The chorus of blame and shame has been on full blast in the aftermath of last week’s hostage drama. Police officials, the media, the President, his Cabinet officials, an entire government, indeed a whole country is enduring the resulting outrage over how a dismissed police officer managed to hold tourists from Hong Kong hostage in their bus and local security forces are unable to contain and diffuse the lethal situation as it escalated and eventually resulted in nine deaths.
How and why the incident happened has been dissected by many. But what is often lost in the cacophony of accusations and mea culpas is that blaming and shaming, while they have a place in society, should not be taken too far. The ongoing investigation has to be thorough but, if it is to result in accountability and more importantly in reform and improvement, it must not be turned into a witch hunt that can only embitter, paralyze, and divide a people. We must respond to this incident with the right sense of proportion.
Filipinos have this habit of over-reacting due to our preconceived notions and unfortunately often regardless of the evidence. Our disillusionment with the Arroyo , Estrada and yes Marcos governments makes us overlook or dismiss their positive contributions to Philippine development, perceiving everything they did through a black and white lens. More recently, we saw the hostile reaction to Dean Marvic Leonen’s statement, delivered as the chief negotiator of the Philippines to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, that constitutional change might be an option to achieve peace in Mindanao. In this context, the calls for the resignation of officials right up to Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo are expected. In the case of Robredo, such calls are absurd without any evidence that he made serious errors of judgment during the crisis. In the same way, it is foolish to hold President Aquino or, for that matter, the past administration responsible for what happened. The problems of our police force precede the Aquino and Arroyo administrations. Unless we recognize this fact, our diagnosis of these problems, which should be evidence-based and not be guided by our understandably raw feelings, will be seriously flawed and the problems will remain unsolved.
Apologies are in order for what happened in that tourist bus last week. These gestures of humility, intended to heal wounds, are particularly important for those directly in contact with the peoples of Hong Kong and China, such as our overseas workers, tourism officials and industry, and diplomats. But the country loses its sense of proportion when it expects all its citizens to feel equally guilty or ashamed.
We should also remind ourselves that genuine atonement is not solely about apologies, laying blame, or feeling shame. Apologies without real, tangible, on the ground change are empty words that drive a wedge between apologizer and the hurt one. When all people feel is blame and shame for their mistakes, they become resentful, embittered, suspicious and hostile, making meaningful reform impossible. This is also why it is imperative that we take immediate and constructive steps so that this incident is not repeated.
In my view, aside from fundamental police reforms, we need to make sure that Secretary Robredo, an award winning mayor with nearly 20 years of experience working on local peace and order, has unencumbered powers over the police at the national level. The line of command should be clear from the President downwards to Robredo to the top police officials to the rank and file. If it is true, as reported by other columnists (not in this paper) that Robredo was not given supervision of the police when he was appointed, that needs to be changed right away. We should remember what happened in the Department of Agriculture in the last administration when an Undersecretary was able to bypass his principal and got instructions straight from the President.
The President should also seriously look at his own internal and communication operations so that the way the Palace responded – in my view, a tragedy of errors – never happens again. Foremost is making sure the President has close-in advisers with extensive and senior, including international, governance experience so he is well advised all the time and regardless of type of crisis. He must also make the tough decision of who should singularly head his communications department and replace the current arrangement which is likely to bring him and the country more grief in the future. All professionals will tell the President that communications by committee never works. Unfortunately, this crisis is above all about communications and the Palace is failing absolutely in this challenge.
For the record, in spite of my dissatisfaction with what happened, my optimism for the future of an Aquino-led country remains unchanged. A sense of proportion also means that one sees that a single incident does not make a pattern and should not make us lose hope for our country.
This week, we celebrate National Heroes Day, and to dwell on the mistakes of the past is not what this day is all about. There is a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear and a time to mend, the Book of Ecclesiastes says. Today is therefore a good moment to remember that there are heroes among us.
Despite the mistakes and omissions of the Manila police force, among them surely are honest men and women who answered the call, and put their lives on the line, even while ill-equipped, in the middle of confusion, and against one of their own. Another hero is Venus Raj, our representative to the Miss Universe 2010 pageant. Her less than perfect answer should not overshadow her humble roots, the virtues she brought to the stage, or the odds against her. She should make us proud, not ashamed. This week is also a time to remember present day heroes, not only in the Philippines but in Asia with the traditional awarding ceremony of the Ramon Magsaysay awardees. Let us celebrate particularly the two Filipino science teachers who are among this year’s awardees.
Finally, there are our fellow Filipinos in Hong Kong who are in the front lines of this crisis. I know many of them personally and they have communicated to me through text, email, Facebook and Twitter how affected they are by what happened. Let us salute them for their sacrifice, courage and dignity – and give them whatever support they need to overcome this. They are truly our heroes and we owe this to them.
Overcoming the fog of confusion, today and in the weeks to come, why don’t we surprise ourselves and find our heroes from both unlikely and ordinary of sources? For a start, let’s truly get to the bottom of this incident and make the changes necessary so that never, never again do we have to do so much blaming and shaming. That to me is doing things with a good sense of proportion.
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This article is a slightly edited version of Dean La Viña’s column “Eagle Eyes” in the Manila Standard Today published on August 31, 2010.
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.