This profound advice is a gift from Neils Bohr, the Danish physicist who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for his work on Quantum Mechanics.
I’ve been reflecting on his cautionary words as I behold the recent epidemic of public statements by Filipino public officials and celebrities that have raised international anxiety about the state of governance in our country and the sanity of some compatriots.
Like the saying “look before you leap”, Bohr’s point is that it is prudent for human beings to think first before saying something in public or in writing. Being sensible and brainy like Bohr is a good start. Being mentally challenged is a handicap. There are times when it is better to be vague or misquoted than to be completely understood in all the nakedness of our thoughts and feelings.
Among public statements of recent vintage, President Aquino’s “Buhay ka pa naman, di ba?” (You are still alive, right?) is indubitably the best remembered and most notorious. But it is only one among so many in a very fertile year (2013).
2013–the Filipinos’ year of talking dangerously
If 1965 was the Indonesians’ year of living dangerously (in the words of then President Sukarno), 2013 may be the Filipinos’ year of talking dangerously. Ominously, 1965 became the year of the communist coup attempt in Jakarta, which led to the killing of nearly a million Indonesians and the subsequent rise of Suharto.
In what follows, I list the most memorable and infamous public statement over the past year, in order of public significance and their chances of being still remembered decades from now. In this list, I use the biblical word “begat” to indicate parentage of the statement even when the parent was just one woman laboring alone.
1.“Buhay ka pa naman, di ba? (You are still alive, right?)
Begat by President Benigno Aquino 3rd in answering a Leyte Chinese businessman, who was complaining of looting in Tacloban in the immediate aftermath of Yolanda. Broadcast over radio, many living witnesses.
2.“You are a Romualdez; The President is an Aquino.”
Begat by Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas in November 2013, and uttered to Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez. Recorded on video. Went viral on YouTube.
3.“Because she is my daughter.”
Begat by Vice President Jejomar Binay in response to media questions why his daughter Nancy was running for senator with no qualifications, and why he believes people would vote for her. If the Veep doesn’t watch out, the statement could become a poster slogan for an anti-political dynasty campaign.
4.“Perhaps I’m blessed because I don’t have sex. I am celibate.”
Begat by Kris Aquino by herself (no father) and told to Boy Abunda in a TV interview. She believes no sex (after losing control of her libido for many years) is the reason her film “My Little Bossings” did well at the box office during the 2013 Metro Manila Film Festival.
5.“We have Truckloads of evidence on the P10-billion pork barrel scam.”
Begat by Justice Secretary Leila de lima by herself (no father). This could set a new standard and measure for evidentiary proof in Philippine jurisprudence. If it doesn’t look like a truck and like de Lima, it’s not evidence.
6.“Ka hindik-hindik” (shocking, appalling)
Begat by Commission on Audit chairman Grace Pulido-Tan by herself (no father), to describe what legislators and government executives did to the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). This was given in testimony at a Senate Blue ribbon committee hearing on the pork barrel scam.
7. “We were careful not to make PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) releases before, during or after the trial.”
Begat by Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad. Reported by Rigoberto Tiglao in his Times column, 27 January 2013. Corroborated by the reports of other newspapers and major broadcast networks.
8. “We have our own standards in the Philippines.”
Begat by presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda in January 2014, in response to charges that bunkhouses built by the Philippine government for Yolanda victims did not meet international standards and specifications. The line could become the standard Aquino excuse for every failing of his administration, and could lead foreigners to distrust anything made in the Philippines.
9. “I will resign if . . .”
Begat first by Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla in November 2013, as his pledge that electricity would be restored inYolanda-stricken East Visayas by Christmas Eve, 2013.
When Christmas came, many local communities were still in the dark. He tried to honor his vow by tendering his resignation to President Aquino, who declined to let him go. Petilla’s conditional resignation has since been copied by Public works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson in the bunkhouse controversy.
10. “Filipinos should eat less rice so the Philippines can achieve rice self-sufficiency.”
Begat by Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to explain his department’s strategy for making the country self-sufficient in the staple and avert any rice shortage. Filipinos today are still eating a lot of rice, most of it imported or smuggled.
Without a doubt, President Aquino was the top producer of memorable statements last year. For someone who cannot beget a child, he fathered many one-liners in 2013.
In addition to “buhay ka pa naman,” he begat “Bahala na si Lord sa inyo” (God will take care of you), a riposte to his critics.
In my notebook, I found an entry for October 3, 2013. It appears that on that day.
President Aquino expressed himself more clearly than he was able to think. To the chorus of TV sound bites and newspaper headlines, he intoned “Impeach me.”
In uttering the words, he was throwing down the gauntlet to his critics, particularly former senator Joker Arroyo and senator Miriam Defensor Santiaago, who had taken Aquino to task for inventing illegally the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), and for using it to pay off senators in order to convict chief Justice Renato Corona in his impeachment trial.
Aquino’s challenge made me think of Neils Bohr’s advice. Little in President Aquino’s background and record suggested a thoughtful man.
At one level, however, aquino was making a brutal point. He said impeach me because he’s confident that the congressmen/representatives he bought to file an impeachment complaint against Corona would stay bought. He felt assured as well that most of the 20 senators he bought to secure Corona’s conviction (most of whom are still in the chamber) would never vote to convict him.
But this is superficial thinking. Aquino failed to consider the unbelievable arrogance he was displaying in challenging critics to impeach him. In effect, he was saying, I am in power, you can’t touch me.
No one is untouchable. This arrogance will turn off many, perhaps even so enrage some or enough that they will back a military coup or a people power uprising against him.
In medieval times, if you throw down the gauntlet, you are inviting someone to fight or compete with you or show that you are wrong. If someone picks up the gauntlet, he/she agrees to fight or compete with you to show that you are wrong.
He may soon see the gauntlet picked up by thousands.
“This nation can be great again.”
President Marcos, for all his power during his nearly 20 years in office, never stooped or rose to this level of braggadocio.
But then Marcos could always think faster than he could talk. He was said to be the most brainy Filipino to ever serve in the Philippine Presidency.
Marcos’s most extravagant statement was to declare at his inauguration on 30 December 1965, “This nation can be great again.”
He went on to say other things and to proclaim martial law in 1972, which lasted for 9 years.
The final time he flexed some muscle and tempted fate, it was to call a snap presidential election in February 1986.
We know how this chapter ended.
The saga of the Filipino nation is a long-running serial, with many chapters still waiting to unfold.
It was no sweat for Neils Bohr to say, “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think. He had no problem thinking. He was a genius.