Thursday, January 15, 2009

The misunderstood “bayani”

There was a time not too long ago when Marikina was backwoods and worse, “raping fields”. Of course it was also the shoe capital of the country where most of our footwear were manufactured, until globalization brought China-made shoes that would sell for half the local production cost.

But the residents of Metro-Manila’s backwoods decided in 1992 to throw away the trapos and their successors-in-style along with their mediocrity, and discovered a civil engineer with a can-do spirit who happened to be the son of a former mayor of the town. They chose to believe in a new hero, literally, a “Bayani” who promised to change the way the whole town would thenceforth move.

And my, how he transformed municipal backwoods into a marvellous city where the streets are safe and well-lit, garbage is collected on time, and the sidewalks free of obstructive vendors, where even trees lining the widened avenues had to conform to their mayor’s own height and width restrictions. Bayani Fernando became sui generis among local government officials in Metro Manila --- an administrative transformer with utmost political will. Marikina River, where salvaged bodies used to co-mingle with garbage, was cleaned and dredged, its banks scrubbed, beautified, and along with what used to be a defunct textile mill, it became a shopping and entertainment centre which not only Mariquenos, but even the uppity residents of Blue Ridge and Loyola Heights would patronize.

To be sure, there was a lot of immediate resistance to this “bayani” with forceful methods. But after months of stubborn persistence where their mayor yielded not an inch, the residents realized that it was best to just follow and obey. Because of their community’s transformation, Marikina residents re-elected Bayani twice, and after him, they would choose no one else but his gracious yet equally strong-willed wife Marides to administer their city. That too was almost eight years ago, and by June 30, 2010, her three terms would be over. Bayani hopes to capture Malacanang and bring Marides with him as First Lady.

In late 2000, when it was made clear to then President Erap that his MMDA chairman, Jejomar Binay, wanted to return to his Makati as its mayor after entrusting the responsibility temporarily to his wife Elenita, there was consensus among Malacanang advisers to draft Bayani Fernando to succeed Binay, even if he was a Lakas stalwart. But Edsa Dos interfered. It was not until Gloria Arroyo realized that her original appointee to MMDA, Ben Abalos, would be better off giving her electoral insurance in the forthcoming elections of 2004, that she decided to tap the services of Fernando. Thus did he begin to replicate his Marikina story in all of the nation’s capital region. The reviews were not as unanimous in praise though.

Bayani has unorthodox solutions, often creative, but controversial too. When he wanted to haul off Metro-Manila’s garbage by railway boxcars to be dumped in far-off Quezon which he would convert into a recycling zone complete with conveyor belts mechanizing the sorting and classifying of recyclables, where paper and plastics factories could be sited, the residents of the province refused to be “humiliated” into a “mere dumpsite” for the detritus of the capital region. Not in their backyard, no way. I personally thought that Bayani’s plan made good sense, but sensibilities constituted a behavioural wall.

He has always held that sidewalks are meant for pedestrians to walk freely upon, unobstructed by hawkers vending whatever. But mayors of Metro Manila have soft hearts and tolerant attitudes towards them --- they likewise vote, after all. Bayani’s boys are often pictured on the television screen as heartless “verdugos” overpowering street vendors and forcibly ejecting them. Again, Bayani may be right, and his political will to uphold law and establishing disciplined order correct, but in a country where emotions always get the better of reason, he has been tarred as some kind of Hitlerian prodigy. Failure to grasp and abide by public sensitivities seems to be Bayani’s Achilles heel, judging from both public and media reactions.

He has converted most of the metropolis’ busy avenues into non-stop throughways by the simple expedient of closing intersections and inventing U-turn sections. And to stop pedestrians from crossing in what used to be junctions, he has built overhead walkways. Again these made sense, yet many still carp, especially at the inconvenience of having to travel 500 or so meters more just to cross to the other side of the avenue.

Even his ingeniously improvised urinals where males could relieve themselves “decently” because covered from public view, were criticized, not the least because of his choice of colour. Indeed, whatever he built, from urinal to overhead walkway to delineating traffic fences and signages, he painted with his signature pink. He defends his choice of colour by saying he wanted the metropolis to exude “pinkness of health”, but hey, that’s not baby pink --- it’s closer to screaming fuchsia. Colour seems to be such a trifle, but those who dislike Bayani need something to chew on, and they are legion, if we go by surveys even in Metro Manila.

Yet the man is unfazed. He believes that discipline and order are key to the nation’s progress, and he is right. But somehow he does not connect properly with the voting public, and despite tarpaulins proclaiming “kaayusan” together with his unsmiling face ubiquitously strewn all over the region --- and beyond, his survey ratings remain dismal. He has even parlayed his karaoke baritone into a text-driven victory as singing champion in a major television network show, all for high national awareness and hopeful conversion into higher ratings. He is certifiably an original stalwart of Lakas, the political party which has been declared by the Comelec as the dominant majority party for four consecutive elections, but the same party has not seen it fit to proclaim him its champion for 2010, and seems to be hedging its bets, looking for turncoats to carry their transactional flag of convenience. It isn’t fair to loyal Bayani, and tells you something about the crazy political system we harbour.

So, should Bayani Fernando persist in his presidential quest? In a recent one-on-one meeting., I asked him if he had other options, but he is fixated on the presidency. “I would be ill at ease as senator”, he said, adding that “I am a doer, not a talker”. Well, Ping Lacson also said that before, but he is a senator twice-over, and has performed well as such.

The dynamics of presidential contest requires that action is both demonstrable and convincingly articulated, and until Bayani gets the right formula for connecting with the voter, he may have to reasonably bide his time elsewhere. This is sad, because no matter what his detractors say, this writer believes that Bayani, or “Bayan”, as his beloved Marides calls him, has most of the attributes that would make for a good chief executive of the land. Compared with some who have no track record as manager, other than a surfeit of communicating skills, the nation would probably be better off with unorthodox but determined doers like Bayani Fernando.

Politics unfortunately is the art of the possible, and possibilities are adjudged in the benighted land by the probabilities outlined in survey results.

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We wish to extend our profound condolences to the family of Dona Maria Marcelo vda. De Ejercito, mother of President Joseph Estrada and Dra. Pilarica, Atty. Pauli, Mrs. Pat de Guzman, Ma’am Marita, and my close friend Jesse, as well as their respective families. Four of Dona Mary’s children preceded her in the great beyond ---Connie, Emilio Jr., George, and Antonio.

Even if she died after a long 103, almost 104 years, President Erap and his siblings must be utterly devastated at the loss. The death of a mother is always the most painful. We can always rationalize that she is now in the company of the angels and saints, and say that mercifully her physical sufferings are over, but I can only sympathize with Dona Mary’s family as they grieve, especially with President Erap, who, even when he was languishing at the Veteran’s Memorial, would himself lovingly prepare the food that he would regularly send to his mother. Such devotion will find it difficult to cope with the realization of loss, no matter how long expected.

Ave atque vale, Dona Mary.