August 2012

Senator Sotto and me

The lachrymose Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III turned bellicose after a week of relentless beatings by the plagiarism police. He had enough of it and he was not going to take it sitting down anymore. So he stood up and delivered a privilege speech.

He absolved himself of plagiarism and questioned his critics’ motives, defended Eat Bulaga and recited a poem by Joey de Leon the poet laureate of the Philippine Star and the Joey in the Tito, Vic, and Joey comedy team, and he moved that one out of several paragraphs that he mindlessly copied word for word from five blogs and one briefing paper be stricken off the Senate journal.

After his speech, Sen. Sotto joined Senate President Enrile in proposing a law that will target blogs and social media. Sotto felt he was a victim of cyber-bullying.

“Ako yata ang kauna-unahang senador ng Pilipinas na naging biktima ng cyber-bullying.” (I may be the very first Philippine senator who became a victim of cyber-bullying).

Well, Sotto is different. Or maybe I’m the one who’s different. He has a lot of fans, I don’t. He disappointed a lot of admirers when he ran on Gloria Arroyo’s senatorial slate in 2007 but they got over it and sent him back to the Senate in 2010. I don’t have any admirers to disappoint. People laugh at his jokes. I’m laughed at. He’s a multi-millionaire. I’m a thousandaire. He can grow facial hair, I can’t. He plagiarizes, I don’t. And if ever I inadvertently plagiarize, I will apologize and make amends. He won’t.

This is as far as he will go:

“Mr. President, with the permission of this body, I move that the paragraph containing reference with the study of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride which can be found in Journal No. 8 page 162 dated August 13, 2012 be stricken off the record in order to lay this matter to rest.”

An apology would have laid the matter to rest; striking it off the Journal of the Senate as if it never happened will not. Sotto could have explained that he could not access the book of Natasha Campbell-McBride so he looked for references to McBride’s work and found it in a blog called “Sarah the healthy economist.” Consequently, he copied and pasted the words of Sarah believing that they were direct quotes from McBride. Honest mistake. Sotto would have been forgiven for it. Hugs and kisses all around.

And Sotto would only have to make up excuses for the remaining four bloggers and one briefing paper that he also plagiarized. Hey, five counts of plagiarism are better than six, right?

But excuse me, Senator, I shouldn’t be calling them counts because counts refer to criminal offenses, as in six counts of theft. You did not commit any crime according to the law books you consulted . And Atty. Louie Andrew C. Calvario from the Office of the Director General of the Intellectual Property Office, also said you did not commit any crime.

So, okay, plagiarism is not a criminal offense in this country. That’s settled. Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III is not a criminal. That’s settled too. We can lay the legal issue to rest.

The only issue remaining, at least for those who have not liberated themselves from the tyranny of delicadeza, is the shamelessness in the commission of a shameful act, the sin vergüenza-ness of plagiarism and the brazen rationalization that followed. Sotto is obviously not bothered by that at all. Shamelessness liberates. Sotto is a free man. I’m still a slave. That’s the last difference I can think of. For now.

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

Fresh Look: The Role of Youth in Nation Building
Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines
August 29, 2012, 1:00-4:00PM
NTTC-HP Auditorium
University of the Philippines Manila

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

[SLIDE 1] Members and officers of the Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines, fellow speakers, students, teachers, and friends, good afternoon.

I’m from The Pro Pinoy Project, and we run a commentary web site that we envision to be a kind of global community center for all things Pinoy. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “how the youth is utilizing social media […] in nation-building and how it is used as a medium to promote nation-building in social youth”. As the title of my presentation indicates, I’ve decided to structure my talk today around a series of image macros that are called LOLcats, which ought to be familiar to you. For the benefit of those who might not be, a LOLcat [SLIDE 2] is a picture of a cat accompanied by text that is usually wrong in terms of grammar and spelling—at least in standard English. In kitty English, which has its own rules too, the caption is perfectly correct.

