Not exactly evil, not exactly genius

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Former Senator Joker Arroyo, who was his mother’s executive secretary, called him an “evil genius” for his supposedly creative use of Article 39 of the 1987 Administrative Code of the Philippines to justify the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), in the process marking the first time that Benigno Aquino III has ever been so referred to by either epithet.

A genius, after all, Mr. Aquino is not — his record as both member of Congress and as President not being particularly bright, and DAP itself being the brainchild of his Budget Secretary Florencio Abad.

If comparisons must be made with the Presidents of his real boss, the United States, he’s no Abraham Lincoln, but more like a Ronald Reagan, who knew at least how to communicate, and how to make people think they’re getting roses while he was handing out thorns.

Like Reagan, Mr. Aquino too knows how to communicate, not only speaking in Filipino and seldom in English, but even more effectively using the language of the streets. Some would call that genius, but it’s mostly gut feel — and having a sister in show business, plus advisers who understand the first rule of public relations: when addressing the masses, talk like them. Thus Mr. Aquino’s masterful “kayo ang boss ko” slogan, and his more recent “excuse me, but DAP is not the same as PDAF,” which is the way some colegialas talk.

If he’s no Lincoln and no genius, neither (it has been widely held) can he be described as evil. The image he projects — it shows even in that peculiar walk of his — is that of a laid-back playboy with an eye for the ladies rather than that of, a la some of his predecessors, a sinister Machiavellian.

Like all things, however, that perception could change, thanks to his defense of the DAP last Monday over national television, during which he sounded more like a spoiled brat rather than the CEO presiding over this country’s supposed focus on government spending for the good of the people.

For starters, he reiterated that because the DAP supposedly benefitted the people, it can’t be bad. That was of course merely a restatement of the principle that the end justifies the means, but which sounds reasonable unless you’re the kind who understands that bad methods poison and shape even the most well-intentioned goals.

After all, there are people and institutions in this country who say they’re for peace, but who torture people to stop them from taking up arms, thus forcing even more people to take up the gun. Human rights issues aside, can torture then be good if it’s being used for (supposedly) noble aims?

There’s also the question of exactly how the DAP benefitted the people. Mr. Aquino implied that without the DAP disaster victims could not have been helped — and yet forgot to mention that despite the DAP thousands of victims of typhoon Yolanda are still living in tattered tents a full eight months after Yolanda smashed into the Visayas.

Mr. Aquino did trot out figures indicating how much was spent for what, but some skeptics can’t be blamed for wondering if the funds were indeed spent for their intended purposes, given the vast corruption that still infests the bureaucracy despite Mr. Aquino’s Daang Matuwid (Straight Path).

Then there’s Article 39, which Mr. Aquino said is the legal basis of the DAP, but which, he said, the Supreme Court did not consider. This leads one to ask if State lawyers even used it to justify the DAP. Mostly they seemed to have used Article 38 of the 1987 Administrative Code for that purpose.

But in her concurring opinion, Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe did refer to Article 39, which Mr. Aquino claims gives the President authority to use the “savings” of any government agency from projects and programs authorized by the General Appropriations Act “to cover a deficit in any other item of the regular appropriations.”

Justice Bernabe declared that the President, despite Article 39, “should not authorize or allow expenditures for an unappropriated purpose” or modify its purpose — which is exactly what he did. But Mr. Aquino argued that Article 39 does not say anything about the authority’s being limited only within one department or branch of government.

This argument and others add up to one thing: Mr. Aquino was saying that his interpretation of the Constitution, which is superior to any other law including the 1987 Administrative Code, is the correct one rather than that of the Supreme Court. And yet the latter exists precisely for the purpose of interpreting the country’s laws, including and most crucially the Constitution, to the defense and implementation of which Mr. Aquino took an oath rather than to its interpretation.

If this is not not only petulant but also short-sighted — an invitation for future Presidents to defy Court decisions, and worse, an unwarranted attack on a co-equal branch of government — it is at least absurd. Mr. Aquino is of course entitled to his opinions, but isn’t it his duty, no matter how learned those views may be, to heed and observe Court decisions, which in the case of the DAP was unanimous? Mr. Aquino also urged citizens to read the “dissenting opinions” of other Supreme Court justices — of which there are none on the case of the DAP, only separate concurring ones.

But the DAP is not the only issue haunting Mr. Aquino in his penultimate year in office. High prices, runaway criminality, continuing corruption in government, mass poverty and hunger despite the hype over economic development and claims of “inclusive growth” are also among the gale winds of the gathering storm that the latest Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys suggest will mark his departure from office.

Assuming that he’s not “evil,” his case nevertheless shatters the myth that personal integrity and good intentions are enough to bring this country to that state of “modernity” Jurassic sociology insists should be the goal of “traditional” society. That idea has been dead for decades, and Mr. Aquino’s example is just one more nail in that coffin.

Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication where he teaches journalism; he is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Published in Business World
July 17 2014

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