Philippines: Family Politics In The Age Of Money


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

The Asian financial crisis has facilitated the connection between the circulation of money and the way that governments are being run in our Asian backyard. Words like "corruption", "cronyism" and "clientilism" have taken on new life, marking polities that have yet to develop into the "Western" ideal that we presumably embody.

The textbooks procurement scandal that has rocked Manila in the past two months would seem to confirm what we all thought about the Philippines. Allegedly involved were a second cousin, a godson and other members of President Estrada's entourage who acted as facilitators in multi-million peso deals between the Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS) and school textbook publishers. Between 35 and 60 percent of public outlays for textbooks are said to have seeped into the coffers of bureaucrats and middlemen. The focus of the outcry is the involvement of Estrada family members in the affair. "Family" here includes the President's non-official wives and children, as well as his flock of god-children who have formed a group called "Association of Erap's God-children." Heir apparent of the clan is Mayor Jinggoy Estrada, who inherited his job from his father and is chairman of the Mayor's League. A number of relatives hold advisory as well as minor government positions. Members of this extended "family" cannot possibly avoid invitations, pleas, and opportunities to mediate between the ship of state and individuals or interest groups seeking to profit from it.

Some analysts conclude that the Philippines is a supreme example of a premodern polity where public and private interests interpenetrate. Such views are blinkered, however, by assumptions of a universal ideal attained by "the West". The seepage between "public" and "private" is endemic in all nation-states in this Age of Money. The concentration of wealth in an Imelda Marcos or a Bill Gates are really two sides of the same coin.

What we should try to explain is how Estrada could still receive the highest approval rating of his career at the very height of the DECS exposť. What we should watch are the myriad instances when he speaks to the public, specially the poor who voted for him en masse, as if they were his true family. He continually pledges to combat corruption "within" (ie., his government and his clan) for the good of the greater family of citizens. Yes, there is what we would call "corruption", but it functions just as well to enable the high ideals of justice and fairness to assert themselves.

The person who exposed the participation of an Estrada relative in the textbook scandal, was no less than the secretary of DECS, Andrew Gonzales, a lay brother and former president of a Catholic university. While the obviously embarrassed president has made moves to remove Gonzales from DECS by "promoting" him to another government post, this is by no means a foregone conclusion as various senators and pressure groups rally around Gonzales. Estrada has to manoeuvre carefully to avoid tarnishing his public image as crusader for the downtrodden.

Somewhere in all this is a certain style of doing politics in the Philippines. The idiom of family no doubt predominates, but that should not lead "us" to superficial conclusions about "their" corrupt, cronyist system versus "our" liberal and rational culture of governance. This may make "us" feel good about ourselves, but it also forecloses genuine interaction and dialogue in a regional future that is by no means settled.

WATCHPOINT: Will Estrada sustain his image as crusader for the downtrodden?


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