Lest you be tempted to not take any of this seriously, LOLcats have already become the subject of critical academic attention in the form of a dissertation submitted to the London School of Economics. Media planner Kate Miltner, who wrote the study as part of the requirements for a Master of Science degree in Media and Communications, says, “Even if LOLCats were just a collection of silly cat pictures, they would have value simply because they, as [one of my study participants] said, make life easier. [SLIDE 3] But, as this study has shown, LOLCats are much more than that. They are a venue through which people express their emotions, connect to their loved ones, and define group identity. This not only gives them value; it makes them important.”

According to Miltner, the LOLcat is widely considered to be the “archetypal Internet meme”, and its enduring appeal, if nothing else, makes it remarkable, considering how short-lived its siblings tend to be. The LOLcat has been around for nearly a decade, and its origin can be traced at least as far back to the 2005 tradition of “Caturday” that was propagated by users of the imageboard 4Chan, the source of numerous other Internet memes. The main idea that I would like to put across with my use of LOLcats today is that the Internet functions as both a condition and a limit for human ingenuity, especially when we consider the Philippine social media situation—an idea that I will build on over the course of this presentation by making six key points. I don’t imagine that any of them will be especially original or surprising, but there is value to be had in reminding ourselves from time to time about what we already know—even, perhaps especially, the patently obvious.

[SLIDE 4]

1.    The social mediascape is still a small world.

One of the more exciting and disturbing effects of social media is how it has flattened the world. Politicians, bureaucrats, civil society leaders, advocates, journalists, celebrities, and organizations are now all as easy to reach as one’s friends and relatives, if not easier. The potential significance of social media conversations lies precisely in this unprecedented level of access to highly influential and powerful people. After all, if you manage to catch the attention of enough of them, you can speed up the dissemination of crucial information to the right parties, which could then have the effect of ensuring that said information will be acted upon. An example would be the coordination of rescue and relief operations during the recent flooding brought about by the monsoon rains—the nameless weather phenomenon that brought such devastation to several parts of the country earlier this month. If you were on Twitter or Facebook during this time, then you probably noticed a sort of purposive frenzy in the sharing of hotline numbers, the use of unified hashtags, the classification of calls for help into topical databases, and the creation of specialized maps, all made possible through the efforts of both public figures and ordinary citizens.

We must not be misled, however: Internet users in the Philippines make up less than a third of the entire population, are mostly young and concentrated in urban centers, and tend to be from the middle and upper classes. A majority of these users don’t even have private access to the Internet—the Internet café is still the place from which they are able to enter cyberspace. The circumstances are evolving, of course, but there are structural limitations. The costs of electricity, of computer hardware and software, and of computer literacy, among others, mean that, insofar as social media are concerned, there are at least 63 million Filipinos whose needs and dreams, which may be vastly different from ours, are not being heard, much less considered. Philippine society in general is seamed and raddled with various inequities, and this includes what has been referred to as the digital divide.

[SLIDE 5]

2.    Social networking sites and blogs, compared to other forms of media, do not enjoy high levels of public trust.

Because few have access to the Internet, the low levels of public trust accorded to social networking sites and blogs shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s worth adding that it’s through these two channels that a lot of misleading data tends to spread. While social media may be democratized media, the absence of a central authority and the lack of a system—not to mention the will—for verification, fosters an information ecology that is particularly hospitable to misquotations, distortions, rumors, and downright false claims. For instance, during the same week or so of monsoon rains that I mentioned earlier, a number of people spread around photographs of the destruction caused by Ondoy in 2009 without identifying them as such. There are also a number of bloggers who are attempting to practice what is called “citizen journalism”, but, as with mainstream media, clear editorial guidelines and a basic sense of responsibility for the sorts of stories that are published are fundamental to credibility.

