Differ without being difficult

PRESIDENT Macapagal-Arroyo is not famous for her sensitivity to public opinion. Rather, she is known to lose her mercurial temper (“mataray,” the Tagalogs say) when confronted with media attacks and with low marks in public opinion polls, especially those relating to corruption perceptions and transparency issues. Her critics accuse her of being impervious to suggestions; worse, of being vindictive and unforgiving. Let me however say that my experience with her has been quite different.

Cordial personal relations. At the outset, recall that the Supreme Court under my watch invalidated some major issuances of GMA, like Executive Order 464 (stopping her top officials from testifying during congressional investigations) and Presidential Proclamation 1017 (declaring a state of national emergency). Too, the Panganiban Court debunked her “Calibrated Preemptive Response” (CPR) policy and the people’s initiative that sought to install a parliamentary government. Now, as an opinion writer, I have many times disagreed with and criticized her actions especially on issues involving the rule of law and good governance.

Despite all these, my personal relationship with the President has remained cordial. She has been quite gracious whenever we see each other. She has invited me to the Palace a few times for a tête-à-tête and called to thank me for my help on some national problems.

More significant, she has acted on many of my advocacies. For example, she has revitalized the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration after I brought out long-festering laments of overseas Filipino workers. She even asked me to nominate the new head of POEA.

New CHEd chair. Several months ago when the new school year opened, I echoed the call for a reorganization of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd). I urged GMA to prioritize education and make it one of her legacies.

In response, she moved Secretary Romulo Neri out of the CHEd chairmanship. I commented that any one of the competent educators who chaired the workshops of the Education Summit convened last Jan. 31 would be qualified to replace Neri. They were Drs. Patricia Licuanan, Rosita Navarro, Lydia Echauz, Maria Cristina Padolina, Reynaldo Vea, Emmanuel Angeles and Vincent Fabella. She chose Angeles.

Reforming higher education is a big, sometimes contentious, job. Some say that Angeles is not the best and the brightest of the workshop chairs. Granting arguendo that this claim is true, Angeles nonetheless has a big advantage over anyone of them: he has the President’s ear. GMA (and before her, President Diosdado Macapagal) was the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Angeles University Foundation that the new CHEd chair’s mother, Barbara, and he nurtured as one of the best educational institutions outside Metro Manila.

To get things moving in the Executive Department, presidential clout is indispensable. Angeles may not be a textbook intellectual, but he has the drive, the fire and the leadership to turn around the CHEd. The academic community is watching him, with bright hopes that he would rise to the challenge of world-class education.

A further demonstration of the President’s public sensitivity is the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. After GMA realized the overwhelming objections to the MOA and to the secrecy by which it was negotiated, she immediately ordered its cancellation.

The selection of the new Commission on Elections chair is another proof that GMA listens to critics. Her choice of Justice Jose A. R. Melo was made only after she received the advice of many private election watchdogs. Some six months into his term, Melo has triumphantly conducted automated elections in the ARMM region. So credible was the elections that no defeated candidate has filed any election protest in the most fraud-prone area of our country. Recently, Melo installed a closed circuit TV camera in his office to assure transparency in all his dealings.

There are other instances of GMA’s responsiveness to advice, even criticisms. However, I cite these four examples (POEA, CHEd, MOA and Comelec) to give proper credit to the President and to answer e-mails that ask why I still talk with and dispense advice to her. The letters opine that I should not help her. “Shun her. Isolate her,” they say.

Respect for office. Critiquing is easy. But going beyond that and giving solutions or alternatives is not as simple. It is taking responsibility. GMA is still our President—until June 30, 2010. And until that day, I think it is my duty to assist in governance without compromising my principles. I can always rant and complain and add my voice to the multitude that demand better governance. But I cannot decline to light a candle and help clear the darkness when given the opportunity to do so.

To sum up, I have been critical of her governance and conduct but with an underlying respect for her high office. I have condemned her actions but with an unspoken reverence for the dignity of her person. In turn, may I say that as far as I know, GMA has never expressed her displeasure, much less called me down as irresponsible or disrespectful.

While, in all candor and good faith, I have also suggested alternatives and solutions, I do not expect to be heeded all the time. But whether heeded or not, I remain steadfast with my convictions and opinions. I should like to believe that GMA and I have disagreed without being disagreeable and have differed without being difficult.

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