Marketing Mr. Palengke

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Wealth and the lack of it have always been and will continue to be issues in Philippine politics, for as long as too many people are poor and have almost nothing while a handful of families have everything, including, so it seems, air-conditioned stables and pens for their horses and pigs.

Whether one sleeps on the sidewalk, or has a choice of which of several condominiums to bed down in, of course depends on one’s income, assets and bank account. The bad news is that too many Filipinos are in the first category, despite the economic growth the Aquino administration has been crowing about.

An article in the US Magazine Atlantic (Jillian Keenan, “The Grim Reality Behind the Philippines’ Economic Growth,” May 7, 2013) thus notes:

“In 2012, Forbes Asia announced that the collective wealth of the 40 richest Filipino families grew $13 billion during the 2010-2011 year, to $47.4 billion — an increase of 37.9%.

“Filipino economist Cielito Habito calculated that the increased wealth of those families was equivalent in value to a staggering 76.5% of the country’s overall increase in GDP at the time. This disparity was the highest in Asia: Habito found that the income of Thailand’s 40 richest families increased by only 25% of the national income growth during that period, while that ratio was even lower in Malaysia and Japan, at 3.7% and 2.8%, respectively.

“Even relative to its regional neighbors, the Philippines’ income inequality and unbalanced concentrations of wealth are extreme.”

Wealth of course comes in many forms and from many sources, although one can perhaps make an exception in the Philippines, where, in most instances, it’s usually either inherited, made with great difficulty, or stolen. As far as sources go, the Atlantic article was referring to wealth that’s always been in the hands of a “handful of families,” which, because of that advantage, are in a position to be even wealthier.

But wealth in these isles can also be described as “ill-gotten.” That phrase has morphed in Philippine political and media discourse into a veritable cliché, suggesting in the process how common a source corruption and the plunder of public funds have become. The more cynically inclined can always say, however, that all wealth in this country is ill-gotten, in that it is usually amassed at someone else’s expense, whether the taxpayers’ or that of one’s workers.

As for the “old wealth” in the hands of the “old rich,” its source, it can similarly be argued, goes back to colonial days, when the color of one’s skin decided one’s access to land and other resources. The encomiendas after all were the progenitors of the crippling tenancy system that’s at the bottom of Philippine poverty.

As a consequence of the vast disparity in incomes in this country, poverty’s a perennial issue in Philippine politics, primarily in terms of how it can be ended. But because the poor among the voters are legion, politicians have also been pretending at poverty for decades. The politician as “man of the masses,” like crocodiles and hyenas, has always been a standard exhibit in the political zoo, from Ramon Magsaysay to Joseph Estrada. The assumption is that identification with the poor would resonate enough among the majority to result in being elected to a coveted post.

No wonder the latest communiqué from the political front has the Liberal Party’s Congressman Neptali Gonzales II weighing in with some advice to Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas III.

Roxas, said Gonzales, should stop trying to impress the poor by pretending to be one of them; there’s nothing wrong, he said, with being rich.

Roxas has been having a hard time of it in the surveys, his low 13% popularity as a candidate for President having fallen to an even lower 6%. How to account for it? Gonzales says it’s precisely because he’s been trying the same tactic many politicians have used and are still using, and that’s doing things and talking like how they think poor people act and think.

Roxas’s latest stunt was to take a motorcycle to the town of Dolores, where typhoon Ruby made landfall on Dec. 5, presumably because many Filipinos go around in motorcycles. (Like many Filipinos in motorbikes, Roxas himself got into an accident, while not wearing the regulation helmet.)

Others have done the same thing — that is, pretending to be poor while actually being rich. Then Senator Manuel Villar did it during the presidential campaign in 2010, while ousted President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada has been doing it for years. The difference is that Villar was found out, while Estrada has so far evaded the same kind of pro-Aquino publicists’ attention that destroyed Villar’s chances in 2010.

Roxas himself has been trying the man of the masses routine since he entered politics, at one point marketing himself as “Mr. Palengke” in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of housewives and fishmongers. He was stopped in his tracks by Benigno Aquino III’s candidacy. Mr. Aquino’s presumed choice for 2016, Roxas’ approval and presidential preference numbers have been falling compared to those of Grace Poe, a neophyte in Philippine politics.

It’s not so much because he’s been trying to identify with the poor, but because that attempt, and whatever else he does, often comes off as insincere.

That motorcycle stunt, like his directing traffic in Tacloban last year, most people dismissed as one more attempt on his part to curry favor with the voters by getting some media mileage, rather than as a real effort to get to Dolores town as soon as possible so he can help (how could he have helped anyone by just getting there on time by himself, without the relief goods the typhoon victims needed?), or, in Tacloban, to impose some order in the impassable streets of the totally devastated city.

Roxas needs to review his marketing strategy. And speaking of the media, he and his advisers need to sit down to address one of his media problems. Its name is Korina.

But we do agree, though only partly, with Gonzales. There’s nothing wrong with being rich — but only if it’s not at the expense of someone else. But there’s everything wrong with being poor, especially in a country where so much is in the hands of so few.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
December 19, 2014

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