[SLIDE 6]

3.    The majority of people online are there to seek out entertainment.

Music, videos, and images are the types of content that are preferred by most Internet users—they’re not thinking so much about nation-building as about how cute, or funny, or weird, this cat is. (The sheer preponderance of pictures and clips featuring adorable animals on the Internet—I’m partial to pandas myself—sometimes makes me wish that such materials had some sort of miraculous, cancer-curing, poverty-eliminating, world-saving power.) Factor in the whole kit and caboodle of content designed chiefly to amuse, such as remixes, covers, parodies, and yes, memes, and it’s not hard to conclude that human beings have way too much time on their hands than they know how to spend productively—some of them, anyway. Further militating against the creation and popularization of serious, finely nuanced, and well-researched content are the difficulty of reading on a computer and a seeming aversion among Internet users to posts that can’t easily be skimmed over or summed up in a glance, especially long texts.

[SLIDE 7]

4.    The use of social media may tend to hamper empathy and critical thought.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter can give rise to the impression that one is the center of a thoroughly customizable universe, made up of mechanisms and populated by beings that have no other purpose than to bend to one’s will. After all, it’s a ridiculously simple matter to make or unmake relationships, especially ones begun online. These same platforms also induce many to perform their lives with a degree of constancy and self-consciousness never before seen in the human story. A few psychological studies have suggested that there could be a connection between the use of social media and increased self-absorption, exhibitionism, and narcissism, and there is at least anecdotal evidence to support such a view: consider, for example, the recent outpouring of idiotic, savage, and violent hatred against Robert Blair Carabuena, the motorist who slapped MMDA traffic enforcer Saturnino Fabros over the course of a heated argument. Carabuena was clearly in the wrong, but that doesn’t justify the calls for his death that certain netizens made and, sadly, continue to make.

[SLIDE 8]

5.    A social media conversation doesn’t just need voices—it needs value.

Because social media platforms perpetually invite us to broadcast to the world at large what we’re thinking and doing, we may feel compelled or entitled—perhaps both—to crank out opinions on every possible topic and issue as quickly as we can. That doesn’t mean we should give in to the impulse. As exhilarating as rapid-fire exchanges might be, a good number of social media conversations—assuming they can even be called that—are about as useless as a floppy disk at a file-sharing party, if not more, because the participants are poorly informed or insufficiently open-minded, particularly when the discussions revolve around public affairs. Just because we enjoy freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should weigh in on absolutely everything, as doing so could merely contribute to the propagation of ignorance and the lowering of the level of discourse. The debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, for instance, is not helped by the extreme positions taken by certain factions within the groups that are for and against the controversial piece of legislation—in lots of places online, what debate there may be comes in the form of shouting matches in which the opponents regularly trade barbs and taunts.

[SLIDE 9]

6.    We cannot change a world that we do not live in.

While social media could eventually become indispensable to disaster response here at home, and have proven beneficial to diverse movements for change all over the planet, whatever information we’re able to access as a result of these tools is worthless unless we act upon it in the much larger realm beyond the screen. It is helpful to look back at the lives of our national heroes, whom we paid tribute to last Monday, or that of recently departed Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose tragic death we still mourn, and bear in mind that they were able to accomplish great things without the technologies that we are privileged to enjoy today.

I would also like to emphasize that we are human beings, not bits of data, and that we should strenuously resist any and all attempts to reduce our selves and our relationships to crude arrangements of bios and profiles, likes and favorites, followers and friends. “Only connect” is the famous epigraph with which the British writer E. M. Forster opens his masterful novel Howards End, but of course he did not mean “Only add friend” or “Only follow”. If we are interested in transforming lives for the better, in remaking society in the image of our highest ideals, in building a nation upon a bedrock of freedom, justice, and peace, then we must learn to connect with, which is to say live in, the world, which brims with more difficulty, complexity, and mystery than can ever be domesticated and mediated by any device, no matter how wondrous, sophisticated, or advanced.

Thank you.

