Thursday, April 16, 2009


Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:07:00 04/16/2009

Call her Jackie S. The “interim first lady” of East Timor, Jacqueline Aquino Siapno, is a Filipina political scientist married to Fernando de Araujo, president of the new country’s National Parliament. She was back in the Philippines recently, for what she called a private visit. It was not the determinedly private nature of her visit that caught the attention of the Philippine Daily Inquirer; it was the resolutely modest way she went a-visiting.

The best way to capture this exemplary modesty is to quote at some length the report written by Inquirer correspondent Gabriel Cardinoza. “After exchanging greetings [at the Manila airport] they [Jackie S. and her mother] took a cab and headed to a bus terminal in Pasay City where they boarded a bus bound for her native Dagupan. The Friday night trip took five hours. At the station, they hailed a tricycle and asked to be taken to their house in Barangay Bonuan Gueset.”

This isn’t merely a charming anecdote: it is an indirect indictment of the way most public officials or political personalities in the Philippines conduct themselves, when travelling. It makes for a good story because it reminds us of the inexhaustibly surprising quality of human nature. But it makes for a front-page story because it offers a contrast to the “wang-wang” culture our political VIPs, both high and petty, take for granted.

Ms Siapno may not know the meaning of “wang-wang”—she has lived abroad for most of her adult life, earning (among other distinctions) a Ph.D. from the University of California in Berkeley—but she should recognize the self-importance her old country’s politicians attach to themselves. Wang-wang is the siren that “very important people” acquire, whether they ride unescorted or as part of a convoy; the sound is a sign that the usual (traffic) rules do not apply to VIPs. They are, obviously, too important.

Already, we can anticipate the objections, the clarifications, that officials who feel alluded to will issue. Her visit, they would say, was a private affair. There is no comparison with their official travel.

Yes, but they would miss the point. Jackie S. could have used or borrowed a private vehicle. That she did not consider herself too good for an ordinary bus or—Que barbaridad!—a rickety tricycle tells us more about the dignity of public office than flashing lights and wailing sirens ever can.

But East Timor is a small, impoverished country, other politicians or their hired spokesmen might say. There is no comparison.

Again, they would miss the point. Substantial government resources are spent every year to provide public officials with the illusion that we are already a rich country. How many hundreds of soldiers, how many thousands of policemen, are assigned to public officials as personal security? How many vehicles must be deployed to ferry a VIP and his security retinue from venue to venue? Does a vice mayor of a second-class municipality really need a close-in bodyguard? Does a congressman back in her district really need a motorcycle escort? Does a Cabinet secretary making the rounds in Metro Manila really need two beige-colored, red-plated AUVs to shadow his gas-guzzling SUV?

You get the point. Or at least we ordinary citizens do. We are not asking our public officials to use public transportation to go to and from work—although that would amount to a moral revolution. We are only asking them to reconsider the sense of entitlement, the sense of inflated dignity they display because of their complicity in the wang-wang culture.

But the “interim first lady” of East Timor is not even an official, nor does she hold a permanent position, still other officials would say. There is no comparison.

They would, again, be missing the point. All public office is temporary. And too many of our own officeholders use their office to aggrandize not only themselves but their families. Who has not seen police bodyguards deployed to secure an official’s child, or a convoy of government vehicles to accompany an official’s spouse?

In her simplicity, in her sure sense of self, Jackie S. reminds us how spoiled, how self-indulgent, how corrupt, many of our high-riding officials have become.

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