Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Filipino Obama?

A response to Alex Magno's column, where he asked "Can there be a Filipino Obama rising to the challenge of 2010?" (Mr. Magno's column appears below.)

Mr. Magno, there is no such thing as a Filipino Obama but there is a Filipino named Gordon. More than the First Black American President, I think it is more interesting to contemplate having the First White Philippine President.

Richard J. Gordon, Senator and Philippine National Red Cross Chairman. A man who has been a leader all of his life whether he had a position in government or none and a man who has served his countrymen, even to the point of risking his own life -- not once, but many times over the course of 40 years -- all for the cause of alleviating human suffering.

While all the other aspirants for the Presidency in 2010 are promising, Gordon is the only one with the longest track record of success as an Executive. While others are selling dreams, people whose lives he has touched are living the reality of a better life... In Olongapo, in Subic, in all the tourist destinations all over the country promoted through Wowphilippines, in disaster areas rehabilitated through the efforts of the Philippine National Red Cross, and soon, when the Automated Elections system is finally online in 2010, all over the country as they finally do away with the antiquated mano mano system of recording and tallying votes.

You want to talk about inspiring leadership?

Anybody can be inspiring during good times when most people are happy and content. With a very publicized speech, a little advertisement here, a few well placed articles in a well read newspaper or magazine, and a couple of guest appearances with some other popular masa personality 'et voila!' even the do nothing political john doe can become an inspiring brand.

Try being an inspiring leader when the streets are a mess, crime is everywhere, and most people have lost belief in themselves. That was Olongapo in 1980. That was the time when Gordon ran for Mayor. That was the time when things began turning around for the sin city just outside of Subic. The first color coded traffic scheme, the first integrated garbage collection system, community based anti-crime campaigns, legalization of scavenging -- the pre-cursor to recycling, and much more. In less than six years, the transformation was made from sin city to model city. It was awarded the UNESCO Cities for Peace representing Asia and the Pacific in 1997 and the Konrad Adenauer Local Medal of Excellence in 1999. The Asian Development Bank and World Bank recognized its successful urban redevelopment and city development strategy after the US Base turnover.

Sure, you can say that that was just Olongapo City. Okay, then, how about Subic? That's an easy transformation job too, or was it?

The Americans left the Subic Naval base practically bare and it happened hardly a year after Pinatubo buried most of Central Luzon -- including Olongapo -- in ash. Think about just how inspirational you have to be as a leader when you are trying to get your people, just barely recovering from the biggest natural disaster in Philippine history, to volunteer to maintain the base and its facilities for nothing but the promise of maybe someday attracting investors and tourists. (The idea was so far fetched at the time that you might as well have been talking about promoting tourism in Basilan and Sulu at the outbreak of full scale military operations.)

You know what, despite the naysayers, Gordon made Subic into a premiere tourist and investment destination. Some 40,000 jobs were lost when the Americans left, 80,000 new and higher paying jobs were created when Gordon tookover Subic. Tens of millions of pesos of income were lost when US servicemen stopped coming, but billions of dollars flowed when Gordon started promoted Subic to the world.

He did such a good job at Subic that the next President after Ramos kicked him out with administrative order number 1 -- all because Gordon picked up a cigarette but from the street he swept thousands of times himself.

Still easy? Okay, how about promoting Philippine tourism at a time when there were coup attempts, terrorist threats, negative travel advisories weekly, a scant tourism promotion budget, a lazy Tourism bureaucracy, and whatever else.

A year into his job, Gordon reversed the shrinking tourist arrivals and by 2004, the country played host to two million tourists a year. The success continues as the country continues to draw 3 million tourists and if the tourism bill Gordon is working on gets passed into law, that figure might double or triple in no time at all.

He's no superman, that is for sure. In fact, the truth is, he is hard of hearing. He can't hear the word IMPOSSIBLE. He can't hear the phrase IT CAN'T BE DONE. He just goes ahead and does it.

There is one more flaw that Gordon has: He is white.

It is true that his father was an American.

James L. Gordon was so much of an American that when time came for him to chose between retaining his American citizenship and becoming a Filipino, he did what a number of Filipinos would not do if given a choice: He CHOSE to be a FILIPINO.

He was so much of an American that he spent the best years of his life serving his countrymen of choice, Filipinos, as mayor. He was shot dead by an assassin just when he was about to succeed in having Congress grant Cityhood to Olongapo. As tens of thousands marched in his funeral procession, Senator Jose W. Diokno paid tribute to him with these words: "He was born to an American father, chose to be a Filipino, raised his children as Filipinos, served his country as a Filipino, and died a Filipino hero"

Yes, Richard Gordon is white but the only thing American about him is his work ethic and his straightforwardness.