Charter Change (Not As We Know It)

As the nation mourns the tragic and untimely passing away of Jesse Robredo, we are reminded of the important legacy of good governance that he left behind from his stint as the mayor of Naga and as the secretary for local government. What Robredo’s case demonstrates however is how a good man when elevated to the macro-state level falters or finds it nearly impossible to duplicate his success at the micro-town level.

To a certain extent, his story embodies the story of President Aquino and the Liberal Party. You have a good, honest man who has well-meaning intentions for the country and a party that is reform-minded and progressive. And yet, as the polls are showing, their fortunes at the next election do not look so good.

Those who advocate charter change (cha-cha) for political reasons point to this situation as untenable. Why for instance are there senators who don’t understand the concept of intellectual integrity who use the words of others in their speeches without ascribing authorship to their sources and get re-elected time and again? Some pro-cha-cha people want us to shift our political system from presidential to parliamentary to strengthen the hand of political parties.

The problem as I have pointed out in the past is that political dynasties make up our political parties so that even if you shifted to a parliamentary system, most likely, nothing will change.

That is why the Senate President and the Speaker of the House have decided to push for revision in our charter’s economic provisions to remove impediments to foreign ownership of assets in the country, to open up competition, and to allow investments to flow freely into the country. That will lead to jobs growth and the fiscal dividend in the form of higher income taxes will help pay for better governance in the country.

But these calls have been muted or cancelled out by those who disagree with the diagnosis or who suspect that allowing charter change would open the floodgates to all sorts of considerations, including revising our form of government. It is also unclear as to whether revising the economic provisions is necessary since many legal impediments to foreign ownership have been worked around and still foreign investments have not poured in the way they have in China.

The fundamental question that these pro-cha-cha people have not answered is why hasn’t foreign investment poured into sectors that have been fully liberalized. The retail industry, the last sector to be opened up did not attract large retail investors for instance, but instead is attracting large gambling investments whose social costs may outweigh their economic benefits.

If one looks at what investors, as opposed to academics, commentators and politicians, have actually said, I am talking about the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines, constitutional change figures very minimally in their long list of recommendations. When it does, it focuses more on opening up the practice of professions in the country rather than changing the constitution to open up investment. Here is a direct quote from their statement which makes the following recommendation

Pending constitutional revision, apply creative but legal solutions, including the control test, to 60-40 ownership provisions, in order to increase investment and create jobs. The PRC (Professional Regulation Commission) should liberalize its procedures to accredit foreign professionals. The language regarding foreign nationals in the laws on professionals should be liberalized.

You might read that and construe it to mean they are advocating economic revision in the constitution, but it seems they are more than happy to settle for “creative but legal solutions”. When read in the context of the entire policy document, Arangkada Philippines, this recommendation is but one of a myriad other considerations that the joint chambers, which include the Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Multinationals in the country, have itemized.

If you read the full list of proposals, what these businessmen are effectively saying is that they are unhappy with the rules set in the country, rules that have to do with the way taxes, labor, the judiciary, peace and security, electricity, water, local governance, infrastructure, industry assistance, innovation, education and a whole host of other affairs are managed. In other words, bad rules and poor governance is deterring greater economic activity.

The question then becomes, what has to happen for these rules to change and for governance to improve? This leads me back to the plight that Sec Robredo suffered. He was a good man who tried to initiate new rules in his department for the way the funds would be released to local government units to reward good behaviour and good governance.

He was trying to overcome the multiple layers of government that often present roadblocks to development using funding as his policy lever. For his efforts, he was maligned during the Luneta incident as incompetent, not confirmed by Congress, and hurt by intramurals from within the administration. They say a prophet is not recognized in his own land, and that is certainly what happened here.

The leap for Robredo from small city to large country was too great a chasm to cross. Even assuming that he was able to see his reforms through, local governance is just one among a whole slew of problems. To create a consensus throughout the nation regarding the rules for investment and employment would be difficult, but to specify special autonomous regions that have their own charter, where the rules applied in the rest of the country do not apply would be more feasible.

