Someone calls the Malacañang trunk line in the middle of a hostage crisis involving Hong Kong nationals and asks to talk to President Aquino. He claims to be calling for Donald Tsang, the chief executive of Hong Kong. You are one of the presidential aides, and you are not sure that the call is authentic. What do you do?
a) Suggest that he route his call through the Department of Foreign Affairs, as protocol demands.
b) Tell him the President is not accessible at the moment but will get back to him as soon as he is reached.
c) Tell him the line is not clear, and the President will call him back on another line immediately.
The first option has to be the pits. There is a crisis going on, and if the caller is who he says he is, he is understandably trying to cut through red tape. The aide choosing this alternative should be fired immediately, because either he has, without any basis, come to the conclusion that the caller is a fraud and is palming him off, thus putting his principal and the country in hot water if the caller is authentic; or he is inept and cannot exercise initiative in unusual situations, hiding behind bureaucratic procedures instead. The President needs this aide like he needs a hole in the head.
The second option is better than the first, but still unacceptable. It is better because the aide at least has kept his mind open about the authenticity of the caller, and is covering all bases, because if the caller is a fraud, it will be discovered immediately when the chief executive’s office is called. But it will leave a bad impression (if authentic) of inefficiency in the seat of power. In this day of communications technology, how can a President not be immediately accessible to his office?
The third alternative covers all the bases, and of course is the best choice. If it was indeed Tsang who called, he would be gratified at the immediate response. And if the original caller was fraudulent, the President’s call will be interpreted by Tsang as a thoughtful and sincere initiative to assure him that all is being done to ensure the hostages’ safety, and that he will be updated regularly by whoever is in charge of the negotiations.
From what I read in the papers, option one was chosen, or a truly fumbled variant of it: the caller was told that the Department of Foreign Affairs would call back; but the DFA was told to await the call from Hong Kong. Which is why Tsang waited for a return call in vain, even as DFA was waiting for the Hong Kong call—until the tragedy occurred. No wonder Tsang was hopping mad, and no wonder his constituents were angry. (Which does not excuse their stupid retaliatory actions.)
What is not clear is whether the President was apprised of the Tsang call (whether real or fraudulent). If he was not, then again, heads should roll. If he was, it is legitimate to ask why he did not call Tsang (regardless of the original call’s authenticity). There was nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by calling his counterpart to convey his assurances. Obviously the President’s head cannot roll—not this early in the game anyway—but one has to wonder about the quality of the advise he is receiving, which means the quality of his close-in aides. Kaklase Inc. or Ka-Vibes (a.k.a. Ka-rancho, ka-billiards, ka-yosi) does not seem to be working out too well. Now may be a good time to reexamine this criterion for selection.
In the search for a scapegoat (Who was in charge?), the primary target appears to be Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo. He is head of the department charged with promoting peace and order, ensuring public safety, and strengthening the capabilities of local government units as well as overseeing the Philippine National Police. I have made no secret that I am impressed with his credentials and his performance as a local government executive, although I have not even had the opportunity to congratulate him or talk to him since his appointment. And there is no reason to change my mind.
Yes, he should have been in charge, and apparently he was in the command center. And if he had been in charge, things would certainly have turned out different.
Judging from stories from knowledgeable sources, however, he could not have been in charge because, while he is DILG head, he was supposedly ordered to concentrate on the local government side, and to leave the PNP side to Undersecretary Rico Escalona Puno. In which case, Puno, the first undersecretary appointed by P-Noy, should be the one debriefed.
Who is Puno? Googling reveals that until he burst forth as undersecretary, there is nothing on him. His appointment was accompanied by the info that he was a consultant of then Tarlac Rep. Noynoy Aquino and also served him in the Senate, in charge of public order and safety, economic affairs and local government, and liaising with PNP and the Armed Forces. He was in the Liberal Party’s National Campaign Committee. The basis of their friendship, aside from a common province, is apparently that both are gun enthusiasts. Ka-Vibes trumping competence, not to mention integrity, anytime.
Actually, it seemed that everything was going well until the Gregorio Mendoza situation, when the laxity of the police with respect to broadcast (TV) media, combined with the latter’s incredible irresponsibility, resulted in that awful tragedy and brought everybody else’s shortcomings to light.
Unless all involved learn from this experience, we are bound to repeat our mistakes.
This article appeared in Prof. Monsod’s column “Get Real” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer published on August 28, 2010.