Choosing a president

Manila Standard Today

Green Light

February 9, 2004

As the election approaches, discussions on politics and the “presidentiables” have begun to dominate daily life. Even meetings haven’t been spared. It’s a rare meeting without a colleague delivering an animated mini-lecture on why so-and-so should not be president or why candidate X should be. In the spirit of democracy, I’ve enjoyed listening to such impassioned tirades if only to educate myself on the candidates while also being entertained. On one occasion, I was surprised by the excellent comedic skills of my usually serious colleague as he did an impromptu impression of one candidate. We all laughed until our stomachs ached.

Nowadays, though, the usual rounds of passionate arguments, jokes and laughing are followed by uncomfortable silence. People shake their heads woefully about how un-funny the whole situation really is. They realize that a bad decision on the people’s part could plunge the country deeper into the mire it already is in. To make such moments even more sobering, someone occasionally confesses that he is planning to migrate with his whole family. After the initial surprise and temptation to lecture the migrant-to-be about love for country and all that, everyone nods sympathetically that it is a perfectly understandable thing to do, especially if a person has young children to worry about.

Enlightening conversations

Since I have an incurable faith in this country and have no plans of migrating, I’ve started giving my own mini-lectures during such meetings (since they always start late anyway). As the saying goes, “we deserve the leaders we get.” I hope to assure myself that I did my little part to influence the tide of things. I’m always careful, of course. One could share the most common beliefs with friends and colleagues on food, cars, child rearing, and even which movie should win in the Oscars, but be poles apart in choosing a president. So, I make sure to listen to those who disagree with me; trying to convince myself that someone I respect as an intelligent and sensible person can’t be so wrong-headed about such an important issue as choosing a president. The give-and-take is usually enlightening, save for the few occasions when the disagreements turn into a nasty debate. I normally walk away still happy that we are in a democracy.

The number of people I know who are migrating does make me stop to think: Am I doing the right thing for my kids? Is it fair for my wife and I to keep our boys in a country where people known the world over for hospitality and warmth towards foreigners have nothing good to say about each other? Will my kids have a future In a country where traditional values of bayanihan (communitarianism) and pakikipag-kapwa tao (other-centeredness) have given way to a culture of mutual annihilation–-modeled by many of the elite, public leaders and members of the media who should know better? Will my kids grow up to be their best in a country whose citizens’ individually excel internationally in sports, the arts, education, etc., but always manage to bring out the worse in each other when they're back home driving on the streets or just resolving day-to-day issues. This is enough to make a father lose sleep. I realized that this was not a question I can handle all by myself.

I use weekend family meetings to discuss such pivotal and conflict-ridden domestic issues as who gets to choose the channel when watching TV or which parent should supervise the kids’ math assignments. Well, I finally decided that choosing the next president is just as important as TV channels and math assignments. It was going to be discussed in a family meeting.

Polling the anime generation

Let me digress a bit about my kids. I love my two boys, Ricky (13) and Nico (12), dearly but I must admit that I find it a challenge to fully grasp how they think. For one thing, I’ve always wondered how, when we watch movies on TV or the cinema, they can talk to each other incessantly. I lose track of the dialogue when they do this and so order them to stay quiet. The nasty looks they throw at me indicate that they don’t enjoy a movie when they have to be quiet. One time, I watched an entire Japanese animation movie (anime) with them and the answer dawned on me. You can talk while watching anime because all the dialogue is in subtitles! The MTV generation (who could do assignments while watching MTV) has been succeeded by the subtitle-enabled anime generation (who can do assignments while watching anime while talking to each other). Could I hold their attention long enough to discuss the Philippine presidency? I wasn’t sure but since I always make them the reason why I should work for this country, I might as well talk to them about it.

So at the next family meeting, I explained to the boys that since the next president would affect their future, I wanted to know what kind of president they wanted. After the predictable objections (“But we’re not even old enough to vote yet!” “This is going to take so long and we have a show to watch!”), we settled down to listing their criteria for the president. Nico, ever the enthusiastic school boy, started off the listing with “ability to make good decisions under pressure.” Ricky, who is always keenly sensitive to how people are treated, said “fairness in making policies.” The listing went on: “well-educated,” “has service experience,” and “can take care of relations with other countries.”

I was impressed. These weren’t exactly my criteria. For example, I think that advanced degrees are overrated as a leadership qualification but since we nag the boys often enough about doing well in school I wasn’t surprised that “well-educated” came up. All in all, though not comprehensive, these were certainly sensible criteria to consider.

In true business school fashion, I immediately made a decision matrix listing the boys’ criteria on the first column and the candidates’ names on the top row. I asked them to rate the first candidate on the first criterion. The look I got hinted that I was pushing my luck. “Well, I guess there’s always the next family meeting,” I told myself. Armed with my boys’ criteria, I am already a much wiser voter. We hurriedly adjourned and ran to the TV to watch anime. After all, life shouldn’t really be about politics.