The charter city concept pioneered by Paul Romer, the father of endogenous growth theory (to be explained below), and pilot-tested in Honduras overcomes most if not all of the problems investors face when they contemplate going abroad. While the opportunity of new markets and cheap labor attract them to invest overseas, the problem of sovereign, political and legal risk hampers their decision to do so.

To overcome these barriers, a charter city effectively outsources its rules, both the drafting and implementing of them, to another political entity. Hong Kong is held up as an example of how the British administered a region that became an engine of growth. Other cities in Dubai, United Arab Emirates have adopted this by allowing essentially English common law to operate within a defined territory with judges from England, Singapore and New Zealand.

Imagine a region the size of Subic in which the foreign investment and labor rules of the Philippines don’t apply, where the administration, including that of customs, policing, business licensing and legal adjudicating, is run by bureaucrats from another country, say Singapore, exempt from the salary standardization laws of the national government. To pay for this, Romer proposes a tax on the capital gains associated with rising property values.

A benign president such as the one we have now with long-term vision could authorize such an experiment. A proviso in our constitution exempting such a region or regions from the rules operating in the rest of the economy would have to be inserted. The rest of the country would still follow the same framework as present. Creating such an experiment would allow us to test the assumptions made by pro-cha cha advocates without disrupting or costing the nation too much in transitional arrangements.

Some would say this would be tantamount to surrendering our sovereignty to another country or that it is just another form of colonialism. The difference of course is that unlike in the past, this would occur with the consent of the governed. People who prefer to live under one set of rules could move to the new region. Those that don’t can opt out of it. There would be no coercion.

The development economist William Easterly has called this proposal dancing on the fine line between genius and insanity. Romer has successfully walked this line before. His endogenous growth theory predicted the end of business cycles through continuous innovation. Allan Greenspan while he was the chairman of the US Federal Reserve bought into this idea that America had entered a “new economy” which led to cheap money and financial deregulation which then fuelled the dot com boom and crash and toxic home mortgages which caused the global financial crisis.

Romer spent much of the 80s and 90s developing and defending his growth theory. Since the dot com crash he left a tenured position at Stanford to found his organization, CharterCities.org. It is a natural extension of his old theory. If a slow rate of diffusion of innovation is what prevents poor countries from benefiting from technology, then removing the barriers to diffusion is essential. Those barriers consist of poor policies and governance.

Most economic advisers and reform minded politicians like Robredo have tried to implement reforms in these areas at the national level. We have seen how difficult it can be given the interest groups that lobby and prevent them from succeeding. Charter cities offer a way to work around this problem (watch video embedded below). Investors get the best of both worlds, having the same set of rules, governance and infrastructure they are used to in their home country with the low cost of talented labor and other resources that moving to a host country affords.

So perhaps charter change is needed, but not in the form that we have been told thus far is essential. Perhaps charter cities would help break the deadlock between those who advocate for the status quo and those who support change. Perhaps it is a way to prevent the mass exodus of our brain trust to foreign shores in search of better rules and better governance. And perhaps it is a way to honor the legacy of Robredo whose quest for reform was like casting pearls before swine.

Where is the decency?

Decency it is often said is a liability in politics. That’s why lowlifes excel in politics. Public service should confused with politics. Public service is what decent human beings like Jesse Robredo do. Politics is what scoundrels do. It is important to make that distinction because public service and politics often intersect.

Jesse Robredo ventured into politics to become a public servant. He engaged in politics but he remained a public servant. Unselfish, putting others ahead of himself and his family, he went to his death with his good name intact. He now serves as a model and an inspiration for others.That’s not easy. There are not many who have the strength to resist the temptations of public office. How many idealists have gone into public service only to turn into scoundrels? How many good men ended up becoming crooked and power mad?

Jesse Robredo should be allowed to be buried in peace, as a good man who served others unselfishly and to the best of his abilities. He does not deserve to be turned into a soapbox for assholes who want to use his death for their own or their paymaster’s political ends. I’m talking about those who accused the President of shedding crocodile tears over the tragedy, who insinuated that the President should be blamed for Robredo’s death, and who suggested that the “real” reason for the plane crash is being covered up.