So, going back to where I started. There is no Filipino Obama, but try this parallelism on for size: How about electing the first WHITE Filipino President?


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Barack Obama had the odds stacked against him all his life. He said so himself as he celebrated his sweep of four state primaries last weekend, bringing him in dead heat with his rival for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton.

Born to a Kenyan father and a white American woman, he was abandoned by his father when he was two. His teenage mother and his grandparents raised him in humble circumstances. He spent a few years of his youth in Indonesia and served poor communities as an activist in his early adult years.

He served as state Senator before winning a seat at the US Senate three years ago. Charismatic and articulate, Obama sought his party’s presidential nomination even as everybody considered the Democratic Party apparatus firmly under the stranglehold of the Clinton couple.

Until the onset of the primaries season, Obama was considered an outside runner, a novelty at best. There was no way, everyone thought that an African-American, one with few friends in the nation’s capital, would have very poor chances in this game.

But when the primaries began to be held, Obama turned in more than a respectable performance. He pulled off a couple of upsets in the early races, gradually built momentum on his side and, last weekend, swept the four states that were contested.

The Democratic Party base is now divided right down the middle. Hillary Clinton is popular among lower-class women voters, Hispanics and those on the lower end of educational achievement. Obama attracts African-Americans, the college-educated and, overwhelmingly, the young voters.

In an unprecedented way, the primaries in the US has generated worldwide interest mainly because the probable Democratic nominee will either be a woman or a black man. The US presidency has, heretofore, been a post for white males.

Over and above considerations of race and gender, the Obama campaign appears to have animated a movement that now seems highly inspired and determined to challenge the insiders in the party as well as existing paradigms of what politicians should do or say.

Obama appears to have detected a strong undercurrent in American society. It is an undercurrent of discontent with politics-as-usual reflected in rising political apathy. Electoral participation among young voters has been declining. Significant minority groups have not been participating at all in the democratic exercise.

He has tapped into this undercurrent and tapped it well. The undercurrent itself now appears to be much more powerful than anyone calculated. Much more powerful, in fact, than maybe Obama himself ever imagined.

In the Democratic Party fund-raising dinner last Saturday, people turned up as early as dawn to ensure seats for themselves so that they can listen to Obama. Across the US, an army of young volunteers has been making the phone calls and knocking on doors to campaign for Obama.

This campaign is unusual, to say the least. It is no ordinary contest for one party’s presidential nomination. It is a movement of the discontented attracted to the promise of change. More than that, it is an open rebellion against the entrenched political aristocracy in Washington DC.

It is not just the unpopularity of George W. Bush that is driving this phenomenon. It is the unpopularity of the political establishment no less that is driving this rebellion.

The Other America, the one that shunned the political process before, has now barged into that process, responding to Obama’s clarion call for a sweeping change of how America has been run and how it has been governed.

What started out as a seemingly quixotic campaign has now become an intensely passionate political force. It is a force that will, at the very least, change the way the Democratic party deals with its constituencies. At its very best, it will change the way America chooses its leaders.

This phenomenon is not led by a John, a George or a Ronald. It is led by a Barack, one who has managed to inspire with words and move people with a compelling vision for his country.

Color of skin aside, Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy. The comparison has served the candidate well and he has made it a point to quote the well-loved Kennedy extensively in his speeches as well as match the polished prose.

Kennedy, in the early sixties, rocked the political establishment, redefined the office he eventually occupied (albeit briefly) and awakened an entire generation of Americans. The young Americans today who volunteer for the Obama campaign are the children of the generation JFK animated.

There is, to be sure, a lot of energy in the Obama campaign. But there is a lot of talent there as well, enough to enable this campaign to carefully calibrate its moves and sharpen its rhetoric. Enough talent to enable this campaign to overcome the entrenched party bureaucracy, outwit the rival campaigns and nurse a certain tone essential to keeping a movement animated.

Perhaps more than the Americans, there is a lot of discontent among Filipinos over the quality of governance they have been forced to accept and the quality of political leadership that has been available. There is discontent over how we do our politics and how power has been wielded.

There is no shortage here of people who seek to win the highest elective post. But there is scarcity, obviously, of real leaders emerging from the margins and challenging the system. Leaders who can inspire and arrest the drift of public cynicism. Leaders who can make us hope again.

Can there be a Filipino Obama rising to the challenge of 2010?

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