Aquino and put him on the defensive, error-prone corner—the inquisitors waiting for a gaffe from the former President—just never had the chance to corner Mr. Aquino. Mr. Aquino proved to be the deeper and more learned on policy. Mr. Aquino’s seamless narrative, segueing from one factoid to another, crushed any and all effort to publicly humiliate him on the Dengvaxia controversy.
Unlike the fumbling Ms. Garin who failed to keep the PAO “experts” at bay, Mr. Aquino was left unscathed after two congressional testimonies. The pro- Duterte bloggers who wanted to rake Mr. Aquino in proverbial pits of coals should he fumble—and rake him endlessly using those vicious words without meaning—were left with no material after the hush of silence that came in the wake of Mr. Aquino’s two testimonies.
The House panel looking into the Dengvaxia mess promptly cleared Mr. Aquino, the master of the technocratic narrative.
Yet, after Mr. Aquino had left his critics silent, after he had displayed his mastery of policy, after he had deprived the pro-Duterte bloggers of possible cruel spins, many concerned Filipinos remained troubled. Many got the feeling that Mr. Aquino’s testimonies were like the masterful narratives of Robert Strange McNamara, the “whiz kid” of corporate America who served as defense secretary to John F. Kennedy, as he laid out the plans for a quick and easy victory in the Vietnam War, the worst policy disaster of the US in the 20th century.
McNamara, who pioneered the introduction of “systems analysis” in the crafting of public policy, was both brilliant and persuasive in arguing for deeper involvement in that war. But his thesis on the Vietnam War proved that the mastery of details was irrelevant in a war in a Southeast Asian theater and the superior might of the US military would more than find its match in the person of determined VietCongs.
History taught us what was – and what is still – wrong with masterful presentations and the seemingly convincing power of technocracy: the lack of concern for the human element, for human lives that are papered over and obscured as technocrats go about the implementation of policies and edicts that are sound on paper but are disasters when applied at the ground level.
The Dengvaxia mess is one such mess. If we go by the strict reckoning of the rules, Mr. Aquino, as the House panel has ruled, is not accountable. But his characteristic indifference, his coldness even, to real lives that were run over by his seemingly proper and legal policies in his six years in office, was also in full display during his testimonies.
As Mr. Aquino spun his narrative that silenced the House members, no one pointed out the grief of the next of kin of those who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia, then succumbed to their premature deaths. Did you not ever, Mr. President, realize that Dengvaxia would make orphans out of fathers and mothers? That at that stage of development, Dengvaxia posed real danger to vaccinated children? That your government should not have taken those risks because of the many questions and uncertainties?
The grief, the suffering, the anguish and the lamentations of the next of kin of the dead kids was not in the presentation of Mr. Aquino – this is the whole truth, because he did not care for them, never. Human lives, especially the lives of the underclass, were never part of Mr. Aquino’s governing equation in his six years in power.
I remember that halfway through the presidency of Mr. Aquino, I wrote a column headlined, “Change your photo-ops, Mr. President.” Mr. Aquino never commiserated with victims of tragedies, with victims of violence, with those down-and-out and with those suffering, and his official photos recorded that. His photo-ops were exclusively with technocrats, CEOs, taipans and tycoons, never with labor leaders, peasant leaders, the angry street protesters.
While Mr. Aquino was uneasy with every interaction with the Everyman, he was all grin and smiles as he inaugurated roads and bridges and hobnobbed with the captains of industry. Do you still remember the sad day the body bags of the heroic SAF 44 were brought to Manila? Mr. Aquino was not there to meet the bodies. He opted to speak before the “inauguration” of a recycled car assembly plant in Laguna.
After the media reportage on the Napoles pork barrel scam, his first order was to cut all token subsidies to small farmers. That Napoles used fake farm cooperatives as front for her scams – with the small farmers and coops as the real victims – was ignored by Mr. Aquino. He promptly cut off the small subsidies, part of the lifeline of the neglected small farmers.
How many token legislation for the poor had been vetoed by Mr. Aquino? His beloved budget-balancing work and his obsession with GDP were all what he truly cared about.