It’s election day in the Philippines. Many Filipinos long for a strong, benevolent leader to simply wipe away all wrongs and make their world right. Should such a person soon come along, here’s the very wise counsel I would offer, should I be asked(Which I won’t be.)
BY TED LERNER
“And the people of the benevolent kingdom prospered in all that they did. All of their needs were met, so much so that they could not imagine a desire. And the people were envied by those living in other kingdoms, the others.”– 1 Samuel 8:7-22
We live, it seems, not just in interesting times, but desperate times. Perhaps it’s the onslaught of instant communications that make our world appear ever more chaotic, ever more on the brink. But if you, like me, regularly read various sources of news and information, message boards and social media, comment sections and letters to the editor, listen to bar room chatter and coffee shop chismis(gossip), you can’t help but come to the simple conclusion. On so many fronts our world seems to be in crisis, or so people say. Regardless, they want something done about it, now. People of all sizes and shapes are crying out for bold leadership to dispense with the status quo. They want, it seems, a benevolent king or queen.
With the presidential elections coming up in May here in the Philippines, the concept of a benevolent king or queen underlines any and all political discourse. Many Filipinos, long frustrated with endemic corruption, cheating, infighting, lack of meaningful progress delivered by their political elites, often suggest they would readily cast aside their hard won democracy and hand it over to someone, who, with boldness and righteousness, sternness and humility, simply waves their magic wand and sweeps away all that is bad, and restores the world around them for all that is good.
Herein now, however, I must offer a caveat. As a foreigner residing in the Philippines for over 20 years, I’ve learned to stay out of political discourse and for very good reasons. Politics in this country is a rough business. I used to write about Philippine politics for a foreign publication for a few years and it was admittedly a nerve racking endeavor. Each and every time I pushed the send button and fired off the story to my editor in Bangkok, I’d suddenly be consumed with overwhelming feelings of panic and nervousness. Did I say the wrong thing about the wrong person? Would they send someone to liquidate me from behind while I was walking down the street to buy cel load from the sari-sari store? Eventually I started writing my political rants under a pseudonym. Then I just quit writing about local politics altogether.
So don’t look to me to name names and tell you who I think might make a good president or benevolent king or queen of this truly amazing archipelago. That’s a realm solely for Filipinos to wade into. Being a bit of a story teller, however, I am fascinated with a good drama, a compelling storyline whose narrative moves swiftly along, has ups and downs, unexpected plot twists, and yes, a decisive conclusion. Except for the decisive conclusion, that’s Philippine politics in a nutshell.
But imagine for a moment that the results of May’s presidential elections did have a very decisive conclusion. And imagine that that winner was so loved and respected by all, so enlightened, so powerful yet so forgiving, so smart and still so humble, so cute and could even carry a tune, that he or she became that dream deity that Filipinos seem to long for in their heart of hearts; the benevolent king or queen.
What would be the most important issues that we’d want this almighty leader to focus on? Well, like I said, as a foreigner, my opinion doesn’t really count. But since we are discussing hypotheticals here, I’m going to give it a hearty go.
If by some miracle I was called upon to advise this benevolent king or queen on which maters to immediately solve, I would counsel this wise leader to focus on just two issues. I believe these two matters are so vital, so important that the long term health and vitality of the Filipino people and their hard won nation revolve around these two issues and only these two. Solve them and all other seemingly intractable problems will correct themselves.
“So Mr. Lerner you have come here today to advise my excellency on what to do for my people. Speak!”
“Your majesty, it is my belief that you must immediately do two things for the Filipino people. And they are: Free the internet, and free the beer.”
Now I know what you are thinking. If I said this to your queen or king I’d immediately be hauled out of the royal chambers and thrown into a dank jail in the dungeon never to be heard from again. But I’m banking on the fact that your leader is benevolent. So surely I will have a chance to explain my seemingly sarcastic remarks.
