Filipinos are having the time of their lives over the latest events in politics, politics being, next to the movies, the national pastime in the country of our despair. The text joke brigades are at it as usual, contributing millions of words to the stream of SMS (text) messages that daily flood the airwaves and which have enriched Globe and Smart beyond their wildest dreams.

The brigades’ latest subject is of course Senator Panfilo Lacson’s allegations of wrong-doing by Jose Miguel Arroyo, and the subsequent rescue/abduction of his star witness Eugenio “Onyok/Udong” Mahusay.

Some of the jokes are hilarious while at the same time (perhaps unintentionally) meaningful. Among them is that which says that the reason the Philippine economy is not progressing is that it is “de-Pidal” rather than “de-motor”, as is the case with the economies of its neighbors. The author of that one could be an economist or political scientist commenting on how corruption has ruined us all, who knows? But some of the jokes are only atrocious, if not full of malice as well as libelous, which means they do not bear repeating in print.

But whether atrocious, meaningful or truly funny, the jokes Filipinos tell do provide an insight into what the public—at least the cell-phone wielding part of it, which runs into the millions—is thinking. In whatever category they belong, primarily the jokes reveal a profound skepticism over the motives and honesty of those who’re currently in power as well as of those who’re not but who would like to be.

The assumption is that all politicians including their high-profile spouses, whether in or out of power, are the same, and it’s foolish to believe anyone of them. The grim and determined who find the Filipino’s lightness of being unbearable should therefore take heart: there’s actually a dead-serious message behind the jokes, and it’s that of the dying Mercutio: a plague on both your houses.

It’s easy enough to see why the public is at the least skeptical, and why it’s about to fall into the kind of cynicism that’s marked the end of entire societies.

Consider the following:

Senator Panfilo Lacson has accused the President’s husband of wrong-doing by supposedly stashing over P200 million in the Jose Pidal bank account. What’s more, he named names and said he had a witness to prove it.

His witness has since been rescued or abducted, depending on who’s telling the story, and is about to recant whatever statements in support of Lacson’s allegations he has made.

Lacson belittles the impending retraction of Eugenio Mahusay as of no moment to his case against Arroyo. On the other hand, the Mike Arroyo camp is almost beside itself in claiming victory and exoneration for Arroyo, and consigning Lacson to the dustbin of lost causes and, quite possible lost electoral chances.

What’s wrong with this picture is that no one among the principals involved is in the first place the paragon of credibility. Having never been a symbol of uprightness even among his primary constituency of jeepney and taxi drivers (who say they’ll vote for him because he supposedly rid the streets of mulcting or “kotong” policemen when he was chief of the Philippine National Police), Lacson, who’s been found to have “only” some $2 million in US banks, is not exactly the ideal person to accuse anyone of dishonesty.

In addition, what he has accused Mike Arroyo of, at least according to the lawyers who specialize in these things, is not illegal. Neither does the Anti-Money Laundering Act cover it. The accusation is that Arroyo put unspent election contributions into his own bank accounts, using the name Jose Pidal. Lacson also alleges that money from several government officials are also regularly delivered to Arroyo’s Makati office.

Lacson’s allegations have so far been based on photocopies of bank withdrawal and deposit slips as well as cancelled checks. But his biggest ace was the sworn statement of Mahusay, in which the latter claimed to have seen the checks as well as the cash, some of which he even helped count.

The flaws in Lacson’s charges were obvious from the very beginning, and had little to do with who was doing the accusing. There is the question, first of all, of whether a crime or crimes had indeed been committed—which should help explain why Lacson chose to make the accusations in a privilege speech rather than file charges in court.

Second, the credibility of his witness, who was a messenger in the Arroyo office, is at least open to question. Mahusay may have Gloria and Mike Arroyo for wedding godparents, but would he have had the kind of access to sensitive information that he claims to have had? If he did, was he in a position to appreciate their meaning?

As it this were not enough, Mahusay was subsequently rescued/abducted by another Mike, Defensor of Housing. From all appearances, Mahusay now seems, in the aftermath of that “rescue,” primed to retract his previous statements. Although the legal minds in the Senate say that such a retraction would not be credible, it nevertheless seriously damages Mahusay’s already doubtful credibility, suggesting at least that he’s changeable and susceptible to God knows what pressure.

The problems Lacson is having this early seem to proceed from his eagerness to clutch at anything that he could use against the Arroyos. It’s an eagerness that should have been tempered with the kind of caution exemplified by his fellow oppositionist Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who has admitted that he was approached by Mahusay and whoever else were behind him, but that he refused to bite both because of the absence of supporting documents as well as because he doubted Mahusay’s capacity to resist pressure and to remain consistent.

But although Lacson’s case appears to be unraveling, the public appears far from concluding that Mike Arroyo is as innocent as he claims to be. Informal surveys indicate that most Filipinos believe that all that smoke must be coming from a real fire.

It’s not just because Filipinos assume that every incumbent government is neck deep in corruption. It is also because Arroyo has been the stuff of controversy and the subject of accusations that he’s been dipping his fingers into the treasury since day one of his wife’s presidency.

Quite aside from what amounts to a public prejudice towards Arroyo compounded by the usual skepticism towards incumbent governments, there is also the question of whether funneling portions of donations meant for a specific purpose, while not necessarily illegal, can be ethically justified. If true, the charge does suggest something fatally flawed in the moral universe, not only of someone who presumably has the presidential ear, but also of the President herself, whom much of the public presumes should have at least some knowledge of what her other half has been doing.

The rescue/abduction of Mahusay did not help boost the government’s credibility, any, despite– or because of–the strained efforts of Michael Defensor, one of President Arroyo’s closest allies and a member of her Cabinet, to make it appear that Malacanang had nothing to do with it.

Defensor’s story was complete with an account of a purported dialogue he had with Mrs. Arroyo, in which the latter seemed limited to thanking God that all were safe, while she remained, despite the billions she has in intelligence funds, totally clueless about Defensor’s daring rescue of her godchild. To believe that, one has to have either been literally born yesterday, or to be a firm believer in asuwangs and other creatures of the Philippine netherworld.

The deployment of two Presidential Security Group helicopters to the Tagaytay scene, and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye’s materializing at the PNP Academy with the Malacanang Press Corps in tow, also suggested Palace foreknowledge if not direct involvement, and reduced the Mahusay rescue/abduction to an aubsurdly scripted tale worthy of the imaginations of a dozen screenwriters.

All this would be funny if it were not tragic. The tragedy is that Filipinos are laughing out of the sides of their mouths, chortling with anger and laughter over the antics of those who’re supposed to lead them, if not to the promised land, at least to a reasonable facsimile thereof. Their laughter suggests they’ve given up on that hope. There’s a festival of cynics out there who’ve written off the whole political system as unworthy of their support, and deserving only of their scorn.

In other societies, the cynicism we’re witnessing has caused the elite to tremble and to at least go through the motions of reform. In this country it has invited only its profound indifference.

(Today/, August 30, 2002)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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