Former senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago suggests that her alma mater, the University of the Philippines College of Law, might have been responsible for the suicide of her son Alexander Robert, or “AR”.

At the time of his death last week, the younger Santiago was a law student at the Ateneo de Manila University. “AR,” said Santiago during the funeral mass for her son, had passed the written admission tests for both the UP and Ateneo colleges of law.

But “ominously,” said Santiago, “the faculty panel at UP which conducted what should have been a routine interview attacked him with politically-loaded questions that must have cut him to the quick.”

Among the questions, said Santiago, was “What is your reaction to the charge that your mother is insane?” Although her son, said Santiago, had tried to keep his equanimity, and had answered the question the best way he could, he was denied admission to the College of Law.

“Although he had passed the written exam, the faculty panel voted to refuse him admission. Maybe they did not like my politics. Maybe some faculty members wanted to prove they could hurt me.

“Whatever their motives,” Santiago continued, “their cruelty spoke for itself. And maybe, eventually, it led to my son’s decision to seek an honorable death in a world of incomprehensible adults who seem to thrive on hatred.”

Like many other colleges of the University of the Philippines, the College of Law does include an interview among its admission requirements in addition to a written examination.

The interview is not a mere formality. It can decide whether a student can be admitted into a college or not, and is meant to establish such things as the student’s capacity to complete the required course work, his or her aptitude for the program he or she is getting into, and his or her study habits.

At the graduate level, the extent and nature of the student’s experience and background in the discipline, or the lack of it, is among the questions the interview seeks to answer.

It’s all part of the gate-keeping process, which pretends to insure that only the intellectually prepared can get into the University, but which in practice amounts to allowing only the elite-trained admission. Lawyering in this country—at least at the level training in it is offered by the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila—is after all a profession reserved for the elite as well as serving the elite.

Although the younger Santiago’s being the son of a former senator as controversial as his mother has been may have had some relevance to any one of the issues a UP interview normally looks into, the question on his mother’s sanity was unnecessary, out of line, and cruel.

This may indeed be a cruel world, the Philippines a cruel country, and law a profession which, in the eyes of its malignant practitioners, brooks no pity and regards winning as everything.

But it is a mistake to think that everything and everyone else needs to add further to the sum total of the cruelty already rampant in the archipelago of our sorrows. It is even worse to imply thereby that the skills and knowledge a university education would impart need not and must not be tempered by either humaneness or compassion.

It may be that in many eyes including those of UP law professors, Santiago herself has been no stranger to the infliction of pain, whether as government functionary, lawyer, senator, or politician. In any of those capacities, she has after all called people names, described them in unflattering terms, and screamed epithets at them from the sanctuary of her senatorial authority.

To inflict on the son the punishment that one thinks the mother deserves, however, is a form of injustice lawyers first of all should have been wary of committing—and hardly a lesson worthy of a college that proclaims its mandate to be that of graduating great lawyers by teaching them law in the grand manner. Santiago’s sins, even if they be legion, are no argument for inflicting on the son the vengeance that many might wish on the mother.

But did the members of the panel indeed ask those questions? Presumably the former senator’s son had conveyed what had happened during the interview to his mother. Presumably as well, she was telling the truth last Sunday about what he had told her.

Although the former senator blandly admitted in 2000 that she had lied about her pledge to jump out of an airplane without a parachute should the impeachment charges against former president Joseph Estrada prosper, this time there was no reason for her to lie—not as her son was about to be buried.

Despite her estrangement from some (not all) of UP’s student and faculty constituencies as a result of her identification with the Estrada camp, Santiago had remained proud of her UP education, and seems to have instilled the value of one into the minds of her children.

It is of course possible that, fearing non-admission into the college from which his mother had graduated with distinction, the younger Santiago manufactured the story he told his mother.

Because he is no longer around to contest it, the members of the UP College of Law panel can deny that they ever asked him about his mother’s sanity—or even about his father’s cockfighting, as Santiago had earlier said they did.

Such a denial would pit their words against that of the dead Santiago, and would resolve nothing. What remains is the fact of the young Santiago’s death, and with it whatever possibilities he had for making a difference in the “confused and divided society” that is the Philippines.

We will never know what all the young men and women killed by words, circumstances, or guns in this country could have contributed to our common good had they lived.

What is certain is that Philippine society has been so much the lesser for its cruelty. It is a society that kills its children, which forces the poor into the streets or into hazardous work, or rewards their protests with torture and bullets.

But what the Santiago case suggests is that for the children of the wealthy and powerful—the inheritors of the very order of which their families are the prime beneficiaries—the cruelty can be equally devastating.

Beyond this obvious irony, however, lurks the disturbing possibility that Philippine society is so much divided it is turning against the children of the very classes it is supposed to cherish, though perhaps not in the same violent terms as it has turned against the powerless and the poor. Such a society cannot long endure.

(Today/, November 25, 2004)

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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