“Your Majesty, please allow me to explain. Let me begin with the internet. The internet is one of man’s greatest ever inventions and it has become an indispensable tool for people poor and rich the world over. And Filipinos are some of the savviest internet users out there. Yet, the Philippines has the worst internet speeds of every single country in Asia, save for Afghanistan. Yes, Your Majesty, we only beat war torn Afghanistan. Even Mongolia, Nepal and Laos have faster internet speeds than the Philippines. And not only is the internet in the Philippines slow as EDSA traffic at rush hour, it is also one of the most expensive in the world, and the most expensive in Asia.
“The greatest gift you can give the Filipino people is to unleash the Internet. The current telecommunications companies have a vice-like grip on this most vital resource and are literally making billions of dollars, while tens of millions of Filipinos are being shortchanged and cheated. People are frustrated Your Majesty as they all have at least two supersonic smart devices in their pockets but they can’t use them to their full potential. And they are being fleeced for this awful service.
“You need to immediately smash this cartel and provide your people, all of your people especially the poor masses, with blazing fast internet speeds. If you do this they will immediately save bundles of pesos because they can now use free apps to message and call instead of buying overpriced load. They will create and conduct business faster and better, they will find and create employment, engage in long distance learning, have better communications with their loved ones, and enjoy a new world of entertainment right at their fingertips. You simply can’t lose Your Majesty. Unleash the Internet, offer blazing speeds, lower its price, and the people will be very happy.”
“That is wise counsel Mr. Lerner. We will begin this quest to unleash the internet, as you say, on Monday morning. Now, regarding your second point, freeing the beer. That seems a bit flippant for a serious forum such as this. I’m very busy and don’t have time to joke around.”
“I apologize Your Majesty but actually I am very serious about this. Please allow me a minute to explain myself. The beer situation in the Philippines is similar to the problem with the Internet. In many ways, the beer situation in this country is the perfect metaphor for all that ails this great land. Solve this, and the people will really understand that you are dead serious about bettering their lives.
“Now I know that San Miguel beer is an iconic Filipino brand. Indeed many of my fondest memories in over 20 years of living in the Philippines have occurred with a cold brown bottle of San Miguel beer in my hand.(actually with many, many San Miguel’s in my hand, but that’s another story.)
“So what is the problem with that Mr. Lerner? Good beer, good times. I’m quite busy and don’t have much time.”
“Of course Your Majesty. Well, the problem is that San Miguel controls 95% of the beer market. And, well, how do I say this? When one company controls 95% of the beer market, that means that you have a really really lousy beer drinking market!
“We all know Your Majesty how important good beer is to good living. And all over the world consumers have lots of choice as to which beers they want to consume with friends and family. This freedom of choice means more competition and thus better quality beer. Better beer means happier people, less nasty hangovers, and a more productive populace. Your Majesty, I personally can no longer take the lack of choice in the stagnant Philippine beer market. Please I beg you, like the Internet, to smash up the beer monopoly in this country and throw open the refrigerator doors to as wide a selection of brews as possible. My sanity, your peoples’ sanity, depends on it!”
“Mr. Lerner please calm down. Now, when I assumed this throne, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would ever hear such a thing. Most of my subjects are meek and just accept whatever comes their way in life. But what you are proposing is sheer genius. I will immediately do as you say. I will free the internet and I will free the beer. The Philippines will become the envy of our neighbors, who will no longer sneer at us as being parochial and beholden to vested interests. And my people will be happy and prosperous.
“You are wise Mr. Lerner. Now go, and prepare ye to have the fastest internet in Asia at the cheapest prices, and your choice of dozens of fresh brewed beers to enjoy it all with.”
“The pleasure is all mine Your Majesty. But it is you who is the wise and benevolent one. I am but a mere vessel for a cowed and long suffering populace. And now I will bid you adieu(bowing.) Long live the Philippines! And long live the great monarch of the Philippine archipelago!”
*Ted Lerner is the author of the classic book “Hey,Joe—a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” as well as the book of Asian travel essays, “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers.” His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Ring Magazine, Asia Times, Billiards Digest and more. He also works in professional boxing as a writer and ring announcer, and professional billiards as a writer and TV commentator. He has lived in the Philippines for 21 years.
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