Wrote one:

    “Dear Liberal Party Senate candidates: Is it too much to ask you not to descend, locust-like, on Naga City and make political hay out of the funeral of Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo? Never mind if your party chieftain asks you to come and wave to the Bicolano crowd as you ride on top of Robredo’s hearse, as Teddyboy Locsin fears. Please resist the temptation of once again shamelessly using a national tragedy to further your political plans and confirm to everyone that you cannot see a significant number of people assembled without thinking about the number of votes you get from them.”

    “Robredo died because he took a light plane that somehow could not make the trip from Cebu to Naga City on that fateful afternoon last week after delivering a speech that Aquino was supposed to give.”

    “If the President and the politicians really wanted to know why Robredo died, they can always investigate the crash itself. If they wanted the people to know, as well, they would allow Robredo’s aide (who seems to have disappeared after surviving the crash and being quizzed by Aquino himself) to appear at an investigation that will be open to the public.”

Wrote another:

    “HYPOCRISY: Now that Robredo has died while on official duty — standing in for his President who was in Manila — those who did not treat him properly in life, those who had kept him out of the loop, are now tripping all over themselves praising him and touching his coffin.
    It is too late for all that. The melodrama is nauseating.

    A housewife signing in as @malougm10 on Twitter described the farcical act as: “Naghuhugas ng GUILT. Or plain HYPOCRISY, pakitang tao.” I retweeted that.”

Those assholes think they are scoring points by turning grief over Robredo’s death into anger, if not hate, against the President and members of his administration. In fact, they are insulting the family of Robredo. They diminished Robredo, not the President, not his official family, not the Liberal Party. They painted Robredo a fool who could not tell who his real friends were, someone who did not have enough sense to differentiate sincerity from insincerity and, worst of all, they raised questions about the man’s character and motives for why would he want to serve in an administration that did not want him in the first place?

What they did, through their editorials, was to go to Robredo’s wake uninvited to tell his grieving family, “You know Jesse would still be alive if the President didn’t order him to go to Cebu and deliver a speech for him. You know they really never cared for him. Their tears are fake. They are only here to campaign and they will use his hearse as their soapbox.” Where is the decency in that?

How would you feel if someone condoled with you in that manner?

A captive of Captive

Gritty, in-your-face, a mirror of Philippine society. These are some of the words I associate with Brilliante Mendoza’s films. This director doesn’t mollycoddle the viewers that’s for sure. He paints reality as how he sees it – no more, no less – and hopes that by showing the ugly reality, his films would somehow serve as a vehicle for change.

Captive is no different from his other films. The 2 and a half hour film is based on the Dos Palmas kidnapping of missionaries and Filipinos by the Abu Sayyaf group more than a decade ago. Most of the events in the film really happened, about 25% were added for dramatic purposes and to help the story move but they’re mostly fictional characters and scenes. One of the fictional characters is Therese Bourgoine, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, whose perspective it is we watch. Bourgoine is a missionary who was abducted together with her motherly companion Anita Linda, two other foreign missionaries, and tourists of Dos Palmas Resort. The story progresses with ransoms paid, captives freed, captives killed, and even a Stockholm syndrome which was surprising but actually happened between a tourist and one of the Abu Sayyaf bandits back in 2001. Brilliante Mendoza used many of his staple actors like Ronnie Lazaro, Coco Martin, Sid Lucero, etc. The acting wasn’t stellar for some however because they were overshadowed by Huppert and the more commanding Raymond Bagatsing and Ronnie Lazaro.

The film made me squirm the whole time as Brilliante captured the harsh realities of kidnap-for-ransom, religious fanaticism, terrorism, and the government’s indifference neigh shady cooperation with the kidnappers for a share of the ransom money because these facts are hard to swallow, but in the back of the Filipinos’ collective mind, they all ring true.

