by Alan Robles
originally published in SCMP, Sep 16 2004
In the movie Spider-Man, the hero lives by the motto: "With great power comes great responsibility." Here in the real-life comic book called the Philippines, the guiding principle is a bit different: "With great power comes the chance to act like a jerk."
Actually it does not even have to be great power. The merest whiff of rank gives many Filipinos a deluded sense of their value. Behaving as if they were a ruling elite instead of public servants, government officials exempt themselves from traffic rules, are waved through customs inspections and strut around with armed goons. One sleek and well-fed senator got into trouble in the US because he thought his position was so exalted that he did not need to remove his shoes for an airport security inspection.
The latest petty display of power, reported in one newspaper, concerns a minor official. She was, apparently, driving along one night when she came too close to another car, scratching its bodywork. Far from apologising, she got out and started berating the occupants of the other vehicle - a mother, her three young children and a nanny - loudly proclaiming that she was an "undersecretary" close to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
She is said to have summoned three carloads of police officers and another government worthy with a gun in his waistband, who joined her in yelling at the family. The two officials then sped off to an alleged appointment with the president, leaving the family to be interrogated by police.
It is "leadership" like this that makes Filipinos so mistrustful of government. For an example of how things should be, look to Norway. There, one parliament member, arrested for speeding, told the judge that he should not be punished because he was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Incensed, the judge said he should be ashamed, and ordered that he be jailed.
Such a tale would be inconceivable in the Philippines. But the story I really like dates back almost 20 years: on an expressway leading to Manila, one policeman driving a car got it into his head to overtake the jeep ahead of him. Not content with nearly running the vehicle off the road, he stopped, got out, drew his gun and cursed the middle-aged couple. When they calmly said they would file charges, the policeman dared them to do so, and accompanied them to the station.
There, he discovered that the man was actually Bernabe Buscayno, better known as "Commander Dante", the retired leader of the communist guerilla New People's Army. Blubbering in terror, the officer dropped to his knees and begged piteously for mercy. Buscayno told him to treat people better. It is a memory I will forever cherish.