• The rhetoric has passed its sell-by date

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    A Facebook post by ABS-CBN a few days ago turned out to be unintentionally hilarious, in a schadenfreude sort of way: In connection with the fourth anniversary of the death of former President Cory Aquino, the network posted the innocent question, “Cory Aquino. Democracy icon. How do you +Remember Cory Aquino?” and suddenly found itself assailed by angry responses—nearly 900 of them as of Thursday afternoon, and as far as I could determine from reading through the extensive comment thread (a task that took nearly an hour), not a single one of them having anything complimentary to say about the Philippines’ “democracy icon.’’

    One of the early comments, which simply described Cory Aquino as “the biggest mistake in Philippine history,” attracted more than 600 “likes,” leading one reader to observe, “Apparently, Most Filipinos don’t want to remember Cory Aquino anymore.” About the only nice thing anyone had to say was praise for his fellow citizens from another commenter who posted, “After reading most of the comments here, my faith in the Filipino people has been restored. Gising na!!! [Wake up!!!]”

    The story was picked up in quick order by the Get Real Post and several other blogs, most of whom had the foresight to post screenshots of the original entry and the incendiary comment thread in case ABS-CBN comes to its senses and deletes the post, the attempt at inspiring nostalgia—and, we assume, sympathetic support for the current president and son of Cory Aquino—obviously having backfired in a spectacular way. If the network hasn’t removed the post yet, it can be viewed at www.facebook.com/abscbnNEWS/posts/10151509582115168.

    There is more significance to the overwhelmingly negative reaction than is usually ascribed to posts on social media. For one thing, Filipinos are one of the most active social media populations in the world; a popular idea, good or bad, spreads like wildfire. And while it’s true that the number of comments on ABS-CBN’s “Remember Cory Aquino” post represent a very small fraction of the more than the 600,000 people who subscribe to the network’s Facebook page, the fact that the responses were universally negative should be a serious warning to the Aquino administration’s image managers, of whom most people consider ABS-CBN an extension: If the right issue to fuel the public’s outrage comes along, social media won’t just be a spark to start the inferno, it will be a bomb. It is said that the first EDSA revolution was created through word-of-mouth and Radio Veritas, and the second through text messaging; if ever there is a third—something we should sincerely wish would not happen—it’s going to start on Facebook and Twitter; there has already been spectacular precedent for this in the countries rocked by the “Arab Spring” of a couple years ago.

    Obviously, the rhetoric epitomized by the contrived reverence for the “Aquino legacy” is no longer working, and this is a really inopportune time for the current Aquino administration to have to face that reality given the impressive number of scandals that have emerged in the past month or so. Until recently, the administration has been able to deflect attention from troubling topics, and if issues like the Ballsy Aquino-Inekon bribery allegations or the Janet Napoles-pork barrel scandal had cropped up a year or so ago, they might already have been forgotten. But President Aquino’s fourth State of the Nation Address delivered a couple weeks ago seems to have changed the national inclination to be accommodating. Whether it was the rambling, directionless collection of unrelated and largely facetious achievements that made up the overall speech, or President Aquino’s ill-conceived and unprofessional decision to publicly castigate officials of the Bureau of Customs—which only served to remind the public that they were appointed by President Aquino himself, thus indirectly implicating him in the BOC’s malfeasance—that address seemed to encourage everyone to take a hard look at the government’s performance and find it wanting.

    Not only are the “Ballsy scandal” and the “pork barrel scandal” not going away, new details are emerging about both that indicate they may fall a bit more into the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” category than many of us thought at first. And they have been joined by new issues, such as the customer overcharging perpetrated by Metro Manila’s two water distributors under the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System sanction, public annoyance at the huge bonuses paid to MWSS managers for meeting profit targets (profits which were, in part, earned by unethical charges passed on to water customers), and two issues raised by Sen. Ralph Recto this week: the sharp increase in oil smuggling during Aquino’s term, and the apparent illegitimate adding of bonuses, salaries and consulting fees added to the stranded debt charges passed on to consumers by the National Power Corp.

    It is because of these latter issues that potential investors and business groups have lately adopted a surprisingly frank position on the idea of doing business with the Aquino government. Earlier this week, European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) Vice President for External Affairs Henry Schumacher said in a statement that investors “are certainly not keen” in doing business in the Philippines, especially in projects with the government, as “changing rules mid-stream” was creating a “huge trust deficit” for investors on top of the persistent challenges of dealing with bad infrastructure, bureaucratic inefficiency, a rigid labor market and remaining areas of corruption.

    Schumacher’s sentiments echo those shared by outgoing Belgian Ambassador Christian Meerschman in a discussion with The Times editors and writers a few weeks ago: Despite many improvements that need to be made in the investment environment, there are still opportunities for productive investment with Philippine private-sector partners, but virtually no one is interested in getting involved with the government. President Aquino’s stale pitch that “the Philippines is open for business” and that “investors are lining up” has never been backed by actual results, but until now the reaction of those supposed investors has at least been diplomatic.

    Clearly, a point has been passed where the magic of the Aquino name has lost all potency for the business sector as well as a growing segment of the public. Investors, however, have options; sensing—probably correctly—that the Aquino administration will not be able to substitute actual performance for rhetorical self-promotion to maintain its authority, they have the choice to wait, or make their investments elsewhere. But the public is not quite as lucky. Whether or not they are as able or inclined as investors are to wait for three more years for the mess that the “Aquino legacy” has become to run its course is not completely up to them, and that is a dangerous situation. If there is a way for President Aquino to actually exercise the imagined leadership he and his designated spokespersons have been telling everyone is his birthright, now would be the time for him to do it, before his own legacy goes from just being a turn-off to being an actual tragedy.

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