What amazed me about Captive is Brilliante’s research on what really transpired that ghastly 18 months and how he was able to show as much details in the 25 days he shot the film. That’s saying a lot about how talented and organized he is. My film experiences scream that such a film is impossible to shoot in 25 days but Briliante was able to do so. Not only that, he made everything seem believable. I thought the film was shot in Basilan but he admitted to us that the locations were in Batangas and Quezon.

Captive will premiere at SM Pampanga, Brilliante Mendoza’s hometown, on September 2, 2012. There will also be a Manila gala premiere in Greenbelt 3 the next day. Regular screening at SM Cinemas and Greenbelt will begin on September 5, 2012.

Risk and responsibility

While his assassination, questions about which remain open to this day, has transformed him into a martyr of democracy, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the scion of a prominent clan in Tarlac, was by no means the passive or peaceable figure that the idea of martyrdom tends to conjure up—he was very much the opposite, in fact. As Cory, his own wife, once wryly remarked: “I know he’d die if we led a quiet life.” When he first entered public life as an assistant to President Ramon Magsaysay, he was, as he recounted to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a “siga-siga“: cocky and tough, believing that offense was the best defense.

Such an attitude would serve him well as he rode his vaulting ambition all the way to the Senate, where he occupied a seat that was initially perilous. On account of his youth—at the time that the 1967 elections were held, he was 17 days short of 35 years, the minimum required age for a Senator—a protest was lodged with the Senate Electoral Tribunal in order to remove him from office. The tribunal eventually decided that the proper reckoning of age ought to begin on the day that the “the expression of the popular will” was ascertained—that is, the day that the final poll results were announced—and allowed him to keep his post. Long before the ruling was handed down, however, Ninoy had already formulated a strategy: attack President Ferdinand Marcos. “If I kept hitting at Marcos, any effort to get me kicked out of the Senate would become political persecution, pure and simple,” he said.

If his fire and his capacity for calculation did not especially distinguish him from his foe—his similarity to Marcos has been remarked on more than once—Ninoy did tread a different path, fighting to make known to the world the excesses of the chief executive from the halls of the Senate, from behind bars, and from the United States, where he lived with his family for three years in self-exile. (Notwithstanding his flamboyance and bombast, he could be eerily prescient: his first speech as Senator, for instance, raised the alarm about the creeping development of a militarized state, five years before Marcos issued the infamous proclamation that placed the entire country under martial law and ushered in the so-called New Society.) And in spite of the very real risks that awaited him at home—no less than the First Lady had warned him against returning to the Philippines—he came back anyway, setting into motion the events that would topple a repressive regime and restore to his people the freedom to dictate their national destiny.

Nearly three decades after he was gunned down as he was being escorted by a contingent of soldiers from his airplane to a van that was supposed to take him to jail, what do we know or recall about Ninoy, whose death anniversary we commemorate on this day? Apart from his smiling visage printed on the 500-peso bill, the yellow-beribboned annual reprieve from the daily grind mandated in his honor since 2004, or the notoriously inefficient international airport that bears his name, what of this man have we managed to hold on to as we move through and make our history?

Very little, one suspects, but then, 29 years is about the span of a generation, and so the gap should probably not be surprising. It is unfortunate, though, that a good number of the people who are routinely credited in our history books with having played significant roles in the formation of the Philippines appear fated to serve no greater purpose than to allow teachers to burden their students with information that is only relevant and actionable within the configuration of space and time defined by the next bit of homework, pop quiz, or periodical exam.

This is not in any way to suggest, of course, that we should pay Ninoy obsequious homage and lavish upon him florid platitudes—however ubiquitous these gestures may become today, they are detrimental to sober and thoughtful reflection. It may be sufficient to remind ourselves on this day that we are the legatees of his sacrifice, and that we must prove ourselves equal to the responsibility of making sure that he was right: that the Filipino was, and is, worth dying for.